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October 9, 2011–Homecoming… Going out? Or Coming Home?

Contributed by Jay McDivitt, Mequon, WI


Warm-up Question

When were you happy to be invited to a party or dance, or asked out on a date? When have you been disappointed not to be asked? [It’s okay – we’ve all been there… but if you like, you can tell a story about ‘a friend of yours’ instead.]

Homecoming… Going out? Or Coming Home?

In my corner of the country, it’s “homecoming” season. I assume that’s true most everywhere in the US.  High school or college, this is the time for parades, football games, dances, parties… and lots of expectations and pressure.

Now in my early 30s, I honestly can’t remember all the people I went to homecoming, prom, or other important dances with when I was in school. Sometimes I went with a date, sometimes a group of friends, and sometimes I didn’t go at all. I probably have pictures somewhere that could help me construct a list of my “dates” (I only remember going to a dance once with someone I was actually “dating”), but some of those might bring back faint memories at best.

I do, however, remember every one of the people I asked who turned me down. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like rejection is one of the most powerful experiences we can have. We all want to belong. Even if we take pride in being different (as I have many times in my life and still do), we like to be different together with other folks who choose not to fit in. Very few people live happy and rewarding lives being always and forever on the outside.

And yet, this world never tires of finding ways of making us feel like we don’t belong – like we’re not good enough, popular enough, rich enough, beautiful enough. This is especially true in adolescence, but [spoiler alert] it certainly doesn’t end there.

So, back to my homecoming dates or lack thereof.   I remember like it was yesterday writing a very heartfelt note [we didn’t have texting then] to a girl I really liked, asking her to homecoming. I knew she didn’t have a date yet. It was only polite that she should accept, right? But no. In front of a whole group of her very popular friends, she laughed and said, “Keep dreaming.”

In retrospect, I’m glad she said no. We now live very different lives – and I’m very happy with the life and family I have today. But in that moment, I was devastated. And although I have little interest in knowing where she is today or what would have happened if she’d said “yes,” I still remember her name, the words she said, the laughter of her friends, and the piercing hurt I felt in that moment of rejection.

I also, however, remember the life-changing feeling I felt when the person to whom I am now privileged to be married said “yes.” Yes to an invitation to coffee. Yes to dinner. Yes to a life together. Yes to being parents together.

Such little words: “yes” and “no.” But in huge and tiny ways, these words make all the difference.


Discussion Questions

  •  What does it feel like to be welcomed or included? What does it feel like to be rejected or left out? Why are these such powerful feelings?
  • Do you think of yourself as “popular” or “an outsider”? Have you felt both? Who or what tells you whether you’re an “insider” or “outsider”?
  • When have you helped someone feel like they were welcome or included? When have you helped someone feel like they were excluded or on the outside? What does it feel like to welcome and/or exclude other people?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, October 9, 20011 (Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Isaiah 25.1-9

Philippians 4.1-9

Matthew 22.1-14

(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

In Matthew’s gospel there is an intensity, an edge to Jesus’ ministry and teaching (think “weeping and gnashing of teeth”) which is sometimes hard to hear. The community for whom this gospel was written was at a major crossroads in its life together; believers faced lots of pressure to give up the faith. In the midst of that, Matthew’s gospel has an urgent message to those tempted to fall away, a decision that Matthew considered one of life and death seriousness. Today it takes a certain amount of massaging to hear Matthew’s uncompromising words as good news. Yet we also have to be careful of the tendency to take the edge out of this gospel, forgetting  that the Word God offers is indeed a matter of life and death.

The readings from Isaiah and Matthew are full of danger and full of promise. This week’s parable is about being invited – or not – to an important event. While it is tempting and meaningful to think of ourselves as the ones doing the inviting or feeling the rejection, flip it around and consider: What if it is Jesus who is the One who musters up the courage to ask us to the dance, to ask us to a party, and we are the ones who had better things to do than hang out with a loser like him. What if it is God who feels the sting of rejection when we decline the invitation?

That’s where we find God in these stories. God invited the chosen people to a feast to end all feasts, the party to end all parties. But, like those invited in the parable, the Chosen People found all kinds of reasons to say “no.” They had other, hotter, more popular, more alluring offers. Things like wealth, power, popularity… and the false illusion of safety and security and self-worth that those other gods seem to offer.

