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Samuel Plank Memorial Service Pastoral Sermon

Delivered by the Rev. J.C. Austin, March 10, 2018
at First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem
(click here to download a .pdf of this sermon)

There’s an old proverb that says, “a good beginning makes a good ending.” It means that, generally in life, when we start something with good intentions and good preparation, and then follow through on those plans well, the end result that we intended flows naturally from all that hard work in the beginning. And there’s truth in that. But clearly, that is not always the case, because if it was, we would not be here.

This is not how Sam’s story was supposed to go. I want to say that up front so there’s no confusion about it; this is not the ending that Sam’s good beginning deserved. And, as literally hundreds of you have been testifying in the last week, Sam’s life until now was a very good beginning, as he grew over his eighteen years from a beautiful baby to a young man who towered in the size of both his height and his heart, in the beauty and goodness of his spirit. His innate sweetness has been lifted up over and over again; he was someone who genuinely cared about the well-being of others, who went out of his way to be kind. Nearly everyone has celebrated his big and bright smile, that would light up both his own face and the hearts of all those who saw it, and he shared it frequently. If you were at the visitation last night, you could see it run like a thread through all the photos of his life, from his earliest ones as a baby to the most recent ones. He loved to share that warmth with younger children, going out of his way to entertain his cousins or other children by playing with them, and they adored him in return. He had a deep bond with his siblings, Chad and Andrea, both of whom have talked about how wonderful it was to simply spend time with him, laughing together on vacation or on special visits of one kind or another, from the beach to karaoke singing.

He had a strong work ethic that inspired others, which he put to good use, whether at crew in school or in various projects or in his work as a tour guide at Lost River Caverns in Hellertown. He was renowned as a guide; not only did he have a total mastery of the information about the caverns and the science that created them, but he loved the chance to inspire the same kind of awe and wonder in guests, that he experienced as an admirer of the place. The only even mildly critical comment I’ve heard is that his tours sometimes ran a bit long because he was so full of information and inspired so many questions from his guests! That work at the Caverns was also part of his deep love of nature; he relished the beauty of creation from the obvious beauty of trees and rivers as an avid hiker, to the kind of beauty that it takes patience and knowledge and devotion to appreciate, discerning the poetry of creation in the layers of a rare rock that he’d pick up on his hikes or in the Lost River Caverns.

He had a wonderful sense of humor, sarcastic and witty but never mean-spirited. I love the story of how for Christmas a couple of years ago he gave his mom a special surprise: an actual lump of coal that he had found in his work. There are a lot of layers in that kind of classic and ironic reversal of the old trope about supposedly naughty kids getting lumps of coal for Christmas. But Sam was clearly someone who appreciated layers of meaning, from his sedimentary rocks to his deep friendships and connections with family. And he was someone for whom life was really just opening up all kinds of possibilities, which he seemed eager to pursue.

He talked about the adventurous travel that he wanted to do, making lists and itineraries of all the places and national parks that he wanted to visit, to drink in the bounty of creation and what the world had to offer. It was a very, very good beginning.

So how could that have led to such a terrible place as we are in right now? I want to pause here for a moment again to make a few things very clear, because suicide is something which is widely misunderstood, and those misunderstandings can lead us into conclusions that we should never entertain. People do not die by suicide because they are “selfish.” Suicide is never “taking the easy way out.” It is never weakness. To believe any of those things is to fundamentally misunderstand what suicide is or why it happens. Most often, and this is true in Sam’s case, suicide is the result of clinical depression. I say “clinical” depression because we often use the word “depression” to mean that we’re sad. But sadness is a normal human emotion that is a response to a particular situation or experience. Depression is a mental illness, a chemical imbalance in our brains that creates an abnormal state of being, no matter what circumstances we are in. We feel sad; we are depressed. With depression, your life may appear wonderful on the outside, full of happiness and love and opportunity and possibility, like Sam’s.

But depression convinces you otherwise. I often say that depression is a cunning and dedicated liar; it worms its way inside of you and builds a lair, from which it whispers a relentless stream of lies that rises steadily and eventually sweeps you away, trapped in its current. If you were in a room full of open doors, depression could convince you that there’s no way out. If you were starving and sitting at a banquet table piled high with every delicious and filling food you could want, depression could convince you there’s nothing to eat. It drapes your world in deepening shadows until you can no longer see the possibilities that are obvious to everyone else, because they don’t have the chemical imbalance in their brains that you have that keeps you from seeing those things.
If you are familiar with the Harry Potter series of books and films, the author (J.K. Rowling) created magical creatures called dementors that are based on her own experience with depression: they descend upon human beings and suck away every good and happy memory and experience and emotion until the victim is finally left with only pain and despair and darkness. That’s what depression does. That’s what happened to Sam.

