In these divisive times we can’t agree on much. But I think most of would agree that we don’t enjoy serving on jury duty. We try to find a way out of it. But there is always one person who breaks the trend. There is always someone who wants to serve on jury duty.
That person, in today’s story, was Sven Berger. Sven was a software developer who lived in Texas in 2008 when he was selected for jury duty. He was newly married. He and his wife had just bought their first house. The house had a flagpole in front of it and a hammock out back. Sven was a fan of shows like Law & Order. So he was actually eager to serve on a jury. His experience of serving on a jury is told on the radio show This American Life in the episode, The Unhappy Deciders .
In jury selection Sven was asked how he felt about capital punishment. And he answered honestly and candidly. To quote Sven himself, “I believe bad people should be punished in that way, or could be punished in that way. And so I wouldn’t say I was strongly for it, but I wasn’t against it. And consequently, I got on the jury.”
The case was the State of Texas versus Paul David Storey. Storey was a 22 year old man accused of the murder of Jonas Cherry, the manager of a mini golf course. Storey and an accomplice robbed Cherry and then shot him. The trial lasted two weeks. And at the end of the trial Sven had no doubt in his mind that Storey was guilty of murder and robbery. The jury had to choose between life in prison and the death penalty. To sentence Storey to death the jury was given three criteria. 1. That Storey was guilty. 2. That there were no mitigating circumstances. 3. That Storey posed a future threat to the community. On this third count Sven did not agree. The young man seemed confused, scared, and remorseful. This was his first offense. And some of the evidence suggested that Storey’s accomplice had been the mastermind of the crime. Sven’s conscience convicted him that Storey should be punished but he shouldn’t be put to death. But Sven was the only one on the jury who held that view. Everyone else was in favor of the death penalty. Sven didn’t think he could change a dozen other people’s minds. He was scared. So he kept his mouth shut. He joined the rest of the jury in sentencing Storey to death row, even though he didn’t believe that was what should have happened.
After that faithful day Sven tried to move on with his life, but he couldn’t. To quote Sven, “But what did you do with these feelings? I was just stuck. It was done. It was cast in stone. And– yeah, no, I felt terrible. I felt massive amounts of regret. I felt guilty, sending someone to death row.” Sven was a drinker before the trial. After the trial, his drinking only got worse. But no matter how much he drank the alcohol couldn’t drown his shame. It couldn’t wash away the regret. A year later Sven got divorced. He moved to Olympia, Washington to try to escape the regret. But he could not. If only he had made a different decision. If only.
Perhaps none of us today have been in Sven’s position of having to decide whether someone lives or dies, but we too struggle with our regrets. Regrets in our relationships. If only I had said this or not said that. Regrets in our jobs. If only I had taken that job instead of this one. Regrets in our parenting. Did I do something that lead to my child ending up like this? Death, may it be expected, or unexpected tends to provoke a lot of regret in us, since it is so final. Perhaps we are not murders but perhaps we caused contributed to someone’s death accidentally. Perhaps it was out of our control but we constantly wonder if there was something more we could. We want to go back in time and say what we should have said. Done what we should have done. But we cannot. If only we could turn back the clock.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Both Martha and Mary speak these words to Jesus. And we know how they feel. If only God had cared. If only God had reached out his hand, things would have gone differently. Jesus won’t let us go back. But he is the resurrection and the life, and with his resurrection power we will move forward.
The good news today is this. When we believe what Jesus says we will see the glory of God.” We believe Jesus by
- Rolling away the stone
- Changing our perspective
First, we see that Jesus tells the mourners to roll away the stone. In our lives shame and guilt can certainly feel like a stone trapping us in a tomb. Jonathan Goldstein, the reporter of Sven’s story reflects on Sven’s shame over the trial. “For all the bad rap it gets, shame offers a certain safety. It provides a comfortable hole to hide in, away from the judgment of others. But it can also lead to isolation and inertia. And for eight years– eight years in which Paul Storey sat on death row, awaiting an execution date– Sven barely talked about the trial with anybody.”
But then, in 2016, after Storey’s appeals had been denied, a reporter approached Sven and allowed him to tell his story. Talking about the case with a reporter helped ease Sven’s shame. But after the article was published a lawyer who read the article gave Sven a call. Apparently, Sven had misunderstood the jury instructions. Preventing the death penalty only would have required one dissenting vote. Sven wouldn’t have had to convince the rest of the jury to stop the death penalty. He would only have had to speak up. This didn’t make Sven feel particularly great knowing he had gotten it more wrong than he thought. But then another person contacted him. It was Storey’s mother, Marilyn. She wanted to talk. But Sven didn’t respond to her email for two years. When Storey’s execution was delayed at the last minute, Sven decided it was finally time to reach out. So Marilyn and Sven met. This is what Marilyn said to Sven,
“First of all, I want to say I don’t want you to feel shame, because my son was involved in a crime. He made a wrong choice. And I don’t ever want you to feel that you did anything wrong. You did what you felt you had to do at the time. But you came back. And for you to come out, and for you to say hey, I made a mistake– you right your wrong.”
