Saturday, February 16, 2008

Losing Brianna

As many of you have probably seen on the news -- and certainly know if you live in Reno -- the woman who was abducted from a house near UNR on January 20 was discovered strangled in a field on Friday (athough the body was only identified today, Saturday).

This means, among many other things, that our UNR-area serial rapist is now also a killer, which has ratcheted up the fear level considerably.

And, on a completely selfish level, the news created a classic preaching nightmare. I'd gotten a very different homily almost completely written before going to the hospital, where I had a fairly tough shift (partly due to a verbally unpleasant patient). The nurses there were speculating that the body must be Brianna's, but no one knew for sure yet.

When I got home, I saw that the body had been identified. If something like this happens in a community on Saturday afternoon, you have to preach about it on Sunday morning. So, already worn out from my shift, I tossed out my first homily and wrote this one. Gary tells me it hangs together: I hope my congregation thinks so! At least I know that every preacher in Reno, and maybe in Nevada, is in the same position.

You can read exhaustive coverage of the Denison case here. I've pulled quotations from a number of articles, but haven't linked to them individually.

The Scripture readings are here.

Although I say this in the homily itself, it goes without saying that all of us should pray for everyone concerned.


Our Scripture readings today begin with a long, arduous journey. God tells Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Abram’s travels will include famine in Egypt, the terrifying destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the heartbreaking test of being commanded to sacrifice Isaac. Through many of these trials, he must have wondered if he wouldn’t have been better off just staying home. He had only his faith to assure him that he was indeed moving towards a better place. Although God had promised him a great name, he could not have foreseen that, under his new name of Abraham, he would become the forefather of three of the world’s most enduring and influential faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

This morning’s Gospel also describes the beginning of a journey. Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, has come to Jesus at night to attest to his faith. “Rabbi, we know that you are a great teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus’ response is more than a little puzzling, and Nicodemus proceeds to ask a series of questions. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? How can these things be?” Nicodemus’ bewilderment about the spiritual birth of baptism reminds us of the literal, astonishing births granted to Abraham and Sarah, who were given children in their old age.

We don’t know if Nicodemus was satisfied with the answers Jesus gave him, but we do know that his faith remained firm. This first journey, to visit Jesus at night, ultimately led him to the Cross, for Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea prepare Jesus’ body for burial. And the Cross leads to the glorious rebirth of the Resurrection, the birth that undoes death forever. No one who journeyed with Jesus could have foreseen that outcome. They didn’t believe it even when he told them it would happen; they couldn’t imagine it. But they believed in him, and they stayed with him. On Good Friday, they must have wondered if they wouldn’t have been better off staying home, working as fishermen and tax collectors. Easter swept all of that away. Once they had witnessed Jesus’ rebirth, once he had broken bread with them and fried them fish for breakfast, they knew the journey had been worth it.

Every year, Lent asks us to set out a hard journey through difficult terrain. Unlike Abraham and Nicodemus, we already know our ultimate destination, and yet we may still find ourselves beset by questions. Isn’t life already hard enough? Does it really need to be harder during Lent? Can’t we just skip to the good part, to Easter?

One answer to these questions, of course, is that since Jesus couldn’t skip the hard parts, we can’t, either: if we truly want to be his followers, we have to follow him all the way, even into deserts and darkness. Perhaps the most fundamental truth of Lent, the paradox at the heart of Christianity, is that we can’t reach Easter without first enduring Good Friday. And that is ultimately a promise, a reminder during all of our personal Good Fridays, whether they occur during Lent or not. Where there is death, God promises resurrection. Our job is to have faith in it, to look for it, and not to succumb to despair or turn away before it arrives.

This is an especially important discipline for everyone in Reno right now. As all of you probably know, the body discovered in a field in south Reno on Friday was identified yesterday as Brianna Denison, the young woman abducted from a friend’s home on January 20. Brianna’s family and friends are certainly going through an agonizing Good Friday right now, and so are many others who’ve been helping with the search, attending vigils, or simply following the story on the news. As a community, we’ve traveled from frantic hope that Brianna would return safely home to the sickening knowledge of her death. This isn’t a journey any of us wanted to take, and it’s led us through terrifying terrain: fear for our own safety and the safety of those we love, the horrible awareness that the killer -- responsible for at least two previous sexual assaults -- lives or lived here and knows this area well, the grim knowledge of how physically vulnerable we are.

The tragedy has created questions we will probably never be able to answer in this life, the kinds of questions humans have asked for millenia when faced with evil. How can a loving God permit such suffering? How could anyone become so damaged, become able to do what was done to Brianna? What can we do to protect ourselves against such violence? And -- perhaps the most important question -- how can we respond to this tragedy in a way that honors Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies? How can Jesus ask us to love Brianna’s killer, the man UNR police chief Adam Garcia has called “an animal”? Our natural human response is to love Brianna’s bereaved relatives and friends, and each other. Surely the mere idea of loving the murderer is impossible, a Lenten discipline even Jesus would never require of us.

And yet we have not been offered exceptions or loopholes. Jesus certainly loved his own enemies: he fed Judas during the Last Supper even though he knew that Judas had betrayed him, and he said of his own murderers, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It’s tempting to retort that Brianna’s killer knew exactly what he was doing, but I suspect that Jesus’ friends and family felt the same way about the soldiers who carried out the crucifixion.

We must pray for comfort for everyone who is grieving Brianna’s death, and we must pray that the killer is caught and prevented from acting again. But while we yearn for justice, we are also called to model Christ’s compassion. The killer has family and friends too. Please pray for them; and if you can possibly find it in your heart, please pray for him.

In the meantime, as we travel through this ghastly Good Friday, we are called to have faith that rebirth and resurrection lie on the other side, that tragedy can be redeemed, somehow turned to good. Brianna’s life witnesses to that truth; she majored in psychology because she wanted to counsel children, as she had been counseled after her father died when she was six. Brianna’s aunt, Lauren Denison, said, “I never want Bri’s name to die in vain. I want what happened to be able to help people and cause change.” And Stephen Arvin, a Reno Fire Department chaplain who was ministering to the search parties looking for Brianna, said, “Bri’s life has changed this community. There can be something good that comes out of everything.”

We can see that change in the way our community has drawn together, in the poignant reminder we have been given to cherish those we love, in our new awareness of our need to protect ourselves and each other. I teach at UNR, and since one of my classes runs until after dark, getting safely back to my car has become a concern. I tried using the Escort Service, but they were so swamped with calls that I had long and frustrating waits. Once I called the campus police for a ride, but the officer put me in the locked, cramped back seat, where the felons normally sit. Finally I asked my evening class if any of them were parked near me, so we could walk together. One of my students, an older woman, said, “I park near here, but you can walk me to my car, and then I’ll drive you to yours. We have to stick together.”

Lent is often considered a time of solitary contemplation, but Jesus himself, after his forty days in the desert, collected a community. Our task now is to stick together and to stick to Jesus: to be careful, to be loving, to have faith that our anguished, bewildered questions confirm our humanity, and always to remain open to hope and alert to rebirth.


1 comment:

  1. That's a pretty good homily on a pretty tough subject, Susan! I'm so sorry this girl died in such an awful way. I'm very glad that you have found a safe way to get from your classroom to your car safely! I will pray that God brings this situation to the best possible solution for all concerned.

    Peace! & Hope!


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