(Author’s note: Early last Saturday morning, September 30th, my 40-year-old nephew, Ryan Bagley, was shot and killed at work by an intruder who stole his car, parked it in the middle of Interstate 5 near the Oregon-California border, and then proceeded to shoot at oncoming cars. The driver of one of those cars lost control of his vehicle and ended up running over the shooter and killing him…. Our family is devastated by this tragedy, especially since Ryan had only recently begun to turn his life around after a dark time in the grip of drugs… My sister-in-law, Ryan’s mom, asked me to officiate his service, and this is the sermon I preached yesterday, thanks to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which included messages shared by some dear colleagues…. Rest in peace, Ryan!)
Was it only last Saturday that Ryan was ripped away from us, leaving a giant hole in each of our hearts?… It feels like…an eternity…and yet at the same time, it feels like it was just a moment ago….
I don’t know why this horrible and senseless thing happened. None of us knows…. But I do know this: On September 30, 2017, God’s heart was broken, too. because God knows the soul-piercing pain of losing a Son. Indeed, God’s heart is broken every time we human beings hurt and kill each other, because God’s desire for us is that we have abundant life—that is, life that is filled with love for God, for each other, and for God’s good creation, because love is the one thing that endures beyond the grave….
That’s why God sent Jesus: to reveal God’s undying love for the whole human family and to show us that no matter what happens in this lifetime—no matter what evil forces try to work against God’s life-giving purpose—in the end, love always wins…. As Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “Nothing…in all creation can ever separate us from the love of God revealed to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Like you and I, Ryan had his struggles and shortcomings, and yet, at the same time, his life was a gift to us who knew him…. In the past few months, he had turned a corner and begun to find a sense of peace and purpose in his life—and that only makes his death seem all the more unfair…. And yet…in talking with other family members, I’ve also heard several say they’re grateful to have seen Ryan find some healing and happiness in his relationships with others and in his work before he left this life….
I was blessed to have seen Ryan twice in the past couple of months. When I watched him and talked with him, it struck me that he seemed to be quite comfortable in his own skin—and that’s a rare and beautiful thing to see. I especially treasure a conversation I had with him one evening in late July, when my family came down to Ashland for Lizzy and Drew’s wedding reception. Ryan and I were sitting out on my sister’s patio, and he started talking to me about God. I was pleased to learn that he was a believer, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he had read some pretty deep theological books, including at least one work by the German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who in the 1930s took a stand against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis and was put to death in a concentration camp for his efforts in resisting evil.
Since Ryan liked Bonhoeffer, I want to share with you part of a letter Bonhoeffer wrote to his family on Christmas Eve 1943, while he was imprisoned in a concentration camp. Pastor Bonhoeffer wrote:
Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love,
and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute;
we must simply hold out and see it through.
That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled,
preserves the bonds between us.
It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God doesn’t fill it,
but on the contrary, God keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.
(Letters and Papers from Prison, p 176)
The pain you and I feel today is the pain of separation that Bonhoeffer wrote about. It is a costly pain born of love, because love is the one thing that endures beyond the grave…. Again, love never ends.
There are many things you and I don’t understand in this life, and there are many things about which we humans don’t agree, but in those quiet moments when we step back and reflect, I think most of us would agree that life is a precious gift from God. Your life is a gift from our Creator, as is mine, and Ryan’s life was a precious gift from God, who knew and blessed him and all of us even before we were formed in our mother’s wombs….
In the days ahead, you will surely miss your son, brother, grandson, father, nephew, cousin, and friend, and so I pray that you will take some comfort in Jesus’ promise that God has a special place reserved for Ryan and for all of us in God’s household: a place very close to God’s heart, where we will be held safely in love for all eternity. I also hope and pray that each of us may learn from the example Ryan set near the end of his life: May we learn to embrace each day as a precious gift, and may we come to find peace and purpose and abundant life that gives life to others.
In closing, I want to share with you a poem by Mary Oliver that I think Ryan would’ve appreciated, especially for the question it raises at the end. It’s called “The Summer Day:”
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Thanks be to God for the wild and precious gift of Ryan’s life and for the love that never ends! Amen.