The Committal of Ashes for The Right Rev. William E. Sanders
1 Kings 8:22-23, 27b-30, Revelation 21:2-7, Matthew 7:13-14, 24-25
St. John’s Cathedral, Knoxville, TN
The Right Rev. Brian L. Cole
Consider, for a moment, that you are in Memphis, Tennessee. You wish to make a journey to Bristol, Tennessee. You get in the car, turn on to Union Avenue, heading east. Before you know it, in the blink of an eye, in the blink of an eye, before you know it, 503 miles later, you arrive in Bristol.
Now, as you are driving from Memphis to Bristol, you may be having second thoughts. Is there a shorter route which allows you to travel across this state?
Why, yes there is. You begin in LaGrange, in Fayette County, and you strike out for Kingsport. Before you know it, in the blink of an eye, in the blink of an eye, before you know it, 454 miles later, you arrive in Kingsport.
Are these pilgrimages edifying? Why, yes, but still, is there is a briefer route?
Of course, so you begin in Dyersburg, the crown jewel of Dyer County, and you strike out for Copperhill. You barely have time to get situated before you find yourself in historic downtown Copperhill, 366 miles later.
We could keep this up, this bargaining for briefer Tennessee pilgrimages, finally asking how far it is from Knoxville to Norris? (21 miles).
Bishop Sanders possessed many gifts for ordained ministry. But let us say, if it has not already been said, that one of his gifts, for decades, was showing up.
A deacon in Chattanooga, a priest in Memphis, a bishop in Knoxville, serving first the Diocese of Tennessee when it was the whole state, before helping the West Tennessee and East Tennessee dioceses emerge in the 1980s.
Ordained a deacon in 1945 and a priest in 1946, he would have traveled across Tennessee by train, automobile, and plane. He was not a tall man, but he was a man of depth. He was not a tall man, but he did possess an ability to keep a heart open for ministry across this wide and complicated state of Tennessee. That’s quite a heart.
He was consecrated Bishop Coadjutor in April, 1962. So, in 1962, he may have ordained his very first priest. I do know that in December of 2006, he ordained Canon Jody Howard of the Diocese of Tennessee to the priesthood in Winchester. He was filling in for Bishop Herlong, who was ill. Bishop Sanders was only 86 years old, at the time.
Again, remember, he showed up.
These lessons that we have read this afternoon are the lessons you read at the Dedication of a Church. It is fitting to read these lessons today as we prepare to commit Bishop Sanders’ ashes here at St. John’s. How many times were these lessons read as a new church was dedicated, as Bishop Sanders had shown up, yet again, to encourage and nurture others in shared ministry?
I do not know if Bishop Sanders enjoyed traveling. Along with all those trips across Tennessee, he would have attended countless General Conventions and three separate Lambeth Conferences, in 1968, 1978, and 1988.
I do not know if Bishop Sanders enjoyed traveling, but I do know, from reading his sermons and addresses as bishop, that he was committed to building up the Body of Christ. Now, you can build up the Body by your prayers, by your written correspondence, by an encouraging phone call.
At some point, however, you build up the Body by traveling to where the people are. Over many years, over decades, Bishop Sanders logged countless miles to build up the Body. All those miles, over time, would have, eventually, taken a toll on Bishop Sanders.
At first, however, those miles would have been traveled by a young man. Ordained a deacon at 25, a priest 26, a bishop at 42, all those miles would have been met with the good spirit of an energetic cleric.
In 1985, no longer so young, Bishop Sanders gave a great gift to the new Diocese of East Tennessee. A brand-new diocese, for an important season, was led by a wise and experienced bishop.
In making a new diocese, a new Cathedral was also made, St. John’s. Like Bishop Sanders, St. John’s was already wise and experienced in ministry. While Cathedral ministry was a new call, Bishop Sanders entrusted this ministry to a wise and experienced parish. Both bishop and cathedral were able and time-tested, both old and new.
So, it is fitting that Bishop Sanders’ last pilgrimage to build up the Body allows us to witness a bishop returning to his cathedral. The pilgrimage is no longer measured in miles. It will be measured in steps. 60 steps from chancel center to memorial garden. Only 60 steps, and yet that distance has taken Bishop Sanders’ whole life. A pilgrimage which began in baptism is now made complete in holy death, and a final returning to his cathedral.
Over time, as we age, our bodies begin to fail us. The road trips take more out of us. We prefer no longer to travel alone. We may stop driving at night, before we stop driving at all.
Until the very end, however, Bishop Sanders never stopped building up the Body. There were no more miles, but there were still phone calls and notes.
And when those became impossible, there were still prayers, prayers to the very end.
And at the end, like it will also be for you and me, Bishop Sanders became a kind of prayer, hidden in Christ forever. The marking made upon him in his baptism, shone again, as he prepared for death.
I am aware that whenever Bishop Sanders preached, he would often return to the phrase, “In this portion of the Lord’s vineyard.” For decades, the state of Tennessee, the Diocese of Tennessee, and the Diocese of East Tennessee were all blessed to be the portions of the Lord’s vineyard where Bishop Sanders served.
To the family of Bishop Sanders gathered here today, let me say, on behalf of Episcopalians across this diocese and this state, thank you. Thank you for sharing Bishop Sanders with us. Thank you for the miles you traveled with him to build up the Body and thank you for the times when he had to travel away from you to serve as deacon, priest, and bishop.
From 1945 to 1992, for 47 years of active ordained ministry, Bishop Sanders showed up again and again and again. In retirement, because he continued to possess an open heart for ministry, he kept showing up. At his death, he was the senior bishop in the House of Bishops. He kept showing up.
Before you know it, in the blink of an eye, in the blink of any eye, before you know it, Bishop Sanders’ pilgrimage in this portion of the Lord’s vineyard is finally made complete.
Take your rest, good and faithful bishop. Your cathedral welcomes you home. Amen.