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April 7, 2013–What’s in a Name?

Contributed by Lindean Barnett Christianson, Bozeman, MT


Warm-up Question

  • Do you have a nickname? What is it? Who gave it to you? Why? Do you like it? Why/why not?
  • If you could change your name, what would you choose? Why?

What’s in a Name?

The cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to be the 266th pope on March 13, 2013. Thousands of pilgrims and tourists crowded the square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, waiting to learn not only who was elected, but also the name he would take for himself. Since the 11th century it has been customary for a pope to choose a new name upon his election to the office (the first pope to take a new name was elected in the 6th century).

shutterstock_53792359editThe new pope, former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, was already known for his love for the poor and his own simple lifestyle. His choice of the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, indicates his intention to continue his focus on and devotion to the poor.

In an interview with journalists from the Vatican and Latin America, Pope Francis said that as the votes stacked up in his favor, a fellow cardinal from Brazil told him , “Don’t forget the poor.”  The new pope added, “Right away, with regard to the poor, I thought of St. Francis of Assisi, then I thought of war. Francis loved peace and that is how the name came to me.”

The new pope said he also thought of St. Francis of Assisi’s concern for the natural environment and how he was a “poor man, a simple man, as we would like a poor church, for the poor.”

This is the first time a pope has chosen the name Francis, and many Catholics, and non-Catholics alike, are hoping Francis’ new name is an indicator of changes and reform to come.


Discussion Questions

  • What do you know about St. Francis of Assisi?  If you need to do some research, look up the story of his life.  What would a congregation heavily influenced by his vision of faith look like?  How would taking his values seriously affect your life?
  • The papal name Cardinal Borgoglio took has been seen as a reflection of his priorities as a Christian.  If you were elected pope what name would you take to reflect your understanding of what is important in being a Christian?  Why would you choose that name?  (The name need not be a famous one; you might pick “Fred” because of a custodian who embodies the gospel for you.)

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, April 7, 2013 (Second Sunday of Easter)

Acts 5:27-32

Revelation 1:4-8

John 20:19-31

(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 Gospel according to John doesn’t tell us where Thomas was on the evening of that first day of the week, the day of resurrection. We only know where he wasn’t: in the locked room with the rest of the disciples. Jesus shows up, wounds and breath and all, but when his colleagues give him the play-by-play Thomas simply cannot believe it. He says he needs not only to see, but also to touch, Jesus, in order to believe.

For wanting to experience what the rest of the disciples experienced, Thomas has received the nickname “Doubting Thomas” from history. John never calls him that. According to John, Thomas’s nickname is “the Twin,” though the gospel doesn’t elaborate on why.

A week later Jesus gives Thomas what he asked for and Thomas confesses his faith: “My Lord and my God!” Here, the one who doubts is also the one who believes and proclaims. Jesus, however, does not commend Thomas for this confession. Instead, he pronounces a blessing on those “who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” on us.

Discussion Questions

  • What nickname would you give Thomas? Why?
  • Who has helped you come to faith in Jesus? How have they done that?
  • What do you think about the phrase “Seeing is believing”?  How about its reverse, “Believing is seeing”?
  • Gospel-writer John steps into his story when he addresses his readers and says, “These [signs] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” What do you think of this purpose statement?

Activity Suggestions

  • Think of positive and encouraging nicknames for the people in your discussion group or others you all know (pastor, youth leader, etc.).
  • Write thank you notes to those who have shared their faith in Christ with you (confirmation or Sunday School teachers, baptismal sponsors, mentors, etc.).
  • Bless each other using Jesus’ words: Name, blessed are you who has not seen and yet has come to believe. Amen

Closing Prayer

God of new life, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into his disciples. Send your Spirit also to us, that we who have not seen yet may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing we may have life in his name. Fill us with your peace, and send us into your world. Amen

April 15, 2012–Scars That Heal

Contributed by Jay McDivett, Mequon, WI



Warm-up Question

Tell a story about one of your scars. Or, if you don’t have any (or it makes you uncomfortable), tell a story about a childhood injury that you remember (what happened, how long did it hurt, etc.).

Scars That Heal

On April 2, One Goh, a former student at Oikos University, a small Christian school in Oakland, CA, shot 10 people, killing 7, in a place that had been known as a safe place for immigrants to begin a new life and a new career in the U.S.A. While the student body is largely Korean, the victims Goh murdered – execution-style – were from all over the world.