It’s not his fault or anyone else’s; nobody is to blame for a chemical imbalance in Sam’s brain, any more than we’d suggest someone is to blame if it was a cancerous tumor instead. And part of the tragedy is that many depressed people are good at hiding just how deep in the darkness they are, just as they don’t realize how many, many people are around them to love and help them, who would be devastated if they were gone.

Take a moment and look around this room; look how many people, and how many different kinds of people, are here for Sam today. If you are someone who is suffering from depression or even having suicidal thoughts, you have this kind of crowd around you right now, too. I know what you’re thinking: no, not for me; for Sam, sure, everyone loved Sam; but not for me. But that’s not true; that is depression lying to you. If you want to hear the truth, come find me after this service, or call me or the National Association for the Prevention of Suicide. Sam’s family wants you to know the truth, because that is a gift that Sam can still give by having his story told. Don’t refuse Sam’s last gift.

So, with all that in mind: what is God doing in the midst of all this? First, God’s heart was the first one to break when Sam died. And second, God has already made sure that illness and death do not get the last word in Sam’s story. God has already made sure that this is not the ending to Sam’s good beginning; that Sam’s story does not end with grief, but with grace; not in darkness, but in the brightness of God’s light.

As I was thinking about Sam’s love of being a guide in the Lost River Caverns, I remembered hearing a story years ago about a small group of people who went caving in the mountains of north Georgia where I used to go hiking a lot when I lived in Atlanta. These were untouristed caves, with no marked paths or artificial light; you had to go with an experienced guide to get you through, and you needed to bring your light with you. But these people weren’t experienced at going into caves at all, much less these particular ones, and they violated several of the cardinal rules about how to go caving, especially the ones about having multiple light sources. So when they became lost underground, they searched and searched for a way out, getting themselves even more lost in the process, until finally their flashlights died and they were trapped under the earth in utter darkness, unable to see even the outline of their hands in front of their faces. As the hours went on and eventually a day passed, they began to see things that weren’t really there: threatening shadows moving where there was nothing, and so forth. A second day passed in total darkness, and they abandoned any hope of getting out, and resigned themselves to that being their end. But finally, miraculously, a search party found them.

One of the cavers said afterwards, “when I first saw the light coming toward me, I didn’t think it was real at first; I thought it was more tricks my mind was playing on me. But it kept coming, and finally it got to me and I could see the face of the person holding the light, and his face was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. He grabbed my shoulder and said, “You’re going to be okay; I came here for you, and I’m going to take you home.”

That’s exactly what Jesus says he will do for us. On his last night with his disciples, Jesus was talking with them. They didn’t know where Jesus was going, and they didn’t think they could follow him, and they were afraid. And Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” What he’s saying is that God leaves nobody alone. God leaves nobody behind. God does not even leave us to try and fumble our own way to God in the darkness. In Jesus Christ, God comes to us and brings us to God, no matter where we are, every step of the way.

That’s what has now fully happened to Sam. When he died, Sam must have been in a place of deep darkness that he did not know how to get out of. But after he died, that was not the end; instead, there in the darkness, he saw the light of Christ appear. Perhaps he didn’t believe it was real at first. But it kept coming, because that’s what Jesus does; he does not leave us alone; he does not leave us behind. Jesus comes for us, no matter how much darkness we are in, no matter how lost we feel, he comes for us. And when that light finally got to Sam, he was able to see the face of Christ bearing that light, a face of kindness and grace and love, the most beautiful thing he would have ever seen. And I think Jesus grabbed his shoulder and said something to him like, “you’re going to be okay. I came here for you, and I’m going to take you home.”

And so he has. Sam’s story did not end this week, because Sam the guide has now been guided home out of the darkness into the light of Christ, by the light of Christ. And so we all shall be in the end, when we’ll see Sam again, whole and at peace, smiling that big smile of his, and offering to guide us around those many rooms that Jesus promised, saying, “I’m so glad you’re here; there’s so much I have to show you.”

And that, finally, will be the end of all our beginnings. Thanks be to God.

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