I have to be honest; I had a sermon for today all worked out. A sermon I felt pretty good about.
And then West Martin died – the beautiful 3 year old son of Marion and Kyle Martin and everything changed.
No matter how hard I tried to write the sermon I thought I had in my head I just couldn’t. It wouldn’t come. It seemed irrelevant after we lost West.
The question for me today is: When something like this happens what does it mean to have faith?
I mean, it is easy to talk about faith in the theoretical, in the abstract.
It is easy to talk about faith when life is going smoothly and all is well in the world.
But what does it mean to have faith in a loving God when the worst thing imaginable happens – when a mother and a father lose a child – a beautiful, blond-haired, blue-eyed, precocious, little boy?
How does one have faith in a loving God when such a thing happens?
What does faith look like in that context?
I know there are many people here today who have survived very difficult times in their lives. So what does it mean to have faith when you are: facing cancer, coping with mental illness, trying to survive a divorce or struggling with the loss of a job?
When life is at its toughest – what is faith?
Some people say that faith is synonymous with belief. I have faith when I believe certain things are true.
For example – Not long ago a young man told me he didn’t think he could go to church because he didn’t have enough faith. When I asked him what he meant, he said he has never been a member of a church because he feels like a real hypocrite. He tried to attend a church for a while. He even tried to join in with the people saying the prayers and the creeds. But he always felt like a hypocrite, he felt dishonest. He just couldn’t believe everything he was being told to say.
He told me, “I just am not at the place where I can believe all that stuff about Jesus, about the holy catholic church and the communion of saints. And if I can’t believe all that stuff then I don’t have the faith I need. And without faith I just feel like a hypocrite in church.”
For him, faith was equivalent to belief. To have faith meant to believe certain things. And if you could not believe these things then you did not have faith.
But faith is not the same thing as belief. To believe in Jesus, to believe in the resurrection, to believe in the power of love, to believe that God cares about every single hair on our heads – all of that is fine, belief is important – but it is not faith.
In fact our beliefs by themselves are a cold comfort when we are confronting breast cancer or bypass surgery.
In our lesson from Genesis for today, Abraham believed all kinds of things about God but those beliefs by themselves could not get him to pack up his family and leave Haran for some unknown promised land.
At its deepest level faith is more than belief. At its deepest level faith must include trust or it is of little use.
Fifteen years ago when I used to lead the youth groups at St. Stephen’s I would always take the young people out past King’s Dominion for a ropes course. It was a time when the kids tested themselves and learned to work together as a team. Every year we would start the day with trust falls. One teenager would stand on top of a wall and the others would stand underneath him. When the instructor said go the teenager was to fall backwards into the arms of the group. Every year they thought this would be easy; they believed their friends would catch them. But when it came time to actually trust that belief, to close their eyes and fall backwards, they discovered it wasn’t so easy. It is one thing to believe a group of people will catch you. It is something else to actually fall into their arms.
Having faith in God during those times when life is so hard, when we are faced with cancer, death, divorce, unemployment, means being willing to trust God enough to know that we will be caught when we fall. Having faith in those situations means trusting that God will never let us go.
This is what set Abraham apart, what made him special. He not only believed in God but he trusted God enough to pack up everything, leave the land of his father and venture out into the wilderness – with nothing more than a promise to cling to.
Even when he was told to take his son Isaac, his hope for the future, up on the mountain and sacrifice him, Abraham was able to trust God. For Abraham faith meant complete and total trust.
When Jesus met with Nicodemus he told him that he needed to be born from above by water and the Spirit. He told Nick that he needed to be transformed from a guy who trusted his religion into a guy who could let go and trust God. Nicodemus had to die to the life where he trusted only himself and be born into the life where he trusted only God.
And that is exactly what we are called to do when a child dies, when disease strikes, when marriages crumble.
When life falls apart faith means:
– trusting God enough to know our grief won’t destroy us.
– trusting God enough to know our child is gone but not lost.
– trusting God enough to know that even though we all must die – death does not have the final word. Love is in fact stronger than death.
What happened last Sunday is the most awful thing a parent can imagine. West’s death was a great tragedy for which there are no pat answers or easy explanations.
We can’t fix what happened, we can’t take away the pain, we can’t undo what has been done.
When life falls apart all we can do is trust in the God we say we believe in and hold onto one another a little tighter.
Our trust is all we’ve got. But if we put it in the right thing in the end it is all we need. Amen.