When Really Bad Things Happen: From Siloam to Sioux Falls

Pablo Picasso,  Guernica , 1937

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

In our gospel text for this coming weekend, we witness something akin to a group of angsty folk approaching Jesus at HyVee, pointing out all the horrific headlines on the tabloids at the check-out counter: “FBI Arrests Unabomber After Blowing Up Bridge on I-90 ~ 27 Dead” or “Scoutmaster Goes Bezerk With Bazooka At Tuthill Park.” (ala Luke 13:1) “So?” Jesus answers. “You think that because these [folks] suffered such a horrible death, they were some kind of super-sinners? No way! But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (ala Luke 13:2). There are at least two levels here.

Level #1. Right out of the chute, Jesus’ point is hardly “If you can just manage to repent of your sins, you won’t die.” For you see, at some level – at least since the time of Job’s so-called “friends” in the Old Testament – we think that “death” is something God sends only to bad guys. Remember the famous book title a few years back: When Bad Things Happen to Good People? Well, if we’re totally honest with God and ourselves, we must confess deep down that none of us is “good” … we’re ALL guilty-as-sin (Romans 3:23). “So,” says Jesus: “Repent of your smug Schadenfreude (i.e. taking pleasure in other’s pain ~ Sigmund Freud).” Repent of your holding onto the illusion you can somehow avoid or control death – whistling in the dark, pointing fingers, and telling tabloid horror stories. Basically, Jesus is telling all of us angsty folk at life’s “check-out” line: “Since I’m going to die for you and with you, maybe you should stop trying to keep death at arm’s length in your pointing. You have nothing to lose but your horror.”

Level #2. Jesus’ response then to the crowd is not meant to aid reason or solve “the problem of evil.” But he’s disarming it. In an intervention aimed below his listener’s heads, Jesus touches the panic they have inside their hearts – about all the awful things that are going on all around them and us. He’s not going to honor the illusion that we can somehow protect ourselves by rationalizations or pointing fingers, but he does honor the vulnerability that our fear can open in our hearts. It’s not a bad thing for us to feel the full freight of our frailty in our lives. It’s not a bad thing when the law drives us toward the cross in seek of our tremendous need of forgiveness. It’s not a bad thing for all of us to count our breaths out in the cold and dark, not if it makes us turn to the saving light that this Lenten Season is leading us to.

All this is to say: pay attention to this place that fear has torn open in your hearts. It’s a holy place. And yes, it may hurt you to be honest about what you see and feel. But it’s not the kind of hurt that leads only to death, but new life (cf. Proverbs 21:21; John 3:36, 20:31; Acts 11:18; Romans 6:4). And if we look to Jesus’ cross, we will see in the mystery of his death that we’ve always been home free – free from Pilate’s bloody goons and free from falling walls – by the power of Christ’s resurrection.

God’s grace and peace to you in this Lenten Season.

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

Metaphors Matter

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are 
sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen  
gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! (Luke 13:34;
RSV)

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Out of the swirling smoke of northern California’s wildfires last November came a story that can still be found – with variations on a theme – on social media. It’s a story of a firefighter … checking for hot spots … slowly making his way through the ashen devastation of what just days before had been a family farm. As he passed a pile of rocks, once part of the foundation for a small barn, he could hear some chirping sounds coming from underneath a charred carcass. As he turned the carcass over with his shovel, he was amazed to see four little chicks scurrying around in the ash and dust. And then, as the little chicks grew still, they helplessly turned and stared up at him. It was then he realized that the charred carcass was the remains of a mother hen who’d given her life to save her little ones. An ultimate sacrifice. 

I’m wondering, I’m just wondering if this precious little story isn’t something of a parable for our lives – especially as a people of the Judeo-Christian faith – as it comes together with our gospel text for this Second Sunday in Lent (Luke 13:31-35). There are a lot of metaphors or images for God “out there” that speak of God’s distant or transcendent relationship to our lives. Like “The man upstairs” or Bette Midler’s famous song, “From a Distance.” But this isn’t the whole truth of the matter, as born witness by the full canon of Scripture. Take careful note of this as we join together in this Lenten season, in First Lutheran’s congregational study of the Book of Psalms. For example: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1; emphasis added.) Or, consider the well-beloved assurance given in Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil; for thou art with me” (Psalm 23:4; emphasis added). 

My friends, it’s not enough to say that you believe in God. What matters, finally, is the kind of God in whom you believe (James Barr; The Scope and Authority of the Bible; 52; cf. Terrence Fretheim; The Suffering of God, p.1). The images or metaphors of God with which you live really do matter and they will shape your life – your identity, your ethics – for good or for ill.

Think with me on what this image of Jesus as a “mother hen” in Luke 13 might be saying in terms not only of the nature of God, but the kind of relationship God has with us and for us. And what does Jesus mean when he says, “Tell that ol fox [King Herod], ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course” (Luke 13:32). What might this “third day” be pointing to? 

So … what’s the big deal about metaphors or images of God? When it’s a matter of God coming to us in the person of Jesus Christ, who has died and been raised for you and all people, for the forgiveness of sin and a life of salvation … yes, it’s for you. Come and worship this weekend, and hear this Word of God’s promise … a Word that speaks of God’s wondrous sacrificial love for you

Under the shadow of Christ’s wings and his cross, 

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

“Put out into the deep …” (Luke 5:4) 

“Put out into the deep …” (Luke 5:4) 

Marty, Micah. The Sea of Galilee. In Places Along the Way. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994

Marty, Micah. The Sea of Galilee. In Places Along the Way. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994

“While the people pressed upon [Jesus] to hear the word of God, he was standing
on the shores of Lake Galilee]. And he saw two boats by the lake; but the fisherman had gone
out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he
asked him to put out a little from the land. And [Jesus] sat down and taught the people from
the boat. And when he had ceased speaking, he said to Simon,
‘Put out into the deep and let
down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered,
‘Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!
But at your word I will
let down the nets.’ And when they had done this, they enclosed a great
shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned their partners in the other boat to
come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. … And
Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching [i.e. saving] people.’ And
when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed [Jesus].”
(Luke 5:1-6, 10b-11; RSV. Emphasis added.)

Let me ask you a question: “What is your empty boat? The one that you oft’ come home in at night, feeling – to use a Midwestern fishing expression – “skunked.” Or perhaps, the one you’ve dragged onto the sandy shoreline called “disappointment and emptiness” … struggling to find a connecting line between your life of faith and your work, a struggle for something that has lasting meaning … yearning to hear a word, God’s Word, that has the power to fill your little craft that seems to be simply bobbing about in the shallows.  

As I watched the Super Bowl commercials and half-time show last Sunday, I thought about what “all this” reflects in our culture, our values, or portrays to other countries of the world: the rappers grabbing themselves, the banal and vulgar lyrics, the voyeurism … “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ (Shakespeare; Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5). And I began to think further on how we so often spend much of our lives in the shallows, never risking the wonder of the deep questions and things of life that God has gifted us. 

Come to worship this weekend and hear Jesus’ Word for you, as with Simon: to “put out into the deep” … to “cast your nets wide” … to trust that your little boat will be filled with God’s presence … of forgiveness and a new freedom for purpose and joy in life. And way down deep, we’ll hear Jesus calling us, like his early disciples, into what the “life of vocation” really means (not just a job): where the deep passions and gifts God has given you come together with the deep hungers and needs of the world.

In Christ’s love for you, and all people …

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor