Jonathan Antonioli was an active member of my congregation. Last week, at age 16, he died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. The past week has been tragic for the congregation and the whole community. His death is a textbook example of “not fair” — he was kind and loving and intelligent and so full of life and potential. His family so full of love. I laid my hands on his head just three years ago at his confirmation, and today I laid my hand on his casket. It is not right, not fair, not good. And yet, I have seen hope today. God is here, even amid this horrible tragedy. God will lead his family to comfort and peace. This is the sermon I preached today, a sermon I wish I never had to:
I have heard a lot of stories about Jonathan over the past week. I have learned that Jonathan was seen by his friends as kind and loyal. He was determined and focused. He inspired others, and he was filled with life. He was something of a clown, but was also an excellent student.
And he absolutely loved biking. He learned to ride on two wheels at age two. He spent so much time at the Pen Argyl skate park. He loved riding and meeting with his friends. And it wasn’t just about the biking. He loved his friends, and he loved being a friend. And he loved his family. Now he was a teenager, so that love certainly didn’t show in every word or action. But he loved them. Julia. Bruce. Linda. He loved you all. Over the past week, I’ve heard stories that told me all this. None of it surprised me.
What did surprise me, though, was when I learned that Jonathan could fix absolutely anything.
I heard a story about when a part of Julia’s highchair broke. Jonathan looked at it, toyed with it a bit, and fixed it. He was three at the time. He designed and built himself the computer he used for gaming. Using Lego’s, he built a gun that actually shot Lego’s. In recent years, he was often in the garage, attempting to fix a friend’s bike, and always succeeding.
He was so young, but he was already making a difference in the world. Already touching people in ways they will never forget. Already making the world a better place.
But today the world does not feel like a better place. Today is not a good day. For today we are saying goodbye to Jonathan. Our hearts are broken, shattered, devastated. The ironic thing is, Jonathan, who could fix anything, could fix our hearts, right now, simply by still being here with us. Simply by waking us up from this bad dream. And it’s okay if there is part of you that wants that; it’s okay if there’s part of you that’s even expecting it. That’s a normal reaction to a terrible situation. That’s part of grief.
But we know that’s not going to happen. We know that Jonathan is gone from this world. Our faith tells us that he has been welcomed into paradise, welcomed into the arms of Christ forever. Our faith tells us that God has now fulfilled the promise made to him in baptism. He is at peace, in eternal bliss. Jesus promised to do this for Jonathan, and he has done so. This is a good day for Jonathan.
But it does not feel good at all to us. For us it is a nightmare. We now have to walk this life without him. And none of us want to do that. Not you. Not me.
This makes me angry. This makes me sad. Perhaps you feel that way too. It’s okay to feel those things. It’s okay to be angry right now. It’s okay to be angry with God right now. It’s okay to lash out and scream to God, “Why did this happen?” It’s okay to tell God right now, “I am mad at you,” or worse. It’s okay to do that. God can take it. If that’s how you’re feeling, it’s okay to be honest. God knows you’re feeling it anyway. And you’d be in good company. Moses, Jeremiah, Job, the author of the Psalms, all these people and more yelled at God, saying, “Why aren’t you doing something?”
And it’s okay to be sad. How could we not be? Jesus says in the gospel reading today, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” How could our hearts not be troubled today? Of course they are troubled. But I firmly believe that God’s heart is troubled by this as well. I firmly believe that God is mourning and weeping with us right now. I firmly believe that this was not God’s will. Yes, death is part of life; the generations rise and the generations fall, but not like this. It is not fair for Jonathan’s life to end this young. It is not fair for Bruce and Linda and Julia to be sitting here today. It is not fair, and it is not right, and it is not God’s will. God did not take Jonathan from us. A broken world and a tragic accident took Jonathan from us.
Some people say, “Everything happens for a reason.” I don’t believe that. God does not cause tragedies. There is no reason for tragedies like this. But our faith is in a God who went to the cross. A God who went to the cross, and a God who then destroyed the power of that cross. And so our faith tells us that God is always there in the midst of tragedies, always working to heal those who are hurting, always working to bring surprising signs of life, surprising signs of resurrection. I have seen some of those signs already. Bruce and Linda’s house has been filled to overflowing with family, friends, and food the past week. How many cards and phone calls and texts have they received? How many hundreds of people gathered last Tuesday to pray for Jonathan? And how many were here yesterday? How many people have said that their lives were changed by Jonathan for the better?
Of course, none of that is worth it. God doesn’t have some balance sheet that shows that this was for the best. God did not sacrifice Jonathan for the sake of the world. But when Jonathan was taken from us, God was there. And God welcomed him home.
And God is still here with us as well. God is with us, and will show us the way to go. On a day like today, we wonder like Thomas did in the gospel reading, “How can we know the way?” Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Jesus, the same Jesus that we worship here each week. The same Jesus whom Jonathan learned about in Sunday School and Confirmation Class. The same Jesus in whose name we are baptized. The same Jesus whose body and blood we will share in a few minutes. That same Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, for us. The same Jesus in whose arms Jonathan now rests is offering us life and hope today, here and now. Even here, especially here, in the valley of the shadow of death.
Right now that is hard to see. Right now we can only catch the slightest glimpses of that hope. Over time those glimpses will become more and more clear, more and more frequent. The hole in our hearts will never truly be filled; we will never, ever forget Jonathan. But God will enable us to live. God will heal us. God will give us the courage and the strength and the faith to keep walking each day, and over time will even give us joy. But for now, God is holding us tightly, taking care of us, wrapping us in healing arms and gently guiding us to what we need.
And I think God’s favorite way of taking care of us is through other people. And so I encourage you to continue to be with each other. Continue to hold onto one another. Continue to share stories about Jonathan, laughing and crying together. In all these things, God will be with you. And be patient. Patient with each other and with yourselves. This will not be quick, and it will not be easy. But you will get through this. You will. I know that, because Jonathan told me. He told me that three years ago, the day he was confirmed.
In our Confirmation program at Prince of Peace, each confirmand is asked to choose a Bible verse that is most important to them. We call this their “Confirmation Verse,” and it represents what their faith means to them. Jonathan’s Confirmation Verse is Philippians 3:14: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” At the heart of Jonathan’s faith was the trust that thanks to God, thanks to the strength God gave him, he could do anything.
And if Jonathan was right, and if the apostle Paul who wrote those words was right, then indeed we also can do all things through God. Then indeed God is strengthening us as well. It will take time to feel that strength. It will not happen immediately. But God will strengthen you. God will preserve you. God will lead you. God will save you from this pain. You will live again. Because God is with you. Always with you.