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February 23-March 1, 2011–No Strings Attached

Contributed by Dennis Sepper,

University Pastor, Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma Washington

Warm-up Question

Name one thing you spent money on this week.  Why did you spend the money on that one thing?  How did you feel when you laid down the cash and took possession of whatever it was that you bought?

No Strings Attached

A commuter student at the university where I work lost everything in a house fire.  Thankfully, her family and the family pets got out of the house in time and were not injured but the entire house burned down.  They lost everything, their treasured memories in pictures and souvenirs, their clothes and beds, their entire possessions.  Our student even lost her books for the spring semester which, as a nursing student, was a very substantial loss.  Certainly insurance will cover a good deal of the loss and the school has a fund which allowed our student to buy another set of nursing books, but insurance and the good will of others cannot cover everything and it cannot replace the personal items that each family member had collected and now lost.

These kinds of tragedies happen every day from accidents to natural disasters.  It’s funny how we always think our possessions will be there.  We become so attached to them that we deny that one day they could go away.  Even though it happens every day, we still think that we will be able to hold on to everything that is ours.  And should we come to the realization that what we have is transitory, we worry about it and so we invest in alarm systems and fire alarm systems and locked boxes all in an attempt to hold on to our possessions.

(Writer’s note:  if you have a local example by all means use it.  One could use a natural disaster too, such as the flooding in Australia, etc)

Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever thought about losing all your possessions?  How does that thought make you feel?  What are the things you would miss most?
  • Do you every worry about losing something or having it stolen?  How does that make you feel?
  • What steps to do you and/or your family use to make sure you keep your possessions?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, February 27, 2011 (Eighth Sunday after Epiphany

Isaiah 49:8-16a

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Matthew 6:24-34

(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

With today’s Gospel text from Matthew 6 we are still in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount.  At the beginning of Chapter 6 Jesus warns the disciples against drawing attention to themselves through their piety around almsgiving, prayer and fasting.  Jesus then turns his attention to money and to possessions.  Jesus warns against “storing” up treasures here on earth and encourages us to store up treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21).  Today, our text opens again with a warning against money.  “You cannot serve God and wealth,” says Jesus in verse 24.

We may not think that we worship money in the same way we worship God but, if you take the time to reflect on it, we do come awfully close.  Have you ever seen someone accidently rip a one, five, or ten dollar bill?  If you look at the faces of the people around when that happens you would think that the person just blasphemed the Lord.  We are taught at a very early age that money is sacred and that it has a power all its own.  In our day there are a number of people who prefer to serve money rather thank God.  (For a humorous and insightful treatment of this worship of money see Health, Money, and Love and why we don’t enjoy them by Robert Farrar Capon especially pages 87-91.)

From that point Jesus goes on to explore the root causes of our dependence upon possessions and money; we human beings cannot predict or see the future, therefore, we have a deep rooted anxiety about the future.  We simply believe that money and possessions will keep us secure or can protect us from that unknown future.  However, as can be seen in our opening discussion, money and possessions have no power to protect us, for they are as temporal as we human being are temporal.

The words of Jesus in Matthew 6:25-33 are addressed to his disciples who did leave everything behind to follow Jesus.  Jesus reminds his disciples that they are of more value to God than the birds of the air or the lilies of the field.  God has called them into this life of discipleship and God will care for them as God cares for all creation.

That message is valuable to modern day disciples too.  One of the things Jesus came to show us is that all of our lives are in the hand of God—a gracious and loving God.  It is interesting to note that the word “worry” comes from an Old English word that means “to choke”.  That is certainly what worry can do to our lives.  Worry can cause sleepless nights and paralyze us into inactivity.  Jesus came to call us to action in the world and Jesus promises that God will take care of us so that we are free to serve God and neighbor.

While Jesus can be very hard on possessions and wealth, he isn’t saying that every disciple is called to life of poverty.  Jesus simply wants us to keep our priorities straight.  Even today, our lives are in God’s hands and God still continues to care for each and every one of us.  Earlier in the chapter Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Our hearts should be centered on God for that is indeed a treasure no one can take away from us.

When Jesus speaks of not worrying about tomorrow, he is not advocating a “don’t worry, be happy” Bobbie McFerrin kind of attitude.  Rather, he calls us to a sure and confident faith that the God who calls us his children and into the world will care for us today, tomorrow, and in the months and years ahead.

Discussion Questions

  • Do you believe people worship and serve money?  Give an example of something you have seen or experienced.
  • What kinds of things do you worry about?  Have you ever been so worried about something that it causes you not to take action?
  • What are some other things that people do to try to be secure against the unknown future?  What do some people do to try to control the uncontrollable future?  (Think about athletes and coaches who have favorite hats or ties that can “guarantee” a victory)
  • On the whole, do you have hope for the future or not?  Why?

