The following sermon was preached by Bishop John Bradosky of the NALC at the funeral service given for Kevin Michael Chavez, the son of NALC General Secretary Mark Chavez. Mark served many years as founding director of Lutheran CORE. Kevin died on April 8, 2013, on his way home from college. Lutheran CORE extends its prayers of condolence to the Chavez family. Read below or download a copy here.
April 13, 2013
First Lesson: Isa 40:28-31
Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
Second Lesson: Rev 1:17-18
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”
Holy Gospel: John 20:10-18
But Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Easter Gospel begins with people who are in the same shape as we who are gathered here this afternoon, filled with grief and pain, occasionally lost in hopelessness and despair. Because I have sat where you are sitting today, I know about the pain you bear. I know what it is like to attend the funeral of a son. No words can explain it away. Nothing can substitute or replace his life. The world is not the same and your lives are forever changed. I wish I could tell you that the grief will go away and this memory will fade, but I can’t. This is a grief that you will carry with you in your heart for the rest of your life. Only your death will stop that pain. Yes, it is a huge burden, but it is the price of love. You won’t forget these moments because you will not want to forget Kevin. The grief remains because his life will always matter to you. Your grief will change over time, but it will always be there because of the love you share.
My only brief encounter with Kevin was on one occasion when his car wouldn’t start and I was able to give him some advice—through Mark—and it worked. I can still remember his voice asking his dad, “Who is that?” I didn’t have the opportunity to know Kevin as most of you had the chance to know him, except through the words of a loving father. Each one of you will have those precious memories of Kevin to treasure for a lifetime. Because you have reserved a place in your heart for him, you will recall—even years from now—his smile and laughter, his compassionate heart and his hugs, his words and joy in living.
You cannot know the Chavez family and not know the love they have for one another. Kevin loved his family even as you loved him You could say much about his personality, his natural abilities, his insight, his unique perspective and his sense of humor. You could talk about his friendships, his ability to listen compassionately and to care consistently, or his unique greeting, “What’s swell?”
What is even more important is Kevin’s faith. Kevin was baptized into Christ. Mark and Jocelyn, in your love for Kevin you nurtured him in the faith. He professed that faith and was renewed at the Lord’s Table. Kevin’s faith in Jesus created a solid foundation of support and strength, providing him with courage to explore the world and to enjoy life. This faith gave him his identity, priorities and values, and equipped him to bear witness to his faith to engage in healthy relationships.
Today, there is the joy of the preciousness of his life mixed with the sorrow of a life cut short. Today, his absence speaks louder than his presence. Mark and Jocelyn, I know this experience feels like someone is ripping your heart out and handing it to you. This does not make any sense. There are no easy answers. This is not God’s will that Kevin’s life should be cut short. This is not part of some divine plan that is more important than his precious life. His death is testimony to the truth that we live in a fallen and broken world where, despite our best efforts, these unfortunate tragedies break in on our lives and nearly crush us. From my experience I learned that no one understands your pain more than God. Jesus’ life and death reminds us that God knows what it is like to face the death of his own dear son. Today He shares in your grief. The Scriptures bear witness to both your tragedy and your hope. In the Word, the Sacraments and through this gathered community of believers, Christ is present!
In our Gospel we read of Mary who surely reached that point of pain and despair as she watched the final events of Jesus’ life unfold in ways she was powerless to influence with any amount of commitment and love. So too, Jocelyn, Mark and family, you felt that same sense of powerlessness as you received the news, talked with police, doctors and nurses, the coroner, friends and neighbors, people trying to figure it out, find answers that made sense. You wanted to know what it was like for this son, brother, nephew, cousin, uncle and grandson to deal with those final moments of his life. Like Mary, you despaired of the violence that accompanied those final moments and like her, you have reached the point where the only act of love you can offer is this funeral service, completing his burial. Mary’s grief was just as overwhelming as yours.
Without Jesus she is without hope and so are we!
You can imagine the anger in her voice as she responds to angels unaware. Through her tears and all-consuming grief she accuses others of having robbed the grave, stolen the body. She can’t see clearly nor recognize what is unfolding around her. It is a God-forsaken experience, the dark night of the soul. Like you, she feels abandoned, her hope evaporated, her dreams meaningless.
Mary stares right into the face of Jesus and sees only the Gardener. He speaks to her, and her grief and anger bring only an accusation. Jesus is present. The Messiah is beside her. Her Risen Lord is reaching out to her. Jesus only has to speak one word to Mary to move her from confronting a stranger to a moment of great intimacy that reveals His presence. Jesus calls her by name, “Mary.” In that moment her pain is overcome by his presence and she speaks another word of intimate endearment, “My teacher!” The relationship is restored. We should imagine this same risen Lord Jesus speaking Kevin’s name in the moment of his greatest need, “Kevin.” We should also imagine Kevin responding, “My Teacher, my Lord!” This Gospel is not merely a history lesson, but a present and powerful reality. It is a word about the importance of relationships.