This hurt and angered God. Like the king in the parable, God appeared to have given up on Israel which he had promised to protect, allowing its nasty neighbors to destroy its cities. People do crazy things when they are publicly shamed and dishonored when they’re trying to be kind and gracious. And so it seemed with God.

And before we move on to the “good news,” it is important to pause and reflect on all the ways that we too ignore, refuse, and decline the gifts God ffers, all the ways we go after other gods when the Source of Life is offering us God’s own hand and heart to have and to hold. God wants to honor us with this invitation.  Too often we dishonor God by having better things to do. This invites us to confession, an honest reflection on the ways we’ve left God standing on the edge of the dance, red-faced with shame, wondering if it was a mistake to ask us to dance in the first place.

But thanks be to God, the story doesn’t end there. Isaiah and Matthew both tell us  of a God who never stops inviting, a God who musters up the courage to ask us again and again to join in the feast of life, the feast that “swallows up death forever,” the feast “for all peoples” that is overflowing with “rich food and well-aged wines.” God calls us to the feast that “wipes away all the tears on all the faces” of people who have been on the inside and the outside and know the disgrace, shame and loss that comes from saying “no” when we should have said “yes.”

The invitation goes out into the streets, where “both the good and the bad” are invited to the party. That’s right, it goes not just to the pretty perfect people, but to all the regular, average, sometimes downright stupid people like you and me. God wants everyone to share in this feast. And God gets what God wants – eventually. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.

Discussion Questions

  •  How have you said “no” to God and “yes” to other gods in your life?
  • What does it mean to you to be one of the “good and bad” people that God keeps inviting to the party? When have you felt that invitation?
  • When do we practice giving and receiving this kind of invitation? How does the church help God invite people to the party? How has the church sometimes failed to help God welcome all people to the table?

Activity Suggestions

  •  Gather craft supplies (magazines, markers/pens/crayons, glue, scissors, construction paper, etc.). Pretend you’re God [don’t do this very often, it can get a little weird]. Make invitations to the Feast of Life (the real “Home-coming” dance). Who is invited? How does God invite them? What will happen at the party? When and where will it happen?
  • If you have a pastor around (or if you have a pastor who can help you do this with your group), celebrate Holy Communion. Pile the invitations on the table. Pass the bread and wine around the circle and feed each other. Say something like, “God invites you to the Feast of Life. The body of Christ, given for you.” [Leader: This should be obvious, but you may want to drive home the point that this Meal is the Feast of Life – and it is given freely and weekly to all who gather. Thanks be to God!]

Closing Prayer

God, you invite us to join you in the Feast of Life. Forgive us for the times when we find better things to do with our time. Help us to hear your word of forgiveness, grace, and constant welcome and invitation. Bring us back, always and forever, to the table of your grace and mercy. Amen

September 21-17, 2011

Contributed by Erik Ullestad, West Des Moines, IA

Warm-up Question

Have you been surprised by the words or actions of a stranger?

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

New York City Transit bus drivers are scared and upset.  In the first eight months of the year, 58 drivers were assaulted while driving their routes.  Maria Hogan is one driver who is unsure if she will be going back to work any time soon.

“I have bruises on my arms and legs,” she said.  Hogan believes the rider was angry because she skipped a stop in the Fordham section of the Bronx which was closed because of construction.  When she reached the next stop, she says he punched her and left.

Many of the assaults have occurred on the Bx9 route, which runs through the Bronx.  Although MTA officials would not yet say which routes are most dangerous, the bus drivers’ union said the Bx9 is one of the worst and management is not doing enough.

“That particular location is a hot spot,” said Tony Aiken of the Transport Workers Union. “If you don’t have the partitions there, work with police department, work with your security department. Work with anybody who is going to go out there and make us feel safe.”

An MTA spokesperson offered a brief statement, “This past weekend’s assault is an outrageous insult to the thousands of transit workers who serve the public every day.  We are working closely with TWU to develop barriers to protect the drivers.”

Union officials said that is not good enough.

“Actions speak louder than words, not words without action,” said Aiken.


Discussion Questions

  • Would you return to your job if you had been attacked in the workplace?
  • What do you think should be done to protect the bus drivers?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, September 25, 2011 (Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Ezekiel 18:1-4

Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32

(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 a lot to say in these verses.  As he often does, Jesus saves his most challenging words for the religious leaders.  The chief priests and elders want to know who authorized the healing and teaching Jesus has been doing.  He realizes that they are trying to trick him into answering a question that has no satisfactory answer.  So, instead, he dodges their questions about authority and tells a story.