Since then, details have emerged that Goh was upset over being expelled from the school, as well as being teased for his grasp of the English language. He may also have had difficulty getting along with women. Regardless of his motivation and/or mental state, the result has devastated this school, the city, and its many immigrant communities.

And so, as Christians everywhere began to celebrate Holy Week, with its re-telling of the story of Jesus’ journey to the cross and grave, the Oikos tragedy serves as yet another reminder that violence, exclusion, bullying, execution, and the complicated lives of immigrants living in a foreign culture (all of which are present in the Holy Week stories) are not a thing of the past. These are new wounds opened up in a Christian community that must wrestle with the reality of death in the midst of a season that promises life.


Discussion Questions

  • How do you understand events like the Oikos tragedy in terms of your faith? What questions do these headlines raise for you?
  • Could something like this ever happen at your school? Why or why not?
  • How should One Goh be treated  by the families of the victims, the community, the church, and the justice system? What would you want to see happen to him if you were a part of the community affected by his actions?


Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, April 15, 2012 (Second Sunday of Easter)

Acts 4:32-35

1 John 1:1–2:2

John 20:19-31

(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

Last Sunday, we celebrated God’s victory over death with the festival of the Resurrection. Most churches pull out all the stops on Easter Sunday.  Lots of regulars, visitors and occasional church-goers (what some call “Christmas and Easter” or “C&E” folks) dress in their Easter finest and are treated to festive music, beautiful decorations, egg hunts, lavish breakfasts… It’s a festive day. And why not? We are, after all, “Easter people.” We live by the story of the resurrection. As baptized people, we are joined to Jesus in his death so that we might be joined to him in his eternal and abundant life as well. This is good news!! It deserves a joyful noise, a beautiful day, a festival.

And yet, every year, the Sunday after Easter always features another story, the story of unfairly named “Doubting Thomas” longing to see Jesus’ scars. Imagine that.  The lesson for almost every other Sunday in the church year changes from year to year in the three-year lectionary cycle, the Second Sunday of Easter always tells a story about doubt and scars. Why?

There are many reasons, to be sure, but perhaps the most meaningful is this: The church knows full well that while the Resurrection declares God’s final and total victory over sin and death, most of the world – including, of course, most Christians – are still living in a world full of violence and tragedy, hunger and poverty, brokenness and sorrow. It is sometimes hard to hold onto the victory of Easter in one hand while holding a newspaper, smartphone, Facebook, or Twitter feed in the other. In public and private ways, Christian lives are still mired in all the stuff that Jesus came to destroy.

That kind of thing can make a person begin to doubt. 2000 years later, the Easter story (and the Church which bears this story on its lips) has yet to vanquish all the pain and suffering we live with. Indeed, it often feels like things are just getting worse.

So what do we do with this reality? How do we celebrate the resurrection while also being honest about the world of woe in which so many of our neighbors and ourselves are living in? Thomas gives us some great keys to living with this mystery:

  1. Stick around: This story takes place over the course of two weeks – or, at least, two weekends. For a reason known only to God and him, Thomas missed the first appearance of Jesus in the upper room (maybe because instead of huddling in fear behind locked doors, Thomas alone was brave enough to go out in the streets and keep on doing the work Jesus called the disciples to do…). Missing out made him ask for the same proof that the rest of the disciples literally got handed to them, the scars. But his doubt and questions didn’t make him give up. Instead, he shows up to worship again the next week—and meets Jesus meets. While it’s great to have lots of people show up for Christmas and Easter, we miss a lot if we only show up for the glitz and glory. Every week, Jesus walks through locked doors and shows us the signs of his love with his own broken hands. Keep showing up. Stick around.
  2. Ask tough questions: Church is not a place for people who’ve got it all figured out. Church is a place for people who live with doubt and questions. Everyone doubts and questions – ask your pastor and she’ll tell you, even (or especially) pastors have doubts. But even when it’s hard to believe, we believe that the gift of faith is a gift given to a community – to a family of broken, doubting, fearful people who are all desperate to hear a word of hope in the midst of a world that seems to be falling apart. We’re in this together, but we don’t get far when we pretend we’ve got it all figured out. Bring your questions to church. You’re in good company.
  3. Look for the scars: Barbara Lundblad, an ELCA pastor and professor, asked some great questions about this text in a sermon: Why does Jesus have scars? If God could raise Jesus from the dead, why couldn’t God fix him up and take away his scars? What’s in the scars? It seems that the scars, far from being a mark of shame, are actually signs of life: The scars tell us that Jesus was exactly who he said he was, the Word made flesh. Jesus is a real human being. Jesus knows in his own flesh and blood the pain and suffering of being alive in a broken world. Jesus is God close enough to know exactly what people like you and me are going through. And Jesus knows that even after the resurrection, there are still open wounds longing to be healed. The scars tell us that Jesus is still in the middle of it all. Jesus wears on his own body the marks of a world gone mad, and Jesus will not stop living and loving this world with his whole self until every open wound has been touched by the grace of the living God.