Activity Suggestions

  • Assemble a group of current newspapers, news magazines or, if you are in a position to have internet access, bring up the homepage of CNN or some other news website. As an individual or as a group look for news articles that would cause you or others to worry or be anxious about the future.  After you have identifies several, as an individual or as a group write a short prayer for people who might be worried about that issue or news event.  When we do this at our university we call this activity “praying the headlines” and we try to do it about once a month.
  • Another thing you can do is link this week’s discussion to Luther’s explanation of the fourth petition of The Lord’s Prayer.  Note how Luther says that when we ask God for “daily bread” God provides much more.

Closing Prayer

(Use the prayers from the above activity, “praying the headlines,” or the following.)

Loving God, we know that you provide for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and indeed they are well kept and beautiful.  However, even in the midst of such evidence of your care we still worry about so many things and sometimes that worry dominates our thoughts and actions.  Fill us this day with your Holy Spirit, a Spirit of power and might.  Install in us a sure and certain faith that we can cast all our worries and anxieties on you, knowing that you will give us your peace, a peace that will allow us to confidently walk into the future to serve you and our neighbor.  In the name of Christ Jesus we pray.  Amen

June 16-22, 2010–Evil at Work?

Contributed by Scott Mims, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Virginia Beach, VA 

Warm Up Question

 As a group list your answers to the following: 

  • When you think about the world today and about your future, what are some of the things that make you most anxious or afraid? 
  • What are some of the things that make you most optimistic or hopeful? 

Evil at Work?

On June 2, 2010, something went terribly wrong in the life of Derrick Bird.  Bird, a taxi driver, drove his taxi down England’s northwest coast on a three and a half-hour shooting spree that left 12 people dead and 25 others injured before turning his gun on himself.  Many of the shootings appear to have been completely random.  This rampage in the county of Cumbria was Britain’s deadliest since 1996, and is especially shocking in a nation where such events are very rare. 

Although the actions of Derrick Bird have deeply shaken the surrounding community, the reasons behind his behavior remain guesses at best.  Like other such attacks, investigators are able to piece together possible factors, symptoms, and signs, but only after the fact.  How then can we understand such things?  Are such seemingly random yet devastating events, as one commentator put it, the acts of greatly disturbed people “gripped by uncontrollable primitive urges,” or are they evidence of the forces of evil at work? 

Discussion Questions

  •  Do you believe in the existence of unseen evil forces at work in the world and in people’s lives?  If so, what evidence is there that suggests you are right?  If not, why not?
  • Do you believe we have “free will?” What place does human choice play in the events of the world that we would call evil or wrong?  What are some of the circumstances, factors, or situations that might not leave people free to choose?
  • Regarding what makes you most anxious of fearful for the future, what part, if any, do random uncontrollable events such as terrorism or war play?
  • Regarding what makes you most optimistic or hopeful, did you include God on your list?  Why or why not? 

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, June 20, 2010 (Fourth Sunday After Pentecost)

Isaiah 65:1-9 

Galatians 3:23-29 

Luke 8:26-39 

  (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

 Our gospel lesson this week might well be entitled, “Dialoguing with Demons,” as Jesus confronts the forces of evil at work in the life of a man in the non-Jewish territory of Gerasa. Having recognized Jesus for who he is, the “Son of the Most High God,” the unclean spirits (for it turns out that there are many) submit to Jesus’ command to come out of the man, begging Jesus not to send them back to the abyss but, rather, to allow them to enter into a large herd of pigs nearby.  Jesus gives them permission to do so and the pigs are destroyed.  The man, on the other hand, is made well. 

So what is the miracle here?  How we understand it may have to do with our worldview.  That the man’s behavior is abnormal is not in doubt.  However, the cause behind his actions is.   For many modern readers the surprise in this story is its talk about demons and unclean spirits.  We are perhaps uncomfortable thinking in terms of unseen forces of evil being at work in people’s lives.  Scientific and psychological approaches to this event are much more comfortable for us, and so it is not surprising that many modern interpreters equate the “demons” of this story with some form of mental illness.  The miracle, then, is Jesus’ ability to heal a mentally ill man, restoring him completely to his right mind, something that even the wonders of our modern medical science are often unable to do. 

The surprise in this story for people from earlier times may well have been different.  For them, the existence of evil powers was not in doubt.  What is extraordinary here is the universality of Jesus’ power.  Jesus has, in effect, entered enemy territory.  Yet even here, he has the power to heal, save, and to defeat the powers of darkness with a word.  Not only does Jesus’ ability to defeat evil on its home turf confirm his identity as “Son of the Most High God,” it also demonstrates that God’s saving and healing love are for everyone – Jews and Gentiles alike. 

