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October 7-14, 2009 — A free market

Contributed by Jocelyn Breeland
Fairfax, VA 

Warm-up Question: Do any of the things you own make you sad? Do any of them consume a lot of your time?

money-bag200Michael Moore’s latest documentary, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” is a continuation of the award-winning filmmaker’s attack on the system that defines the U.S. economy. In it, he looks at the winners and losers in the latest chapter of our economic drama — the financial collapse of late 2008.

Those familiar with Moore’s previous films will recognize his theatrical attempts to show how the wealthy ignore the ordinary people they exploit. In “Roger & Me,” the documentary that made Moore famous, he pursued GM CEO Roger B. Smith, while showing how Smith’s decision to move manufacturing jobs to Mexico devastated GM workers in Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan. In “Bowling for Columbine,” Moore contrasted people who promote and enjoy firearms with victims of gun violence. “Fahrenheit 911,” a look at the events following the September 11 terrorist attacks, frames the decision to go to war in Iraq in terms of the petroleum interests of President Bush’s family and Saudi Arabian royals. “Sicko” looked at the winners and losers in the American health care system.

Together, Moore’s films have grossed nearly $200 million and his combination of humor and shocking contrasts have brought a new audience to the documentary genre. For example, one scene in “Capitalism” has Moore setting up police crime scene tape on Wall Street at the site of a “crime” against American taxpayers. At another point, the film asks “When did Jesus become a capitalist?”

Despite his success, there are many who criticize Moore’s politics and his methods. He has agreed with the criticism that “Capitalism: A Love Story” oversimplifies by labeling capitalism evil. However, he said, “…if I tell you that there’s a home foreclosed on every seven and a half seconds, you need to know that that’s absolutely true.”

Michael Moore is a man who enjoys stirring up controversy, and he would appear to have succeeded once again.

(Note: You’ll find good background material for this Faith Lens discussion and lesson in the ELCA Statement on “Economic Life: Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All“.)

Discussion Questions

(Note: Leaders should be prepared to discuss capitalism in general terms. However, for the purposes of this discussion, student perceptions of the role of businesses, workers, and markets are as valid as any.)

  1. Have you seen any of Michael Moore’s films? Would you like to? Why, or why not?
  2. What’s capitalism?
  3. Looking at Moore’s subjects — jobs sent overseas, the Iraq war, health care, and the financial meltdown — is capitalism itself really the problem or cause? What else may contribute to these problems?
  4. Given that Moore’s films have made him a very wealthy man, is his criticism of capitalism hypocritical? What would you do in his shoes?
  5. Can capitalists be faithful, generous, compassionate Christians?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, October 11, 2009.

(Text links are to oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

Do we need to be poor to be saved? Does God have something against the wealthy? Sometimes, it seems that way, and today’s Gospel is one of those times.

A man asks Jesus what he must do to be saved. Jesus’ first answer is simple enough: obey the commandments. The man says he’s done exactly that his whole life, but he believes there must be something more. The next step, Jesus tells him, is to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. The man goes away, despondent. It’s as if he realizes the price of salvation is too high.

The disciples ask a question that resonates today. If it’s that hard, how can any of us be saved? The answer in this case, as we see time and again throughout the New Testament, is that we cannot earn our own salvation. If we must deserve to be saved, then we are all doomed.

The truth is that Jesus, through his sacrifice on the cross and resurrection, has earned salvation for all of us — it’s a gift. And because God has provided for all our needs, we don’t need to rely on or obsess about material possessions for our safety, security, consolation, acceptance, or identity.

Instead, God wants us to separate ourselves from the things and stuff in life that distract us from Jesus, the gift of salvation, and living as humble servants of others. From a current world point of view, this can be a very big sacrifice. It can mean standing against the flow of pop culture, persuasive marketing, and social pressures. However, Jesus assures us that all who make the sacrifices are following God’s desires for humanity and participating in the vision of creation that God holds up for us. Jesus reminds us that living simply and being generous with others isn’t for the sake of getting something really great in return; it’s about trusting in the gift of new life we have received and living as thankful people.

Discussion Questions

(Note: Don’t forget that there are probably a variety of family and economic contexts within the group of young people participating. Some may be very sensitive and painful. The point of the discussion is not to neatly organize everything into a good or bad category, but to reflect on the life that we have been set free to live in the gospel and the challenges it may pose.)

