I am grateful for my father’s love and strength. Here is a sermon that I preached at Morton Church soon after Daddy’s death.
A Sermon on Deuteronomy 33:27; Romans 8:26, 28, 31-32, 35, 37-39; And John 14:1-7, 18-20, 25-27
In Loving Memory of My Father, Fred Harris
When I was a child my father had very, very strong arms. He could scoop up and toss feed into the manger as if it were as light as lint. Daddy could throw bales of hay across the loft. His hands could strip the last drop of milk from a cow.
Daddy could pick my mother up in his arms and carry her over the threshold. My brother, Charles, and I both remember Daddy lifting us into his lap. We vividly remember, for example, Daddy holding us there while Mom did the paperwork when we had to check into the hospital for surgery. But best of all was how high Daddy could lift us up. He would come in from the barn at night, and Charles and I would reach out our arms and exclaim, “Daddy! Jump us in the air!” And we would jump, and he would raise us up much higher than we could ever jump. We could even ride on Daddy’s shoulders then. That’s one thing I think of when I hear that song, “You Raise Me Up.”—“I am strong when I am on your shoulders…you raise me up to more than I can be.”
It has really hurt to watch illness and time take their toll, so that at the end, we were lifting Daddy with our arms. His hands grew so stiff that he could barely move his fingers. Why did this good man have to endure this? And why did we have to witness it? This kind of pain is the price we pay for living and loving.
Daddy’s favorite hymn begins “Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side.” Sometimes pain makes it really challenging to trust that promise. Is God really on our side, and yet God still lets these things happen? Nobody is spared. And as Paul puts it, the whole creation, and not just us humans, is groaning with longing for God to set us free from suffering and death. All nature does sing, yes, as another of my father’s favorite hymns says. But nature also weeps.
Jesus knew what lay ahead for his disciples. The pain of bereavement was going to blindside them. Jesus’ death would not be a merciful death after a long illness. His disciples were going to witness the murder of one who still had so much promise and so much to live for. Jesus knew that his disciples were going to literally feel orphaned. Abandoned. And yes, their hearts would be greatly troubled and they would be afraid. They were going to ask the same questions that even the most faith-filled people find themselves asking when pain overwhelms them. Is God really on our side? Does God still care?
Jesus declared, “I’m not abandoning you! I’m not leaving you orphaned! I am making a place for you in God’s house, and I am going to come back and take you there. You will always be with me.” And Jesus added, “Because I live, you also will live. And then you will know, you will know, that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Trust me on this!” This wouldn’t stop his disciples from feeling the pain, but it would reassure them that God is not going to let them fall out of God’s care. God isn’t going to drop them. God is still on their side. And not only is God on their side, God is at their side, and God is all around them, too. They are in Christ, and they are in God.
Paul is clear about that as well. “If God is for us,” he writes, “Who or what can ever be against us?”
“The truth,” Paul declares, “is that God really is on our side. Who or what can make God turn against us? Nothing, that’s what. Not hardship, not distress, not persecution, not famine, not nakedness, not peril, not sword.
What can separate us from God’s love? Nothing, that’s what. Not rulers, not powers, not anything that’s happening now, not anything that will happen in the future, not even death. No, not even death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In The Message, Eugene Peterson’s translation, it reads this way: “absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love, because of the way that Jesus our master has embraced us.”
In other words, Christ has got us safe in his arms. We might not always be able to feel it. We might not always be able to grasp that with confidence. But we can still turn our eyes in God’s direction. We can turn our eyes toward Jesus. We can choose to go on the assumption that God really is on our side, and that one day, God is going to still and soothe our aching souls.
When the people of Israel were getting ready to go into the Promised Land, Moses knew that he would not be making the crossing with them. But in his last blessing to them, he reassured them, “The eternal God is your dwelling place. And underneath you are the everlasting arms.” God had the people safe in God’s arms.
At the funeral service last week, many people stood to share memories of Daddy, and I heard one story that I had never heard before. One of my cousins, W.D. Harris, remembered how the hayloft was our playground on the farm. One time when he was little, he was trying to climb up into the loft in the barn that was behind the dairy barn. It was harder to climb up into that loft, and I can only remember trying to climb up there once. The rungs were farther apart than was really comfortable for a climbing child. Anyhow, W.D. was trying to climb up in that loft, and somehow he fell backwards all the way down the ladder. There at the bottom stood my father, and he caught W.D. in his arms! Daddy’s arms were underneath, and W.D. hadn’t even known they were there!
Two days after the funeral, I found a picture that Laura drew of Daddy. It was a father’s day card she made for him a couple of years ago, and she had focused on Daddy’s arms. Daddy was large in the picture, and the rest of us in the picture were small. Laura drew me sitting on Daddy’s shoulder. And in the great circle of his arms, he cradled John and Laura, a cat, a dog, and a cow. A bird—a dove perhaps?—was landing on one of Daddy’s arms. Laura drew a very gentle smile on Daddy’s face.
Friends, scripture shows us that we are safe in the great circle of our heavenly Father’s arms. Underneath us are those everlasting arms, those loving arms. Moses says so. Paul says so. Jesus himself says so. Those arms are there to catch us whether or not we know it, whether or not we can feel it. Down at the bottom, down at the bottom of whatever hell we might fall into, there stands our God. And there are those arms, ready to catch us.
At the end of nearly every prayer Daddy prayed, he would say, “And keep us all in thy love.” That’s just what Moses and Paul and Jesus were getting at: God will keep us all in God’s love, now and always. Daddy is safe there now, and he would want us to remember that we are, too. Yes, Lord. Keep us all in the great circle of your everlasting arms.