We are the Lord's, service of remembrance for Nick Spehar, Alpha Sabbithi
The following sermon was preached by Joan L. Beck, Cornelsen Director of Spiritual Formation and Pastor to the Community, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, September 20, 2012.
Romans 14:7-9, Mark 8:27-35
You to whom we belong, you to whom we are accountable: reorient us to yourself, that you may love through us. Amen.
Background: Two well-known members of the LSTC community died during the summer recess when many students and faculty were away. Now that all have returned and the fall semester is underway, we gather to remember these brothers in Christ. We remember them with thanksgiving and sorrow; we remember their families and friends, especially all who are still mourning; above all we remember the promises of God to comfort those who mourn and wipe the tears from their eyes.
Nick Spehar, September 19, 1938—July 7, 2012. Nick was baptized into Christ as an infant in Croatia. Nick ,who worked as custodian, groundskeeper, and maintenance person at LSTC since November 1967, would have been 74 years old yesterday.
Alpha Daniel Sabbithi, August 20, 1984—August 21, 2012. Alpha was baptized into Christ as an infant in India. Alpha enrolled as a student at LSTC in Fall 2010. Tomorrow is the one-month anniversary of the recovery of Alpha's body from the lake where he drowned.
Holding a service to remember Nick is one thing; holding a service to remember Alpha is another thing. They each stir such different memories in us. The one old, reliable, smiling, a crusty friend to nearly everyone. The other young, uncertain, anxious, with us a much shorter time. It may feel awkward to bring them together in holy memory.
But Nick and Alpha had something profoundly in common. The apostle Paul insists upon this. When they were alive, they belonged to the Lord. Now that they have died, they still belong to the Lord. It's the Lord who will measure their lives and meaning, not we. They are not different that way, but the same.
"If we live, we live to the Lord. If we die, we die to the Lord." What else is there? "Living" and "dead," these pretty much cover all there is and all that a person can be. For Paul, this was another way of saying to the Romans, "We have common ground in the Lord that transcends everything."
If we are Croatian, we are the Lord's. If we are Indian, we are the Lord's. If Serbian or Pakistani, United States citizens or not, we are the Lord's. If we are full of love, we are the Lord's. If we are full of despair, we are the Lord's.
Why? Not because of our dispositions or affiliations, but because God chose us. God claimed us when Jesus took upon himself human life, then death on a cross, and resurrection from the dead. God adopted us. "Nothing can ever come between us and the love of God, the love of God revealed to us in Christ Jesus." (Rom. 8:38-39)
Both of these brothers were baptized into Jesus. Washed with the water of regeneration, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever. When baptism is the beginning of the story, it determines the end of the story: From God making a covenant of love with a person to God bringing that person home forever.
A woman told a story about her baptism --that I heard from preaching teacher Tom Long (Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004, 127-128). She had been baptized as a baby, and though she didn't remember the day, her father in particular often regaled her with his memories of it. What she wore, what they sang, how she reacted when the water splashed upon her head. Her father always ended his tale clapping his hands together, saying, "Oh, Sweetheart, the Holy Spirit was in the church that day!"
The little girl came to wonder about that Holy Spirit. Where could she find it? Was it still in the church? Hiding in a nook or cranny? Just out of sight around the corner?
When the woman grew up, she came back to her home town after college to live and work as a dancer, and she continued to be part of the same congregation. In one terrible winter, both her parents were hospitalized and died of cancer in the same week. Driving home from the hospital one day that week, she felt compelled to pray. She parked at the church and crept inside the dark nave. There in the shadows she let her sadness, fears, rage, and helpless tears pour out. From the church kitchen, a woman preparing something for an evening meeting could hear her. Knowing what was happening in the young woman's life, the older woman took off her apron and went to sit in the pew with her, held her hand, and prayed with her. "It was then," the young woman said, "that I knew where the Holy Spirit was in that church."
Where is the Holy Spirit in our lives? Not directing us to evaluate another person's story, but helping us write the unique middle chapters of our own stories, between the God-given beginning and ending. The prime directive, Jesus says, is to follow him. As Jesus was a servant, so we are to be servants to one another, with different kinds of service called forth by different contexts and personalities.
Sometimes we need the servant life of Jesus to shine upon us. Think of the person sitting in the shadows, anxious about the future, under perplexing pressures. We all notice people who need someone to come out and sit and pray with them, but what do we do about them? Often we are the people who need so to be found. How does this community come alongside one another in our need?
Sometimes the servant life of Jesus does shine through us. I remember how often Nick came out of the maintenance room to lovingly connect with staff, faculty, students, especially international students. Kim Ferguson, our receptionist at the Front Desk, reflected upon Nick this way. She said, "When I took this job, the seminary pastor at the time told me never to discount the power and influence I have in this position. I can make someone's day better by the things I do here and how I do them. And now I believe that because of how Nick lived his life."
Nick and Alpha were different from each other and yet one in Christ Jesus. In Christ they received the same promises, which shone into and through their different personalities and challenges.
You and I are different from each other and yet one in Christ Jesus. God has graciously secured the beginning and ending of our stories in Christ Jesus.
And oh, Sweethearts, out here in the middle, may the Holy Spirit animate the lives we are living and the chapters we are writing!
Today's service closed outside in the courtyard where a tree was planted and dedicated to the memory of and in honor of the lives of Nick and Alpha.