  • Is it possible to be wealthy and be saved?
  • Consider the ways you might acquire wealth. Is it possible to do so while obeying God’s will and being faithful in living a life of humble compassionate justice as Jesus did?
  • In what ways does the gospel message and Jesus’ example ask us to change how we go about everyday life and business?
  • Often in disasters (earthquakes, fires, floods) people lose all their possessions. Can this be good news for their faith?
  • Do rich and poor people view their faith differently?
  • How does Jesus’ view of wealth affect your career and lifestyle choices?

Activity Suggestion

Design an economic system that is consistent with your faith. You may choose to simply make modifications to our existing system, for example, to eliminate homelessness, ensure universal access to medical care, or find employment for everyone (if you believe these are imperatives of your faith). Or, you may choose to create a whole new system from scratch.

  • Will your system work only in the United States?
  • How will you convince others to join your new system?
  • What are the benefits of it for communities? Individuals? Families?
  • What might be the weak spots in it that you’ll have to work on?
  • How does it reflect your faith and beliefs?

Write a brief description of your system and post it as a comment on the Faith Lens blog. Read and comment on the responses of other groups.

Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, thank you for providing for our needs and sometimes our “wants,” the stuff that we enjoy but could live without. Help us to remember that the only thing we cannot live without is your gracious love and endless mercy. Everything we have is a gift from you, and we work every day to share that gift with others. Teach us to be untiring in our love for each other and fearless in our generosity with others. We pray for the wisdom and strength to follow Christ’s example. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.

July 1-8, 2009 – Celebrating progress, working for more

Contributed by Jocelyn Breeland
Fairfax, VA

Warm-up Question: Discuss a time when you were underestimated.

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the landmark Olmstead decision, in which the Supreme Court said the Americans With Disabilities Act requires individuals with disabilities receive services in the least restrictive environment possible. As a result, thousands of Americans with disabilities have been able to move out of institutions to live in communities of their own choosing.

President Obama marked the anniversary by declaring a “Year of Community Living.” He has directed the Department of Health and Human Services to aggressively work to remove barriers that prevent people with disabilities from having meaningful lives in their communities.

In the nearly two decades since the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed, many changes have been made in schools, workplaces, and public spaces to ensure inclusion of people with physical and intellectual disabilities or challenges. Among the positive changes, technology, where it is available, has greatly facilitated access and inclusion. But much remains to be done. In most communities, there are long waiting lists for the services people with disabilities need to participate fully in the lives of their communities.

Perhaps the most difficult, and most important, barrier to overcome is attitude. Too often, people with disabilities are seen as disabled, broken, or incomplete. We need to value, celebrate, and use the contributions and gifts of people with disabilities in every community. With this state of mind, and commitment, all barriers can be overcome.

Discussion Questions

Statement by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
White House Statement

  • Are people with disabilities included in any of your regular activities? Are there barriers that make their participation difficult?
  • Is there anything you do regularly that could not be done by a person with a physical or intellectual disability, given a reasonable amount of accommodation?
  • Employment is important for people with disabilities, and the income from work makes it easier to obtain housing and other services they need. Why is it difficult for people with disabilities to get good jobs? Are any of these reasons insurmountable?
  • Within the disability community, it is preferable to say a person has a disability, rather than that the person is disabled, handicapped, mentally retarded. Why is this language important?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, June 5, 2009.

(Text links are to oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

It is easy for us to shake our heads sadly when contemplating the community’s reaction to Jesus. Don’t they know this is Jesus? Can’t they see his wisdom, his divinity? How could they be so foolish?

Imagine a friend, someone you’ve known for years, in church speaking knowledgeably about scripture. The next thing you know, someone is saying he’s a prophet. Where is the threshold of your skepticism? What would you need to see or hear in order to believe?

The sentiment in the synagogue seems to be that this Jesus is nothing special. How can he understand scripture better than everyone else? He’s no one important or specially gifted or skilled, just a lowly carpenter. And the same prejudice that keeps his neighbors from seeing Jesus for who and what he is can keep us from recognizing God’s presence among us today.

Here again, scripture reminds us that God does not shower his blessings only on the rich, the powerful, or the exceptional. Repeatedly, God shows his ability and preference for using the most humble, ordinary folks to spread the gospel message and demonstrate love, forgiveness, justice, and healing. We need to be on the lookout for times when God works in these ways — in ourselves and in other people. We wouldn’t want to reject God’s plan and intentions, like the Nazarenes in the synagogue rejected Jesus.

We might think it should have been easier for Jesus’ contemporaries to understand the miracle right in front of their eyes. But is it really any easier for us, knowing Jesus’ work, mission, death, and resurrection to see God’s work in our own lives? Today’s Gospel reminds us that God is indeed at work around us every day, and that we can see signs of God’s love everywhere — often in the most ordinary and unexpected places.

