A sermon from Good Friday 2001, just after Anna was killed.
(Please note, there are errors of fact in this sermon, but in those first days after Anna was killed facts were hard to come by. Please read the note at the end of the sermon for the correct information.)
Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.
Four weeks ago today, on a Friday evening after work, Brandon Hurst left his desk at Landmark Ford and went to dinner at T. G. I. Friday’s with the other managers from the dealership. After dinner they decided to go to O’Malley’s bar where they drank green beer until after midnight to usher in St. Patrick’s day.
Sometime between midnight and 1:00 a.m. they left the bar and his buddies drove him back to T. G. I. Friday’s to get his car. He started it up and headed home, turning up the off-ramp onto Interstate 72 he headed east in the westbound lane. After a few miles he merged onto Interstate 55 now going north in the southbound lanes of the freeway. On the other side of the freeway, in the northbound lanes, a couple tried desperately to get his attention. Either he didn’t see their flashing lights or hear their honking horn or he was simply too inebriated to understand their warning – or the warnings of others he had passed.
At 1:06 a.m., 2 tenths of a mile north of milepost 94, traveling somewhere between 85 and 100 miles an hour Mr. Hurst came around a bend in the road, appearing suddenly from behind a hill, and collided head-on into a 1995 Mazda Protégé with 5 college sophomores headed to New Orleans to volunteer in a grade school over their mid-term break.
Chris Hoppe had seen the oncoming car at the last instant, slammed on his brakes, and tried to pull to the right – taking the full force of the collision on his side of the vehicle and saving the lives of the two boys sitting on the right side of the car.
Chris’ hands were clenched so tightly, that when they cut him out of the wreckage, they had to pry his hands off the steering wheel. Even as he lay in his casket, his fists were clenched – the funeral director had not been able to straighten them out.
Sally Heitmann’s casket had been closed. Sitting behind Chris, she suffered fatal injuries to both her head and chest. She died instantly. Her heart had been crushed.
The crumpling car broke Anna’s leg, and amidst the small pieces of glass in her face and arms there was a single crease in her left eyebrow where she had suffered a fatal head injury.
The safety features and the larger size of the 2001 Ford Taurus the company had provided to Mr. Hurst – plus his much higher speed – saved his life. He suffered only a broken leg and a broken ankle.
25 years old, a wife, a three year old child – how does he redeem his life? What can he possibly do to make up for the three young lives he has taken away? How can he make it right? How can his child ever look up to him with pride? How can he face his wife? How can he ever look into a mirror?
What sacrifice could he make? Will ten, twenty, thirty years in jail redeem him? Will any amount of money redeem him? Is there anything he can accomplish in his lifetime that will redeem his life?
The truth is there is nothing he can do. No accomplishment, no sacrifice, no change of heart will wipe away the stain. It is a permanent mark, an eternal burden from which he will never be able to free himself.
Brandon can’t redeem himself. His mother could post his bond, but she will not be able to redeem him. The families of the dead children might someday be able to forgive him, but they cannot redeem him. Only God can redeem him.
The uncomfortable truth, however, is that you cannot redeem your life either. As with Brandon, so with you and with me. It’s not in our power. Only God can redeem our lives.
The only blessing in Brandon’s sin is that he will never be able to deny it. He will never be able to pretend it wasn’t such a big deal. He will never be able to say that’s just the way the world is, or that everyone else does the same thing – though God knows too many people drink and drive.
Brandon will always know that he has no hope of righteousness unless it comes to him from somewhere else. The only righteousness he could ever have is if God chooses to give God’s own righteousness to him.
We don’t have any other hope of righteousness either. But the thing about our sins is that we can pretend. We can pretend. We can pretend that our good deeds outweigh our cruel words. We can pretend that our tidy lawns outweigh our untidy hearts. We can pretend that our common, ordinary, everyday acts of civility outweigh our common, ordinary, everyday sins of gossip, anger, bitterness, prejudice, selfishness, pride, lust and greed.
Since everyone does it, we can pretend these things do not offend God, harm others, corrode the spirit, or diminish the quality of life for ourselves and our communities. Since everyone does it, we can pretend that we don’t need redeeming.
But there stands the cross. There stands the broken body of a righteous man, impaled on a cross not by some who are cruel, but by a world that is cruel; not by some who are silent in the face of evil, but by a world that is silent in the face of evil; not by some who are sinners, but by a world of sinners. There stands the cross, and it gives silent and powerful witness that all of us need redeeming.
You and I – we are in the same place as Brandon, and Judas and Peter and the thief on the cross. We cannot redeem our lives, only God can redeem them.
Mr. Hurst’s mother apparently went on television after the accident to say that her son was a good person. But it really doesn’t much matter, does it? And we can protest that we really are good people. But it really doesn’t much matter either, does it? What matters is whether God will choose to redeem our lives. And there, again, stands the cross – to give silent yet powerful witness that this is exactly what God has chosen to do.
God has chosen to redeem our lives. And now the question for us is whether we will live inside God’s redemption, whether we will trust the promise that has been spoken, whether we will accept the redemption that is offered, whether we will live the mercy we have received, whether we will show others the grace we have been shown. We have been to Good Friday. Now God invites us to live Easter.
By law, if the emergency medical technicians try to resuscitate someone, they have to take them to the hospital. They tried to resuscitate Anna. And apparently she rode to the hospital in the same ambulance as Mr. Hurst.
There is a strange irony that the murderer and the murdered should ride towards help together. To the hospital, who rides where doesn’t matter. What matters is trying to save lives.
And it might also seem strange that in this cross Brandon and Anna should be redeemed together. But to God, also, it doesn’t matter who rides where. What matters is trying to save lives.
There have been a lot of wonderful things said about the kind of person Anna was, the kind of life she lived – how good she was. But like all the rest of us, she didn’t redeem herself. She did, however, live joyfully the gift God had given her. She lived her redemption.
And this is the purpose of God’s gift, this is what God looks for from our lives, that we, too, might live our redemption.
We had not yet received the coroner’s report or a police report when this sermon was written, and many of the details we were initially given (or surmised) were later learned to be incorrect. The group had not been drinking “green beer” (Mr. Hurst later testified that he was drinking a “Girl Scout Cookie.”) and the outing was not specifically related to St. Patrick’s Day; they had gone drinking after work.
The coroner’s report showed that neither Sally nor Anna had suffered a head wound, but the cause of death for all three children was “bilateral hemothorax” – their bodies were slammed around by such force from the impact that it caused fatal injury to their hearts. In Anna’s case this involved a “transection of the aorta” – the aorta had been torn from the heart. If Sally’s casket had been closed, it was not because of her injuries.
Finally, Mr. Hurst and Anna traveled in separate ambulances. A witness who first reached the car testified that Anna was still alive. She had moaned and squeezed the hand of the person who discovered her and for that reason was transported to the hospital. I will always be grateful to him that he was there.