Sometimes we are called to proclaim good news in settings outside of a local church. These situations are a unique challenge and opportunity for a preacher. I was recently involved in such a circumstance.
With just half an ear tuned to the evening news I heard the story of a Burbank police officer killed in the line of duty. Then I heard the name, Pavelka. That name is unusual enough for me to worry. I rushed to the television set; I saw the picture of the fallen officer, and my worry became sorrow and anger. One of the children of the church I had recently served was dead. Matthew Pavelka had been killed in the line of duty. Matt was shot as he arrived as the backup officer on a traffic stop in an area of Burbank known for drug activity. Matt had just been with the Burbank Police Department for ten months.
Matt along with his parents and brother were part of the Simi Covenant Church family. Matt was a regular participant in the Junior High and Senior High groups at church. Matt was a part of my Confirmation Class when he was in 9th grade. I baptized Matt as he affirmed his allegiance to Jesus Christ. After he graduated from Simi Valley High School, I officiated at his wedding.
Soon, I got the call from Matt’s parents, Mike and Sue Pavelka. They wanted me to speak at the memorial service for Matt. I had just recently left Simi Covenant Church after serving eighteen years as senior pastor to direct the doctor of ministry program at Fuller Theological Seminary. I told Mike and Sue that I was available to help anyway they desired. Being a chaplain with the Simi Valley Police Department, I knew that this would be an (larger than life) event. I met with the chaplain at the Burbank Police Department who had the overwhelming logistical job for the service. I began to put together my thoughts what would I say at this service – mostly civil ceremony, but at the same time very personal for Matt’s family, loved ones, friends and colleagues. What word would I bring?
The day of the funeral was surreal. The motorcade snaked from the Burbank Police Department to Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills Cemetery. The procession was lead by scores of motor officers with lights flashing. Along the route to the cemetery, California Highway Patrol motor officers blocked off every intersection. On the way, looking out the window of one of the family limousines, I saw people standing still, saluting, or placing their hand over their heart, some crying, some holding signs saying: Thank You Burbank Police Department. A Burbank public works employee stood at attention in his bright orange work shirt waving an American flag. A whole elementary school emptied out and stood on the sidewalk to give tribute to this officer.
The funeral was filled with elements that bring goose bumps – the rider less horse procession, the flag draped casket, the playing of taps, the testimonials of Matt’s life and service, the presence of California’s new governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Attorney General Bill Lockyer, and police chiefs and police officers from all over California, the missing man helicopter flyover.
And my task was to bring Gospel into this situation. Here is what I said:
Matthew Michael Pavelka
September 1 1977-November 15, 2003
We gather here to say goodbye
And we wish we didn’t have to be here.
We shouldn’t be here today.
Parents are not supposed to bury their son
Police officers are not supposed to die protecting and serving
Criminals are not supposed to win a round
But we gather here, we must gather here . . . .
Confronted by the fragility of our lives
And we are filled with sadness and grief
And we are filled with anger and resolve
I met Matt when he was just a boy –
He and his family were part of Simi Covenant Church in Simi Valley where I was their pastor.
Matt was a great kid growing up
Smart – a thinker
Quiet, not flashy
Always ready to step in and help
A great athlete – a wrestler
Determined – motivated
And he was kind –
What I remember most about Matt was his gentle strength.
I watched Matt grow up – through Junior High and High School
And then into the Air Force
And then into the Burbank Police Department.
Our paths crossed less frequently the older he got –
But one thing remained whenever I saw him or heard about him – Gentle strength.
Matt simply was a good person . . .
And we gather here – saying good bye
and we are full of questions – deep, pondering questions –
Where is God in this tragedy?
What is God up to?
Why did this happen?
In the OT – the Psalmist David once cried out his questions:
How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me? (Psalms 13)
We too cry out –
God where are you?
Have you forgotten me?
How could this happen?
On days like this we stare into the face of evil
The storm cloud churns in our lives
Evil, darkness is given a face, a name
And we are enraged and sad
And we wonder –
We gather here – in sadness and in turmoil . . . but also in hope.
Matt had a faith in God expressed through Jesus Christ
And that gave Matt’s life a perspective –
· broader than the routines of life
· stronger than bumps of life
· and victorious even in the darkest of storms of life – for this is a hope that extends beyond the grave.
Matt clung to, and lived out this faith –
A faith that says death does not have the last word and evil does not win
A faith that says God has the ultimate victory
God is the one who creates a news future, a new bright day where there is no death or sorrow or crying or pain,
for the old world and its evils are gone forever
God makes all things new
And Matt – our strong, gentle son, colleague, brother and friend would want us this day to cling to that same faith
A faith that offers, anticipates bright days of hope.
The glad day – even beyond this life – is our certain hope for Matt.