Yet, this did not seem to convince Sven that he had been forgiven. The stone of his shame had not been rolled away. Then Marilyn told him that there were Texas legislators that had introduced a bill to make instructions in death penalty cases more clear. Apparently, in Texas, courts are prohibited from simply saying that one dissenting vote can prevent the death penalty, even though that is the law. Whatever we may think about the death penalty, I think we can all agree, that if we are going to use it, the rules should be clear beforehand. Sven, was amazed that his article had such a glorious effect on the legal system in his state. It was really hard for him to roll away the stone because his shame stunk to high heaven. But doing something that outweighed his shame helped him overcome his shame. Maybe rolling away the stone of shame in our lives is hard as well. And perhaps we have regrets in our own lives that we can’t imagine that any good we could do could ever overcome. But Jesus says,
“Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”
The Bible teaches that all things work together for good for those who love God and are ordained unto his purposes, we may not see in our lives the good that comes out of our shameful and painful experiences. And that can leave us stuck in our tombs. That is why we must change our frame of reference. We must focus on the glory of God. For many doing something that outweighs their regrets helps roll away the stone of shame. But the Bible says we don’t need to do any great work of contrition. We don’t need to change the world to overcome our regrets. We only need to believe what Jesus says to see the glory of God. We only need to change our perspective from this life to eternal life.
In writing this sermon I was reminded of funeral I went to in 2002 that revealed to me God’s glory. in November 2002, which was my first year of college at William & Mary, a first year student named Colin Trevor Smith died ridding his bike when he was hit by a garbage truck. This tragic accident occurred on November 5th, 2002, so tomorrow is the sixteenth anniversary of Colin’s death. I didn’t know Colin. But like many on campus I attended his funeral. I remember student after student coming up and weeping over Colin. I didn’t know Colin but from what I heard from his friends he lived a life full of love. A life full of serving others. A life full of joy. And when someone like that leaves us so unexpectantly we instantly realize the treasure they were in our lives and we regret that we didn’t appreciate that treasure the way we should have. The glory of Colin’s love made the grief of his loss ever greater. But then Colin’s father spoke. I remember that Colin’s Father was a pastor. I don’t remember what his father said. I just remember his demeanor. He was so happy, almost joyous. He talked about Colin’s faith in Christ and the glory that awaited Colin. He talked about the glory that awaited all who trusted in Christ. Of course Colin’s father suffered. But he saw Christ’s glory and that helped him deal with the suffering. It outweighed the suffering.
Teacher if you had been here our brother would not have died. Lazarus knew that was not true. Life is a terminal condition and none of us know the day or the hour of our last day. The fact of the matter is we can die in this world or we can die to this world. If we want to live the life Christ has to offer to us the Bible tells us that first we must die a spiritual death. As Paul tells us in the book of Colossians, “If then you have been raised with Christ seek the things that are above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:1-3). He has promised us that if we believe in him we will see the glory of God. Do we believe his promises?
John tells us that despite this miracle Lazarus second chance at life was not without it’s dangers. He tells us that a plot arose among the religious leadership to kill Lazarus again because so many people were following Jesus because of the resurrection of Lazarus. What would Lazarus had said if he had heard about the plot against his life? Would he have been afraid? Would he have said, “death on not again! It is happening again!” Would he have been dismissive? Would he had said, “dying, been there done that” ?
I don’t think he would have been any of these things. I think he would have been like Colin’s Father full of life and joy. Perhaps he would have agreed with the Apostle Paul who says in Romans 8:18, “ For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Lazarus had experienced the glory of God. He had been used to demonstrate the glory of God to others. He knew God’s glory outweighed the suffering of this present age. Lazarus knew the power of Christ’s resurrection. So perhaps he would have thought as Paul thought, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Philippians 1:21).
Lazarus had not obtained the fullness of the glory of God. He had only been used to give people a glimpse of glory. For he would have to die again, whether or not the religious leaders murdered him. But Christ was raised once and for all, incorruptible, he would never die again. He is the resurrection and the life and he offers resurrection life to each of us today if we would only believe. Like Lazarus we will never taste the fullness of God’s Glory in this life but we can have free samples of resurrection power if we would only roll away the stone, if we would only believe what Jesus has to say.
So today let us press on further up and deeper in. Let us press on to know the power of his resurrection. Let us press on to make that power our own because Christ Jesus has made us his own. Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, let us press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-14). Jesus says to us today, “ take away the stone.” And we say to him, “ Lord by this time there will be an odor for we have been dead in our sins for far too long.” And Jesus says to us, “ Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God.”
Oh Jesus we believe help us in our unbelief. Together as one people we rise up in your resurrection power. Together as one people we roll away the stone. Together as one people we hear you calling and we come out dead men coming alive again step by step. Together as one people we turn to each other and unbind that which has bound us in death, regret, and shame for so long, it will not take our life. Together we believe that you are the resurrection and the life. O God, you are our God; earnestly we seek you. Our souls thirst for you, our flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. We have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, our lips will praise you. We will bless you as long as we live; in your name we lift up our hands (Psalm 63:1-4). We lift up our hands, we reach out to be touched by fire, we reach out to be touched by glory.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.