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September 15-21, 2010–Doing Good by Doing Well?

Contributed by Eric Ullestad, West Des Moines, IA

Warm-up Question

When have you been given more responsibility than you thought you could handle?  How did it turn out?

Doing Good by Doing Well?

What’s it like to head up the world’s biggest company?  Mike Duke knows.  He was named CEO of Wal-Mart in 2009.  This was a daunting task for Duke.  He inherited a major improvement plan, Project Impact, from his predecessor, which gave a face-lift to nearly every Wal-Mart store around the world.  This multi-billion dollar project came on the heels of the nation’s biggest economic crisis in decades.  Duke soon discovered that, though shoppers liked the fresh look of the stores, they were visiting less frequently and spending less each time they came.

Wal-Mart has also endured its share of public-relations setbacks in the past few years.  “Big Box Stores” like Wal-Mart are often cited as reasons why smaller retailers are closing up shop.  Wal-Mart also came under fire for shady employment practices that required close to full-time labor from employees, but offered no benefits beyond an hourly wage.  Some people have called for a boycott of Wal-Mart stores because some of their products are manufactured in countries that don’t provide safe working conditions for farmers and textile workers.

Despite these, and other, obstacles, Wal-Mart continues to set the pace for global commerce, topping $408 billion in sales for 2010.  Being entrusted with the responsibility of running a company of 8,500 stores and 2.1 million employees is a task that Duke welcomes.  He is already looking to the future in the hopes of building a “next-generation Wal-Mart.”  This won’t be easy, as economists consider the possibility of a “double-dip” recession in the months ahead.  Duke believes that enhancing the company’s participation in social programs, ensuring living wages for employees, and adding stores in growing markets like China and India will be benchmarks of Wal-Mart’s future.

Discussion Questions

  • Would you want to be CEO of Wal-Mart?  Why or why not?
  • What challenges (financial, ethical, legal) would you encounter as the head of a major corporation?
  • How would you demonstrate your leadership abilities if you were given this kind of responsibility

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, September 19, 2010 (Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Amos 8:4-7

1 Timothy 2:1-7

Luke 16:1-13

(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 Parable of the Shrewd (Dishonest) Manager, found in Luke 16:1-13, is one of the most perplexing tales in all of Scripture.  It has confounded scholars for centuries.  So, if you’re not quite sure what Jesus is trying to say, you’re in good company.

Jesus begins by telling his disciples, within an earshot of the Pharisees, about a manager who wasn’t taking good care of his master’s property.  The master is about to fire the manager, but before he is relieved of his duties, the manager has to turn over the accounting books to the master.  Quickly, the manager goes to the people who are indebted to the master and reduces their debt.  By doing this, he has built a relationship with the lowly servants in the community; a relationship that he may need to rely upon once he is unemployed. 

The odd thing about this story is that Jesus concludes by praising the tactics of the dishonest manager.  He even encourages the disciples to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.”  Fortunately for us, he goes on to talk about faithfulness and responsibility.  Jesus calls his followers to be “faithful with what belongs to another,” indicating that if a person is responsible with caring for someone else’s possessions, they will prove themselves trustworthy to handle their own riches.

In many ways, the easiest verse in this passage to comprehend is also the most difficult verse to implement.  “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  It’s an interesting choice of word.  Notice he doesn’t say “money” or “possessions.”  Jesus says that wealth is the “master” that is in direct opposition to God. In other words, focusing on acquiring a lot of stuff isn’t the way that God works.

Consider the debtors in the parable.  A hundred containers of wheat and a hundred containers of oil were crippling debts to the poor people, but likely didn’t mean much to the wealthy master.  This is not unlike the world we live in today.  We currently have the highest concentration of wealth in recorded history.  The wealthiest 20% of the people in the world have 83% of the wealth, while the poorest 60% have only 6% of the wealth.

Perhaps this story can teach us that God rejects the systems that make it possible for wealth to be accumulated at the expense of the poor.  God doesn’t appear to be anti-stuff, God just wants to make sure everyone has enough to live.  Serving God, therefore, might mean doing what we can to bring about economic justice and equality to all of God’s people.  

Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think Jesus praised the shrewd / dishonest manager?
  • How would you interpret this parable?
  • What can this parable teach us about faithfulness and responsibility? 
  • What do you think about what Jesus says in verse 13?
  • How do you find yourself serving the god of wealth? 


Activity Suggestion

Use your phones, computers, iPods, etc. to do some research on companies that are giving back to their workers, helping to reduce debt, or helping to lessen the gap between wealth and poverty.  (Examples include Fair Trade products, American Apparel clothing, Tom’s Shoes, and Justice Clothing.)  Discuss ways to support companies, especially locally owned businesses that reinvest their wealth in responsible ways.  Consider sharing your findings with people in your congregation.  Be creative!

Closing Prayer

God of abundance, thank you for the many blessings in our lives.  Help us to turn away from the false comfort of wealth and serve you by caring for those in need.  Amen.

December 3-10, 2008 – Shoppers and retailers getting ready for the Christmas season

Warm-up Question: What is your family doing to get ready for the Christmas season?