And that glad day is what we cling to for comfort in our loss
That confidence, that hopefulness, in bright days allows the same Psalmist David – who cried out How Long? to also say in Psalms 23 –
The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not be in want
He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name sake.
Even if I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me,
your rod and your staff they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me, in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows
Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever
This was Matt’s hope
This is the hope to which we must cling. Amen.
I preached this sermon at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, on an outdoor stage with a mosaic of the founding fathers and a huge American flag behind me. I was not preaching in a church. I was preaching in a public square, in a venue that had overtones of law and justice, of patriotism and sacrifice, and of faith. I came to this venue as the family pastor. This was a very public funeral. A number of theological/pastoral factors guided my thinking as I reflected and then wrote this message.
First, I wanted to be a poet. Alan Roxburgh speaks of the poet as a key for church leaders (The Missionary Congregation, Leadership and Liminality, Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1997, p. 58). The poet is one who seeks to articulate an experience, to capture in words the stirrings in the hearts of people. People assembled at this event with a range of emotions: “we gather here, we are filled with sadness and grief, and we are filled with anger and resolve.” Matt was the first police officer killed in the line of duty in over eighty years. Matt was a young man and a young officer. This event, and the brutality of this event hung like a thick mist over the funeral and the days leading up to it. I had to try to name those feelings.
Second, I wanted to articulate, and not in any way minimize, the horror and the senselessness of this event. When tragedy strikes, our bent is to try to make sense of it, to bring some type of resolution, to tie up the loose ends, and to show how God is making it all work out. So we hear phrases like: “It was his time;” “God needed him in heaven;” “There is a larger purpose that we can’t see.” Sometimes we try to say too much. Sometimes, most of the time, when we come face to face with enormous events, it is best just to be silent, present with others, but silent. There are no words and there are few adequate explanations. Louis Smedes, who taught at Fuller Theological Seminary, was getting to the heart of the unsettledness as he reflected on the events of September 11, 2001. His words do not bring resolution. I appreciate his frankness. Smedes writes:
[On days like these] God is right there doing what God always does in the presence of evil that is willed by humans – fighting it, resisting it, battling it, trying God’s best to keep it from happening. This time evil won. God, we hope, will one day emerge triumphant over evil – though on the way to that glad day, God sometimes takes a beating (My God and I: A Spiritual Memoir, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002, p. 125).
In the face of evil and tragedy, it is best to lift up the questions and let them float before the hearers. I did this using David’s words in Psalms 13: “How long O Lord? ” Those words speak to the sad and angry wondering.
A police officer is killed too early in his life, and it just doesn’t make sense. I said: “We gather here to say goodbye. And we wish we didn’t have to be here. We shouldn’t be here today. Parents are not supposed to bury their son. Police officers are not supposed to die protecting and serving. Criminals are not supposed to win a round.” This is just the plain simple truth. We should not have been there at Forest Lawn that day, but we were. I did not try to defend God. I did not lay out lofty ideals about the big picture. I simply wrapped up the pain of family and friends, fellow police officers and a community. I wanted to give people the chance, even permission to cry out: How long O Lord?
Third, I wanted to speak a word of hope into the tension of this tragedy. I could not bring resolution to the tragedy because there are no answers. What happened to Matt was evil – “evil was given a name and a face.” This was a tragedy, and yet God does enter into our tragedies, including this tragedy. So, I could give a word of hope. I did this through a juxtaposition of psalms. Psalm 13 is a psalm of lament, written by David in a time of despair: How long O Lord? Psalms 23, this much-loved psalm, is a confession of David’s ultimate trust in the Lord: The Lord is my shepherd.
Framed in the words of Psalms 23I could speak about Matt’s faith in Jesus that gave his life a different perspective, that gave Matt and those who knew him and loved him, a sense of hope. This is a hope that proclaims God ultimately as the victor. I used g language from Revelation 21 confessing God as the one who makes all things new.
Still the poet, I wanted those who heard these words, saddened and angered and wondering, people who were crying out: How long, to also find a place to would ground their lives and allow them to move forward: The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need.
This was a sermon preached in the public square at a civic funeral. This was not an occasion for an evangelistic message, but it was an occasion to speak about Matt’s life, his tragic death, and his faith, and the hope he had and other can have in Jesus. So without being preachy, I proclaimed gospel. And without any altar calls, or evangelistic prayers, I gave people a chance to reflect on Matt’s faith perspectives, and on their own faith perspective. I left people with the tensions – of sadness and hope, of crying out in despair and affirming a deep trust in the Lord.
Matt’s faith speaks loudly in life and in death. There is a hope that is greater than all the routines, bumps and storms of life. We confess that this hope is found in Jesus Christ. This is the hope I pointed people towards. This is the hope to which we must cling. I preached gospel in the midst of tragedy in the public square. And hopefully people were helped, moved further along in their faith journey, and God received glory.