My father, my pastor

Saturday, Sept. 22, I delivered the following message at my father’s funeral. Larry Wayne Sanders, Jr. took his own life, Sept. 19. He was a faithful husband, loving father and minister of the gospel. Below is a revised transcription of the message from the funeral, but I will be posting periodically on reflections from my father’s life and tragic death. 

Image“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” My grandmother recited Hebrews 13:8 to my father as he rebelled against his parents and walked waywardly from the Lord. My father came to know the Lord through the persistent faithfulness of my grandmother. But as I’ve reflected on this verse, I’m reminded even more of the constant faithfulness of my Lord Jesus Christ.

My earliest memories of my life were spent in church listening to my father’s preaching. At the end of every service I would run down the aisle and stand proudly next to my father the pastor. Sometimes I like to brag about how I learned how to read when I was 3, but I can assure you that I learned the gospel of Jesus Christ from my father even earlier. As I think about how God used my father to bring me into his kingdom, I also looked around me in the days following his death. His brother, sister, cousins, aunts and uncles, even his late father, believed in the Lord Jesus because of my father’s testimony to them. And as I look at my father’s legacy, I know that all who supported our family testified that he shaped their faith story in some way, whether it was sharing the gospel, discipleship or just strengthening their faith in Christ. But most of all, he raised three children and instructed them in the gospel. Not many pastors, no matter how successful their churches, can rejoice in the salvation of all of their children.

My father loved me. The day following his death, I was browsing his bookshelves and noticed a few bookmarks sticking out of the books. Let me preface this by saying my father didn’t use regular bookmarks and he didn’t use them to signify where he left off. He used sentimental items — pictures of his children, old bulletins and flyers, and birthday cards — and he placed them in passages that were meaningful to him. My father told me a story through those passages. The first, in a book by his friend and local hero Dr. Don Wilton, was placed in a passage where Dr. Wilton described his pride and joy in the birth of his firstborn son. I looked through a few of the other books, finding places that described his own suffering, offered me guidance for forgiveness and comforted me in my pain. I’m not entirely certain that my father intended for me to find those books and passages, although he knows my love for reading and probably rightly assumed I would end up looking through them. But even if he did not intend to communicate to me through those books, he didn’t have to. That’s because he never stopped telling me that he loved me. His sandpapery kisses and warm embraces were always accompanied by his reminders that he loved me and was proud of me.

During the endless 7 ½ hour drive from Louisville, my wife asked me a question that had briefly crossed my mind after I heard the news of my father’s death. She asked, “Does this change your call to ministry?” After moments of reflection, I answered her and myself, and said, “It certainly does not change my call. I did not call myself. I certainly don’t feel like it right now, but that does not change the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

And that truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which my father shared with me, is this: Almighty God created the world around us and fashioned two people in the likeness of his image so that they could rule over the earth. Instead of ruling, Adam and Eve bought into a lie from a creature they were supposed to control, breaking an agreement made with God. This brought evil into the world, evil we have experienced this week, causing every single human born on this earth to live apart from God – such a life is truly death. The Lord, who is merciful, continued pursuing relationships so that he could have a people to rule the earth for him. No one was faithful to God’s promises. But God the Father’s promises to his people were unconditional, so he sent his Son Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, to fulfill the promises of his plan. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This was truly unconditional. God’s people could not hold up the end of their deal, they could not save themselves, so God came in the flesh and redeemed them from bondage. And how did he do this? Jesus lived a perfect life, withstanding every temptation and sharing our suffering. Jesus took our sins upon himself on a cross meant for criminals and died, paying the penalty for our sins. But this is not the end of the story. It would appear that Jesus had suffered defeat. On the third day after his death, Jesus rose up the grave, defeating death and giving victory to all those who believe in him. This not only makes salvation possible, it secures salvation for those that believe. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

I stand proudly beside my father the pastor, my friend, my brother in Christ and my hero. Repent and believe in Jesus Christ. This does not require good moral living, but a heartfelt devotion to Almighty God. My father sought after Jesus Christ with his entire heart. Salvation comes from God alone, and by his power alone. It does not require any effort of our own nor is it negated by anything we do. I am assured my father is rejoicing in heaven because of God’s enduring faithfulness. The Christian life, however, is not just about a place we go when we die. It is about peace with God and our fellow man, and a hope that God can provide us victory in all things.

But even when we fail, I am reminded of 2 Timothy 2:10-13: “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. The saying is trustworthy, for:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;

if we endure, we will also reign with him;

if we deny him, he also will deny us;

if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself.”

My father faced immense suffering and turmoil, mentally and spiritually, in recent months. On Wednesday, September 19, my father took his own life. It would appear that my father lost the battle. But the truth of the gospel is that Jesus Christ was victorious in my father’s place, and Jesus will receive glory and honor as my father lives eternally in his presence. Jesus Christ is our faithful Victor.