Funerals don’t belong to the grieving family. Like all corporate worship services presided over by the officers of Christ’s Church, funerals belong to the Church. Funerals testify to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and call all men to faith and repentance.
Every Christian worship service testifies to the holiness of God, the sinfulness of man, and the mercy of God in the cross of Jesus Christ. This is the central hope of the Christian faith. This is the central meaning of God in Jesus Christ. This is our Christian faith in life and in death: that because of our sin, God has had mercy on us, cleansing us through the shed blood of our precious Savior and Lord Jesus.
Whatever comfort and hope comes to the deceased’s loved ones through the funeral and committal (graveside) services only comes through the proclamation of sin and righteousness and judgment. There never has been, nor ever will be, a single Christian worship service that does not proclaim sin, righteousness, and judgment. This is the work of the Holy Spirit those of us who are shepherds have vowed to give ourselves to. Speaking of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, our Lord promised us:
“And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).
During any particular worship service, these central truths of the Christian faith may be visible in one way or another, but without them the Church has failed and Her worship denies Scripture as well as Her own confessions of faith. Without these central truths, the Church has failed, demonstrating she is ashamed of Jesus and His Words Who Himself warned us:
“For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).
Now then, over in Toledo this past week, a young Roman Catholic man killed himself. He broke the Sixth Commandment by committing self-murder, one of the greatest acts of wickedness against God any man can give himself to. By this act, he publicly declares he will not submit to the God Who made Him, but will destroy His precious creation. Beyond the rebellion against God, the self-murderer leaves behind him a terrible swath of pain that threatens to drown all who love and know him, starting with his father and mother and moving on to brothers and sisters, grandfathers and grandmothers, neighbors and friends, coaches and players, teachers and principals, EMTs and policemen, pastors and priests.
John Donne spoke for all of us when he wrote:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.1
There is never any such thing as a victimless crime. Every crime properly so called is high rebellion against Almighty God, and the impact and consequences of the crime fall from that height touching everything God made, every soul alive, every part of creation groaning and awaiting its release, and coming to rest in the pain and suffering of those most close to us.
This victimhood we bring down on all God’s creation is rarely so obvious as in the crime of self-murder. How vain and superficial; how drunk on our own self-delusions do we have to be not to feel or even see this? When a man murders himself, he terribly harms every one of his neighbors. No man is an island.
Self-murder’s pain is precisely because of how terribly selfish the criminal was in his last action here on God’s green earth.
Horror of horrors—that’s what suicide is. All the sin of the self-murderer against his friends, brothers and sisters, coaches and players, and father and mother is left unresolved. No asking or receiving of forgiveness. It’s too late, and typically that’s the point.
We must admit how often such suicides are acts of hostility and bitterness against friends and loved ones, producing the fruit of lives devastated and bleeding for decades to come.
I’m very sorry Maison Hullibarger’s father and mother suffered this terrible pain. It’s hard for any of us to conceive how much they are suffering and will continue to suffer the rest of their lives. May God have mercy on them.
I’m very sorry, also, that Mr. and Mrs. Hullibarger used their pain to attack the faithful shepherd who proclaimed the Gospel to them during their son’s funeral service. This was very wrong of them, and those who have joined them in persecuting Father LaCuesta have no understanding of the duties which bore down on Father LaCuesta as he prepared and gave his homily.
Mr. and Mrs. Hullibarger went to the press and expressed what they considered righteous indignation. Saying they had met with Father Don LaCuesta “to discuss what they wanted in the homily, to be delivered at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Temperance”, they summarized that content:
We wanted it to be about family. We wanted him to talk about loving one another, lifting one another up and being kind to one another. That’s what we wanted the homily to be about… [But] Not one word out of his mouth was about what we asked and what we talked about, It was unprofessional and unacceptable. [yet see the text of Father LaCuesta’s sermon below]
Social media piled on and soon LaCuesta’s superiors at the Archdiocese of Detroit issued a statement aimed at dampening the feeding frenzy against their priest. They assured the indignant family:
We understand that an unbearable situation was made even more difficult, and we are sorry.
After stating that LaCuesta would not be preaching at future funerals without his “homilies [being] reviewed by a priest mentor,” they continued:
In addition, [Father LaCuesta] has agreed to pursue the assistance he needs in order to become a more effective minister in these difficult situations.
This assistance will involve getting help from professionals — on human, spiritual and pastoral levels — to probe how and why he failed to effectively address the grief of the family in crisis.
When all the world lies, the Christian pastor is required to preach the truth. When the world tries to shout him down, he is not to be quiet or give up. He is to be faithful to God in season and out of season (2Timothy 4:1-5), just as the Apostle Paul says. When he presides over a funeral caused by murder, he is to condemn that sin whether the murderer’s victims want him to or not. It is his duty. He must speak of sin and righteousness and judgment. It is the very center of his calling.
Praise God for Father LaCuesta! Yes he’s a priest in a part of Christendom that gave itself to heresy five centuries ago. Yes some of his declarations in this sermon are contrary to the free grace of God and he could have made the Gospel more clear. Yes, he makes declarations of God’s forgiveness of the deceased that have a certainty to them that is hard to reconcile to the limits of our knowledge of the secret things of God and His sovereignty over man’s eternal destiny taught in Scripture.
