(My daughter, Anna, was killed by a driver who had been drinking on March 17, 2001. She was 19, traveling with four friends to volunteer at a grade school in New Orleans over spring break when their car was struck. Two of her friends survived. This is the sermon I preached at her funeral.)
Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.
Deb, Megan and I want to thank everyone for their incredible kindness to us over this last week. Everyone with whom we have come in contact has been wonderful. We are deeply grateful that you have shared so freely with us what Anna has meant to your life. And as a parent I am especially grateful for the love and support you have shown to Megan.
Every parent wants to know that their child’s life has counted for something, that they have made some contribution to others, that they have added some joy and light and life to the world. The stories you shared with us about the impact Anna has had on your lives reminded us again and again that though Anna’s life was short, it was lived well, and it was lived fully.
We want to thank you also for your kindness to one another. You have cared not only for us but for each other. You have reached out to one another, you have embraced one another, you have cared for one another. And there is no greater legacy to Anna’s life than that she might inspire us to love one another more deeply.
I wanted to speak this morning not only as Anna’s father, but also as Anna’s pastor. It was my honor to be Anna’s dad. It is one of the great privileges of my life, that I can say honestly that it is an honor to be the parent of both Anna and Megan. God has laid some heavy burdens on me over my lifetime. But he has also given me great and wonderful joys. And Anna and Megan are the greatest of those joys.
It was an honor to be Anna’s dad. It was also a great honor for me to be Anna’s pastor. I’ve never known anyone who participated in the service and listened to the sermon more intently than Anna did. Anna almost always came to both services, and the reason she did was so she could hear the sermon twice.
The word that was preached was deeply important for her. She would get frustrated if she was sitting with others who, shall we say, weren’t listening as closely. You can ask pretty much any one of the members of her youth group, and I suspect they had all been shushed by her at time or another – or at least they’ve gotten “the look”.
So I stand before you this morning to speak as Anna’s pastor, to speak the Word that Anna took so earnestly, the Word that Anna knew was the Word of Life.
This is a great and wonderful phrase “the word of life”, and I don’t use it lightly. I don’t use it as just a familiar religious phrase. Anna understood that the word which we proclaim – the message God speaks to our lives through the scriptures, the message God speaks to our lives in Jesus, the message God speaks to our lives through the sermon, the liturgy the hymns and prayers, the message God speaks to our lives through the lives of other people – Anna understood that this message is the Word of Life.
By this we mean that this message is a word that brings life to us. This message about a God who bends down to touch the earth in Jesus of Nazareth, who takes off his royal robes and takes up the suffering of living and dying, who literally gives his life for others, this message is the word that brings life to us.
This message, this word, this speaking of God to our lives is the source of life. It is that one pearl of great price before which all other pearls of life pale. It is that one treasure hidden in the soil which is worth selling all that you have in order to possess. Because this word brings life, real life, down to earth, day by day, better than life itself life.
In the church, when we use the phrase “eternal life” we don’t just mean life after death, we mean life in the midst of death, life in a world where we are surrounded by death, life in a world where we are surrounded by grief and tragedy and sorrow and selfishness and cruelty and ignorance and apathy. Eternal life is the life that comes to us from eternity. It is a kind of life, a quality of life, a living that doesn’t perish, a living that cannot be defeated by death. Evil can snuff out Anna’s physical existence, but it cannot snuff out her life, because the life she lived was an eternal life, the life she lived was rooted in eternity, the life she lived shared in the character of eternity.
This is different than being “religious.” And it is different than being “godly.” The great challenge of human existence is to allow our existence to be transformed into a life.
“I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly,” says Jesus, and what he has in mind is not some kind of stern, dry, sterile, proper, never-make-mistakes kind of life, nor a far-off-when-you-die kind of life, but a life that jumps in the fall leaves, laughs with friends, rejoices in kindness, delights in beauty and song and dance – a life that rises to be what life was intended to be. A life that is not weighed down with guilt, regret, or anything else that keeps our attention on our own selves, but a life that is free to live and to love and to serve others.
That’s what we mean by eternal life. In John 5:24 Jesus says:
Truly, truly, I tell you, whoever listens to my teaching and trusts the one who sent me, has eternal life [notice the present tense, they have eternal life]; they do not come into judgment, but have already passed from death into life.
Eternal life is not waiting for us when we die. It is waiting for us now. God’s invitation and God’s promise is that our lives can be shaped and governed now by all that is eternal.
Love, kindness, generosity, joy, mercy, truth, these are the things that are eternal. They will never perish. Everything you buy will perish. Everything in the world we are tempted to trust – our wisdom, our strength, our courage, our work, our fame our beauty – all these will perish. The only things that do not perish are love, kindness, generosity, joy, mercy, and truth. These are the things that are eternal. These are the things that transform existence into life.
Anna listened with all her being to Jesus’ teaching. She trusted the God who sent him. And because of that her existence was transformed into a life. And we were able to see the reflection of eternity in her thoughts, words and deeds.
