Living hope - funeral sermon for Pete Beasley

It has been a very difficult time for our church fellowship since Christmas. We said another difficult goodbye to another member of our church family a couple of weeks ago, to Pete, who died from cancer, only 54; still so young. His death has raised many questions, I know, so I hope some people will find helpful the text of the sermon I preached at his funeral, based on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Please do pray for his family and friends as they grieve. --------

Life is full of glory, beauty, mysteries, questions. Some of the answers we discover over time, some we’ll never know the answers to. One of the questions I know that many have asked in the past few months is simply, why? Just 9 months ago Pete ran a half-marathon. He was fit and healthy. He was happy. We’ve heard how secure and loved he was in his family, with Heather, Emma and JB, and with his church family, and with his friends, family and colleagues. He was enjoying his present and planning for the future. There was no reason to expect that this would change. And yet, here we are today, saying goodbye. Why him? Why did he have to go through such a terrible illness and why did he have to die so young – only 54? Why? It doesn’t seem fair. And you know what, it’s not. It stinks. Illness is awful. Cancer is particularly awful. Why does God allow this sort of stuff to go on? I don’t think we will ever really know the answer to that question. But I believe we have the right to shout at God and ask him why, to tell him it’s not fair. He’s our heavenly Father. He loves us and quite frankly, he’s big enough to take it. At the heart of the Christian faith we remember Jesus on the cross, crying out in desolation and loneliness – why? Where are you God? If Jesus could cry out like that, then we can too.

And how, do we imagine God would answer that question? Where are you? I think he’d answer, I’m right here. I’ve always been here. And you know what, Pete knew that. I had the privilege of spending time with him in the past few months of his life, and he knew that God was with him; he was given strength to withstand his illness; God was also present through the way Pete was loved and supported by his family and friends who loved and cared for him. Pete also knew that whatever happened to him, he’d be ok somehow. He was given strength by God and his faith stood firm. Some of you might be wondering how he could be given such strength. After all, many of us are terrified by the thought – either of our own death, or of the death of a loved one. Woody Allen, the American comedian, actor and director, certainly is. He is so terrified of death that he makes jokes about it. “It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens. I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying.”

Woody Allen isn’t alone in fearing death, is he? But Pete wasn’t afraid. Why? Because his hope was in Jesus. Because of Jesus’ lived, died and rose again, we can have hope in the face of death. This is what we see in our Bible passage we just heard.

Saint Paul was writing to a community like ours that was grieving. People they loved had died. Those left behind were devastated and left with many questions. Paul deals with these issues head on. “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.” Paul is not suggesting that grief is wrong – not at all. There is no doubt that death is a terrible thing and that it is devastating when people die, especially in tragic or unexpected circumstances. Grief is right and proper. I mean, I’m gutted to be standing here saying goodbye to Pete, who became a real friend. I can’t imagine what you must be going through when you loved him for so long. But we can be givencomfort and strength through our hope in Jesus. As St. Paul explains, “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (v.14). In other words, he’s saying, don’t let your grief be sharpened by worrying about those who have died with faith in Jesus. Pete’s ok now. He’s with Jesus. Jesus died and rose again, to take away the power of death. He dealt with the sin of the whole world on the cross. The sinless one took on the consequence of our sin, and died. In rising again he defeated death once and for all. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul exclaims – “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55).

Those who have faith in Jesus have only “fallen asleep”; death is only temporary. If Jesus died and rose again, those who have died having had faith in him will rise again too. We die physically, but faith in Jesus makes us alive spiritually and that’s why we shouldn’t grieve like other men – we have hope. Hope that will never die. Death is not the end. There is an amazing future that God has promised for us. Though the world is messed up, hurting and broken, Jesus will return and restore the whole creation to its former, perfect glory, and there will be the most wonderful of reunions – as Paul writes, “we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” – in other words – those Christians who have died are in God’s care and they won’t be missing out at all when Jesus returns – they will be with their saviour who lived and died for them – and they’ll come back with Jesus to meet those who are still alive. There’ll be the most incredible reunion. And most wonderfully of all, there is that promise, “we will be with the Lord forever.” Wow!

Brothers and sisters, this is good news and I would suggest that it is news that we need to hear over and over again. Especially at times like these. Especially in the days, weeks, months and years to come when we ache for Pete and other loved ones from whom we’ve been separated, when the silences are deafening and things you’ve enjoyed simply aren’t the same anymore. We may wonder when the pain will end? When will it go away? This passage tells us the answer – the pain will end for good when Jesus returns, when everything will be made perfect again. Listen to this from Revelation 21: “Now the dwelling of God is with people, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself willbe with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (vv. 3 and 4) I love that passage of Scripture. It paints a wonderful picture of what it will be like when we will live with the Lord forever. It’ll be the end of suffering, the end of sin, and the end of death. This is great news. Jesus is coming back! The Lord is coming back! It is really going to happen. Jesus has given us hope in the face of death. Pete knew that hope. I can’t wait to be reunited with him one day. Maybe we’ll go for that run with him that I always promised I’d do.

Of course, we don’t really know what heaven’s going to be like, but I do believe in faith that Pete’s there now. He’s at peace now. He’s not suffering. He’s with Jesus, in the arms of the God who loves him and will wipe every tear from his eyes. He’s home, where we all belong. In the meantime we ache, because we miss him. We’re the losers here. We’re the ones who have to say goodbye. And it’s going to be hard. There will be dark days ahead, but the same God is with us, ready with his heavenly hankie, offering to wipe away our tears, to hold us in his arms and allow us to cry on him. He’s whispering to us, I’m with you. I’ll always be with you. You’ll never be alone. So let’s allow Jesus to comfort us, and let’s be Jesus to each other. And let’s not lose hope. Jesus is alive. He’s defeated death, and he will come back again. Jesus gives us hope. The tomb is empty. Love and life have won.

Funeral sermon for Trevor Veasey

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.