The story is about words and actions.  A man tells his sons to go to work for him.  The first one declines, but later changes his mind and does what his father asked him to do.  The second one agrees, but decides to skip out.  Jesus indicates that the first son – the one who said “no” at first – did the will of his father.  From there, he compares the religious leaders to the second son.  They say words that sound impressive to the people, but Jesus thinks their actions aren’t consistent with their words.  He even takes it a step further, indicating that the lowest-of-the-low (tax collectors and prostitutes) will get into heaven before these religious leaders.

“Actions speak louder than words” is an idea that is familiar to many people, but it can be difficult for grace-believing Lutherans to buy into.  We are wary of the notion that our salvation is dependent on our good deeds.  However, it’s important to note that the people whom Jesus is scolding are not beyond the reach of God’s love.  He doesn’t tell the religious leaders that they will be excluded from heaven, but they may have to wait a while.  Their great failing was complacency, believing that saying the right things was a substitute for daily obedience to God.

Perhaps Jesus isn’t talking about salvation; maybe he’s reminding God’s people to treat each other with kindness and love.  Our actions matter to God because God’s people matter to God.  As followers of Jesus, the tax collectors and prostitutes had committed themselves to a new way of life.  They were, by no means, a perfect group, but they were honest about their need for a Savior.  Conversely, the chief priests and elders said a lot of impressive things, but their actions did not match their confession.  They were deeply connected with the corrupt government that made the rich richer and the poor poorer.

Jesus is calling us to a life where both our words and actions matter.  The things we say and do reflect the One who has calls us by name, gathers us into a community of faith, and sends us out to do God’s work in the world.

Discussion Questions

  •  Why do you think Jesus is so frustrated with the religious leaders?
  • What is Jesus saying about words and actions in the father/sons parable?
  • Which is easier for you – good words or good deeds

Activity Suggestion

Think of something your congregation talks about doing as part of its mission and ministry but rarely has time for.  Create an action plan and start implementing it in future weeks.

Closing Prayer

God, help us to honor you with our lips and our lives.  Amen.

December 1-7, 2010–Repentant or Just Caught

Contributed by Jose Valenzuela, Phoenix, AZ

Warm-up Question

When you  say you are sorry about something, is it generally because you are truly sorry or because you got caught?

Repentant–or Just Caught

Charles Rangel is an 80 year old Representative from the state of New York.  During a recent ethics investigation he was found by a group of his peers to have acted inappropriately related to the raising of funds for a public policy center that is being named after him. In a report that was sent out on his website for his reelection, he announced that there is “no excuse for his acts of omission” and that he apologized for the embarrassment he brought to his constituents.

At the same time, Representative Rangel said that he has done nothing wrong and he maintains his innocence. In this time of heightened political fervor, politicians have the difficult task of  admitting wrongdoing while, at the same time, maintaining that they have done nothing wrong.  In the constant battle to remain in office, the dance of accepting responsibility yet admitting nothing seems to be an appropriate strategy.

Discussion Questions

  • What does it mean to apologize?
  • When a person apologizes are they repenting?
  • The word repent means to “turn around”.  If we accept responsibility for something we did wrong, how should our actions change?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, December 5, 2010 (Second Sunday of Advent)

Isaiah 11:1-10

Romans 15:4-13

Matthew 3:1-12

(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

632.  That is the number of rules that the Jewish community of Jesus had to live by in order to be considered “good” by standards of the law.  In the times of Jesus it was the job of the Pharisees and the Sadducees to enforce the laws and ensure that everyone followed the rules.

During the early part of his ministry John the Baptist was out preaching and teaching and inviting people to come and be baptized.  As a part of their baptism, people were asked to repent for the wrongs that they had done in their lives.  It is interesting that some of the people who were repenting and asking to be baptized were the same people who held the community responsible for breaking the laws.

Isn’t it ironic that the same people who punished others for knowingly or unknowingly breaking a rule were asking for forgiveness?  John’s reaction to this was to lift up the double standard by which people were living in at the time.  How could persons seek forgiveness when they were not able to forgive others in the midst of the current laws?  The kingdom that John the Baptist was talking about was one that allowed the people who broke the laws to live in relationship with God in spite of the laws.

