Skip to content
ELCA Blogs

Faith Lens

April 6-12, 2011–Unspoken Question

Contributed by Bob Chell, University Lutheran Center, Brookings, SD

Warm-up Question

If God is in all places, at all times, how can God stand by while bad things happen?

Unspoken Questions

In 1862 the largest mass hanging in United States history occurred in Mankato, Minnesota. Thirty- eight Dakota men of the Santee nation were executed for taking part in what has been called “Little Crow’s War.”

The Dakota people were promised much but received little in payment for the land taken from them by the U.S. government. Unscrupulous traders and dishonest agents stole food and annuity payments until hunger and hardship drove the Santee to send out a hunting party of four in mid-August. The hunting party encountered white settlers and five settlers died. Things spun out of control and, after order was restored, President Abraham Lincoln ordered the hanging of 38 Santee men.

Jim Miller had a dream. Jim is a member of the Santee Nation. In 2008 he organized what has become an annual trek on horseback from the Crow Creek reservation of South Dakota to the riverbank where the executions took place, a distance of 330 miles.  Jim’s dream was not simply to make the trek, but to bring healing and reconciliation. The ride was commemorated in the film, Dakota 38 Engaging History.

Discussion Questions

  • Does God take an active role in the world?
  • To what degree are greedy Indian agents from the 1850s responsible for widespread poverty on reservations today?
  • Many children of divorced families struggle. Who is to blame?
  • Are retribution and reconciliation compatible?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, April 10, 2011 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Romans 8:6-11

John 11:1-45

(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

As a campus pastor, people come to me with hard questions, questions with no easy answers.  I get a call in the middle of the night asking, “If a person commits suicide, do they go to hell?” I’m pretty sure this is more than a disinterested quest for information.  So I want to know if the caller has a term paper due at 8:00 a.m. or if, perhaps, their fiancé broke off their engagement earlier in the evening.  The asked question is theological; the unspoken one is personal.  The first is about God, the second about the person’s deepest pain.

We can ponder the source of monstrously evil people and events in the world. Think Hitler and Holocaust.  We can probe for an explanation of great tragedy arising from nature. Think earthquake and tsunami.  These are theological questions.  Martha says to Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” and the unspoken question is, “Why weren’t you here when I needed you most?”   That question comes to our hearts and lips when death darkens our house, when our parent’s divorce, when the person we love does not return our affection. It is a profoundly personal question.  We can discuss the former questions but often only sit in silence in the face of the latter.

I hesitated writing the last of the above discussion questions, knowing that for some it is a deeply personal question.  I kept it because the gospel is deeply personal.  Jesus didn’t come to tell bad people to be good people or to explain away deep, unrelenting pain with soothing words. Jesus did proclaim God’s promises to Martha.  Jesus did raise her brother Lazarus that day but Jesus response first response on seeing the body of his friend was to weep.  Many have memorized John 11:35 because it is the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.”   I contend it is among the most profound. It reminds us that Jesus stands with us in our pain, not over us in judgment when our lives are in turmoil.

Where is Jesus when my parent’s divorce, when a young Native American girl takes her own life, when thousands die in a tsunami or at the hand of evil tyrants? Jesus is there; weeping, standing with all in their deepest pain, their sharpest grief, their greatest regret.

Discussion Questions

  • Can you identify a time in your life when you felt abandoned by God? Looking back, was God with you? If so, how was God present?
  • When your pain has been deep and unrelenting, which words were helpful? Hurtful?
  • Can a person be close to God and far away from God at the same time?
  • Is trusting God different than believing in God?

Activity Suggestion

Make a timeline of your faith history:   Draw a line horizontally in the middle of a sheet of paper and label it with significant events in your life; your birth on one end and today on the other. Write joys and sorrows as they happened; great joys high on the page and deep sorrows near the bottom.  Connect them and you’ll see how your life has ups and downs. Now place a G when your faith was greatest, an A where your faith was absent, and an O where you weren’t thinking about God at all. Connect them and you’ll see the ups and downs of your faith journey.

