This is a portion of the sermon preached on December 27, 2013, at the funeral service for Bishop McAlilly’s nephew Gale Stauffer, who was killed in the line of duty December 23, serving on the Police Force of the city of Tupelo, Mississippi.
…little did we know that on this day of days, we would find ourselves moving so quickly from the expectation of the joy of the Birth of the Christ Child at Christmas to the suffering, abandonment and pain of the Cross.
How could we have seen that on the last Friday in 2013, we would be hunkered down and huddled up like the disciples in the Upper Room after Jesus was crucified? Like the disciples, we are afraid. But the darkness we have experienced has stirred in us other emotions. What do you bring today?
Maybe you come with:
Over the last few days, I have felt every one of these emotions. I wonder if this is true for you as well. What do you bring today? Whatever you bring, let this be your offering to God today. Place these things in God’s good hands. Whatever you bring, bring to the foot of the cross of the crucified Christ. Do not hold on to that which you bring, but rather, give it to the Christ. For us today, the light of Christmas has been extinguished.
The light of Easter has yet to dawn. We sit in the darkness of the cross. We hunker down in the midst of darkness. We do so knowing that the darkness is great. And yet we know that we stand in a tradition that is bold to proclaim that the light cannot be overcome by the darkness.
We gather to claim the promise that the light came into the world on that first Christmas. That light shines here even in the midst of the darkness around us. Indeed, what we do know is that the light and love of Christ has come into the world. We gather to claim the promise that the light and love of Christ overcomes the darkness. The light of Christ overcomes even death. No matter how dark this day is, the darkness has not overcome the light, nor us, nor this world.
What we do know is that the order of creation has been disrupted.
I heard my mother say, “you don’t expect to outlive your children—but you certainly do not expect to outlive your grandchildren.” Indeed, when an elder dies, they take with them the past, all that has been. When a young man at age 38 with two small children and a wife who adores him dies, the future has been taken away. This is what makes this mountain of grief so incredibly difficult, so dark, so senseless and so seemingly unending.
What we do know is this:
Because the light of Christ has come into the world, Gale’s tragic death is not God’s will. It is not God’s will that a 38 year old husband and father of two beautiful children should have his life snuffed out like a candle on a dark night two days before Christmas to teach us some lesson we have not learned.
We do know that God’s heart breaks every time evil oversteps a boundary of good and right and truth. We do know that this day, the God we love with an everlasting love, the God who teaches us the way of love and life, is weeping and wanting to wipe from our eyes every tear we cry.
What we do know is that our tendency this day is to believe that hate begets hate and our real temptation today is to allow the hate we feel for the perpetrator to get the best of us. If those of us who loved Gale the most are not careful, we will allow that anger to rage within us in such a way that it clouds our ability to see clearly the light of Christ and see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
So, how do we respond to this? Where do we go from here? Hunkered as we are, how do we release ourselves from this mountain of grief into the hands of God? If we are not full of care for ourselves, for each other, for the community, we will lose sight of one of the last commandments Christ gave us: to love. If we are not full of care, if we do not carefully attend to our grief in the days to come, we will not bare fruit that will last.
What we are to do is simply this: Hold on to one another. Hold on to the gift that Gale is and has been to us. Hold on to the good memories that are ours. Hold on to the grace that, in God’s good time, will hold us because we cannot hold ourselves. Hold on to each other. Hold on to the eternal light of Christ.
The light that has come is the promise of Easter; even though this very Friday, we cannot yet see our way to the dawn of Easter light. As baptized Christians, we trust that the light of Easter will come.
So we pray, come Lord Jesus, come. Come heal us, Come and soften our hearts. Break our hearts of stone that we may again rise from this place with love that reigns in us. Come save us; save us from ourselves and our sinning.
Last night as friends came and gathered around our family and gave us the strength we did not have in and of ourselves, I saw so many who have walked this way before. Those who have stood where we now stand and who have grieved the unbearable grief of the loss of a child or a spouse. In this, the longest week of our lives, I am reminded of something William Slone Coffin, the former esteemed pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, said a few days after his 24 year old son was killed tragically in an automobile accident:
Among the healing flood of letters that followed his death was one carrying this wonderful quote from the end of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places.”
Our deepest prayer this day is that our own hearts will mend. That they will mend to the degree that we remember that love begets love, in the begetting, it transmits strength. (Coffin)
What strengthens us is You. Your unwavering friendship and love. As we walk this lonesome valley, the real temptation is for us to walk bravely alone; we simply cannot. As headstrong and strong-willed as this family can be, we are not strong enough to do this new way of walking alone.
…More than once these last days, we have felt the absence of the presence of God. But, in that overwhelming feeling that turns us upside down and breaks us in two, we find ourselves with Jesus on the cross, out of control and crying – “My God, My God why hast thou forsaken us,” quoting Psalm 22.
Our tendency is to overlook the fact that the Psalm doesn’t end there. The Psalmist expresses the deep feelings, pain and agony of abandonment…but the last turn of the Psalm is a turn to the future…trusting that the Goodness of God will be enough.
The grief we feel today, the grief we have felt since Monday, seems unbearable. In time, it will turn to a bearable sorrow.
Not soon. Not today. But one day. One day, we will wake up and we will discover that the sorrow we feel is more bearable. Somehow, we will find ways to bear the sorrow that has come, uninvited, into our midst. Then, what we will know is that “the goodness of the Lord dwells in the land of the living…”
And we will rise up from this unbearable sorrow and proclaim:
“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it!”
Amen and Amen