The Death of a Pastor

“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2).


I have a cross in my office at the church I serve that is made of two very large nails. These nails were hand forged in the mountains of Pagosa Springs, Colorado, by a man who did some blacksmithing as a hobby. He even worked in a blacksmith’s workshop in town on occasion. I remember seeing the metal heat up to a bright red and watching as the amateur blacksmith shaped the scrap metal rods into spikes. In addition to being an amateur blacksmith, the man also held a degree in welding. Using his expertise, he put the two spikes together into a cross and stamped “I COR 2 2” on the back. I learned later that he had made several of these crosses over the years and given them as gifts to other would-be pastors. This man was an aeronautical engineer by training, a ham radio operator, a runner, a hiker, a skier, an avid reader, a photographer, and a family man.

On top of all of this, the Reverend Steve Sanderson was a pastor and one of the greatest missionaries the Church has known in recent years. On top of all his interests, the Rev. Sanderson baptized, taught, bound and loosed sin, prayed, and fed God’s people with the body and blood of Christ at Trinity Lutheran Church in Hanceville, Alabama, Calvary Lutheran Church in Yuma, Arizona, and (in retirement) Our Savior Lutheran Church in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. It was in Yuma that Steve took on the task of training pastors, training 14 there and one in Pagosa Spring. I contend that this was Steve’s greatest contribution to the mission of the church. He also told me in one of our last conversations that it was also his greatest joy as a pastor. I know well the quality of this training, because I was the last of the vicars who trained under him.

On Trinity Sunday, May 22nd, 2016, the Rev. Stephen Sanderson entered into glory. As the historic readings for that day put it, Steve can now see the kingdom of God he had entered when he was born again of water and the Spirit (John 3:3, 5). With the same baptism he had applied to countless others, the Lord drowned the death that lurked in Steve’s flesh. This was the starting point of a daily renewing of the new man that was in him, even as his body was dying (II Corinthians 4:16).

This is where the cross stamped with I Cor. 2:2 comes in. This was a verse Steve often used as the basis for sermons for installing vicars, and was even his text for the last sermon he preached in Yuma before his retirement. There, St. Paul wrote, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Of course, this was a fitting verse for a pastor to take as foundational for his time in Christ’s office, but it was also a verse fitting to his life as a Christian man. As I said, Steve was baptized into the death of Christ (Romans 6:4). There, as the sign of the cross was placed upon his forehead and heart, marking him as one redeemed by Christ the Crucified, the Lord Jesus bid Steve to follow Him into the cruciform Christian life. If Christian means to be a “little Christ,” then to be Christian means to be crucified with Christ. St. Paul’s words in I Corinthians 2:2 formed the basis, then, for the hope that Steve held to the end. His life began in flood that poured from Christ’s side into the font, it was lived under that cross, and it ended under that cross.

Steve often said something to me during my vicarage year that has always stuck with me: “Vic [he called me this instead of vicar], when they nail that coffin shut, that’s when I’ll finally stop dying.” And he was right. Because of the cross of Christ, Jesus’ words from St. John’s Gospel were true: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). Steve was conceived and born in Adam’s sin and death. But in Baptism, he died with Christ. There, through the water and the word, the Lord Christ took Steve’s death from him as He gave Steve the promise of eternal life. And now that he rests from his labors, Steve has finally stopped dying. Death doesn’t have the last word with Steve. It was swallowed up in Christ’s victory at the cross and grave (I Corinthians 15:54b-55). Just as death couldn’t hold Christ, neither can it hold Steve (Romans 6:5-11). Steve preached the cross of Christ as a pastor, but it was also his hope as a Christian. He knew that he would die, though none of us thought it would be like this. But he also knew that his death died on the cross as the One in Whom is life (John 1:4) hanged bleeding from the Tree of Life.

But not only was this the content of Steve’s preaching and life, but it was also his confession in death. In the months leading up to his funeral, like any good pastor would do, Steve helped his pastor, the Rev. Andrew Packer, plan his funeral. He wanted I Corinthians 2:2 to be the sermon text, and he chose hymns that he knew would clearly proclaim the hope he had in the crucified Christ. This was often the content of our conversations as they got shorter and shorter in the end. Even when he lay dying, barely able to keep awake, his unwavering hope in Christ brought me comfort in my loss. We laughed, we wept, and we talked about Christ crucified. One of the hymns he picked out with his pastor contained a stanza that was particularly appropriate for a pastor’s funeral:

O blessed saints in bright array
Now safely home in endless day,
Extol the Lord,
Who with His Word
Sustained you on the way.
The steep and narrow path you trod;
You toiled and sowed the Word abroad;
Rejoice and bring
Your fruits and sing
Before the throne of God.
The myriad angels raise their song;
O saints, sing with that happy throng!
Lift up one voice;
Let heav’n rejoice
In our Redeemer’s song!
(LSB 676:3)


The watchman’s sacred duty
Proclaims good news from God;
His feet are rare with beauty
And with the Gospel shod.
God’s spokesman lifts his voice:
“Those marred by sin’s defiling,
God’s grace is reconciling.
Return! Believe! Rejoice!”

You, son of man, unswerving,
Have spoken for the Lord.
We, whom you have been serving,
Thank God with one accord!
We say so gratefully:
“Dear watchman, you have led us;
Dear pastor, you have fed us–
To God all glory be!”
(“The Call of God Ordained You” stanzas 6 and 7 | Text: Stephen P. Starke | Tune: VON GOTT WILL ICH NICHT LASSEN)

And so, as Steve’s body was present in the church at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, for the very last time, how appropriate that the rubric for the funeral of a pastor was followed that day. The Lutheran Service Book: Agenda says, “The casket is positioned before the altar at right angles to it. It is customary that the foot of the casket is positioned closest to the altar. For the funeral of a pastor, the head of the casket is positioned closest to the altar.” Even in his death, Steve was postured to preach Christ and Him crucified one more time, as the funeral pall bore the image of the cross for all of us to see. Like St. Paul, Steve was determined to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified–both in his preaching and in his devotion.

Heavenly Father, we thank You for Stephen who faithfully shepherded Your flock here on earth. Grant that we, too, may be faithful until death and receive the crown of life. Amen.

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