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May 4, 2014–Something About the Face

Contributed by Scott Moore, Erfurt, Germany


Warm-up Question

What is the first thing you notice about someone else?

Something About the Face

shutterstock_162110726editBoth Facebook and the FBI are working very hard to develop current face recognition software to be able to perfectly identify any person with just a picture of their face. Face recognition systems rely on two features in order to be successful: a data base of pictures of faces  and biometrics, which are the way a computer measures all the details of someone’s face and turns them into a mathematical algorithm and plots them on a chart in the form of data that can be analyzed and compared. The more pictures the face recognition system has, the greater the chances are the computer can make more accurate comparisons.

The US government, according to some sources, wants to compile a database large enough to be able to identify every individual in the United States. Facebook, in comparison, is equally interested in growing their database of face prints, but not in order to catch terrorists. Instead, Facebook wants to make the user experience friendlier by being able to identify friends for you tag in your pictures and perhaps even sell information about where you have been and who you were with.

There are groups very concerned about this capture of our identity and its potential abuse. What would it mean if the government could identify us and our whereabouts and our actions at any given time? Even as exciting as some of this technology is, there seems to be something attractive about being able to remain anonymous when we want to. Can we have both?


Discussion Questions

  • What is your feeling about face recognition software?
  • Where do you think we should draw the line as a society concerning our personal identity?
  • Have you ever had biometric data recorded? (ex. Finger prints at borders like at the airport when traveling?)
  • Do you spend a lot of time posting lots of pictures (selfies) on various social media sites? Do you know how your images are being used?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, May 4, 2014 (Third Sunday of Easter)

Acts 2:14a, 36-41

1 Peter 1:17-23

Luke 24:13-35

(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 C at Lectionary Readings.)

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


Gospel Reflection

Jesus has died a horrible death. His followers have been cast into fear and despair. The faithful women who went to the tomb, however, saw a vision of angels claiming that he is not dead. He has been raised. The crucified one is alive. One would think that his followers would be the ones that could recognize Jesus immediately. They’ve watched him and listened to him for years. They have spent days and nights with him. They would know his face anywhere. Yet, Jesus is able to walk up to faithful followers on the road and engage them in conversation without them recognizing who he is. He hears their grief and explains to them by interpreting scripture why all these things were supposed to happen.

As they reached their destination, Jesus starts to head on his way. The disciples offer him hospitality and ask him to stay with them because it is getting dark and dangerous on the road. He agrees and something crazy happens. Instead of them being the host, Jesus takes over the role at the dinner table and does something that he has done before. He takes the bread, blesses it and breaks it, and gives it to them.  Take, bless, break, and give. These are the actions of Jesus when he shared the last supper with his disciples. Take, bless, break, share. This is what we do when we gather at the Lord’s table today. Jesus face was hidden from them on the road. In Jesus action at the table they recognize the Lord. As soon, as they see him for who he is, he disappears. They are left with a memory of their entire walk. They see it all clearer now. They felt strong emotions of love and passion on the walk that they now understand, “were not our hearts burning within us?” they say.

This story of a simple walk among friends at a time of grief and pain becomes a model for our Christian walk. Jesus walks with us even when we aren’t able to recognize him. Jesus speaks to us even at our darkest hour even when everything around us tries to drown out his sweet voice. Jesus shares himself with us in holy words and in holy actions even when we find it sometimes difficult to see him in that. Jesus takes a conversation in grief and turns it into joy. Jesus takes simple bread that we have to offer and makes it into a meal where we can see and understand him, and maybe ourselves, in a new light. He blesses our walks through life, our talks about God’s word, and he blesses this meal that he has given to us. It is a gift that is supposed to open our eyes. It is meal that we are called to share in remembrance and recognition of him.

Discussion Questions

  • When have you recognized Jesus in the Eucharist/Holy Communion?
  • When do you feel more open to sharing in this meal of Holy Communion? When do you find it more difficult?
  • When do feel like the Eucharistic meal is a personal meal and when do you feel that it is a community meal?
  • In what other meals have you ever recognized Jesus?
  • Have you ever felt that your “heart was burning” when you have been talking about the bible with others?
  • What do you think your worshiping community could do in order to help everyone recognize Jesus more in this holy meal?

