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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.)

May 13-20, 2009 – Man cleared after 22 years on death row



Contributed by Steven Alloway
Granada Hills, CA


Warm-up Question: Have you ever been punished for something you didn’t do? Have you ever been let off the hook for something you DID do? How did it turn out?

Paul House has been on prison death row in Tennessee since 1986, after being convicted of the murder of Carolyn Muncey. He was scheduled to be executed next month, but now, after intervention by local attorneys as well as an organization called The Innocence Project, all charges against him have been dropped, and he is free to go.

The case was first reopened in June of 2006, to give House a new hearing. “Substantial additional DNA testing and further investigation has shown that he is innocent,” said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project. “Each time a layer of this case was peeled away, it revealed more evidence of Paul House’s innocence.”
DNA evidence originally seemed to prove House’s guilt, but further investigation showed that the blood samples may have been mishandled and contaminated during testing, and is in fact inconclusive.

Discussion Questions 


  • Why do you think that, after 20 years, the House’s case was finally re-opened in 2006?
  • Do you agree with the court’s decision to dismiss the charges against Paul House? Do you think he might still be guilty?
  • How do you think House will adjust to his newfound freedom, after 22 years on death row? How different do you think his life is now from what it was in 1986?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, May 17, 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

In John 15:10, Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…” Just a chapter earlier, in John 14:15, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” In both verses, the message is the same: love and obedience are inextricably entwined. God gave us a set of commandments. We are charged to follow them, every one, at all times. But at the same time, we know that we are doomed to fail. Every person on earth fails to keep God’s commandments. We may succeed in keeping most of them most of the time, but God demands no less than perfection. We must be holy, for he is holy. And, we simply can’t be that perfect.

But keeping God’s commandments isn’t about our actions. Which ones we’ve broken, which ones we’ve kept, when we’re going to break the next one… it’s about our hearts. God gave us these commandments, not to watch us struggle to obey them, trying unsuccessfully to prove our worthiness. God gave us commandments out of love for us.
So Jesus tells us that loving him means keeping his commandments. And keeping his commandments means loving him. And then he gives us a new commandment: to love one another, as he has loved us. If we can do that, abide in Christ’s love, loving God and loving each other, then keeping God’s commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) comes naturally. “You shall not steal.” “You shall not bear false witness.” “You shall not kill.” Would we do these things to someone we love?

God gave us his commandments to show us his love. They act as a mirror, to show us our sinful nature. We are unable to keep God’s commandments through our own power. And when we try to, we are merely servants, slaves to sin, striving unsuccessfully to keep God’s commandments because he told us to, fearing his wrath if we don’t. But then in God’s commandments we also see Christ’s love: the greatest love there is, laying down his life in place of ours, freeing us from the bonds of sin, so that we would no longer be servants, suffering God’s wrath for disobedience, but friends, with Christ’s love flowing through us.

It is only through Christ’s love that we are able to love one another. And it is only in Christ’s gracious love that we are able to keep God’s commandments. If we have Christ’s love in us — loving him and loving one another, and keeping his commandments — then Christ’s joy will be in us too. A joy shared among friends and all people. Our joy will be full! 

Discussion Questions


  • How can we share Christ’s love with others? How can we show them both that God loves them, and that we love them?
  • How do the actions of someone who knows he has been freed from the bonds of sin, to be called a friend of Christ, differ from the actions of someone who struggles to keep God’s commandments without love, like a servant trying to avoid his master’s punishment? How should we live our own lives differently, when we abide in Christ’s love?
  • How is our freedom from sin, to become members of the body of Christ, like Paul House’s freedom from death row after 22 years, to rejoin mainstream society? How is it different?

 Activity Suggestion

Whether guilty or innocent by law, we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Pretend you have been given the opportunity to share the gospel with Paul House. Write a conversation with him, connecting the good news of Christ to the events in his life, and using his ordeal to illustrate God’s love, forgiveness, and justice for us. Use verses from today’s Gospel, and any other scriptures you think might be applicable, to tell him about Christ’s sacrifice for us, and our freedom from lives of sin — all sin.
Closing Prayer

Lord Jesus, thank you for loving me, and calling me your friend. Please help me always to abide in your love, that I may keep your commandments. And let your love flow through me, that I may spread that love to others, and love them as you also love me, that we may experience your love together and thus also your joy. Amen.