Life is all about relationships. At the death of our son, I realized that all we have in life that gives it meaning, purpose and direction are relationships. Everything else in life is dust and rust. It is only relationships that have eternal significance. God has created us to be in a relationship with Him through faith in Jesus and to be in healthy relationships with the people he has given us to love and care for. That’s all there is! Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven is about relationships. Faith is not about a list of do’s and don’ts, a series of dogmatic theological statements or the practice of religious piety. Faith is, first and foremost, a relationship with Jesus. God created us, beyond all other creatures, with the capacity for intimacy, an intimate relationship with God through faith in Jesus, and intimacy with one another.
Jesus gave his life for the sake of preserving, forgiving and renewing a relationship with us. His resurrection is proof positive that nothing can stop his love and commitment toward us, nothing in life and nothing in death.
In the midst of my grief I was so depressed that there were moments where it was all I could do to get out of bed. On one occasion I was praying, crying out to God saying, “If you have something for me to do you better show me because I’m not moving until you do!” About two minutes later our daughter Jessica came into my bedroom and said, “Daddy I want you to play with me.” I said, “Not now Jessica, Daddy’s praying.” She left and I started in again. “Lord I am not moving from this bed until you give me some sense of purpose, until you show me what I need to do.” A few more minutes passed and Jessica came back into the bedroom, grabbed my hand and said, “Daddy, I want you to play with me right now!” I was lying in a fetal position on the edge of the bed and when she pulled my hand I fell face first out of bed and hit the floor. For a moment I was startled but I could hear the voice of Jesus clearly. You cannot value the preciousness of your relationship with your son by neglecting the relationships with those who are right next to you. To value one is to acknowledge the preciousness of the other relationships in your life, your relationship with Jesus and with the people He has given to you to love and care for. That’s all there is in life that truly matters.
I know this is a difficult time because Kevin was only 19. Our grief is even more profound when we spend our time regretting the fact that Kevin was deprived of many experiences that we take for granted: completing college, graduating, launching a career, being married, having children, being a dad, etc. I had a faithful friend with whom I was sharing my pain in that regard. I will never forget his words. He asked me, “What brings fulfillment or completeness to life? Is it the number of things we accomplish, the stages we go through as we grow older? Isn’t the fulfillment of our life Jesus Christ? Is there anything the world can offer us greater than life in Christ?” He offered me these words of wisdom, “Every life that is in Jesus Christ is completely fulfilled every moment it is lived.” There is nothing else that brings greater fulfillment, meaning, purpose or hope. Nothing else brings forgiveness, salvation or eternal life. Nothing else can bring greater love or peace. Kevin’s life is in Christ, and his life was and is complete and fulfilled.
I chose the first lesson for today from Isaiah 40 because it describes God’s love, empathy and compassion for us. It begins with the words, “’Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God.” A little later in that chapter we read the words, “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar with wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint.”
Some time ago I remember reading the story of a pastor whose little daughter developed cancer. When she went into remission, everybody thought God had healed her. Two weeks before Easter his daughter was wracked with pain, her eyes swollen shut. She said, “Daddy, did you talk to God about my leukemia?” He said, “Yes, dear, we’ve been praying for you.” She asked, “Daddy, did you ask him how long the leukemia would last? What did God say, Daddy?” What do you say to your daughter when you can’t help her and the heavens are silent? A few hours later she died. The following Sunday he climbed into the pulpit to preach. He used that text from Isaiah 40:31. He went on say in this life there will be times when we mount up with wings like an eagle and we fly. We’re on top of the world. Sometimes we run. It’s a difficult race and we pray for perseverance. We go through the routine and hold on for the finish line. Sometimes it’s all we can do to walk and not faint. He told his congregation, “I need your prayers and encouragement.” It was perhaps the most influential sermon he ever preached. The Apostle Paul wrote, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Jesus becomes our strength. Mark, Jocelyn and their family need our prayers, encouragement and our love.
The same strong love of Jesus that sustained Kevin throughout his life was there for him in the moment of his death. That same powerful love confirmed by the Resurrection is available to us if we will trust and rely on Jesus, if in our weakness we let Him be our strength.
Martin and Katie Luther also knew what you are experiencing this day. They faced the death of two of their children. Elizabeth died after only eight months of life, and Magdalena died at the age of 13, in September of 1542. Luther wrote, “I love her so much. She is such a great gift of God. I am angry with myself that I cannot rejoice in my heart or be as thankful as I ought.”
As she lay on her bed dying, Luther was on his knees weeping bitterly, praying to God. He wrote, “My flesh is sorrowful and will not be content, the parting grieves me beyond measure. I have sent a saint to heaven.”