Share with one other person your greatest joy and your deepest sorrow. Do the ways you felt about God’s presence at those times coincide with what you believe about God’s presence at those times now that you look back?

Closing Prayer

God, you know our deep pain, our secret shames, and the unrelenting pain which threatens us to make us despair. Help us to feel your presence in our hearts and not just in our heads. Give us confidence in your promises, so that we will trust you and cling to your promises when doubt gnaws at our faith.  Amen.

November 17-23, 2010–Sentenced to Die

Contributed by Brian Hiortdahl, Resurrection Lutheran Church, Chicago, IL

Warm-up Question

What is the worst punishment you ever received?  Did you deserve it?

Sentenced to Die

Justin Wolfe has spent most of his twenties on death row in Virginia. Just before his 21st birthday, he was convicted of the murder of Daniel Petrole, Jr. and sentenced to die.  Wolfe did not kill Petrole, however, the man who fired the gun, Owen Barber IV, claims that he was hired by Wolfe to do it.  All three young men were heavily involved in the buying and selling of illegal drugs, and the surface story of Petrole’s murder reads like a mafia hit.

Wolfe claims innocence, at least on the charge of murder.  His claim is supported by many other people and by evidence not included in his trial, including a dramatic change in Barber’s story about what really happened on the night of Petrole’s death–a change that Barber later changed again.  Wolfe now has new legal representation and an appeal currently in process in the Virginia justice system, which rarely overturns a death sentence.  His case reopens questions about the justice of the death penalty, particularly given the possibility of executing an innocent person.

For a very detailed account of this story, read “An Innocent Man on Death Row?” at 

Discussion Questions

  • After reading the story, do you believe that Justin Wolfe should be executed?  If you are not sure, what questions remain unanswered?
  • Under what circumstances, if any, do you support the death penalty?  Why or why not?
  • In your experience or opinion, how trustworthy is the justice system of the United States?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, November 21, 2010 (Christ the King Sunday)

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Colossians 1:11-20

Luke 23:33-43

(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 was also sentenced to die.  His trial and execution all took place in less than 24 hours.  Of all the gospel writers who present this story, Luke most emphasizes Jesus’ innocence.  Only in Luke do we hear the words of the two criminals crucified with Jesus, and one of them says, “this man has done nothing wrong.” When the centurion speaks after his death, he does not name Jesus “Son of God,” as in Matthew and Mark, but says, “Certainly this man was innocent.”  Luke wants us to see that Jesus’ death penalty is a grotesque injustice.

This sense is amplified by the stark contrast Luke presents between the attitudes of those surrounding Jesus and Jesus himself.  In a swirl of false accusations, physical attacks, games of chance for his meager possessions, and nasty insults, Jesus consistently shows compassion, even for his executioners.  He consoles the women who accompany him to the cross (Luke 23:27-31) and then prays for those who are persecuting him:  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  Our reading ends with Jesus offering a startling, beautiful word of promise to the criminal who asked only to be remembered.

It is no coincidence that we read this gospel on Christ the King Sunday.  In the reading, Jesus is identified with imperial irony as “the king of the Jews” and the criminal asks to be remembered when Jesus comes “into [his] kingdom.”  Jesus’ gracious response underlines the sharp contrast between two political realities:  the kingdom of God, which Jesus lives and proclaims, and the violent, threatened empire which crucifies him.  Sentenced to death, Jesus’ own “death sentences”–“Father, forgive them” and “today you will be with me in Paradise”–are really sentences conferring life 

Discussion Questions

  • Why was Jesus given the death penalty?  How was he considered such a threat to society that he had to be executed so quickly on a verdict from a shoddy trial?
  • In what ways are the kingdom of God and the government of the United States similar?  In what ways are they different, and what should we do about it?
  •  Who has wronged you, and how?  What and how much are you able to forgive?  How do you balance justice with mercy?
  • How has Jesus given you life?

