In certain ways, Sal Salierno had a very difficult childhood. When he was a young child, Sal’s mother abandoned Sal, his older sister Mitzi, and their father, Sal Sr. His father did the best he could raising his two children alone. There were good times like when Sal’s Dad would take him to South Mountain Reservation to feed the deer. But it was tough without a mother around. Facing these hardships together, Sal and his sister became very close.
In her late teens Mitzi got married to Michael and the young couple lived for a time in Virginia Beach while Michael was in the navy. Mitzi would invite her little brother to come for extended visits in the summer time when he was off school. In a strange new city, Mitzi received moral support from her brother’s com- pany. These were happy times, as Mitzi and her brother would drive about exploring the city, having fun.
Mitzi remembers her brother as someone who really listened when someone talked, and as someone who was always ready to give a helping hand. In time, Mitzi and Michael had two daughters, Laura and Theresa. Their Uncle Sal became a very special part of their lives. When Sal would visit, he always made the girls feel very important, never ignoring them. They loved it when Uncle Sal was coming over.
Sal didn’t meet the woman he would marry until he was in his mid-thirties. Kinga and he fell very much in love. As a child, Sal had never been to the circus. It was the sort of thing he had missed out on as a child. Knowing this, his wife Kinga decided to surprise Sal with a trip to the circus. They were going somewhere, she said, but she wouldn’t tell where. So they got in the car and headed out with Kinga driving. When Kinga handed him the tickets, Sal started crying, happy tears.
Kinga remembers Sal as a true gentleman, as someone who could be both playful and gentle and had a way with both kids and animals. She remembers that although Sal was a very serious person, in a certain sense, “old for his age”, he also had a good sense of humor. Sal could be a real “goofball”. His laughter was real and genuine, and his laughter itself could make her laugh. She remembers his basic fairness towards people; there were times when she would be upset with someone, and Sal would try to point out the other person’s point of view. He had wisdom.
The past eight years led Sal through an extremely dark valley. His back was injured on the job. Two surgeries followed, and both did no good whatsoever, leaving him with a great deal of physical pain. Unable to work, Sal lost his job. As a result of a blood transfusion Sal received during his surgery, Sal eventually would come down with hepatitis C in addition to scarosis of the liver. Sal had always had an inclination towards depression, and now he plummeted into an exceedingly painful clinical depression. As Sal withdrew deeper and deeper into himself, it became impossible for the marriage to survive. Sal and Kinga remained friends, keeping in touch by phone every week or so.
In the past year or so, Sal had begun to come out of his hibernation. His friend and neighbor Rob brought Sal to our church, and Sal found himself experiencing a sense of peace sitting in here in the worship ser-vices. Instead of departing immediately after worship, Sal would stay around after the worship services for coffee hour. He felt welcomed, and began to get to know several people from the congregation. Sal felt closer to God. He took the new members class and became a member. On the day Sal knelt here before the altar and we prayed over him, making his confession to Jesus, tears of joy rolled down his cheeks.
One of my memories of Sal is of him standing in the hallway after worship with a happy look on his face. When I asked him what was up, he told me he just really enjoyed watching the children of the church doing there thing — there was just so much life. He showed up to watch the children’s Easter party; he loved watching the children hunt for Easter eggs and play their games. A very special person in Sal’s life the last two years was Rob and Carolyn’s little boy Sean. Sal was Sean’s primary baby sitter. Sean loved having Sal watch him. Sal would really give himself over to Sean: he’d play action figures, or sword fight, or wrestle with Sean, whatever Sean in all his energy wanted to do. Occasionally Sean would ask his parents to go out somewhere specifically so that Sal could come over and watch him. Rob will always remember at the end of each baby-sitting session the way Sal and Sean would both look: sweaty, flushed, eyes beaming with big smiles on their faces. Sal would walk kind of funny for a couple of days afterward from all the wrestling, but he considered it well worth it.
Sal was always available to Rob and Carolyn to go over and pick up Sean from the Day Care Center next door to the apartment complex. Sean introduced Sal to his little pre-school friends at the Day Care Center. Sal got in the habit of parking his car way over by the Child Care Center, because when the children were out in the playground they’d yell out a chorus of greetings to Sal, making him laugh.
Sal befriended a couple of brothers from Poland who lived in his apartment complex: Lucas, who is 13, and Chris, who is 10. Whenever Sal would see them out playing some game: Frisbee, basketball, hockey, Sal would join in for a couple of minutes (as long as his back would allow). A friendly competition developed between Lucas and Sal, and amid much laughter, they would always look to be on opposite teams in the games in order to try and get the better of each other. Last Summer when Lucas and Chris took a trip to Poland for a visit, they made a point of bringing a present back for Sal. Sal meant a lot to them.
Sal is remembered in his apartment complex as someone who was always willing to lend a helping hand. There were several people he gave rides to free of charge. In recent months Sal could often be seen out walking around the complex, trying to heal, trying to get stronger. His depression had lessened. Things had begun to look up for Sal. The newspapers speak of a relationship that Sal developed in recent months with a woman he met in his complex named Evette. Sal was very upfront about this friendship; it was first and foremost his com-passionate attempt to help a person who had a lot of serious problems. Sal was the kind of person who easily felt the pain of other people. Sal’s support of Evette led him to receive numerous threats. In all his physical frailty, Sal stood firm; he was afraid, but he showed remarkable courage, doing what he believed was right.
The day before Sal died, he drove an hour and a half to Pennsylvania to visit his whole family. It was the first time he’d gotten to see them in six months. It was as if God was giving them one last time to be together. The occasion for the visit was that Sal had just become a great uncle: Laura had a baby girl, Martina, just two weeks old, whom Sal got to hold. There were plans for Sal to come visit again next month for Thanksgiving.
You will see Sal again. The Apostle Paul said, “I am convinced that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” In this life, Sal knew a great deal of suffering. What Paul is saying is that this past Sunday evening, when Sal passed from this life into the next, when he entered that glorious light which is heaven, all the suffering that he had endured in this life becomes like a drop of water in comparison to the ocean of God’s love and glory he was now enjoying. Sal’s old body which gave his such trouble has been replaced by a brand new spiritual body, one that can run and not get weary, one that can play-wrestle with children and never get tired. He’s entered a place more delightful than the circus. One day you will join him there.
In the meantime, how do we honor Sal’s memory here on earth? The violence of his death disturb us terribly. So the question is put before us, what would Sal want? He was such a gentle man; violence so foreign to his way of life. And when Sal died, all that was not of love fell away. What remains is Sal’s essential nature, his kindness, his laughter, his compassion, his courage.
Sal would want his death to be a call to kindness. He would not want it to be the occasion for our hearts to turn bitter. Violence threatens to engulf our society. Let us turn from violence and embrace the way that leads to peace. Let us love our children and let them know they are special. We have said to one another this past week, “what a waste, the death of this good man.” And indeed a precious life has been wasted. But in some sense his death would not be a waste if we were to allow God to speak to us through Sal’s death; if we were to commit ourselves anew to the God of love that we know in Jesus the Christ.
The Bible tells us that when Jesus came to Jerusalem knowing that he would die there a violent death, he wept over the city, and cried out, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they have hidden their eyes.” Let us open our eyes and learn this day the things that make for peace. We are not alone. Sal prays for us from the perfect light of heaven. Jesus, killed by violence himself, walks beside us — wants to live within us. He won’t leave you orphaned. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.