The heart of Jesus’ ministry was proclaiming that purely human laws were no longer applicable and forgiveness was at hand.  The key to forgiveness is to repent for wrong you have committed and have faith that God will forgive you.  For many the trick is to truly repent.  God knows what is in our hearts.  When we are truly sorry for thinking of ourselves and putting God second, forgiveness is at hand.  No one is denied.  Repentance and faith are all that is needed to remain in relationship with God.

Discussion Questions

  • Is there any sin that God cannot forgive?
  • If God is able to forgive you, how difficult is it to forgive ourselves?
  • By accepting God’s forgiveness can we forgive others?

Activity Suggestion

Share a time when you were forgiven for something and how in turn you were able to forgive others.

Closing Prayer

Gracious God, you know what is in our hearts.  Some of it isn’t good, but we offer this all to you.  Take us and use us to your glory.  Open our hearts and minds to see and feel you at work in our lives.  Amen.

September 8-14, 2010–Return to God

Contributed by Jen Krausz, Bethelem, PA

Warm-up Question

How do you react when you see someone you know finds faith or grows in their faith? What feelings come up for you at those times?

Rally to Return to God

On August 28, 2010, talk show host Glenn Beck hosted a rally, drawing over half a million people to Washington D.C. But although Beck is a conservative talk show host who often discusses politics, he claimed the reason for this rally was something very different.

The rally was held to benefit the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which provides college scholarships to children of special operations military personnel killed in the line of duty. 5.1 million dollars has been raised so far.

Beck called his rally “Restoring Honor,” and focused on inspiring those in attendance to turn back to God, to live their lives honorably, and to encourage our country to turn back to God as a whole. In addition to honoring veterans, the rally featured a gospel choir and several pastors who spoke and offered prayers. Awards were given for faith, hope and charity, echoing 1 Corinthians 13. During Beck’s speech, he said that the country had been “in darkness for too long,” and that only with God’s help could we move back in the right direction again. 

According to reporters, the crowd was very polite, waiting nicely for others to disperse and not leaving “a scrap of trash anywhere.”

Critics have accused Beck of using the rally to revive the culture wars.

Discussion Questions

  • Do you think our country has turned away from God? What things tell you that this is or is not true?  Has the United States ever been a “Christian nation”?
  • Even if the country hasn’t turned away from God, what might be some positive effects of people examining their faith and beliefs?
  • Do you think we are in a “culture war” over issues like abortion, gay marriage and immigration?
  • What can we, as Christians and as the church, do to bring people of opposing viewpoints together?
  • Critics suggest that, far from embodying Christian attitudes, Beck uses “traditional values” as code language to oppose much of the progress won by the marginalized through the Civil Rights struggle.  What core values do you think a follower of Jesus should have?


Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, September 12, 2010 (Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost)


Exodus 32:7-14

1 Timothy  1:12-17

Luke 15:1-10

(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

The Pharisees had good reasons for everything they did. They formed all kinds of rules to keep themselves from breaking any of God’s commandments. They wanted to be righteous before God. But their rules and ways of living were sometimes  based on man’s logic and reason. Somehow, in the process of making all these rules and keeping them, they neglected their hearts. They made God into some faraway being, too great and above them to have a friendship with. One of Jesus’ main teachings was that God wants to have a relationship with the people. God is at the same time “out there,” beyond all human understanding and right here, wanting to be personally involved in our lives.

God wants our hearts to be engaged, because God’s own heart is engaged. God loves us—that’s as simple as it gets, but how important and profound! In today’s scripture, God rejoices when one lost person finds faith. It gives God joy to have a relationship with us.

It is impossible for us to be one of the 99 “righteous” persons referenced in these verses without Jesus, no matter what we do or how hard we try. Jesus knew that; it’s the reason why he came. His sacrifice makes our righteousness possible. But that whole process involves our minds and our hearts. It requires us to engage God, to get personal. When we get personally involved with God, amazing things happen. A talk show host might even hold a rally dedicated to making people aware of their (and their country’s) need for God!

We might not always understand it, but our lives are changed; we become a part of what God is doing in the world. Who wouldn’t want that?

Discussion Questions

  • What makes someone a “righteous” person? Do you think you are “righteous?”
  •  How can we have a relationship with God that is personal?  What things can we do to start or maintain such a relationship?
  • Why do you think it makes God so happy when people find faith?
  • Would you want to “welcome sinners and eat with them” like Jesus did? What would that look like in your life?

 Activity Suggestions

One part of our relationship with God is prayer. Start a prayer journal to write down what you pray about on a daily basis. Leave blank space to record answers to your prayers. Over time  such a journal can be a powerful record and reminder of God’s involvement in your life.