Scars are holy. They tell stories about where we’ve been, how we’ve been hurt, and what it takes to be healed. Sometimes, when a wound is fresh – especially if it’s deep and nasty – it’s hard to believe that we will ever be healed. But no one bleeds forever. Healing happens, on this and on every side of death. Just ask Jesus; he’s been there. He’s still there. And he always will be. And thanks be to God for that. Amen.

Discussion Questions

  • How comfortable are you discussing your doubts, questions, and fears at church? Who can you talk to? What would make you feel more – or less – comfortable?
  • When is it easy to believe in Jesus and the resurrection? When is it hard?
  • What can you do to help people with questions and doubts feel comfortable with church people?

Activity Suggestions

You will need several recent newspapers and/or magazines, newsprint (or other paper), markers, scissors, glue sticks, and either one very large picture of the resurrected Jesus with scarred hands or one copy of it for each participant (a great icon by William Hart McNichols can be found here: Invite participants to tear/cut headlines and/or pictures from newspapers that tell stories of open wounds, scars, violence, etc; and/or they can write/draw their own stories/words/prayers on newsprint. Light candles, play ambient music, dim the lights – whatever helps set a prayerful mood. Use the glue sticks to affix the signs of brokenness to the picture of Jesus – around the scars, on his heart, wherever it feels meaningful. When you’re finished, look at the one big picture or share each other’s individual pictures together. Close in prayer.

Closing Prayer

Jesus, sometimes it’s hard to believe in hope and life when we think about the pain and suffering in the world and in our lives. Help us to see in your scarred hands the signs of your presence – with us and with all who suffer. Give us the faith to trust that you hold the whole world in your nail-scarred hands and that you will stop at nothing to heal every open wound. Be with us (and those we name before you now ______ [names/events from the pictures may be included here]), and give us life. Amen.

April 27-May 3, 2011–Mythbusters

Contributed by Bill King, Blacksburg, VA


Share a time when you were absolutely certain something was true—only to discover that it was not.


Courtesy of Mythbusters

Can you beat a lie detector test?  Is a dirty car more fuel efficient than a clean one?  Do jawbreakers explode when you put them in a microwave?  Is it possible for baby alligators flushed down the toilet to prowl the sewers of New York City?  Can you save lost data on a hard drive by putting it in the freezer?  If you have an itch to answer any of these questions then you have probably discovered Mythbusters, the popular show on the Discovery Channel.  Nominated for an Emmy and hosted by the jauntily bereted Jamie Hyneman and “stuff maker” Adam Savage, Mythbusters scientifically tests urban myths, outrageous propositions, and conventional wisdom.  The show has a particular fondness for myths which involve explosions, making a mess, or disgusting materials (they made a candle out of ear wax).  Some have called it “the best science show on television,” and few would dispute that it is the zaniest.  The show sometimes does silly things, like constructing a lead balloon, just to see if it can be done.  But beneath the laughter is a serious purpose, to illustrate how science separates fact from fiction.