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! All around the country, beginning at least as early as the day after Thanksgiving, or “Black Friday,” shoppers are getting ready for Christmas by gathering lists and hunting for bargains. And stores are more than ready to welcome them with great deals on all the latest fashions, toys, and gear.

Every year, retailers depend heavily on the Christmas season for a year-end profit surge, but with the economy daily sinking deeper into crisis, this year they are more hopeful than ever.

Those hopes, however, are more pipedream than reality, though, as most retail experts are predicting that this season will see the lowest increase in holiday sales since the last recession after 9/11. Many families are less willing to splurge this year, wary about what the new year may bring in terms of economic woes, and instead opting for a simpler season.

Still, stores are certainly buzzing with tinsel, lights, and Christmas carols — and the ringing of the cash register bells may be softer than last year, but it remains a sure sign that Christmas is coming soon.

Discussion Questions

  • How is the economic situation affecting how your family is getting ready for Christmas this year?
  • When you think about the Christmas season, how much of what you think about is tied up in shopping or gift giving?
  • What do you do to get ready for Christmas that has nothing to do with shopping?
  • What suggestions might you have for families that want to celebrate this year but are low on cash?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, December 7, 2008.
(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 A at Lectionary Readings.)

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

Gospel Reflection

Mark begins his Gospel in a very straightforward way: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The reader doesn’t have to wait or wonder about what, or who, this story is about. It’s about Jesus, God’s holy Child, and it is very good news.

Funny, then, that the first story Mark tells isn’t about Jesus; it’s about Isaiah, John, and us. Apparently telling the good news about Jesus takes some preparation, it’s a story that takes some getting used to. Before planting a seed, you have to dig a hole or plow a row. The same goes for Jesus.

But what’s missing from this story about getting ready for Jesus, when you compare it with how most of us get ready for Christmas? Lot’s of things, but one thing we notice is that there is a notable absence of shopping. There’s a similar rush of excitement, some anxiety and stress, and plenty to do, but none of it will make you stand in line for hours at American Eagle or Wal-Mart.

No, preparing for God to come into the world, for Isaiah and John, is not about getting or giving more stuff; it’s about getting rid of stuff altogether. It’s about emptying our hearts and our hands so we can have them free to receive the greatest gift of all. It’s about repentance, changing our minds, turning our heads, and re-ordering our lives, so we can see Jesus breaking into our world and turning it upside down.

Isaiah tells us that the Lord’s coming is such a big deal that a massive highway will have to be built — not a bigger parking lot at the mall or new Web site, but a wide path for all God’s people who have been living in exile to walk through the desert and finally arrive back home.

John tells a similar story. Get rid of all the junk that’s weighing you down, leave it behind in the river of baptism, and come back home to the person God created you to be: a person alive with hope, love, joy, and peace in the midst of a world full of fear.

Perhaps this year more than any other, when budgets are tight and anxieties are high, we have the opportunity to really “come home” for Christmas. To clean out our closets, cleanse our hearts, and open our eyes, minds, ears, and doors to receive first the simple but amazing good news of God’s holy love for us and for this whole world. Then we can spend the rest of the year figuring out how to give that love away.

Discussion Questions

  • Why is it easier to get excited about “stuff” than it is to get excited about Jesus?
  • What kind of “stuff” is in your way of feeling close to God this season? How can you clean it out?
  • What “good news” are you, your family, your community, and your world in need of hearing or receiving this year?
  • What could your family do together to get ready for Christmas that has nothing to do with shopping?
Consider giving gifts or contributions that benefit ministries around the world. Learn more at ELCA Good Gifts.

Activity Suggestions

If you have lots of time to prepare:
Find an image of a Christmas scene (an icon of Mary and Jesus, a manger scene, etc.) that you can project onto a large piece of paper and trace (Google images is a great tool for this). Trace it and label the areas with the appropriate color for the picture. Collect a bunch of Christmas shopping ads from the newspaper or the stores, some scissors, and glue sticks. Have the group tear or cut the ads apart to find the colors they need to fill in the image. When you’re done, you have a beautiful icon made out of torn-up bits of shopping ads. Talk about “repentance” as changing or getting rid of “stuff” and turning our attention back to where it belongs.

If you have less time to prepare:
Skip the icon and tracing. Collect a bunch of Christmas shopping ads from the newspaper or the stores, some scissors, paper, and glue sticks. Have the group draw their own pictures of Mary and Child or the manger scene, code them for color, and then tear or cut the ads apart to find the colors they need to fill in the image. Talk about “repentance” as changing or getting rid of “stuff” and turning our attention back to where it belongs.

If you have no time to prepare:
Have each student make two lists: 1) a list of everything they want for Christmas, and 2) a list of everything they need to grow in their relationship with Jesus. Talk about the differences between the lists, and what could help them get what they need from the second list.

Closing Prayer

Holy God, you send comfort and joy into weary hearts and a weary world. Help us open our hearts, ears, eyes, and minds to receive your gifts of life and love — and to share those gifts with the entire world. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Contributed by Pastor Jay McDivitt
Denver, CO