Closing Prayer

Dear Lord, thank you that because of Jesus we can be righteous in your eyes. Thank you that for wanting to have a relationship with us finding joy when we reach out to you. Help us to keep remembering to reach out to you for guidance in our lives. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

September 1-7, 2010–Honor Thy Father?

Contributed by Jack Saarela, Lutheran Campus Ministry, Yale University

Warm-up Question

Has trying to follow Jesus ever put you at odds with your parents wishes or values? 

Honor Thy Father?

Mark tells us in his gospel that at the very beginning of his public ministry, Jesus walked on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and saw James and John in a boat mending their fishing nets. That’s the scene depicted in the painting on this page. “Immediately,” (one of Mark’s favorite words) Jesus invited them to be his disciples. Apparently, without a second’s hesitation, they laid down their nets, and set off to follow Jesus. Then Mark inserts an interesting detail: “ . . . and left their father Zebedee in the boat.”

Imagine the older man sitting on the bow of the boat in the painting as Zebedee, father of James and John, and head of the small family-run fishing operation, “Zebedee and Sons”.  James and John may have been excited, flattered, or expectant at the prospect of following Jesus. But I wonder how Zebedee felt, what he thought about Jesus’ coming along out of the blue and calling his sons away to be his followers. Do you think Zebedee was pleased as punch to assume all the burdens and responsibilities of the family fishing enterprise on his own, solitary shoulders?

Discussion Questions

  • What do you think? How does Jesus look to you if you’re Zebedee, left alone in the fishing boat?
  • Can you name any time in your life when your being a Christian disciple has led to tension within your family? Within your group of friends? 

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, September 5, 2010 (Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Philemon 1-21

Luke 14:25-35

(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

In my ministry with students at the University of Florida, we used to offer a Bible study series every few years entitled, “Things We Wish Jesus Had Never Said!” We didn’t have any trouble coming up with a long list of texts from the gospels containing very hard, challenging words from Jesus.

Today’s gospel text was almost always among them. William Willimon, Methodist bishop and former chaplain at Duke, asks, “What is this, Jesus on a bad day?” Jesus seems to be in no mood here for compromise or halfway measures in the matter of following him. “Hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters”? . . . “Yes, [hate] even life itself”? . . . “Give up all your possessions”? And then, to top it off, “carry the cross”? Ouch!

Yes, part of the challenge of Jesus’ words can be explained by the fact that he is using hyperbolic language to catch our attention. And sure, Jesus doesn’t imply “hating” in the sense of an emotion, but rather a kind of detachment from family and possessions that allows us to keep them in proper perspective as secondary and tertiary loyalties in our lives, when our first love ought to be serving God and loving our neighbor.

Nonetheless, it’s not at all easy to keep family commitments and pursuit of income and possessions in their proper place. My experience is that it’s impossible, as are a lot of other things Jesus asks of us. Love my neighbor as myself? Turn the other cheek? Sometimes, maybe, but it’s not my first instinct.

That’s why I find Jesus’ words later in the gospel of Luke to be such good news. In chapter 18, Jesus appears to make another set of impossible demands of a rich young man (to go sell all he has and give the money to the poor). The man is saddened, and turns away. One of the disciples then asks Jesus, “Who, then, can be saved?” Jesus replies with the good news I’m talking about: “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” (Luke 18:26-27)

For mortals like you and me, it’s virtually impossible to follow Jesus on the terms he establishes. But through the action of the Holy Spirit, God makes the impossible happen.

Discussion Questions

  • Can you think of other sayings of Jesus you wish he had never said? Words of his that are difficult to hear and challenge our assumptions?
  • Some suggest that mainline Christian churches like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are not growing because we fail to raise the bar for being a Christian, and settle instead for an “easy believism,” practicing and living out our faith as an “optional extracurricular activity.”  Do you think they are right? Why, or why not?
  • How do we accept the free grace of God in Jesus (the fact that God makes impossible discipleship possible for us) and yet not just sit back and “let God do it”? 

Activity Suggestions

Closing Prayer

Lord Jesus, it’s not that I don’t want to “follow your more dearly and love you more dearly”, it’s just that it seems set up for my failure. Your demands and expectations are so high! But I believe that even my wanting to follow you is already the work of your Spirit within me. Make what seems impossible for me possible today. Amen