I recently spoke at the memorial service for a young man who was murdered. I did not know the man and only recently had come to know his mother, who asked me to speak. Undertaking the pastoral role of peaking at any memorial service, where family and friends are understandably upset, if enough of a challenge. However, when the deceased person is a child and was a victim of a violent crime, there challenge seems even greater. My role is never to judge but to comfort. How does a pastor do that and speak not only to the hope God extends in Jesus Christ but also to the desire for justice?
I have included the manuscript of the message I shared at the memorial service. However, I have changed the names of all people and locations as well as the dates in order to protect the privacy of the actual family. I am sharing this manuscript for whatever help it offer to others, especially those called to serve in similar circumstances.
John Smith, Jr., passed away on January 8, 2018 in Massachusetts. John was born in Atlanta, Georgia on July 10, 1987 to his mother, Juanita Bowen, and father, John Smith, Sr. John is survived by his mother, Juanita, and his step-father, Michael Bowen, his sisters, Janice Rice and Tina Smith, his brother Alex Smith, and his auntie, Debora Stone. He was proceeded in death by his father, John Smith, Sr.
Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.” Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.” – John 11:38-44, CEB
Several days ago I sat down with John’s mother Juanita and asked her to tell me about her son. She described her son John as someone who loved to have a good time, teasing and laughing. And like any good son, that also meant teasing and laughing with his mother. But Juanita also noted how she could always count on John to help her with the little, the often thankless jobs like carrying in the groceries or just pausing to open the door for another person. I don’t know about you but where I’m from that’s what we call a “gentleman.”
More importantly though, Juanita recalled how her son John was always “very loving and very hugging.” That sounds like a wonderful son to have.
But that’s also part of why the passing of John is so difficult, especially for his mother and his step-father. As parents, we never expect to bury our children. They’re supposed to bury us. And so no matter the age, when a child passes away there is a grief and pain that words cannot fully describe.
Of course, this child, John is more than just a son. He’s also a brother, a nephew, and a friend to others. And to lose a brother, nephew, and friend at the young age of just thirty-two is a difficult burden to bear.
I am also aware that John’s death was not because of an accident or illness but because someone else took his life from him in a criminal act. And so, we’re here today because a terrible injustice has occurred, an injustice committed not just against John but also against his mother and step-father… and against his brothers and sisters as well as his auntie… and even against his friends.
But I am here speaking today as one who believes in Jesus Christ. My conviction that Jesus is the Lord and Savior also means I have some convictions about the way the world works and the path of history the world will follow. What I’m getting at has to do with redemption and the need for justice and mercy along the way.
A few minutes ago we heard a passage of scripture that recounted the time when Jesus raised a young man named Lazarus from death. Lazarus had been sick and by the time Jesus showed up, he had died from his illness. So Jesus raised him as a sign that God is at work in our world, redeeming life and will in fact bring an end to the curse of death we all face.
So Jesus said, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” (Jn 11:40). It’s a question and it invites us to ask if we do believe. Because if we do believe then we have hope for redemption from all the grief and pain in life, including death. And if we do believe then we are right to also want justice just as God desires justice. So we do desire for the government, whom God has ordained as a lawful authority, to hold accountable those responsible for taking John’s life.
But if we believe in Jesus, we also must be people who show mercy. I’m not sure what that always looks like and it seems rather difficult to think about showing mercy to people who have acted unjustly towards us. But I also know that evil wins when our righteous anger and protest of injustice becomes hatred and vengeance. God wins when we remain steadfast in love, extending mercy just as God has shown us mercy.
All of this doesn’t make the death of John or anyone else, for that matter, any easier. To Juanita and Michael as well as to the rest of John’s family and friends, I am truly sorry that John has passed away. As a parent myself who has had a son pass away, I know that there isn’t any “getting over” such a loss. The grief and pain of losing someone you love is a terrible thing.
What we have is hope… hope which springs from our belief in Jesus Christ, our Lord. According to the passage of scripture we read earlier, when Jesus shouted for Lazarus to come out of the grave, he did so. And one day the proclamation that God has made in his Son, Jesus Christ, and particularly through his death and resurrection, means that the grave of death is not eternal. Instead we are offered the promise of eternal life with Jesus Christ, our Lord and that is our hope.