St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
+ Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Requiem for Father Tony Sands – December 8, 2018
“And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.”
EVERY TIME a baby’s foot first stands unsteadily on this earth, a gift is given. Every time the sound of a unique voice is heard, its new gift arrives along with it. Every touch of every hand, every thought expressed, every wild idea, every imagining comes as by God, as in His image, a gift to lighten the world. As a flame in the wind, its glow may last only moments, a day, a year, even a hundred years in our sight. But then it expires. The glow diminishes, the light fades, the flame is gone, a thin trail of smoke rises and we are darkened by its departure. But now the gift is given and it has been received. And we give thanks.
We give thanks today for the life and person of Tony Sands, a man who worked all his days, a son, a brother, a husband, a father and grandfather, a friend, and a priest. That last gift was a hard gem to mine, like a diamond, out of Tony, but well worth it. He was faithful in every duty he took to perform. He sought excellence in all he did. (Except maybe his choice of movies. Cowboy flicks. Never mind.) But even there, he brought forth Sansidin, our hero at last Synod, in the spoof of Have Gun Will Travel fame. That may have been the one time you actually heard him speak.
Frank Anthony Sands was the descendant of Edwin Sandys, the Anglican Archbishop of York during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Since his own father was also named Frank, the son took the middle name of Tony, which stuck all his life.
He wasn’t raised an Episcopalian, the family having wandered from their Anglican past into other Protestant forms, even Quakerism. But upon meeting the daughter of Warren and Helen Dreiss, Tony was ultimately drawn into the spiritual life of this building and its church, St. John the Evangelist. In his last really bad move in that association, Tony voted with the majority of its vestry to sell off this old dump of a downtown church building in order to move the entire operation to more modern digs in another part of town. We long ago forgave that. For today the building is ours.
Tony and Ann were early and important members of St. Augustine’s when I arrived in 1991. Their four children were raised up in this church: Stacy, Frank, Cassie and Eric sometimes making up all or most of our Sunday school. Tony narrowly got persuaded by my predecessor, Father Chip Angel, along with two other 40-somethingish men, that he might train for ministry. I inherited this Deacon’s class, and one man, Dick Ramsey, went off to Oregon, founded St. Paul’s in Bend, as a layman, but was killed on the highway. Another, Rick Turner, contracted leukemia and suffered over 20 years under it, then died not long ago. Tony was left, and entered my wife Giti’s school for Sunday School teachers. Despite his natural reticence, Tony learned to teach scripture, then he received his call. I trained him many hours in the Father Hansen School of Diaconal Studies and, in 1999 he became Deacon Sands.
For seven years, Tony served this parish as its deacon. During that time, our bishop called him to occasionally serve elsewhere, traveling long distances, giving his time to other congregations. Driving his pickup to Bend, to Danville or Concord was gravy for him. He drove those kinds distances for work in irrigation already. No problem.
Although Ann cites his reluctance to advance into any holy office, Tony obediently answered the call again and was ordained a priest in 2006. His value as a utility player was enhanced and I never heard him refuse a request to serve, even here. It was our annual tradition, after all, for Father Sands to preach the Thanksgiving Day service, the Hansens in Texas with our son’s family, and he gave yet another episode of the Pilgrims and the Indians, Myles Standish and Sqanto, in the spiritual foundations of America and the first Thanksgiving feast.
In all his roles, Tony was truly a priest. His Protestant forebears would say that all real Christians are priests, as St. Peter said, a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. 1 Peter 2:9 Whenever an Evangelical raises that point with other scriptural objections to our professional priesthood, I have an answer and a little teaching for them.
First of all, they are right. All Christians are priests. Secondly, I ask them, since they are priests, what is a priest? I get all kinds of answers, most of them wrong.