But there is yet another surprise in this story.  Those who witness these things and the people that they go and tell do not react with joy and thanksgiving over what Jesus has done.  Having seen the power of God at work, they all ask Jesus to leave—all except the man who was healed.  He begs Jesus that he might be with him.  Jesus instead tells the man to go back to his family, friends, and community and to share with any who will listen how much God had done for him.  “So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” 

Discussion Questions

  • Given your discussion on the presence of evil and the two different perspectives offered in the reflections above, what do you think is the most important point this story makes?  If you were to share it with a friend, what would you say about it?
  • How do you feel about Jesus’ power as God’s Son to bring healing and renewed life to people? What does this gospel lesson say about Jesus’ ability to deal with some of the “darkness” and the issues or problems in your own life? 
  • How important to your faith is it to hear what Jesus has done in the lives of other people?  In terms of being able to share the gospel with those do not know about Jesus, how important is it to begin with being able to share Jesus among ourselves?

Suggested ResourceThe Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis: a fun yet perceptive take on the forces of evil at work in our daily lives.  

 Activity Suggestions

  • Remember your baptism!  Use parts of the Affirmation of Baptism service from Evangelical Lutheran Worship to remind one another of God’s saving and redeeming love in Jesus Christ, and of the Spirit’s renewing power.  Notice, too, the “renunciation of the forces of evil” which begins the Profession of Faith.  You might gather around a bowl of water, blessing one another with the sign of the cross, or, if available, around the baptismal font.
  • Share the faith.  How have you seen God at work in your life?  In the world?  Share your personal faith stories of with one another.  Perhaps have an older member of your church or faith community through whom you see God’s presence come and share their faith story.
  • Pray for the world.   Using newspaper our other articles that highlight situations of evil and need in your community and in the wider-world, pray together for these needs and for the lives of the people involved.

 Closing Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, as you overcame the forces of evil and darkness and brought healing to many, so deliver us and our world from all that would overcome us. In the power of your Spirit, heal and renew us that we may with good courage and great joy share all that God has done for us.  Amen.

November 18-25, 2009 – The end is coming… hang on, folks!

Contributed by Pastor Jay Gamelin
Jay is pastor of Jacob’s Porch, an ELCA Campus Mission to The Ohio State University

Warm-up Question:  Do you worry about the end of the world? If so, what’s your worry? If not, why not?

bomb-blast_PART2_180On November 13, movie theaters across the country premiered the film “2012” to fill the eyeballs of theater goers and pockets of the producers.  A big budget eye-candy movie brings to public consciousness the prediction by ancient calendars (or we should say calendar) that the world will come to an end on December 21 or 23 of 2012. Discovered in the Tabasco region of Mexico, the Olmec or Mayan calendar is based on cycles of 5,125 years, the current period to end in 2012.

Most serious scholars give very little credence to the theory, but this has not stopped a burgeoning business based on the 2012 legend. The numbers of books offering proof, theories, research, and even survival guides has exploded. Blogs are now offering proof and advice as well as others critiquing the theories. Some preachers are beginning to preach apocalyptic message and are asking parishioners to prepare for Jesus’ second coming.

It seems that the end of the world sells and we all have our theories as to what makes the world end. Apocalypse and post-apocalypse films have always been a popular theme in movie theaters this year. Terminator 4 followed the story of John Connor into an apocalypse by mutant robots. The Road, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, follows a man and his son through a post-nuclear holocaust world and is soon to be a motion picture released this winter. Zombieland is a comedy following road-trippers through an apocalyptic world of zombies.

It hasn’t been since 1999 and the Y2K worry that we have seen such hype over the purported end of the world. Or 1973 before that. Or 1911. Or 1844. Or 1266… or…

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think there is validity to the claim that the end comes in 2012? Why or why not?
  2. Why do you think people are so interested in the end of the world? What fascinates us about this subject?
  3. Do you think it is possible to predict the end of the world? Why or why not?
  4. What, if anything, do you think is most likely to create an end of the world scenario? What is not likely, in your opinion, to do this?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, November 22, 2009.

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

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

Gospel Reflection

It seems there is always someone predicting the end of the world. If it isn’t cataclysmic ice storms suddenly freezing New York then it is a giant meteor flattening New York, or an infectious disease infecting New York, or a giant bomb blowing up in New York. The point is, stay out of New York. (Just kidding!)

