Editor's Note: In the early morning hours of Christmas Eve 2012, police officer Jennifer Sebena was gunned down while on patrol. She was killed by her own husband, Benjamin Sebena, an ex-Marine who was struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Both the victim and her husband shooter were members of Elmbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Amazingly, both families supported each other through the difficult funeral.
The following funeral meditation/sermon, originally titled "Words of Encouragement," was delivered by Stuart Briscoe. Over 2,000 people attended the funeral, including about 1,000 uniformed officers.
It was Christmas Eve in Wauwatosa, in the early hours of the morning. Most of the citizens were asleep in their beds, warm, comfortable, safe. The Wauwatosa Police Department was on the job patrolling and protecting. A solitary squad car made its way on quiet streets past the Christmas lights and the Santa signs, a lone officer at the wheel. Jennifer Sebena was 30 years of age, two years on the force, and had wanted to be a cop for as long as she could remember. When she set her mind to something, she pursued it with diligence. Unsurprisingly, she graduated at the top of her class at the academy. Now she was on patrol.
Jennifer suffered from no illusions when she buckled on her bullet proof vest that night. She knew the Wauwatosa Police Department had not lost an officer on duty in their 96-year history, but she also knew that the early morning streets are not the safest places in the world. Like all her fellow officers, she knew that putting on the uniform was a passport to harm's way.
She was married to a young man she'd met through the social media. He, at the time, was a lonely Marine serving in Iraq; she was a warm-hearted girl back home who appreciated his commitment to service in the face of danger. Their relationship blossomed at long distance until one day he was hit by shrapnel, seriously wounded, and evacuated from the action. He was a wounded warrior, not only in body but in spirit. Like so many of our young people, his body was crudely pierced by red hot metal, his spirit traumatized by the brutality of war. The girl waiting back home knew her Marine was deeply wounded but believed she could help him recover. She was always dedicated, helpful, determined, and warm-hearted. They married and joined a church. She taught high school kids, he joined a men's support group.
In the early morning hours of Christmas Eve, as she parked her squad car for a break, Jennifer had no idea that a shadowy figure with evil intent awaited her arrival. He took the opportunity and shot her dead. Jennifer's short life, filled with promise, was mercilessly mowed down, terminated in seconds. How fragile, how vulnerable we humans are. It takes but a moment for life to end and for eternity to begin.
The Wauwatosa Police Department wasted no time in making an arrest. Jennifer's husband, Ben, was charged. And as her body lies here, he sits in a prison cell awaiting trial.
Tragedy upon tragedy. Two families desperately shattered, a community in disbelief, police colleagues stunned. What can we say? There's so much we don't know, there's even more we don't understand. So our lips must be guarded. But we can say this: "Violet [Jennifer's mother], you raised a beautiful daughter and now she is gone. Brad and Linn [Jennifer's in-laws], you've lost a loving daughter-in-law and your hearts are broken for your son. Jake, Thad, and Kathy, your siblings are no longer with you. One lost her life, the other forfeited his freedom. Wauwatosa Police Department, you've been robbed of a promising young officer, and you'll never see what she could have accomplished. We grieve with and for you all.
But there's something else that must be said. In meeting with both families yesterday my wife and I were overwhelmed by the love and support that they extended to each other and the comfort they found as they suffered together. They hold no anger, no recriminations, nothing but love and forgiveness. On another equally positive note, both families expressed their unbounded gratitude for the compassion, concern, and care of the police department representatives who have been assigned to work with them. In the darkness there are shafts of light.
As for the accused, time will tell. We pray that the God of all justice will see justice done and the time of enforced solitude will offer him the opportunity to search his own heart and make his peace with God, so that as justice is done, mercy too may flow and grace will abound. Justice, mercy, and grace—the attributes of our God at work.
But my assigned role today is to bring you "words of encouragement." Words of encouragement about the deceased, hope-filled words to the bereaved, and words of encouragement to our world at large represented by the congregation here gathered.
God is the giver of life.
