[This was shared during the funeral for Sarah, a twenty year old member of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]
2 Timothy 4:6-8
The day after it was determined that Sarah had sustained her fifth relapse with cancer, I walked into her room on J5 at Children’s Hospital in Columbus. What I saw surprised me a little. Sarah was sitting in a chair, looking healthy and strong, eating like a horse! For a moment, I looked at her and said nothing. She looked back and then said, “I know. I’m complicated.”
The fact is that Sarah was not complicated. By that, I don’t mean that she was simple or lacking in sophistication. She was, in fact, wise beyond her years. She had a fantastic, insightful sense of humor. Even on the Sunday before her passing, barely able to talk, she threw out a few pithy remarks that had us chuckling. But she was not complicated.
She was intelligent, gifted, direct, loving toward everyone she met, and faithful to Jesus Christ. With Sarah, except when she didn't want you to know how badly she was feeling, what you saw was who she really was. And who she really was, was one of the most remarkable people I have ever known.
But her life was complicated by a deadly adversary with which she fought for nearly eight years. It brought her pain and difficulties few of us could imagine bearing for moments, let alone years.
Yet I feel safe in saying that the last thing Sarah would want you to remember when you think of her is cancer. Sarah never allowed cancer to define her.
That’s how she kept achieving despite the odds.
That’s how she graduated from high school with honors.
It’s how she kept up with her studies at Denison University and was on track to graduate in four years' time.
It’s how she sang without missing a note at her beloved grandmother’s funeral several years ago.
And it’s how she lit up a room by her mere presence.
And this morning I can tell you that while the cancer that took Sarah’s earthly life is dead forever, Sarah is alive today with God in eternity!
I don’t say that because eternal life with God is a given. It’s not. Jesus, in the passage from John we read a few moments ago, is trying to comfort His first followers. He had told them earlier that He was going to Jerusalem to lay down His life, to be executed on a cross, taking the punishment all of us deserve for our sin: death.
Jesus then tells them—and us—that He is going to prepare places for those who trust in Him in eternity. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says, “Believe in God, believe also in Me.” Later, Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. If you know Me, you will know My Father also.”
Sarah is in eternity because, thanks to the witness of her family at home and the witness of her family here at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, she believed in Jesus Christ. It is as simple and uncomplicated as that.
And Sarah lived her belief in Christ. When she had her second bone marrow transplant back in 2008, I was shuttling between Children's Hospital, where she was a patient, and The OSU Medical Center where, Dee, another member of our congregation was undergoing another procedure. After looking in on Dee, I went back to see how Sarah was doing. The first thing she asked when I walked into her room was, "How's Dee?"
I heard second-hand this week about a young woman who graduated from high school with Sarah. This young woman said that she was sometimes subjected to ridicule by “the popular kids.” But Sarah, one of the popular kids herself, always made a point of speaking with her and befriending her.
You see, when you’re secure in your relationship with the God Who came to die and rise for you and when you’ve faced down death with that Savior by your side, it changes both the way you live and the way you die. You don’t need to go along with the crowd. You saw that in Sarah.
Of course, none of this banishes our questions this morning. This side of eternity, we cannot know why one so young and so wonderful suffered so much or left us so soon.
Sarah told me about a year-and-a-half-ago during an interview for a county youth newsletter, “Sometimes I get angry with God. But I know that He’s always with me. And He helps me focus on the meaning of life.” If any of you feel angry with God today, it’s OK. God is big enough to take your anger and still love you. And, as Becky and I have discussed many times, you don’t get angry with a God you don’t believe is there. But, as was true for Sarah, even now God can help you focus on the meaning of your life.
And the meaning of life is also an uncomplicated thing. We are each meant to love God, love others, trust in Christ, and share Christ with others by our words and our actions so that they too can trust in Christ and have life through Him. These were all touchstones for Sarah’s life.
She wanted more, of course. She wanted to graduate from college. She wanted to counsel young people fighting things like cancer because she would understand their struggles and give them hope. Like you, I prayed often and fervently that God would make Sarah’s aspirations come to pass. It hasn’t turned out the way any of us prayed it would.
But Sarah always understood that was a possibility. Two years ago, from this pulpit, Sarah preached on Easter Sunday morning. At one point, she retold the legend of three trees that her father, Bryan, sometimes read for children’s programs here at Saint Matthew. Each tree had hopes for itself.
One tree hoped that it would become a treasure chest, filled with jewels and precious things. “On the outside,” the first tree said, “I will have intricate designs and everyone will be dazzled by my beauty.”
The second tree wanted to be a ship that carried kings and queens. “Everyone will feel safe in me because of the strength of my hull,” the second tree said.
The third tree wanted to grow to be the tallest, straightest tree in the forest. “Everyone will look at me on top of the hill, see my branches pointing up to heaven, and think of God,” the third tree said. “I will be the greatest tree of all time and people will always remember me.”
The first tree became, not a treasure chest, but a feeding trough. One night in Bethlehem, it held the greatest treasure the world has ever seen: God-in-the-flesh, Jesus, just after He was born.
The second tree was turned into a fishing boat that plied the Sea of Galilee where, one day, a ferocious storm frightened Jesus’ disciples. From its hull, Jesus, the King of all kings and the Lord of all lords, quieted a storm, inciting the disciples to ask, “Who is this whom even wind and waves obey?”
The third tree was chopped down and turned into lumber. Some of its boards were made into a cross on which Jesus was crucified. For a while, the third tree felt ugly and hateful. Yet on the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion, it felt differently. Jesus had risen from the dead and the empty timbers of His cross pointed then, as it still points today, to heaven. It reminds us that through faith in Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life, God gives to all who turn from sin and believe in Christ eternal life with God.
After recounting that legend in her Easter sermon, Sarah said that the story was “a reminder to me that God has a special path that each of us will journey in our lives.” She continued, “For me on this Easter Day, I remember the past six years of my life. Through those years I knew that my life was and still is in God’s hands and I need to trust in him just as Jesus did when he died on the cross.”
Sarah lived a life filled with meaning, short though it was. And her life pointed to Jesus. It still does.
All this past week, whenever I thought of Sarah, I remembered the words of Saint Paul to the young pastor Timothy, which we read a little while ago. Paul knew he would die soon. But he could say words I can easily hear Sarah saying, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.”
Sarah’s fight has ended and Christ has won it for her. She is in the presence of God at this moment. Our fight remains before us and it will only be won, as Sarah’s was, by holding on tenaciously to the nail-scarred hands of the Savior Who died and rose for us. I pray desperately that we will all do that!
Bryan, Becky, and Stephen, to you and your extended family: We love you. We stand with you. We pray for you. In the days and years ahead, keep looking to Jesus. He will give your lives meaning. He will sustain you as He has sustained you these past eight years and as He sustained Sarah. And He will hold onto you all the way to an eternity filled with a never-ending reunion with Christ and with all who, like Sarah, have loved His appearing.
What a reunion that will be!
God bless you!