On Palm Sunday morning, in April 1994, vicious tornadoes tore through five states, including the state of Alabama; snapping two hundred year old trees, pulling tombstones from the earth, ruining houses and lives in places called Spring Garden, Rock Run, Possum Trot, Bennefield’s Gap, Knighton’s Crossroads, and Webster’s Chapel. At the center of the agony lay the small town of Piedmont, Alabama; more specifically, Goshen United Methodist Church. (Bragg, adapted)
Rick Bragg, at the time the Miami Bureau Chief for the New York Times, filed this story in the week following the disaster:
“This is a place where grandmother’s hold babies in their laps under the stars and whisper in their ears that the lights in the sky are holes in the floor of heaven. This is a place where ‘Jesus Loves Me’ has rocked generations to sleep. [This is a place] where heaven is not a concept; [heaven] is a destination.
Yet in this place…people strong in their faith and their children died in of all places, a church…twenty people, including six children…killed when a tornado tore through the Goshen Church.”
“The destruction of this little country church, and the deaths, including the pastor’s vivacious four-year-old daughter, have shaken the faith of many people who live in this deeply religious corner of northeast Alabama.” Bragg continues. “It is not that it has turned them against God. But it has hurt them in a place usually safe from hurt; like a bruise on the soul.”
“They saw friends and family crushed in what they believed to be the safest place on earth, then carried away on makeshift stretchers of splintered church pews. They saw two other nearby churches destroyed, those congregations somehow spared, while funerals for Goshen went on all week and the obituaries filled an entire page in the local newspaper.
“But more troubling than anything, said the people who lost friends and family in the Goshen Church, were the tiny patent-leather children’s shoes scattered in the ruin. They were new Easter shoes, bought especially for church.”
“‘Why’ asked a [twenty three year old woman]. ‘Why a church? Why those children? Why? Why? Why?’”
Stories like these open a place of fear in us; and fear is on the rise. It makes itself known in our shared cultural obsession with safety: product safety, child safety, traffic safety; workplace safety, environmental safety, nutritional safety; job security, homeland security, financial security. (Friedman) In his book Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, Scott Bader-Saye writes: Suddenly “Ordinary living becomes fraught with reminders of extraordinary danger.”
Fear can serve a genuine and creative function; like an alarm clock that wakes us up and raises us to awareness and response. And yet alarm clocks are not meant to ring all day long! (Merrill) Constant fear paralyzes and deadens. It diminishes imagination, a spirit of adventure, and courage; it eats away at the roots of faith.
For pursuing safety means we seek to eliminate risk, and that is a position that people of biblical faith simply cannot embrace. Without willingness to risk; generosity, hospitality to strangers, baptism, prayer, even sharing one’s faith story becomes unattractive and unwelcome.
Jesus will not cater to our fear. A group comes to him seeking answers to the questions keeping them awake at night. The random, dangerous things happening in the world around them upset and unsettle. They seek relief.
“Jesus, we know that you have heard about the Galileans. Pilate, whom we all know as a cruel and brutal man, sent his soldiers to kill them; to slaughter them in the temple while they prayed. Their blood got all mingled in with the blood of our sacrificial offerings. Tell us Jesus, why did these particular people have to suffer? And why in this particular way?”
They carefully calculate their questions, putting an equation into play that will remove them, “the good people,” from harm’s way. And that’s exactly how Jesus hears it; as an attempt to manipulate God, while offering themselves protection. They want Jesus to say that we humans can tame God.
Jesus will have none of it. He counters with a question of his own. “So let me be clear. You are saying that these Galileans suffered because they were the worst sinners among all Galileans? I guess that means you also think that those whose bodies were pulled from the collapsed tower of Siloam just got what they deserved.”
Jesus refuses to speculate about the pain of others. He knows us; knows our human nature. He knows we ask some questions as cover; in order to avoid asking the deeper, truer ones. Some realities we simply do not want to face.
We cannot make life safe. And yet, no amount of fear excuses us from the responsibilities and challenges of faithfulness and obedience to God. Just ask Moses: a murderer sent by God back to the scene of the crime; a stutterer sent by God to deliver the announcement of Israel’s emancipation to Pharaoh; a shepherd sent by God to lead Israel’s forty-year sojourn in the wilderness. He had doubts, he had fears. God says “You have my name, and that is enough.”