There is no better place to find encouraging words that ring with authenticity than in Holy Scripture. For instance, "The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7). In other words, while the body, devoid of life decomposes (that is, "returns to the dust") the spirit does not decompose. It leaves the body and goes to "God who gave it." This is a pointed reminder that death is not the end. That's encouraging! So all you who mourn Jennifer's passing—take hope, her spirit returns to the God who gave it. Those shots did not bring an end to Jennifer, they transferred her from time to eternity, from earth to the heavens, from the domain where sin reigns to the kingdom where righteousness rules. This is why the apostle Paul, speaking to young believers who were troubled about those who had died (he called it "falling asleep"), could say they should grieve but not as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:1). Grief without hope is soul-destroying, grief with hope is bearable and deepens the spirit. But hope disappoints if misplaced. Hope resting on thin ice is futile; confidence in thick ice brings assurance. Scripture presents God's words to us, and He cannot lie. He is our thick ice, or better, our solid rock. How encouraging it is to know your beloved one is with him, safe and secure!
Jennifer, believing the Christian gospel, knew that God is the judge to whom her spirit would return at her death. So she had prepared for this awe-inspiring audience by admitting she had failed to be what he required her to be and, on occasion, had disobeyed the commands he had given her to obey like everybody else. But, unlike some, she had asked for mercy and forgiveness without which access to the presence of the righteous judge would lead only to condemnation. He granted it because Jesus assumed the consequences of her sin—and yours and mine. Common courtesy toward such grace requires a response of gratitude, thanksgiving, worship, and glad service. Jennifer knew this, and that was how she went about living her life. This was what made her tick. These were the qualities that we saw in her and admired.
So be encouraged all those who mourn the passing of a lovely lady—she's not dead; she's never been more alive. True, her body lies here lifeless, but her spirit lives on in the presence of her Lord and Savior. How do I know? Because Jesus said, "I am the Resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die." (John 11:25-26.) At the end of that statement, Jesus added, "Do you believe this?" We should ask ourselves that question. Do I honestly believe that those who trust in Jesus will live on in eternity and never die? To believe this is a life changer.
God calls everyone to service.
Now a few words of encouragement for our law enforcement officers. As I drive home late at night in wretched weather and see you in rain and sleet and howling gales, working perilously close to traffic that can barely see you, I'm so glad when you don't pull me over. But I'm even more glad that you're out making bad situations better. Thank you. And thank you for showing up in such numbers today. This show of solidarity for a young fallen officer speaks well of your commitment to each other and to your calling. Let me remind you, by way of encouragement, that callings are not reserved for missionaries and vocations are not only for priests and nuns. "Everyone should submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that have been established have been established by God … Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing" (Romans 13:1-4). Not everybody sees a law enforcement officer as God's servants, but that's how God sees you.
I can imagine there are days and nights without end where you tire of human behavior, when you are sickened by human depravity and perhaps find yourself on the point of giving up hope. Living and working constantly amidst conflict and strife, pain and suffering. I wonder if you second guess yourself occasionally and ponder if things will ever get better. Let me encourage you! Whatever the outcomes of your work, you are God's servants. He is your Master and he notices and he approves when you do things his way, when you further his cause, when you reward right-doing and punish wrongdoers, when you lift the fallen and ease the burden of the weary, when you comfort the hurting and direct the bewildered. And if you can take this a step further and show the people that you do what you do because God commissioned you to do it—who knows? At the end of a weary day you may sense that you did something of eternal significance.
Here's a respectful suggestion for police officers and government officials or anyone in a position of authority: if you don't already do so, start the day with a prayer.
It could be something like this: "Heavenly Father, as all authority is yours and I am in a position of authority because of my uniform, my badge, or my position I realize you must have delegated some of your authority to me. This makes me ultimately accountable to you. May I use this precious gift of authority and not abuse it, may I honor you in the way I administer it, may I abhor anything that would discredit your authority and may people be blessed because I, your servant, passed their way this day. Amen."