The text that I want to bring to you this morning is from the twelfth chapter of Luke where Jesus says:
Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like people waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes they can immediately open the door for him. Those servants will be blessed whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. Those servants will be blessed whose master finds them ready, even if he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
“You must be ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
It’s hard not to hear that passage and think about how suddenly and unexpectedly Anna, Sally and Chris’ lives were over. In an instant there was no longer any chance to fix anything. In an instant, when they did not expect it, if there was any angry word between them and their parents, there was now no time to repair it. If there was anyone they had hurt, there was now no time to apologize. If there was any kindness they had neglected, it would now not get done by them. Suddenly, at an hour no one expected, they were out of time.
“You must be ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
It seems at first glance to be an awful warning. A kind of “Watch out, you never know…” warning. But what is fascinating about this story is hiding in verse 37 where it says “Those servants will be blessed whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.”
None of us live with servants, but we have all seen enough movies or read enough books to recognize how strange this is that the master comes home and instead of the servants serving him, he ties on an apron, makes them sit down at the table, and serves them.
I’m sorry, it’s just hard to imagine anyone wealthy enough to have servants going into the kitchen and whipping up a meal for the housekeeping staff.
That’s like going to the barber and saying “Here, let me cut your hair.” Or telling the grocery store clerk “Here, you’ve had a hard day, let me do this for you.” I’m sorry this just isn’t the way the world is. Nobody hires a cleaning lady and then goes to her house to clean her bathroom.
Blessed are those who are dressed and ready to serve, because the householder will come and serve them?
The answer to this puzzle lies in that little note that the master is coming home from a wedding banquet. The master is coming home from a great and joyful party. The master is coming home in the joy and exuberance and good will of a wedding.
I have this picture in my mind of someone like Tevye from “Fiddle on the Roof” singing and dancing, with a bottle of wine in his hand, so overflowing with joy that when he gets home he just wants to keep the party going. He gathers all his workers – all those who are awake and ready – he gathers all his workers and spreads out a table, opens up the wine and makes them all start singing and dancing with him. He brings the joy of the wedding feast.
So the message of the parable is not that Jesus is coming suddenly when you least expect it in some kind of pop-quiz or surprise inspection. The message is that God is coming to dance with you at an hour you do not expect.
This morning we do not expect God to come. This morning we do not expect anything good. This morning we expect only grief and tears and an unimaginable ache in our souls. This morning we expect only guilt and sorrow and frustration and anger and heaven knows what other emotions. This morning we expect anything but joy.
But this is the time, says Jesus, when you need to be ready. This is the time when you need to be watching. This is the time when you need to be listening. This is the time when you need to wait for me. For it is in precisely these moments when you do not expect me, that I will come.
In these days when life seems most bleak, these are the days you need to keep your dancing shoes on. These are the moments when you need to be looking out the window and watching, because these are the moments that God is coming to you.
To be honest with you I don’t want to be here today. I want to lock myself in my room and cry into my pillow. I want to pull the drapes and lock the doors and crawl into a tiny ball and collapse into my grief. But Jesus says, “David, keep the lights on, because I am coming to you today. Watch for me. Wait for me. I will come. Keep your dancing shoes on, because I will bring you my joy.”
I don’t feel like dancing. I have no joy, but Jesus will bring me his joy. I have no peace, but Jesus will bring me his peace. I have no life, but Jesus is bringing me his life.
Keep the lights on. Keep the door open. I am coming to you. Someone said to me on Thursday, in their tears, “Where is God?”. And all I could do was point around the room at hundreds of people hugging each other and caring for each other and say “He’s all around us.” This person did not expect him, and wasn’t waiting for him, and couldn’t see him. But he was there, in every hug, in every listening ear, in every kind word, He was there in every single encounter. He was all around us. And he is here this morning. And he was there on that roadway to wrap those kids in his arms.
In those times when you least expect it, God will come – in a word from scripture, in the forgiveness that is embodied in this bread and wine, in the warm embrace of a friend, in the smile of a young girl with daisies in her hair. God will come. And he will touch your life with all that is eternal.
Jesus came to the disciples when they were on the boat in the storm. Jesus came to Bartimaeus when he was blind. Jesus came to the woman at the well when she was an outcast. Jesus came to Zacchaeus in the tree. Jesus came to the thief as he hung on the cross. Jesus came to the widow as she was on her way to bury her son. Jesus came to Lazarus when had had been in the grave four days. Jesus came when they least expected it. And to them all he brought life.
Keep your dancing shoes on. Be dressed and ready to serve. For Jesus your master is coming to you in the joy of the eternal wedding feast.
As I was thinking about whether to preach this morning, one of the best reminders I received was from a friend who said: “People won’t remember the message you preach. What people will remember is the message Anna lived.”
Anna lived with her dancing shoes on. She lived ready to serve. She knew God would come.
If you want to honor Anna’s life, seek the life that was in her. Seek the life that is eternal. Seek the things that will never perish. And keep your dancing shoes on, keep the door of your heart wide open, for God is coming to you in the hours when you least expect him.