Activity Suggestions

Let’s Find Jesus Meal–Bring food for the participants (donuts, fruit, etc.) Invite them to take some food and either alone or in pairs to find a location within the church/facility where they recognize Jesus. Give them a few minutes to enjoy their meal. Invite them back to share where they ate and why.

Closing Prayer

Lord of Resurrection, you have walked with us along our journey in life. You have encouraged us and given us strength in difficult times and you have rejoiced with us in times of joy. Walk with us and share yourself with us now when we share in your word and when we break bread together. Show us your face and give us the grace to recognize you every step of our lives. We ask this in the name of the one who walks with us always, Jesus Christ, the Risen One. Amen

April 20, 2014–Quakes of Fear and Joy

Contributed by Bryan Jaster, Winchester, VA


Warm-up Question

Have you ever been in an earthquake?  Where were you and what happened?

Quakes of Fear and Joy

On April 1st, 2014, an 8.2 magnitude earthquake off the coast shook Chile.  The next day a 7.6 magnitude struck the region.  Landslides, power outages, collapsed buildings, and people fleeing homes resulted.   Tsunami warnings sprang up and first responders were on high alert.

Almost one million people were evacuated.  About 300 prisoners escaped from a prison in Iquique, a northern port city in Chile.  Traffic clogged the many of northern Chile’s streets.  Fear spread as people remembered an 8.8 magnitude quake on February 27, 2010, which killed 500 people and triggered a building toppling tsunami.

In the hours after, a surprising, different story sprang up.  Well planned and executed evacuations saved countless lives.  Most homes and skyscrapers survived unscathed due to well followed building codes developed in response to past earthquakes.  Most of the escaped inmates turned themselves in a week after the quakes.  People have returned home thankful for life.  While the quakes struck fear, the community is now moved by joy and thanksgiving for new life.


Discussion Questions

  • If you had been in the earthquake in Chile, how do you think you would have acted?  Are you surprised the prisoners returned to jail?
  • Should Chile be afraid of future earthquakes?  What have they learned?
  • When has your fear turned into joy?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, April 20, 2014 (Resurrection of our Lord, Easter Sunday)

Acts 10:34-43

Colossians 3:1-4

Matthew 28:1-10

(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 C at Lectionary Readings.)

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


Gospel Reflection

Easter2014editToday is Easter.  There are flowers, bunnies, chocolate, fancy clothes and joyous songs.  Families gather; crowds worship; good food is eaten and familiar stories are told.

Let’s look more closely at the Easter story from Matthew.  It begins with an earthquake and in fear.

Fear:  The One who they thought might be the messiah may be yet another failure and is gone.

Fear:  When the angel rolled away the stone.  Read again:  “the guards shook and became like dead men.”

Fear:  It was beating in the hearts of the two women named Mary who rushed from the tomb to tell the disciples.

Fear:  When the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples.

And yet, in the Easter story with earthquakes there is joy.  

Joy:  When the women receive the message that indeed Jesus is no longer dead, but risen.

Joy:  The angel beckons the women to tell the disciples he is alive and you will see him in Galilee. They run to tell this news.

Joy: Jesus’ presence and greeting moves the disciples to worship.

Joy:  Jesus gives the disciples a new mission to go and tell.

Easter has quakes of fear and joy present together.  As much as we see the happy, bright side of Easter when we gather today, remember this: The risen Jesus brings both quakes of holy fear and joy into the world.  On this first day of a new week, hear the news that Jesus comes into the world’s quakes, inviting you to witness to resurrection in the middle of both fear and joy. 

Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think the soldiers were afraid of the angel?  Why were the two women named Mary afraid?   Why were the disciples afraid?  Would you have responded as they did?  Why or why not?
  • When has your life been shaken?  How did you get through it?   Why were you afraid?  Did you find joy?
  • As you celebrate Easter, what message do you tell to others?  What does the risen Jesus want you to do?

Activity Suggestions

  • Think of a way you as a group can tell and show the Good News of Christ’s resurrection in your home or in your community.  Do it.
  • Make a plan to visit someone whose life has been filled with fear.  Bring that person food, balloons, cards, candy, tell jokes, and do whatever might bring joy.  Consider a mini parade.
  • Travel to a neighboring town.  Listen and look for ways that Jesus is alive in that community.