Discussion Questions

  • Do you always trust science to determine what is true and what is false?
  • There is strong  consensus among scientists that climate change is occurring (though less agreement on the role which human interaction plays), yet some polls suggest that 50 per cent or more of Americans doubt that consensus.  What factors other than science affect how we believe and act?
  • Do you believe science is the best or only path to truth?  What are its limits?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, May 1, 2011 (Second Sunday of Easter)

Acts 2:14a, 22-32

1 Peter 1:3-9

John 20:19-31

(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

Thomas usually gets a raw deal.  Don’t believe it?  Play a little game with me. Fill in the blank:   _______ Thomas.  You plugged in “doubting” didn’t you?  For almost 2000 years Thomas has been the poster boy for skepticism, the guy who brought a dill pickle and a soggy blanket to the post-resurrection picnic.  Everyone else was happy to see Jesus, excited to imagine what might be coming next.  We remember Thomas as the one who refused to join the celebration—or even believe his buddies.  If he didn’t see it, he wasn’t buying it.

Maybe we need to rethink our view of Thomas.  Rather than the poster child of cynical skepticism, perhaps he’s the brutally honest spokesman of wounded and searching young adults.  It’s not that Thomas is any less eager to believe than the rest of the disciples; he just isn’t willing to give his passion for a pocket full of promises which prove false when put to the test.  He’s seen the corruption of the religious and political establishment, the way they manipulate people and their prejudices in the name of noble sounding piety and patriotism.  He’s seen the cruelty the rich and powerful inflict on Him whose only crime is proclaiming God’s love.  Most of all, he’s seen his hopes dashed on Good Friday.  In the words of the of the classic rock anthem, he “won’t get fooled again.”

There is much to love about Thomas.  When Jesus returned to raise Lazarus from the tomb, Thomas told the disciples their place was with Jesus, even if it meant death. It was Thomas who admitted that he did not know where Jesus was going (John 14:3-6) and therefore could not follow—never afraid to look dumb if it meant learning more.  Not easily persuaded, but loyal to a fault when he finally makes a decision; yes, there is much to admire in Thomas.

Evidently John the Evangelist thinks so too.  He gives this supposed doubter the most sweeping confession of faith in his gospel, “My Lord and my God.”  Too often we can make people who are asking hard questions feel as though there is something wrong with them, implying that if they just believe hard enough and sing the happy choruses with enough gusto, all the doubts and all the awkward questions will just go away.  That’s unfortunate because Scripture most assuredly does not agree.  Jesus treats this hard-eyed realist with gentleness and concern.  I imagine Jesus looking at Thomas and thinking, “Oak isn’t easy to cut and form, but once you do, you know you’ve got something that’ll last  for the long haul.”  Thomas reminds us that mature faith is hard won, but always worth struggling for because it leads us to the one who says, “Do not be faithless but believing.”

Discussion Questions

  • Do you identify with Thomas?  How?
  • What is the greatest doubt you feel regarding your religious faith?
  • Why do you think John includes the post-resurrection story of Thomas in his gospel?

Activity Suggestion

Everything You Wanted to Know About God—But Were Afraid to Ask:  Invite everyone in the group to write down one or more questions related to religious faith and practice.  These can range from questions of idle curiosity to ones of deep concern.  Put them all in a box.  When they are all assembled you can use them in several ways; pick the one (or combination) that works best for you:

  • Invite the pastor or youth leader to respond to the questions.  This is particularly appropriate if the answer requires some research or technical knowledge.
  • Pull out a question and use it as a conversation starter.  Particularly with questions which have no easy answer it is important to affirm the questioning process, in addition to bringing some of the tradition’s resources to bear in forming a response.

Closing Prayer

God of truth and compassion, in Jesus you dealt gently with those who sincerely sought to follow you.  In the midst of our doubts give us your light, in the midst of our fears, give us courage.  When we struggle to believe, draw near and help us remember we are your own, beloved heirs of your resurrection.  Amen.


April 15-22, 2009 – Sad news surrounds joyful Easter celebration

Contributed by Pastor Jay Gamelin
Columbus, OH

Warm-up Question: Think of a time when you got hurt (physically, emotionally, spiritually, or otherwise). What’s the most important thing you learned from that experience

In the weeks leading up to Easter this year, sad news filled nearly every newspaper and broadcast. In just over a week, there were five mass murders in the U.S. alone, from Oakland, CA, to Binghamton, NY, killing nearly 40 people. In Italy, just as that predominantly Roman Catholic country was beginning to celebrate Holy Week, a massive earthquake killed at least 260 people. Violence continues in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in other war-torn corners of the globe. And all over the world, people continue to struggle with a devastated economy.

