On Monday afternoon we bid a final farewell to Trevor Veasey, a much loved member of our church community who died on 19 January after a battle with cancer. He and Tina have both been an inspiration over the past year as they faced this illness together. It was wonderful to see the church full as we celebrated the life of this brave man. This is the sermon I delivered during the service ...
Over the past couple of months I’ve been reading a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian. He could have escaped from Germany, but chose to stay and share in the suffering of his people. His faith drove him to become active in the opposition against Hitler, and he ultimately paid for this with his life. The thing is, he knew this would probably be the case. He once wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” It wasn’t just a saying for him – he lived this out. For many of us it would be an awful prospect, but he didn’t feel that way. He once said,
Why are we so afraid when we think about death? ... Death is only dreadful for those who live in dread and fear of it. … Death is grace, the greatest gift of grace that God gives to people who believe in him. Death is mild, death is sweet and gentle; it beckons to us with heavenly power, if only we realize that it is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace. … Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvellous, that we can transform death.
In fact, once he knew he was about to be executed, he said to a fellow prisoner, "This is the end...for me the beginning of life!"
The memory of Trevor Veasey will live long in my memory. He may not have many – if any books written about him – not many people beyond the congregation gathered here may know of his name, but for me he stands tall – like Bonhoeffer – as a man of courage and a witness to the God he loved and served. I was with him that day in Manchester – a year ago yesterday – as he stood up to be counted and to take his faith to the next level. The title of the day was “Courageous” – on that day the hundreds of us gathered there were encouraged to get serious about their faith, to take a stand for Jesus. Carl Beech, the speaker, invited people to come up and shake his hand. Trevor leapt out of his seat and he was the first to respond. He expressed his determination to fight whatever battles God was calling him to fight.
It turned out his fight would be against cancer – as you know, it was a battle he’d fought before. This time, it would take his life. He wouldn’t go down without a fight, and so he faced the treatment head on. But when he knew he wouldn’t win this battle, he fought other battles in his life – to make his remaining months count, to stay positive and strong. He fought to complete a course run by the diocese, and he fought to complete Alpha – courses which both enabled him to go deeper with his faith. He fought to be confirmed. It was a great privilege to stand there as the church’s representative on that day. The day after, Trev stood up in church and said that I must have felt 10 foot tall that day. I did. I was possibly the proudest man in that church that day.
I had the awesome privilege of meeting with Trev just a couple of weeks ago to talk about his funeral. He knew he was nearing death; that he didn’t have long to live, but he wasn’t afraid. He was at peace. It was an honour to talk and pray with him that afternoon. At the end of our time together, I gave him a hug and said I loved him, that I’ll miss him. I did and I will, like many others here. I have huge admiration for the way in which he faced his death. It’s so apt that the name of the day was “Courageous” because that perfectly describes the way Trev faced the final year of his life. How, might we ask, could it be possible to face death and not be afraid, to have such peace?
The answer is that Trev knew the reality of God in his life. He knew that Jesus loved him so much that he lived and died for him. He knew the truth that, as we heard in our reading a moment ago, that Jesus is the resurrection and the life., that those who believe in Jesus will live, even though they die” (v.26). He knew that these words spoken by Jesus to a grieving Martha were also words of hope for him. They’re words of hope for us too, if we’ll only grab onto that hope. I think Trev could face his final battle for a couple of other reasons – God gave him the gift of strength that comes from having a wonderfully strong family unit to support him, but also to have that bedrock of faith to stand on. I think that God knew what was coming for Trevor, that he would have the ultimate battle to fight, and that Trevor was meant to go to that men’s day to hear the message about having courage, so that he could be equipped for this ultimate battle. Some of you will remember that the confirmation service in September took place the day after the sudden death of the vicar of the host church, John Mills. During his sermon, the Bishop of Coventry said something I will never forget. He said that Christians are those who can look death in the face. Why? Because Jesus defeated death when he died on the cross, taking our sin onto himself, and rose again, destroying the power of death.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer looked death in the face, and so did Trevor. Will we? Do we know that God loves us with an undying love that withstands death – so much so that he sent his Son Jesus to live and die and rise again for us? Do we have faith that when we approach our own death God will welcome us with open arms? And do we share the reality that Trevor experienced, knowing that God was with him, giving him strength for each day. Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). If you ask, Jesus will give you that same gift of faith, and he’ll open the door to eternal life for you.
At the men’s day in Manchester that proved so significant for Trev, in the moments before he and many others were asked to take a stand, the speaker read out something he called “A Call to Christian Men”. He finished with these words …
You’ll one day breathe your last breath
Live life in readiness for the final journey
Keep God close, walk in repentance before Him
Make sure you are at peace with all men
Point others to the place where you are heading
When that time comes, if your heart is right and you are walking with the King
You will receive a faith hero’s welcome
Trevor, you lived up to that. You were and are a faith hero. I’m proud to stand here as your vicar and friend. God is proud to call you his Son. Jesus is proud to welcome you home. We entrust you to his loving arms. He’ll never let you go. Although it’s the end, for you it’s the beginning of life.
As for the rest of us, God longs to give us his comfort and peace. As Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, he weeps with us as we grieve and he longs to bring us his comfort. It is natural to be sad, but God is the God of all comfort and offers to be with us through all the highs and lows of life. In our grief and sorrow and in our joy. God is faithful and strong.