When a Community Has a Murder

They were friends. They enjoyed golfing together like they did a week ago today. They spent a lot of time together away from work.

Sam and John both worked at Schnell School. Sam LaCara was one of the most liked, if not the most liked, school administrators in El Dorado County. On Wednesday, Sam fired John Luebbers as a janitor at the school. John went home, got his gun, and walked into Sam’s office and shot him twice in the chest. This is John’s confession.

It is curious that the superintendent was unaware of any personnel action with John Luebbers. Dr. “Nancy Lynch, superintendent of Placerville Union School District, said Louisiana Schnell Elementary School custodian John Luebbers ‘was upset about a disagreement’ he had with Principal Sam LaCara. She added that, ‘Mr. LaCara said he thought (Luebbers) needed to go home and cool off for the day.’” (KCRA) There was no employment action against John Luebbers.

Placerville is not so big that if we don’t know everyone, then we know of most everyone. Sam had a great reputation in Placerville, even though he lived in Sacramento. A lot of people also knew John and they can’t understand why he would do such a thing.

Thursday morning, Teresa, our parish secretary, said, “I never knew a murderer before. I never thought that I ever would.” Teresa’s children attend the same school as John’s daughter. John was usually there every day to pick up his daughter and often escorted other children to their parents. He was well thought of by the parents there. But he had mixed reviews at Schnell School.

Sam was active in our local school administrators association and lobbied the legislature for more school funds. He previously was assistant principal and teacher at Markham Middle School. Some of our neighbors were coached by Sam in basketball. Some of those basketball alums have children at Schnell School.

Sam was devoted to his wife and their three daughters. His wife, Lisa, was pulled over by the Highway Patrol on her way to Placerville Wednesday. She was then given an escort to the hospital.

We lost a significant member of our community even though he was not a resident. We have also lost to the justice system a seemingly normal man who was overtaken by evil.

So how do we make sense of this? We grieve for people we don’t know who die of senseless violence in other parts of the world like we recently did for the Tucson shooting victims. But those kinds of things happen in other places, not here. Now these kinds of things happen here.

Violence seems to have always been with humanity. It certainly was with the people who wrote the books of the Bible. Even in Genesis, we only have to wait until chapter four when the first murder is recorded. Cain’s punishment from God was not an execution, it was exile. Cain was marked so that no one would kill him.

The Bible is, among other things, a story of God helping us through our violent tendencies. The Bible names our violence. God condemns that violence (though there are some uncomfortable parts in the Old Testament where God condones violence). Human violence got so out of hand that God was determined to do us all in. One family was spared in the flood. The rest of humanity died. But that did not resolve the issue. Violence returned to the earth.

God’s next plan was to pick one group to live righteously as an example for the rest of humanity to emulate. Abraham and Sarah were righteous people picked to be the progenitors of this group.

Their descendants ended up as slaves in Egypt. Moses delivered them and gave them a set of laws to obey, since they were not going be as good as Abraham. That didn’t work out so well, either, even though God sent prophets to remind them of how they are to behave.

In the midst of their exile, God sends a prophet to encourage and remind them of their place in the world that we heard this morning, “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.” (Isaiah 58:9, NRSV) This part of Isaiah is in a poem. It may have been sung. It is easier to memorize a poem and is more so if it is a song. This way the words of the prophet can spread faster among the people.

These are words of comfort to people who are hurting. It is a message to people who are asking, “Where is God?” There are people in Placerville asking that same question. In the midst of despair God promises to be there. That is where we are at in Placerville. When we call on God, God will be here and is here.

God gave us free will. And so God becomes self-limiting in this way in that God does not intervene when something as horrible as this murder happens. John had a choice. John could let evil enter his being and act on that evil or he could have “cooled off” and moved on. He had the time to think about it.

Since Sam knew John pretty well, I must assume that Sam was aware of some demons that John had. In spite of this, John was Sam’s friend. This says a lot about the kind of person that Sam was.

Sam was a very hands on principal, greeting students as they arrived each morning. Both at Schnell and at Markham, he was well liked by peers, students, and parents. To say that he will be missed, is an understatement.

In today’s gospel, Jesus uses salt and light as metaphors for people. What Jesus says about salt is confusing to us. The big reason is that we use refined salt that they did not have in Jesus’ time. Refined salt is always salt. First century salt contained impurities. Salt was used as a condiment as it is now. But more importantly, salt was used as a preservative in a world that had no refrigeration, at least not in that climate. So salt was very valuable to keep food longer.

Salt that was left around, letting humidity or rain deteriorate it would leave the impurities, often limestone. What was salt would loose its taste and would be worthless as a condiment or a preservative.

We disciples are the salt of the earth. But if our inner demons replace the goodness that is in us, then we lose our saltiness and we can be trodden under foot. These are harsh words. Jesus is saying that if we fail to be the best we can be, then we can be thrown out with the trash. It’s hard to hear Jesus talk about throw away people. We, or least I, like to think that everyone is loved and valued by God.

Using this analogy, John Luebbers is no longer the salt of the earth. He is worth only to be trodden under foot. To be trodden under foot would not be a bad metaphor for a life in prison, where John is undoubtedly headed for.

Scholars debate what Jesus was referring to here. It could be that Jesus is saying disciples are to preserve the world from decay or add divine taste to the world. What Jesus may be saying is that the rabbis are wrong in how we derive righteousness (surprise, surprise). Jewish wisdom says that righteousness comes out of what we do and is external, such as praying, giving money, fasting, etc. But Jesus is saying that righteousness comes from within. This view is seen in the beatitudes and elsewhere in the New Testament.

Sam LaCara had a righteousness that came from within. It showed as salt and light to the people at the schools that he served. Though Sam’s life was cut short, whenever we hear this gospel reading, whenever we hear about someone being the salt of the earth, we will remember Sam LaCara and understand what this means.

I think that verses six and seven of today’s psalm sum up Sam’s life.

6 For the righteous will never be moved;

they will be remembered forever.

7 They are not afraid of evil tidings;

their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord. (Psalm 11:6-7, NRSV)

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1 Response to When a Community Has a Murder

  1. Connie Zelinsky says:

    I am glad to read the way you describe Sam; the salt and the light that we will remember whenever we read this gospel reading or someone speaks about the salt of the earth. That seems very fitting.

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