Jesus pushes at the primary question. For the question he will live all the way to the cross is not “why?” The question God calls Jesus to live is “how?” And for those fearless enough to follow him, Jesus offers very simple instructions. Repent or perish.
God calls us to penitential living and complete fidelity. God calls us to move beyond our fear in faith. And God calls us to live in these ways regardless of the measure of joy and sorrow that life brings our way.
A theme runs through all the lessons for this day. Sin is real and has consequences. God can and will be merciful. We must acknowledge with authenticity the ways we have grieved God’s heart.
“Repent or perish” says Jesus. And then he tells them a story about a fruitless fig tree. And in this story, it is as if we hear God’s mercy talking to God’s judgment. (Hunter) By virtue of this conversation, God grants us the gift of time. Not unlimited time, and yet time enough to bear fruit in our lives: to live into the “how” of deeper, truer things; to move beyond fear, calculation, manipulation toward a more profound faithfulness. Exploring new questions requires that we bring all our imagination, our sense of adventure, our courage to the task of facing fear, embracing suffering, repenting our sin, seeing our sin. How? How? How?
As people walked away from Jesus that day, some carried anger for they had received no answers; others disappointment for Jesus had failed to relieve their pain. Some left more panicked than ever.
Yet others noticed a small tear in their heart; a peculiar newness, openness to think the unthinkable. One left wondering about the role he played in a recent rift in the church. A woman wondered if the dry dust and ash of her prayer reflected an unwillingness to hear anything new. A young person wondered if it was possible to make amends with a colleague humiliated in a recent office meeting in order to look good in front of the boss. And still another left wondering about Jesus. Who is this guy, and why does he stir my heart so? (gratitude to Shortlidge for this notion of people’s responses)
Deep as we are into this season of Lent, Luke offers us a tough, challenging, complex text. For while Jesus rejects the notion that bad things only happen to bad people, he also insists that God does make a connection between what we do and what will happen to us.
In the conversation between God’s judgment and God’s mercy, Luke gives us to understand that God defies neat and easy categories: God is neither a moralistic vineyard owner demanding his due nor a weak, vague source of unlimited love and acceptance. (Hunter)
Luke gives us tensions to negotiate: between authentic love and faithful responsibility, law and gospel, obedience and grace. The Christian life bears a cruciform shape. The only truly good person who lived among us died a terrible death and then God’s mercy raised him to new life.
Nothing ever befalls us that lies outside the shape of that life, or the reach of that love, or the depth of that mercy. And yet this life we must choose; choose it, live it, and allow it to bring forth fruit.
In the week after the tornado struck Goshen Church, Kelly Clem, the pastor, and her husband Dale, also a pastor, “worked for their friends and parishioners…[in ways] gracious and strong. Working through their own pain, they buried the dead. They did not shake their fist at heaven; but told Vice President Gore that a better early warning system might have saved some lives.”
On the Wednesday of Holy Week, they buried their daughter; at a service filled with friends and members of the Goshen congregation.
Standing in the rubble of her church, her face covered with bruises from the fallen roof, Kelly Clem told Rick Bragg, “This might shake people’s faith for a long time. I think that’s normal. But having faith shaken is not the same thing as losing it.”
On Easter Sunday, one week after the tornadoes and four days after burying her child, Rev. Kelly Clem stood at a makeshift pulpit in a makeshift church and preached the gospel of resurrection.
No fear. No plea for safety. No simple equation to exclude the potential for suffering. Rather; courage, strength, faith. Life as love poured out in the face of enormous suffering. A life held by the mercy of God, even with a terrible, terrible bruise upon the soul; and yet still managing to bear the fruit of repentance.
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, Seabury Books, 2007.
Rick Bragg, Somebody Told Me, The University of Alabama Press, copyright The New York Times, 2000.
Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, Brazos Press, 2007.
J. Charles Merrill, “Peace,” October 25, 1987.
Rodney Hunter, “Pastoral Implications,” Lectionary Homiletics, Volume 15, Number 2.
Heather G. Shortlidge, “Introduction to Lenten Texts,” Journal for Preachers, Lent 2013