Seriously, what people like to deal in is fear. And what is more powerful for creating and stirring up fear than the unknown? It is just like us that we want to have the very date pinned down when the world goes to heck in a handbasket. We want to sell books about it, show movies about it, read about it, convince others about it. Seriously, if the end of the world is coming, why are they selling a survival guide for $49? What are you going to do with the money?

It feels good to be able to stand on a street corner and shout, “the end is near!” and be so sure that all the signs point to biblical codes and secret texts that tell a special truth that others are not aware of. We just want to know.

Many have trusted these prophecies in the past. Over and over again, prognosticators have combed through the Bible and seen the signs in the stars and the current political climate and determined that the time of the end of the world has come. It happened throughout the first 4 centuries of Christianity. It happened after the fall of the Roman Empire. It happened when the year 1000 hit. It happened during the Crusades. It happened in 1844 when William Miller proposed he knew the end of the world, was wrong, and people formed a church about it anyway called the Seventh Day Adventists. (Note: Today’s Adventists do not believe this, it is just a part of their history.) It happened during World War 1, World War 2, during the Oil Crisis, during Y2K, and now 2012. We love to fear what we do not know, and thus we try our best to know and predict the future so that we are not caught off guard.

Usually when we read the books of Daniel and Revelation, we instantly turn on our freak-out meter. Both describe crazy animals and demons and destruction and wars. They talk about signs and seasons and desolating sacrileges and numbers and beasts. These “apocalyptic” texts, as they are called (add that to your SAT vocabulary), seem to be about pointing to perfectly knowable and predictable signs that become a road map for our understanding. But is this really what they are about? Is God that easy to understand?

The texts this week seem to be about establishing Jesus as a king. Both point to Jesus as our heavenly ruler, a king who is in charge. And again in John, Jesus continues this prediction with an unusual tete-a-tete with Pilate about kingdoms and rulers. The story here is about establishing who Jesus is and where his authority comes from… and this is good news!

Instead of focusing on trying to decipher the mystical meanings of all the stories in Revelation and Daniel, it is good to focus on the end results — the good news.

No matter what is described, in the end Jesus is king and God is victor. What is described, whether as a historical prediction or a beautiful allegory, is not a thing to be feared but a thing to wonder about and expect and rejoice in. The whole story God shows us from Genesis to Revelation is that God was there in the beginning loving us, God was there throughout history loving us, God sent a Son — Jesus — to show how loved we are, and God will come again to love us still.

We don’t need to fear the end, whatever or wherever or whenever that may be. We instead can rejoice that our king is Jesus, a Jesus who loved us while we were yet sinners, who redeemed us not when we deserved but solely out of love and grace, and who is resurrected so that we may live to love and serve God and the world freely.

As the angels said when the disciples saw the tomb rolled away, “fear not”, for this is good news.

Activity Suggestion

Surviving the Second Coming

(Note:  This activity is to be done in fun and jest. While it is not my intention to be irreligious, in an effort to shift our hearts and minds from fear of our Lord’s coming to joy, we can allow a hint of fun and laughter to dispel what could be a very scary subject. I invite you to let your hair down, or loosen the tie, or perhaps both, and have fun with this activity.)

As a group, work together on a “Surviving the Second Coming of Christ Manual”. Some things to consider:

  • What are the necessary items you want with you at all times, in case Jesus should suddenly pop up? (suggestions: Bibles with every verse underlined to prove you read it, a piece of the true cross, a “Jesus is my homeboy tee”, any indulgences previously purchased, and a corroborating receipt, etc.)
  • What sort of résumé and documents do you need to prove your worthiness? (suggestions: baptismal photos and certificates, confirmation certificates, number of times in church attendance documentation, any extracurricular activities within the church — remember, softball doesn’t count… etc.)
  • What are some important steps to consider in preparation? (suggestions: get a letter of recommendation from a pastor or a high ranking official like a bishop or the head usher or Mel Gibson, destroy all copies of any CD from America Idol Alumni so that “we have no other idols”, keep an autotuner ready so that when you sing with the heavenly hosts you’ll be in pitch, research angel wing care, etc.)

Process:  Think of all the pictures we have in our heads already about what things “are supposed to look like.”

  • Where do these images come from?
  • Where do these thoughts come from?

Some images and thoughts are based in scripture, others in legend or fiction. But to be sure, if we can imagine what it will be like, it is likely that description probably still comes up short. No matter what we say or do, it is God who justifies us and makes us whole. So no matter what we do to “prepare”, in the end none of it matters to the incomparable love and redemption of Jesus. This is not just good news, it’s great news! Thanks for having fun!

Closing Prayer

God, thank you for loving us to the end. Help us to let go of our fear and anxiety and learn to watch and wait with joy. Your kingdom come! Amen.