Closing Prayer

God of the empty tomb, help us to see you in all of life’s fears and joys.  As earthquakes come, may our fears be transformed into the joy of knowing you.  Help us to go and tell the news that you are alive in our homes, streets, schools and world.  Thank you for the death and resurrection of your Son today.  Amen.

December 23, 2012–Be Unreasonable

Contributed by Jocelyn Breeland, Fairfax, VA


Warm-up Question

Are you a reasonable person? Is that an asset?

Be Unreasonable

Daniel Epstein is an unreasonable man. A self-proclaimed “impatient optimist” and founder of the Unreasonable Institute, Epstein believes entrepreneurship is the key to solving the world’s great problems and his organization is committed to supporting the entrepreneurs who are tackling our most impossible challenges.

For example, the team behind Artificial Vision for the Blind, have invented a way for people without sight – even without eyes – to learn to see using cameras mounted on glasses and a sensory pad that converts signals from the visual cortex into physical sensations. Individuals outfitted with this apparatus have been able to describe their surroundings, even read books.

The Unreasonable Institute supports innovators by giving them advice and help in raising capital so they can bring their ideas to the world. To date, the Unreasonable Institute has helped 70 teams in 36 nations, and they continue to attract new innovators every year.

The Unreasonable Institute gets its name from a quote by George Bernard Shaw, who said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Thanks to the Institute, unreasonable men and women all over the world have some help in changing the world for the better.


Discussion Questions

  • Can you name a historical figure who succeeded by being unreasonable? (For example, you might say that Christopher Columbus was unreasonable in believing he could sail around the world to India or that Abraham Lincoln was unreasonable to think he could free the slaves without destroying the Union.)
  • In the instance you named, what do you think contributed to the success of the unreasonable idea?
  • Think of a problem in your congregation, your community, or the world. How could you address that problem? Be unreasonable.

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, December 23, 2012 (Fourth Sunday of Advent)

Micah 5:2-5a

Hebrews 10:5-10

Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]

(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 C at Lectionary Readings.)

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


Gospel Reflection

Today’s Gospel highlights a very improbable situation. We have Elizabeth, elderly and barren but carrying a child, and Mary, a virgin, also pregnant.

It might be a challenge for us to relate to the details of this scene. None of us is likely to be in the exact situation as Elizabeth or Mary. But we are similar in this way: Like these two women, we all have received gifts from God, and we each have a special purpose to do his will.

Although we are unlikely to ever be in the presence of the unborn Jesus, we do see and feel the presence of Christ in our lives every day. Through Bible study and prayer, we can come to know God better, and more easily recognize his constant presence among us.

Like John in the womb, God has given us souls attuned to his presence. If we can understand our world through the eyes of faith, as Mary and Elizabeth did, then we too will leap for joy, like John, in the presence of our Messiah.

Discussion Questions

  • How does Elizabeth know that Mary is “the mother of my Lord”?
  • Explain the blessings Elizabeth proclaims in verses 42 and 45.
  • What does Mary mean in verse 46 when she says her “soul magnifies the Lord”?
  • Does your soul also magnify the Lord? How so?

Activity Suggestions

Write your own Magnificat:

Luke 1:46-55 form a poem (sometimes sung) known as the Magnificat (translated: my soul magnifies). In it, Mary praises God for his blessing to her, and his many great acts on behalf of his people.

  • To write your own, start with a simple expression of praise and thanksgiving for something God has done in your life. Tell what this means to you.
  •  Next, list the qualities of God’s actions towards you (mercy, power, wisdom, compassion, etc.).
  • Finally, list some (at least three or four) of the other ways God has shown his presence to you, your friends and family, and your community.
  • Share your work with the others in the group.

Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, we thank you for the many ways, great and small, that you show yourself to us every day. We are comforted by your presence, and emboldened to live fully the lives you have planned for us. Teach us to know and accept your will, and let our souls leap for joy to have you near. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

December 29-January 4–Happy New Year

Contributed by Paul Henrickson,  Chaplain, Roanoke College;  Salem, VA

Warm-up Question

Was 2010 a happy year for you?  Why?  What do you think makes for happiness?