Activity Suggestions

  • Investigate the position of your political representatives (governor, state representative and senator, House representative and state senators, etc.) on the death penalty and write them a letter outlining your agreement and/or disagreement with their stance.
  • Study/discuss painter Marc Chagall’s “White Crucifixion” and its historical  context.  (  If possible, invite a rabbi and a pastor to join you.  What are the parallels and differences between Jesus’ death, the Holocaust of Nazi Germany, and political injustices happening today?

Closing Prayer

Christ our King, you respond to violence with peace and bring new life in the midst of death.  Share your forgiveness and faithfulness with us, that we also might bless our troubled world with your courageous compassion and resilient grace.  Amen

October 28-November 4, 2009 – Signs of the times

Contributed by Pastor Seth Moland-Kovash
All Saints Lutheran Church
Palatine, IL

Warm-up Question:  How easy do you find it to forgive a friend when something bad happens that is clearly their fault?

surgeons200Finding fault and placing blame are things that all people do. Somehow it just seems to make us feel better when we can place the blame for someone on someone’s shoulders. Of course, it only serves to make us feel comfortable if we can place the blame on someone else’s shoulders. There are times when placing blame isn’t just a matter of words, but of serious consequences: sometimes thousands or millions of dollars, or other punishments.

One way that this happens is through medical malpractice lawsuits. A doctor or hospital can be sued for malpractice if a mistake is made in treating a patient or something is overlooked that should have been seen or treated.

One current proposal that is part of the debate on the healthcare system as a whole is to limit the amount of money that could be awarded to patients or families in malpractice cases. Called “tort reform,” one proposal would limit the amount of money that people could win to $500,000 for punitive damages and $250,000 for “pain and suffering.” The Congressional Budget Office estimates that this change would save the government $54 billion over the next 10 years.

Some say that the legal awards need to be limited to be reasonable and to cut the costs that doctors have to pay for malpractice insurance. Others say that there is no amount of money that should be considered too great for the family of someone who has died because of malpractice. 

Discussion Questions

  1. What do you think? Should there be a limit on the amount of money that a doctor or hospital would have to pay in a malpractice case?
  2. If someone you loved died because of a clear case of malpractice, how much money do you think would be a fair punishment?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, November 1, 2009 (All Saints Day).

(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

Lazarus was dead. He was dead and buried and in the tomb. Jesus was late. The emergency message had been sent, but Jesus wasn’t there at the right time. Mary (Lazarus’ sister) said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” What do you think that she felt Jesus could have done? Whether she was right or not, she felt that Lazarus would not have died if Jesus had gotten there in time. Perhaps there was a hint of blame in her statement.

Where is God when it hurts? Why doesn’t God seem to be around to help me now like he helped all those people in the Bible? These are common questions that come to our minds when something bad happens. We want to know where God was and why God let that thing happen. In this story, we see that people even during the Bible times had the same experiences. Mary wanted to know why Jesus hadn’t gotten there in time. She wanted to know why this bad thing had to happen to her family. She was in pain.

And Jesus had healing for her pain. It wasn’t like anything she could have imagined. She imagined that, if Jesus had been able to get there before Lazarus died, then Jesus could have healed him. But once he was dead, Mary thought that was the end of the story.

Today, on All Saints Sunday, we remember again that death is not the end of the story for any of God’s saints. Your grandmothers and grandfathers, any of God’s children who have died, are alive again. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Nothing can separate us from God’s love; not even death (Romans 8:37-39).

Discussion Questions

  1. Tell about a time you were in pain and wondered whether God was even there.
  2. Have you seen signs that God is there in painful times? What do those signs look like? (Hint: Look at the other people in the room… they may be the signs for you)

Activity Suggestion

Create an “All Saints” remembrance with your youth group. Bring a memento or photo that makes you think of someone who has died. Tell your friends about that person. Say, “I am thankful to God for ________ because __________.”

Closing Prayer

Good and gracious God, we thank you for all the saints you have given us who have shown us your love and your mercy. Help us to continue to live as your faithful children until the day when we are reunited with all your saints. Amen.

(Or use the prayer for the “Rememberance of the faithful departed” found on page 82 of Evangelical Lutheran Worship.)