Jennifer Sebena was a member of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and a police officer in the local force. On Christmas Eve, she was brutally shot to death while on duty. Her church and city were stunned when her husband Benjamin, an Iraq veteran and active Elmbrook member, was arrested and accused of killing her. Veteran preacher Stuart Briscoe, a friend of Jennifer's family and minister-at-large of Elmbrook, preached her funeral sermon, which went viral in the days following her service.
Unfortunately, the story of a life cut short is a common headline. Recent murders in Colorado, Oregon, New York, and Connecticut have shocked the U.S. public. Most pastors will have to deal with tragic deaths—murder, suicide, accident—at some point in their ministry.
But in the aftermath of traumatic violence, what can a preacher say? Leadership's editorial team sat down with Briscoe to hear why he preached what he preached to a shocked church and their community. You can find the full transcript of Stuart's sermon at PreachingToday.com.
Leadership: This funeral was about as delicate as any we can think of. After a brutal murder, you have two families, including the victim's and that of her accused husband. You have 1000 uniformed police officers honoring a fallen comrade. You have the media there, and the whole community is watching you. How did you prepare?
Well, I first heard about the tragedy without thinking that I would be involved at all. It's twelve years since I was the senior pastor here at Elmbrook, and I have a roving commission now. A day or two passed after the killing before I knew that I would be speaking. So I had time to process the event.
I was thinking What do you say in a situation like that? And I fell back on this—we need to set the event in the context of worship. This is difficult for some people to grasp. But at this, or any funeral, I need to remind people that though the body returns to the dust, the spirit returns to the God who made it.
When people are at a funeral they are confronting a body that is returning to dust. Now the big issue is, is there a spirit that returns to God? The assumption upon which we operate is "yes." And if that is the case, then let us acknowledge that God. Let's acknowledge him as the Giver of life, the Sustainer of life, the One who presides over the termination of life. We set the context of worship.
But there's more than that. We needed to ask what the event of this death meant to Jennifer. We needed to ask what this death meant to the bereaved. And, extremely important in this particular event, we needed to ask what this meant to society and our community.
What happened to Jennifer is such a tragedy. Her husband, also a member of Elmbrook, is accused of her murder. How did you address his role in this?
I had to bear in mind that this was Jennifer's funeral. It was primarily about Jennifer. This is not about Ben, though Ben is certainly involved.
The thing to do was to talk realistically about the situation and then later, when talking about our response to Jennifer's death, to bring in some statement of concern for him. It would be ridiculous to ignore him, but the focus was not on him. He is a human being, and we should acknowledge that and we should demonstrate concern for him … but not at any great length.
When someone's preaching after a tragic death, what needs to be avoided?
In a situation like this, there are plenty of opportunities to put your foot in it. One of the huge mistakes is to make unwarranted authoritative statements.