If we the governed, who live under God's authority mediated through you, ask this of you, we can do no less than respect your position, pray for your well-being, and seek to encourage you in the pursuit of your duty.
God will make all things new.
Our nation is in trouble on many fronts. The violence that lurks just under the surface of our culture, whether in the impoverished inner city or the well-heeled suburbs or the bucolic countryside, is once again at the fore of the nation's consciousness. The debate rages on: "It's Hollywood's fault—they glamorize violence." "It's the purveyors of video games—they teach our kids to blow away people for fun." "It's the ready access to abortion that robs the unborn of the chance to breath the air and feel the warmth of the sun and tacitly proclaims 'life is cheap.'" "It's the porn industry that dehumanizes, debases, and violates women." "It's the military." "It's the mental health service." On and on it goes. Round and round it spins. Hotter and hotter it gets. Wider and wider grow the philosophical and political gaps.
If we can't agree on the nature of the problem, there's not a lot of hope that we'll find a way to a solution. "We need stricter gun control and fewer guns on the street." "We need more guns available to protect our freedoms." "We have our Second Amendment rights." "We also have the right to be safe and secure in our own beds."
But there's one part of the debate we rarely hear. Listen to the wise words of Jesus. He took the debate to a new level: "You have heard that it was said to people long ago, 'Do not murder and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment." (Matt. 5:21, 22.) At first sight, it appears that Jesus was downplaying murder and saying it was on the same level as anger. Not so. He was actually saying, "The root problem of violence of any kind is found not in outward circumstances but in the interior recesses of the human heart." This becomes clear when he added in another context, "Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man 'unclean'" (Matt. 15:19, 20). Is our violence problem an educational problem or a political problem, or a constitutional issue? Is it a matter of poverty, social imbalance, greed, exploitation, political expediency? Probably all the above. But also much more.
It is my conviction that America not only needs a sensible and serious exploration of all these and other issues in order to take brave action to address the plague of violence, but more than anything, we need to deal with the stubborn fact of the fallenness of our own hearts. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a massive spiritual problem in America. And it lies in my heart and in yours. My heart is perfectly capable of all the things that Jesus stipulated were the root causes of many things, including violence, that destroy human lives and wreck human society. We need spiritual heart surgery—transplants. And that is not as far-fetched as it may sound. The prophet Ezekiel speaking as the Lord's mouthpiece said, "I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them. I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh" (Ezekiel 11:19).
A heart of flesh—warm, responsive, loving, caring. A new spirit—God-seeking not self-seeking, people-serving not people-using, worshipping not worrying, glorifying not griping, ministering not manipulating. This is what Jennifer had and what these two families share. It's what America needs. And it's a gift readily available to all who will admit their need, reject their old ways, seek and receive forgiveness, declare their allegiance to God and his Son, and begin to live in newness of life to the beat of a new heart.
This world is a mess. Look at this casket. Look in our prison cells. Look at Syria and Afghanistan, Washington and Wall Street, Hollywood and Madison Avenue, the inner city and quiet Wauwatosa. Where's the encouragement? There are glimmers in all these places, but the spotlight is focused elsewhere. "He who was seated on the throne said, 'I am making all things new!'" (Revelation 21:5). He's busy doing it right now—one new heart, one new spirit at a time. Herein lies our hope. Be encouraged. God is at work.
Dear Lord, behold us bowed in your presence, conscious of a casket bearing a young woman cut down on the edges of a promising life. Once more we are confronting death, this time closer to home. Our hearts are broken, our minds are bewildered, our emotions are shattered. We turn to you because we don't know where else to go. Forgive us that so often you are the last port of call. We acknowledge our hardness of heart and thank you for the softening that this event has brought about. But we need more than that: a heart transplant—the kind you promised. That's what we need, that's what many of us desire. Grant it, dear Lord. Comfort those who mourn, uphold them by your grace. Draw us to yourself and be merciful to us all. In Jesus name, Amen.
Stuart Briscoe is minister-at-large of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and author of several books, including What Works When Life Doesn't (Howard Books).