Happy New Year

Happy New Year!  (With great emphasis on HAPPY!)  It’s time to make those New Year’s resolutions – you know those promises you make to yourself and then wiggle out of them by Valentine’s Day.  Let’s see, what will make me “happy” in 2011?  In 2011 I am going to lose 20 pounds; I am going to quit smoking; I am going to take more time for my family; I am going to read one good book each month … We make New Year’s Resolutions because we imagine that we can live happier in the future than we did in the past.  If I ask my students what they want in their life, they always say “I want to be happy.”  After all, we have it written in the Declaration of Independence that we have the right to the “… pursuit of happiness.”  So let’s all resolve to be happy in 2011.

Daniel Gilbert is a Psychology professor at Harvard – he studies “happiness.” In 2003 he wrote an article for the New York Times entitled “The Futile Pursuit of Happiness.” In this article he argues that we can’t “pursue” happiness because we really don’t know what will make us happy.  He emphasizes that there is a gap between what we predict will make us happy and what we ultimately experience.  Gilbert calls this gap the “impact bias.” He says that we consistently over estimate what will make us happy; i.e. planning for a vacation anticipates more happiness than actually going on the vacation.  Gilbert writes that impact bias “…characterizes how we experience the dimming excitement over not just a BMW but also over any object or event that we presume will make us happy.”

So… “Happy New Year!” (with Happy being an elusive goal.)

Discussion Questions

  • What are your resolutions for 2011?
  • If “happiness” is your goal, what kind of grade do you give your life so far?
  • Why do you think we experience “impact bias,”  the gap between what we think will make us happy and what we actually experience?  What might we do to lessen the gap?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, January 2, 2011 (Second Sunday of Christmas)

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Ephesians 1:3-14

John 1:[1-9] 10-18

(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 C at Lectionary Readings.)

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

Gospel Reflection

If I ever have the opportunity to teach conformation class again, I will require the students to memorize John 1:1-18; this is the pure Gospel.  It is, in a sense, our own “Declaration of Independence” from the bondage of sin and it is the foundation for the life of a Christian.  Listen to these phrases:

  • In the beginning was the Word
  • the Word became flesh
  • the light shines in the darkness
  • power to become the children of God
  • we have all received grace upon grace

This is the Gospel of the Lord.

This is not about being happy; it is about joy. It is about having the abundant life that comes, not because of our clever planning, but as a gift from God.  We are required to do nothing but accept the gift and make it the foundation of our lives of faith.

Resolve to live your life in the gift of grace.

Resolve to repeat these 18 verses once a day.

Resolve to surrender, not to pleasure, but to joy.

Discussion Questions

  • What is the difference between happiness and joy?  Is it possible to be joyful without being happy?
  • John 1:1-18 is one of the great passages of scripture.  If you could only share one other text from the Bible with another person, what would it be?

Activity Suggestions

  • John’s prologue emphasizes that God’s love is not merely an abstraction, but has become touchable in a person.  Share a time when the love of God became more than a theological term because you experienced it in a person.
  • Draw a picture to illustrate, ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
  • Read John 1:1-18 each day for a week and keep a journal of your thoughts in response to the words.  Share your insights the next time your group meets?

Closing Prayer

Lord of all Joy, by your grace let me surrender to the joy you have given me.  Let me live this day in the light of the Word, made flesh, and evident to me. Amen

March 17-23, 2010–Smells Like Frankincense

Contributed by Jay Gamelin, pastor at Jacob’s Porch, a Lutheran campus mission to The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH

Warm-up Question

What is the one thing (thing means object, not person) you think you could not give away if someone who really needed it asked for it? Why?

Smells Like Frankincense

The royal family of Oman wants the world to know that frankincense is the scent of Gold, both figuratively and literally.  Twenty-five years ago the royal family of Oman commissioned a French perfumer to create a fragrance for the nation of Oman and “Gold”, the name of the fragrance created, is considered by many to be one of the greatest perfumes. For 25 years the company has sold this perfume for a non-recession-fearing price of $230 for a 50ml bottle, about 1.7oz.  Currently it sells through many department stores in Europe, Russia, the U.S. and Asia.  The royal family is now looking to move into the European markets by opening a store in London.  As  the family grows its presence, it hopes to grow its coffers as well.