Discussion Questions

  • What would you say to convince Jesus’ contemporaries of the authenticity of his message?
  • How can you identify God’s action and presence in your world?
  • How is it that the disciples were able to see the truth about Jesus?
  • In verses 7-13, Jesus sends his disciples out into the world. What advice does he give for times when others refuse to hear his word?
  • What message does today’s Gospel have for us in our own ministry, and in responding to the ministry of others?
  • Jesus’ instructions suggest a level of poverty for his disciples. Why was this important? Is it still important today?
  • What does today’s Gospel say to us about the role of people with disabilities in our society?

Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, as we gather to learn your will, we marvel at the many magnificent works you have done, and the many unearned blessings we have received. Remind us to seek the beauty of your creation in every place we go, on every face we see. And help us to show that same beauty, and love, to those we meet. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

April 8-15, 2009 – Obamania: The European tour part II

Contributed by Jocelyn Breeland
Fairfax, VA

Warm-up Question: If you could be a groupie, which celebrity would you follow?

President Barack Obama’s recent trip to Europe, the first of his presidency, created a public frenzy that recalled his visit to Europe during the 2008 presidential campaign.

True, there was a lot of real work to be done this time, at the G-20 summit and in meetings with British, Russian, and other heads of state. Pundits (an expert, commentator, or opinion-leader) are divided over the value of what was accomplished. Most agree that the tone of the gatherings was more productive than would have been possible during the Bush administration.

Based on the news reports, Americans could be forgiven for thinking the trip was more a tour by American royalty than an opportunity for serious work on the critical issues of our time.

The screaming crowds that greeted Mr. Obama and his wife at many stops provided plenty of “distraction” for the news media. Reporters seemed transfixed by the first couple’s every move, especially Mrs. Obama. Breathlessly, they reported that she touched the queen! That she wore a sweater to Buckingham Palace! That she got emotional while speaking with a group of adoring school girls!

Of course, some maintain that, despite the conspicuous display of admiration, not much of importance has changed in the relationship between the U.S. and its European partners. Yes, there were adoring crowds, but there were also large violent protests.

Discussion Questions

  • Should European public opinion matter to Americans?
  • What is it about President Obama that inspires such adoration?
  • Are those who put President Obama on a pedestal setting themselves up for inevitable disappointment?
  • What are your impressions of President Obama and his wife? How do your impressions shape your expectations of President Obama’s leadership?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, April 12, 2009 (Easter Sunday).

(Text links are to oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

Jesus’ followers were frightened and confused by his death. They’d served with him for three years, so the confusion didn’t result from not knowing Christ well enough, but from not yet comprehending the way he had transformed their lives. On Easter morning, Jesus gave the disciples the key to understanding what the prophets of the Old Testament had foretold, and what he had been trying to explain throughout his ministry.

The story is simple; its meaning is earth-shattering. The tomb is empty because Jesus, once dead but now alive, has left. Skeptics said someone must have moved the body. But the miraculous resurrection isn’t the only (or even the most important) headline of this tale.

The amazing story that God begins to reveal on Easter morning is what Jesus’ victory over death means to each of us. It’s as if he gave us a beautifully wrapped present at Christmas, and at Easter we get to open it and see what’s inside. Later, as we grow in faith we, like the disciples will understand and appreciate this gift more and more.

Because God sacrificed his son for us, we have the assurance of eternal life. We can be sure that our creator, who can bring life from death, can protect and reclaim us no matter how dire our situation. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, our sins are forgiven. With this certainty, we can boldly do whatever God calls us to do.

On Easter morning, the disciples were grieving and fearful. But we, who know the rest of the story, truly the greatest story ever told, can joyfully express our thanks to God for this gift. Alleluia! He is risen!

Discussion Questions

  • What in today’s Gospel makes the greatest impression on you?
  • Mark 16:8 says the women said nothing about what they saw, because they were afraid. What of?
  • If the disciples had fully understood what happened Easter morning, how do you think they would have reacted?
  • How is your relationship with Jesus different from that of a celebrity groupie?

Activity Suggestion

Jesus Christ, the rock star, is going on. Create the official tour t-shirt. What words or images would appeal to Christians? What would draw the attention and appeal to non-believers?

Closing Prayer

Almighty God, this week we are celebrating your greatest gift to us — the life and sacrifice of your son Jesus. Words alone cannot express our intense gratitude. But in our songs, in our prayers, and in the way we care for each other and the world, we praise you, and glorify you. Thank you for continuing to walk with us everyday. When we’re in trouble, comfort us with the assurance of your love, and the promise of life everlasting. In the name of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns, now and forever. Amen.