All this news has surrounded what for Christians ought to be the most joyful time of the year. Figuring out how to celebrate on a tighter budget in the midst of difficult times is an ancient challenge, and one that the faithful will face again as they gather to celebrate the festival of the resurrection and the bright, seven-week season of Easter that follows.

Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever tried to celebrate something (Christmas, Easter, your birthday, family weddings, etc.) while also having to deal with sad news? How did that go?
  • What did your family do for Easter this year? Was anything different than years past?
  • How do you think the families of people who died in the shootings in the U.S. felt during the Easter celebration this year, especially if they were Christians?
  • What do you think Jesus would say to folks who were trying to celebrate Easter while also finding themselves homeless after the earthquake in Italy?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, April 19, 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 comicAgnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

The week after Easter is a peculiar Sunday in the church. On most Sundays, the appointed readings are different each year, following a three-year cycle. But every year, on the week after Easter, we hear this story about Thomas, the disciple who asked for proof. That makes me wonder: What’s so important about this story that the church asks us to read it every year during this time?

It seems to me we could answer that question with two words: doubt and scars.

Isn’t it a bit jarring that just one week after the lilies and the brass, the egg hunts and family gatherings, the joyful shouts and songs filled with “Alleluia!,” all of a sudden we run into doubt and scars? What happened to butterflies and bunnies?

The church is trying to tell us something. From the beginning, the joyful news of the resurrection had to be spoken, heard, sung, and lived by people whose lives were not very joyful. “He is Risen!” did not put an end to the suffering and persecution, death and danger that those first Christians lived with. In fact, their claim that Jesus, whom the Empire had tried to destroy, was in fact living and reigning as the true King of Creation, made things even worse for the faithful.

In the midst of danger and suffering, it’s normal for a little doubt to creep in. Thomas asked, and for good reason, to see the same proof that Jesus handed — literally — to the other disciples. For Thomas, as for most of the citizens of Jerusalem, the resurrection had not changed anything. Well, not anything they could see anyway. Life was still hard, and death was still at hand. So before Thomas took the message of “He is risen!” very far, he needed to be sure he wouldn’t just be telling a cruel joke to people who needed some real, meaningful hope.

Legend has it, Thomas ended up taking that message very far indeed — all the way to India! So whatever Jesus showed him was good enough.

What Jesus showed him were scars. Jesus was alive, but his body still had the marks of what he had suffered. His own flesh would not let him, or us, forget about the real tragedy and death he endured. Knowing that Jesus was still a marked man helped Thomas know that God still understood the danger and the risk of living faithfully in a broken world. Those scars gave Thomas’s own scars holy meaning: doubt and danger are still abundant, but God’s love and life are more abundant still.

We, too, live this Easter faith in a dead and dying world. Thanks be to God, Jesus lives and breathes in the midst of our doubts, bearing the scars, and yet overflowing with life. Alleluia! Amen.

Discussion Questions

  • If you were Thomas, what proof would you ask for to know that the resurrection — rising death — was real?
  • What does it mean to you that Jesus still has the scars on his resurrected body? If God could raise him from the dead, why didn’t God take the scars away, too?
  • Do you have any scars (physical or otherwise)? Where does God fit into the stories about how you got your scars?
  • What difference does “He is risen!” make in your own life? If “He is risen!” actually made your life more challenging and dangerous, would you still tell it to your friends and neighbors? Would it make a difference to them?

Activity Suggestions

  • Get a laminated map of the globe and some Vis-à-vis overhead pens. Invite folks to draw or write on places on the map where the world is scarred or marked. Play some music during this time (anything from Taizé songs to an iPod mix of thoughtful or thought-provoking music like The Fray’s “You Found Me”). After they’ve had some time to write, draw, or circle places, ask them to share why they drew or wrote what they did. Then ask where they think God is in all the world’s scars.
  • Have youth draw temporary tattoos (any non-permanent marker pen will do fine) on their arm, wrist, or ankles. (Draw it on paper first. Some may choose not to draw on themselves — a valid choice that should be respected.) What mark would you draw that would describe your faith and your doubts in your life? What invisible scars do you have that you could make “visible”? Where does Jesus fit into this picture? Have them share as they are comfortable.

Closing Prayer

Jesus, you lived and died and live again, feeling in your own body how hard life can be. Help me see your love and grace in the midst of the entire world’s, and my own scars. Be patient with me, and accept my doubts even as you give me faith. Amen.