Priest is a generic term, not limited to Christianity, meaning one who is called personally by God to serve Him. They are trained in their faith and practice, then inducted into the priesthood ceremonially. At that point, they are to offer their sacrifice. The priesthood is sacrifice. He must bring his gift, the one prescribed by God, to an altar and there he is to offer it. Most often, when God receives the required oblation, He blesses it and returns the transformed offering back to the priest. The priest then turns from the altar to the people present, to whom he then gives the gift, God’s blessing within the offering, for them to eat, or to wear, or to use for healing. The wave offerings of Israel were meat cooked and eaten. Grain offerings were made into bread. The sacrifice of a priest created fellowship with God. But the priest must offer a sacrifice. That’s what priesthood is. It’s different than the title of minister, or preacher, or evangelist, teacher, pastor.
Now, if every Christian is a priest, I continue speaking with my Baptist friend, how does that pattern hold for us? We are all called by Christ to believe in and worship Him, Lord and Savior. Good. We are taught the true faith. Right. We then are initiated by Baptism and enter the church, each of us a member of Christ’s Body. Ok. Then what?
What does the new Christian offer as his or her sacrifice? St. Paul wrote it, and we say it every Eucharistic prayer. We offer and present ourselves, our souls and bodies, as a living, holy, acceptable offering and our reasonable service. Rom 12:1 There is no other offering acceptable. It’s what He wants. And receiving that, God blesses us, fills us with His Holy Spirit, transforms us, renews our minds, and then gives us our new true selves.
Now the priest turns from the altar and the Holy Spirit gives through him or through her whatever gifts come for all the church, and the world, to profit withal, as St. Paul says.
So, yes, all are priests. And what I do, and what Father Tony did at that altar, was a specialized kind of priesthood, modeled in exactly what Jesus did that last night, to offer bread and wine, to enact with words and actions, so that in our hands Christ’s Body and Blood enter here and bless the gathering, and through our hands these gifts are given to eat, drink, and be blessed.
Tony was a priest. He was an Anglican priest, as I’ve described. And a priest to a family who needed him to sacrifice his work career to save the family business. A priest to his kids who needed a home and provision, and a steady hand as father. A priest to his wife as mate and friend and lodestar of her home life. A priest to friends who needed him whenever they asked. A priest to his mother, long sick and weak and needy. A priest to me, for whenever I asked, Tony came.
So what now? He lies here in state. He is dressed as a priest there in the casket, under that pall, in his alb and stole and chasuble, black and violet. I know. I dressed him yesterday. It’s the unspeakable honor for one priest to dress another priest for his reckoning. His head is toward the altar. You may know this or not, but laypeople enter a church feet first. In our church culture that is so, in order that, should the Resurrection happen before the last hymn, you stand facing the altar and the sacrament. But a priest would rise facing his people. Father Tony is ready for the Resurrection.
Bishop Donald Ashman took the time on the day Tony died to fly up and we spent a time with the family around his dying form, his flame burning so low. After solemn prayers and blessings, Bishop Ashman said, “Tony, be happy!” Sounds strange perhaps, but what else is the Christian faith but joy at the assured departure of a saint? The bishop is truly sorry he can’t join us today, but his jet just set down in Los Angeles after a week in the snows of Colorado, and next week he comes to the Bay Area. And, oh yes, he has three churches to serve this weekend in Los Angeles. I am deputized in his place to celebrate and to speak in his stead. To be a priest to you, and one last time for my friend.
The flame is struck, and the gift is given. We can’t say how long it burns, but it’s a gift to us and we warm ourselves in its glow.
This life is not all there is. It’s an appearance, and a holy altar where we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, living sacrifices to God. He may use us in many ways, but it’s all for Him.
Everything was made by Him and for Him, by and for Jesus, by and for the Son of God. It is to His altar we turn, with the blessings of a good man who lived among us, and now lives on, his light shining brightly in another realm, seen only by saints and angels and God.
We bless him with our presence today. For some day, we will all be caught up together in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air, forever with Him and with each other.
Take comfort, little candles. Your flames are all wonderful gifts of light to us all.