Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
The Word of the Lord.
In a hospital room, a man of many years faces an uncertain surgery. After praying the Lord’s Prayer, he says simply, “I prayed that prayer 29 times.” No one who knows the struggles of his generation needs to ask what he means. 29 times he prayed that prayer. And then, each time, he would get into a tin can with wings, while the enemy blasted exploding shells at him. Each time, there were those who did not return home. Blown out of the sky. The Lord’s Prayer was prayed in the face of death. The difference between alive and dead was not so much skill as it was Divine Providence. Most would survive any given mission. A few would not. After it was all over, those who remained would honor the memories of their fallen brothers in arms with toasts throughout the years. Gatherings of those who had served. Eventually, the toasts were to those who succumbed to heart disease or cancer. And finally, the last gathering. The final remembrance, the final toasts. There were too few now to meet again. Their generation had passed. They were called the greatest generation, because they survived the depression, only to face a world at war. Young men went off to fight and bleed and die on foreign shores, to ensure the safety and security of those back home. And when it was over, those who lived came back, picked up where they left off. With school, careers, families.
Don would go on to a very successful law career. The legislature, town and country attorney. His resume would get longer and longer. With Jean, his wife of many years. Three successful children, grandchildren, great grandchildren. Their family larger and larger. Blessing after blessing. And the prayer our Lord gave us, prayed those 29 times in the face of death, prayed over and over again surrounded by friends and family. On Sunday mornings in church, with family, in times of trouble and distress. It was not that he hadn’t prayed the prayer thousands of other times. It was that those 29 were prayed with death looming, and not in the background. Death was hanging over every word of that prayer each of those 29 times.
That’s what made those 29 different from the thousands of others, when death merely lurked in the shadows. It wasn’t that the Word of God was any less true. It wasn’t that God was providing any less as the years went on. It wasn’t that Don was any less a sinner in need of forgiveness. And then, as an old man, in that hospital room, death was looming again. The first 29 times were mentioned. This was, in a sense, the 30 time. And again, God was gracious. And again, Don was spared for a time. But by then, time and sin had done their work. Don knew the end must come. If not that day, then soon. He’d seen it happen too many times to too many friends and family to have any false illusions about his own mortality. He knew the hard truth. As a lawyer, he had to help clients, and opponents, face reality often enough. Don knew the hard truth of God’s Law. The strength of sin is the law, and that strong sin leads to the sting of death.
Don was a figure larger than life. The stories flowed, his personality could fill a room. But that was Don, enjoying the gifts given him in this world by his Heavenly Father. But he knew his own failures, his own sin, that made him subject to the power of death in this world. Because he knew – his parents raised him to know – not only right and wrong, but sin and redemption through Jesus Christ. The stories of his life were epic. The stories of his parents were always of the moral kind. Stern punishment for wrong, but always tempered by and delivered with the true love of a parent for a child. Poverty of possessions and richness of love. His life after the war was of love as well. His love for Jean, her love for him. Their great romance. Again, it all seems larger than life, because that’s the sort he was.
And after He finally joined the church his wife had known from childhood, the tales he told of his time in the church were larger than life as well. And Don and Jean were a larger than life blessing to this congregation. Those who of an age to remember those years know, and can tell you.
But always through it all, the humble prayer that he learned as a child. The simple true words of that prayer, given by Jesus. A prayer of refuge for those who have been made children of God through the waters of Holy Baptism. The prayer that he prayed those 29 times. The prayer to our Father in Heaven. Don prayed it, asking that he would honor the Word of God rightly, that he would live a godly life according to that word, that he would be forgiven his sins when he strayed from that word, and that he would be kept in that word and in the true faith, until his dying day. He no longer prays that prayer. Now the prayer of the faithful is changed into the song of praise. Now he stands in the company of angels and archangels, around the throne of God and the lamb. That’s where he is. We are still here. We mourn our father, grandfather, brother in the faith, who has completed his race, and now has been awarded the crown of righteousness, which is given to all those who have longed for his appearing.
Don knew he was not – could not – gain this crown on his own. He could not be saved by any of his larger than life acts. He knew he was saved from German flack only by the providence of God. Just as he knew he was saved from his sins only by the blood of Jesus Christ, who died in Don’s place. Don knew that all of his accomplishments, his war record, his time in the legislature, his legal career, earned him exactly nothing before his heavenly Father. Rather they were all blessings from his heavenly father, so that Don could serve his neighbor in love. But it was Jesus who did the saving. It was Jesus death on the cross that saved Don. The death of Jesus was the only thing that could atone for Don’s sins, the only thing that could save him from the punishment that awaits all sinners. It was the promise of Jesus in which Don took refuge not only 29 times, but even the thirtieth. When death finally came, and Don placed himself in the loving arms of his savior, to be carried out of this world.
And so, at the end, Don prayed again the prayer Jesus gave. The simple prayer that looks to Jesus and his heavenly Father, and not to anything in us, for salvation. That’s where Don trusted. That’s what saved him, as he was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. Grant to each of us, Lord, such a blessed end as our brother in the faith Donald Sherard, who placed his trust in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Grant this Lord, unto us all. Amen.