Analysts at Goldman Sachs estimate that the global beauty industry (consisting of skin care products worth $24 billion; make-up, $18 billion; hair-care products, $38 billion; and $15 billion of perfumes) is growing at up to 7% a year, more than twice the rate of the developed world’s GDP. The sector’s market leader, L’Oreal, has had compound annual profits growth of 14% for 13 years. Sales of Beiersdorf’s Nivea have grown at 14% a year over the same period.

Discussion Questions

  • What perfumes or colognes do you like or use?  How much would you be willing to pay for this perfume?
  • What is one beauty product you would be willing to give up for the rest of your life?  What is one beauty product you would not give up?


Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, March 21, 2010 (Fifth Sunday of Lent)

Isaiah 43:16-21

Philippians 3:4b-14

John 12:1-8

(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 C at Lectionary Readings.)

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

Gospel Reflection

It’s a hard lesson this week.  In the face of the way Americans consume the world’s resources (6% of the world’s population consuming 43% of the world’s resources) it seems you would want to be on the side of Judas Iscariot.  Why waste this perfume when it could be sold and given to the poor?  I know what he is saying—I even agree!  How could we allow such waste, especially when it comes to something one could call frivolous and luxurious like perfume?  No one on the planet needs perfume.  It is only a luxury with no point other than to smell good.

But Jesus rebukes Judas.  He says it is time for perfume.  He remarks that it is not time to be without.  It has a place, this waste. Jesus gives permission for excess.  Jesus says it is OK to overdo it.  What gives?  How is there value in throwing money away?

We are surrounded by darkness.  We see the problems of the world every day.  The temptation is to pour our whole selves solely into saving the world in any way that we can.  But Jesus points us to the idea that we must not always address the dark.  Sometimes we are called to celebrate in the light.  Sometimes we must sing, even if the poor are still poor.  Sometimes we need to eat well, even feast, even if there are hungry people in the world.  We are not called to a life without; instead, we are called to a life of moderation. 

As the Buddhist tenet says, “everything in moderation including moderation.”  We can fast but we must also learn to feast when it is the right time. We must learn when to go without and when to spend prodigally. As the poet Jack Gilbert argues in his remarkable and wonderful poem “A Brief for the Defense”, we must risk the ability to delight in the world.  Indeed, Gilbert goes so far as to argue that only to pay attention to injustice is akin to praising the devil. We must learn to love beauty, to enjoy company, to celebrate when the time is right, and to love a beautiful and wonderful world, even in the face of injustice.

We must learn to live with what we have, but this means having room to celebrate, to feast, to enjoy as well. We must feast when the bridegroom is present. We must risk delight.


For a copy of Jack Gilbert’s “A Brief for the Defense”, pick up a copy of “Refusing Heaven” at your local bookseller.  For a chance to read the poem, visit the Poetry center at Smith College website:

Discussion Questions

  • What is something you “feast” on, something that helps you celebrate life?  (i.e. music, eating with friends, dates with your beloved, buying gifts)  What would life feel like without this feasting?  How would it feel to lose this forever?
  • This “thing” that you feast on, what would it look like to live this in moderation? Could you put limits on what you spend?  What time you give?


Activity Suggestion

The Essentials:  Have every person in the group sit down with pencil and paper.  They are going to take a trip, let’s say to Paris, for two weeks.  Have each person take about 5 minutes to write down a packing list.  Try to think of everything they would want to bring.

After they go, have everyone share their lists with one another.  If someone says the same thing as on your list, cross it off your lists. If someone says 2 pairs of pants, cross two off but leave the 3rd. After everyone shares, see what items remain on people’s lists that have not been crossed off.  Then discuss:

  • These things left on your list, do you consider them essentials?  Why or why not?  What would happen if you left these behind?
  • These things everyone crossed off, which of these things do you think you could do without in traveling?  What would happen if you left them behind?
  • How do you decide what is necessary in life?  What guides your decisions?  Is it how you feel?  What you think?


Closing Prayer: 

Jesus, we celebrate your presence.  We feast with you every Sunday.  We thank you that we may live a life of plenty.  But also teach us God with what we should do with our plenty.  Teach us moderation so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways.  In your holy name we pray, AMEN.