Hesitant. Yes, that would be the best word to describe my gut feeling about posting this piece.
A young pastor relayed a recent preaching experience. It seems that in the course of his preaching he referred to one disciple by another name. Not just any other name. When intending to refer to Judas Iscariot, he referred to John. A well-meaning listener reported his error. He quickly noted his error and pointed out that his mind was running faster than his mouth. Preachers, though likely not only preachers, often feel this way when they learn that what they were saying was not what they were intending.
Approaching Pentecost Sunday I am reminded we rely on the actuality that maybe the Spirit of God will enable our hearers to catch what we intend when our own fallibilities show up. I know few preachers/pastors who do not rehash their sermons, scrutinizing them and themselves for what I wished I had said or how I wished I has said.
Yesterday I offered the following at the service for my young friend Dani. Receive them with the spirit of hesitancy described. And, know that it is not possible to address in a sermon what others attempt in long tomes.
A Mystery No More . . . for Dani
It began about thirty years ago, ten years before Dani was born. The Pastor assigned his Associate Pastor to provide the Children’s Sermon every week. The young minister had no experience. His oldest child but 2. The young minister, now not so young, continues that practice to this day.
One of Dani’s favorite times and memories, and mine too, was her coming up for the Children’s Time at Snow Hill. She vied for a spot on my lap, close to the microphone. Bright eyed, eager and not bashful at all.
Some years after her family came to Snow Hill I had the privilege of affirming to Dani what her parents had taught her – Jesus is Lord. Yes, we work to describe that in age appropriate language so that they understand and will grow learning more and more what it means to follow Jesus, to pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ.
No child understands everything. They don’t have to. We adults don’t understand everything either. What we do know is that God revealed himself in Jesus and by his faithfulness to God’s Way births faith in people. Jesus’ own faithfulness resulted in his death. People who didn’t understand self-giving, other-people focused love killed Jesus. His death at the hands of people who didn’t understand everything served to take away the sin of people who did not know what they were doing, even us. Dani trusted Jesus as Lord and I was honored to baptize her, an expression of her own faith. That she understood.
As a little girl, Dani liked the Mystery Box. Somewhere I had heard a friend talk about taking a shoe box and giving it to a different child each week. That child would take the box home, put anything they wanted in the box, and I mean just about anything. Over time I grew suspicious that parents participated in the assignment. Consider it a game to stump the pastor.
My task was to take that object and provide a connection to the Good News of Jesus or an implication of that Good News. It was a mystery to me, that is what was in the box. It was often a mystery to us all how I might come up with something that fit the mystery object.
We all learned together. We wanted to see if ordinary, and yes, sometimes not so ordinary, items could be used to connect with the Scriptures, the life of Jesus, the love of God.
All of us still face mysteries.
My first occasion to help a family with the death of a child came with a call from the funeral home in Italy, Texas. A young couple had lost their infant child. They knew no one. They had no one. The funeral home director told me they were covering the costs. It was their policy in such circumstances, the death of an infant. They needed a minister.
I could not say no. Even if I wanted to.
And, what’s more, I did not know what to say. Even if I should have.
Since that time I have stood before small and large groups of people struggling for the words to say at the death of a child. Christians face the occasion of the death of a loved one and often use the language of celebration. No matter all I know of Dani’s commitment to Christ, there is something difficult about celebrating the death of a child, only nineteen.
We will look for some meaning to take from this tragedy. I beg you, do not confuse consequences with cause. That is, whatever good may come from the witness of Dani’s life and the faithful resolve of her all her parents, she did not die so that you or I could come up with a satisfying reason for her to be taken at such an age.
Every time we face these sets of circumstances we may be better off listening to the words of Jesus. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is faced with the news of a dastardly event. Those asking the question wonder if the people who suffered were more sinful than any other. He replies by pointing to a tragic event where people were killed when a tower fell. Jesus’ reply would simply be, towers fall and people die. Repent. He refused to connect the tragic death of others with the degree of their sinfulness. Instead, he was informing his questioners that life is arbitrary – good people die and ungodly people die. Repent.
In this case accidents happen. People die. Dani did. The cause of her death was an accident. Tragic as it is, her sinfulness was not the cause. To us, Jesus would say, Repent.
Or, think of Jesus’ words to Lazarus’ sister. Distraught over the death of her brother, Martha attempts to give the proper religious response, Jesus told her Lazarus would rise again. She queued up the proper reply, “Yes, I know he will rise in the Resurrection.” Jesus gave to her something better, “I am the Resurrection and the life, the one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live. Everyone who believes in me will never die – ever.“
We know Dani’s body is here. We know she died Thursday evening.
We cannot solve the mystery of, “Why?” But, we may take comfort in Jesus’ words that death does not have the final word. For those who are in Christ, though they die, they will live. To you and to me, this is a profound mystery. It is not the sort of mystery that is unlocked with a secret handshake or a hidden message. No, it is the sort of mystery that accompanies our confidence in the Risen Christ.
The Apostle Paul uses the word mystery in the New Testament more than any other writer. He is likely targeting those who think themselves really spiritual because they have some sort of inside information, known only to those who enter through proper initiation. What Paul does is use that word to say, what has been a mystery to us, namely that we are loved with a self-giving, others-focused love in Jesus Christ is now open for everyone to see.
We gather here in public today. We are not hidden away. Anyone driving down Pennsylvania may walk in on us today. What they will hear and what they will witness is the declaration that though we know not how it happens, we know that it happens. We know that because Jesus was raised from the dead, all who are in Christ will be raised.
Paul tells his friends in Ephesus that he has been given the privilege of making what was hidden clear. What may have once been a mystery is now revealed. God, in Christ, loves us with a self-giving, others-focused love. Dani did not learn a secret handshake. She was not shuttled away to learn the secrets of God’s love. No, those who taught her did so in public – in Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, at church camps. She learned at the feet of her parents and grandparents, in conversation with her family and others. Dani learned what is now public to all – God loves her with a self-giving, others-focused love. It is no secret.
There, this is what we gather to celebrate.
One final word. When Paul describes his role in making the mystery known, he asserts that it is through the church, through the people of God, that the mystery of God’s self-giving, others-focused love is made known. When I hear the number of people who have texted, called, and visited Dani’s parents, when I read the Facebook messages and the comments, I know that the mystery of God’s grace is no longer a mystery.
Look around you. Though all of us may not yet grasp the self-giving, others-focused love of God, you are witness today. Paul says the angels peer in as if to see the beauty of this sort of love playing out in the world. He notes that those in powerful places cannot escape the witness of that love.
I am glad to say today, for Dani, who was and is in Christ, there is mystery no more.