After her death Luther confessed to his friend, “It may appear strange, but I am still mourning the death … and I am not able to forget her. Yet I know surely that she is in heaven, that she has eternal life there, and that God has thereby given me a true token of his love in having, even while I live, taken my flesh and blood to his Fatherly heart.”
Luther used even the death of his own daughter to remind family, friends and congregation of the hope of our resurrection in Jesus Christ! Luther encouraged others to do as he did and even in the time of death to keep our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfector of our faith.
For most of my life Luther was credited with writing the Cradle Hymn or Away in the Manger. When I read the words to the third verse I wondered if he had his own daughters in mind. “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay close by me forever, and love me, I pray. Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit us for heaven, to live with Thee there.”
It is my experience that this grief doesn’t make you weaker but stronger in God’s economy. It keeps your life focused on what really matters, Jesus Christ and life in Him.
On that first Easter morning when Mary came face to face with Jesus she called Him “Teacher” as her grief was stripped away by something far more powerful that transformed her life and her faith, the reality of the resurrection. An overwhelming absence is replaced by an even more overwhelming presence. Jesus had just taught her the most important truth of faith.
The resurrection transforms a hopeless end into an endless hope. Any doubts about His capacity to redeem and save us vanish with the reality of the resurrection. The resurrection shows that our faith does not depend on our own adequacy. It depends on the power of God. “He is risen!” became the joyous chant of a new life that is full of pure hope. Through faith in Jesus the same power of God that raised Jesus now lives in us and in Kevin.
For us Easter is the epicenter of our faith, hope and love. We worship on the first day of the week because this was when Mary had the encounter with the resurrected Lord. Easter is the center of the church year, the center of our worship, the center of the Gospel, the center of our celebration of the Eucharist, a heavenly banquet. Luther reminds us that when we celebrate the Eucharist all the saints in heaven are gathered as well. The Body of Christ is the Church militant and the Church triumphant, the saints on earth and the saints in heaven. The Resurrection of Jesus must also be the center of our individual lives as well. It is clearly our focus in times like this.
The Apostle Paul writes, “…faith and love spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you.” Colossians 1:5.
Death seems so overwhelming, often so much larger than life. Our greatest fear is that life is surrounded by death! Which is it? Is life being overwhelmed by death or death being overcome by life? Easter gives us a definitive word! What was revealed about Jesus at Easter changed the entire world view of those who followed Him. Jesus was not just a figure of history but the God of all time and space. I included that second lesson for today because it gives expression to what Mary glimpsed on the first Easter and what we confess today at this funeral for Kevin. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega. All time and eternity are His. Revelation 1:18 “I am he who lives and was dead, and behold I am alive forevermore.” Look at those words; death is surrounded by life. Death was relegated to the past tense by two powerful truths: Jesus lived and is alive forever more.
This is the power of his grace that brings hope and joy even in the moments of our greatest pain and despair. “Jesus has destroyed death.” (2Tim 1:10) Death is swallowed up in victory. (1Cor 15:55) Jesus did not take death away. But he took away all its power. It is an enemy that has been eternally defeated. There is no reason to fear it. There is no reason for it to strip away meaning from our life and there is no need to run from it. There is no longer any mystery associated with it. Paul writes, “Just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too will live a new life.” And because Jesus lives we know that Kevin is alive and at peace with Christ in his heavenly kingdom.
(During the sermon, as the images of closing Kevin’s casket came to mind I remembered an illustration that I read some time ago by Max Lucado.)
Some of us are asking, “How can God let this happen?” Our perspective on death makes all the difference. With the proclamation of Easter and the certainty of the resurrection, death exposes even more clearly our life in Christ. A few minutes ago as the family gathered around Kevin’s body— just prior to closing the casket—they pulled up the blanket and tucked him in. It should remind us of what happened to us as children. You are coming home and it’s late. You fall asleep in the back of the car. The next morning you wake up in your own room, in your bed. How did it happen? When you arrived home one of your parents picked you up, took you to your room, took off your old clothes, put on your pajamas, and tucked you in bed. And when you woke up the next morning you were home. Death is like that. Somewhere in the journey of life, we too will go to sleep. Trusting in Jesus, we have placed ourselves in his care and he will take us in his arms and carry us to the place he has prepared for us. He’ll take off these old clothes and give us heavenly garments and put us in our room, and when we wake up we will be home! Jesus said, if we know how to take care of our children as earthly parents, how much more does your heavenly Father know how to take care of you!
The day when everlasting life broke into earthly time began not with celebration but with tears, like today. This is still the way Easter breaks into our lives—when we least expect it, when all seems lost. That’s when the stone rolls away, the angels speak, Jesus is present and “death is swallowed up in victory.” Easter changes our perspective forever.
This is the reason for the hope we have in us even when we grieve!
Christ is Risen!
He is risen indeed!