Delivered by Franklin Sanders, 15 October 2016
I had some unfinished business with Susan, and now I find I have to finish it with y’all. A few moments before she left this world, we were standing in the kitchen, fixing coffee and talking. Now, don’t misunderstand this, as if she and I always stood around discussing theology. Susan had a very practical turn of mind, and her theological questions all aimed at learning how to live out her Christianity.
All the same, I had bought a book about definite atonement entitled, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her. I had barely started reading it and had found this beautiful passage I was trying to share with her from memory. “Oh,” she said, “I want to see that. We can use it in the bulletin when we have baptisms.”
I should have gone upstairs and fetched the book right then, but didn’t, and a few minutes later she passed into the arms of Jesus. So I have this passage exploding in my heart and because I could not share it with Susan, I must share it with you. It comes from the French Reformed Baptism Liturgy. The minister addresses the infant:
For you, little child, Jesus Christ has come, he has fought, he has suffered. For you he entered the shadow of Gethsemane and the horror of Calvary. For you he uttered the cry, “It is finished!” For you he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven and there he intercedes — for you, little child, even though you do not know it. But in this way the word of the Gospel becomes true, “We love him, because he first loved us.”
“We love him, because he first loved us.”
If you understand this, you will understand Susan Sanders, because the one great moving force in her existence was her love for God, and she, of all people, would have given him, and still gives him, all glory, honor, and praise for whatever she accomplished.
All love, even the love of a husband for a wife, originates in the eternal, unchanging love that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have for one another in the blessed Trinity. That love overflowed into creation, and when that love for God wells up in us, it overflows in love for others: husband, wife, children, friends, strangers, even enemies.
Why was Susan the way she was? Because she loved God, who first loved her, and that love overflowed from her heart to her world. Love made her do it.
Why did Susan have so many children? Love made her do it. I have never seen anyone who loved children as much as she did. We always wanted a lot of children, but we didn’t plan their arrival. We loved each other, and God gave us children. And Susan would always correct me when I said that we had seven children, because she had suffered two miscarriages. “No,” she’d say, “nine children, and I will get to meet the other two in heaven.”
Love made Susan, as a friend wrote me yesterday, “every bit of valiant.” I confess, I have never met any human being as brave as Susan was. Sometimes her bravery scared me.
Love made Susan frugal, some might say tight, some even cheap. Her brothers and sisters will say, “No, that’s genetic, she was an Askew,” but I say love made her frugal. She wanted to wring out of every dollar the most for those she loved, and she worked at it. Susan was tight, but she was never stingy. With reckless, spendthrift generosity she played chef and hostess and mother and friend to hundreds.
Love made Susan beautify the world around her. She worked with Justin to design this sanctuary, and they had two goals: make it beautiful, and build to last at least hundred years.
Susan adored flowers and gardening. For no reason but making our supper table beautiful, she kept flowers on it. Every Saturday before our monthly fellowship dinner she worked in the fellowship hall laying out tablecloths and decorating every table according to the season. And don’t even start talking about Christmas.
Love gave Susan self-control. If you have seen her laughing and cutting up and playing, you might question that, but you would be dead wrong. She adored planning parties and celebrations. She taught us to rejoice. Love made her play on purpose, just as she controlled everything else about herself on purpose. Deliberately. She not only controlled what she said, but she controlled what she thought. When she found an evil thought, she rooted it out without mercy or excuse. And if it came back, she dug it out again, and again, until it died for good.
In 1990 and 1991 we went through an 18 month nightmare of a federal trial. The next 19 years of her life and mine hung on the verdict, leaving our children orphans. Although she had a perfect right to do it, in that tortured 18 months, she never the first time pointed her finger in my face and snarled, “This is all your fault!” She never did that. She remained as calm and composed as if nothing at all was unusual. She was brave for all of us, and she never stopped loving me.
Why did Susan engage every stranger? Love made her do it. When she fixed her attention on anyone, they felt like they were the only thing in the world she was interested. She greeted every visitor like visiting royalty she had been longing to see. And there was absolutely nothing fake about it: she loved them, so much that there are at least three men here today who came to her as strangers, but who rejoice to call her their second mother. Three men, and I don’t know how many women.
Last Sunday night I finished the jail services early, about 9:30. Usually I get out later than that and she’s already asleep when I get home. I texted her, “Coming Susanward.” A few minutes later I got back a text, “Yiippeeee!”
Love made Susan pray. In the early years with so many children she didn’t have much time. How many times when we lived on Harbert in Memphis and had three to five children, did I come into our bedroom at night at night to find Susan, kneeling by the bed with her head on the bed, fallen asleep in her prayers.
Recently Susan told me that before I was converted, her mother had told her that she might be the means of my salvation. Mrs. Askew was right.
After all our children moved out Susan had more time to herself so she spent more time praying. She prayed early every morning for a long time, for all her children and grandchildren, for everyone she loved, for strangers, for enemies. She turned every problem over to her heavenly Father. She used to make a pallet on the bathroom floor and lie down. She had stuffed all these slips of paper, reminders, into the baseboard. Finally a few months ago she decided she was going to convert it into her War Room, so she bought cork squares to put above the baseboard, and push pins for pictures and notes.
And God answered Susan’s prayers. Her mother, Mrs. Askew, was famous for her praying and her answered prayers. Some long time before her death, she began telling her children that she wanted to die in her sleep. Sure enough, when she was 90 years old and in perfect health, one Saturday night or Sunday morning she passed away in her sleep.
My children reminded me that Susan had been telling them for a long time that she wanted to “just drop dead!” and she’d snap her fingers.
Susan was not afraid to die, because she loved God. She knew he had delivered her from the power of the grave, and that he would receive her. After her heart surgery, we had eight years to prepare for death, and she used that time to draw even closer to God. She was happy to live, but she was ready to leave any moment. In the end, God granted her prayer. She collapsed on the floor, and within a very few minutes passed into the arms of Jesus.
All this Susan did because God, from all eternity, first loved her, and so she loved him. Now she has her wish, now she has her victory, now she has heard those words every Christian longs to hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of thy Lord.”
Now Susan is dancing with the angels, and no doubt organizing the next celebration in heaven. Wait for us, Susan, wait for us. We’re coming. God’s love will bring us to you.
Remember thy servant, Susan, O Lord, according to the favour which thou bearest unto thy people, and grant that, increasing in knowledge and love of thee, she may go from strength to strength, in the life of perfect service, in thy heavenly kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost ever, one God, world without end. Amen.