Still, what Fr. LaCuesta has been punished for by the Hullibarger family is not what was questionable, but what was good and pastoral and Godly. The entire world should be thankful for his faithfulness to God and his love for the Hullibargers’ family and friends in attendance that led him to declare suicide a forgivable sin.
Does any pastor reading this not believe that Fr. LaCusta knew he’d be punished for his faithful words before he even spoke them?
Here then is the text of Father LaCuesta’s funeral sermon, with his emphases as he had them in the manuscript. His archdiocese did the redacting of the names.
My heart goes out to you, Mr. & Mrs. [REDACTED], and to you [REDACTED]’s siblings: [REDACTED], to Grandma [REDACTED], to [REDCATED]’s many aunts & uncles & cousins. It is with great difficulty that I stand before you knowing the pain and anguish you are going through. But I am aware, as well, that I am only a humble, unworthy mouthpiece. I ask God to use my words to bring the light, comfort and healing you need.
Is there any hope to offer in this moment? Must we only speak of our profound grief, our indescribable sorrow, even our anger and confusion at how such a thing could have happened? Is there any word from God that might break into our darkness like a ray of light?
Yes, yes, a thousand times. If we Christians are right in believing that salvation belongs to Jesus Christ, that it does not come from us–and that our hand cannot stop what God allows for us, then yes, there is hope in eternity even for those who take their own lives.
Having said that, I think that we must not call what is bad good, what is wrong right. Because we are Christians, we must say what we know is the truth – that taking your own life is against God who made us and against everyone who loves us. Our lives are not our own. They are not ours to do with as we please. God gave us life, and we are to be good stewards of that gift for as long as God permits.
The finality of suicide makes this all the worse. You cannot make things right again. Neither can [REDACTED]. And this is much of the pain of it all. Things are left unresolved, even if it felt to [REDACTED] like this was the only way to resolve things. You want to turn the clock back and say, “Please don’t give up. We can work through this pain together. “ But now you will have to work through this pain by yourselves, or with those close to you now who will need to lean on you even as you lean on them.
On most people’s mind, however, especially of us who call ourselves Christians, on our minds as we sit in this place is: Can God forgive and heal this? Yes, God CAN forgive even the taking of one’s own life. In fact, God awaits us with his mercy, with ever open arms. Sacred Scripture says clearly: God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). God’s abiding mercy is what sets us to ask for it. Although God doesn’t dangle his mercy like a carrot, waiting for us to ask for it in order to receive it, we do have to believe in our hearts, express with our words, and show in our actions – that it is always there. God wants nothing but our salvation but he will never force himself on us, he will not save us without us. That’s how much he loves us. Because of the all-embracing sacrifice of Christ on the cross God can have mercy on any sin. Yes, because of his mercy, God can forgive suicide and heal what has been broken.
Because God is merciful he makes allowance for the spiritual, mental, and emotional despair that leads to suicide. God is able to read the heart, to know the whole truth of a person’s life, and thereby to pass sentence with mercy. God knows something we must discipline ourselves to do in these moments – he knows not to judge a person’s entire life on the basis of the worst and last choice the person made. God can look at the totality of a human being’s life and celebrate all the good that came from it, even while taking seriously the tragic choice that ended everything. And then he shows his mercy and love in ways beyond our limited understanding.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God, the great St. Paul assures us (in that Reading we just listened to). Nothing – including suicide.
Who will bring any charge against God’s chosen ones? St. Paul asks. It is God who acquits us. Who will condemn? Christ Jesus sits at the right hand of God even now, interceding for this one who could not stand before God on his/her own. Truly, none of us can stand before God on our own. We all need Christ to intercede for us, to plead our case. And here’s the good news: Christ has never lost a case!
What will separate us from the love of Christ? St. Paul answers that question with a display of words that cover everything he can think of in so little space. Not death or life, not angels or principalities, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth or any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
What did St. Paul leave out of that list? Nothing. He did not list suicide, but he did not list murder or gossip or greed either. He covered all of those things in the final flurry of words that includes anything else in all creation. No deed is too evil to be beyond the forgiveness of Christ. No tragedy is too great to separate us from the love of God.
If that is so, if the Scriptures can be believed, if God can be trusted even in this, then it gives us hope and guidance for how to manage our sorrow and anger and loss. We give it all to God. We hope…we can only hope. We do not carry it ourselves. We try to give thanks for the blessings of life we knew and shared with [REDACTED], with this child of God. And we remind ourselves that he is not lost to God who seeks to save all of his children.
And so, we take great comfort and consolation in all this. Nothing-not even suicide-can separate us from the unconditional love of God. It is to this all- merciful love that we, through our prayers, entrust and continue to entrust the soul of [REDACTED]. Let us not deny him now of the help he needs most-our love expressed through our trusting prayers.
My dear friends, today, and in the difficult days to come, when darkness threatens to envelop and darken our hearts, let us raise high the bright light of our Redeemer and proclaim his saving mercy: Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!
Pray for the Hullibargers. Pray for Father LaCuesta. Pray for every friend, neighbor, and loved one of Maison Hullibarger.
And if you get a chance, write the Roman Catholic Diocese of Toledo in support of Father LaCuesta.
|↑1||Meditation XVII, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, John Donne.|