Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a saint in our Church, is often remembered for what he did. A Lutheran pastor in Nazi Germany, he fought the evils of the Holocaust at a time when many of his fellow Christians were silent. Bonhoeffer preached and wrote passionately for what he thought was right. And because of his outspoken opposition to the Nazi pogroms, he was executed.
But I am here to tell you that Bonhoeffer is not a saint for what he did, no saints are, he is a saint because of the depth of his faith. What Bonhoeffer did, those bold works of justice, are but expressions of the profound faith that drove that Christian man.
Bonhoeffer writes in his book, the Cost of Discipleship, “”What is it to follow Christ?… It is a life of wanting only what Jesus wants.” Faith is not a compromise or a hedged bet. “It is not legalistic or programmatic or formulaic.” It is not always rational and it certainly does not make sense in secular terms.
So why do it? Why strive for faith and follow Jesus Christ?
Because it is our only hope for true joy, the kind of joy that overcomes all suffering. Because God has faith in us and when we respond to the divine invitation to love him, we find that we are loved beyond our wildest imaginations.
Let’s be clear about what faith is. Foremost, faith is love, love of God. And in that love, inherent to that love is trust. Trust in God. Faith is the life-long desire to follow God.
Faith is not given to you. You don’t receive it in your baptism.
A priest can’t give it to you with your confirmation certificate.
It is not a confession or a creed that you recite.
Faith is your relationship between you and God. How deep that relationship is depends upon your following of Jesus Christ. Faith is love, it is trust, it is obedience. It is loving, questioning, confessing, forgiving, understanding, trusting, deepening. Most of all it is deepening.
Bonhoeffer is a saint because of his faith. Even in the days before his execution, Bonhoeffer’s cellmates noted in their journals how he literally shone with joy.
The depth of Bonhoeffer’s faith decided his life,
decided his trajectory to fame,
to the eternal life of the saints.
And it is the depth of faith that we have, according to Jesus in this morning’s gospel, that will decide our trajectories and our lives and our lives in the hereafter.
In this morning’s gospel, Jesus does not ask us if you have faith, he asks how much faith do you have?
This is an invitation, not a threat, an invitation. Jesus is the divine surveyor, offering us a rock to build our lives upon.
Jesus reminds us that we never know when a storm will blow up to shake our lives to their very foundations. If we have built our lives on uneven sand, be it the moving sand of wealth or power or self-absorption, our foundations will give way. If we have built our lives on the sturdy rock of faith, our joy will stand, it will not crumble.
In vivid language Jesus is inviting us to follow him more closely,
searching for that rock of faith,
digging for it if we have to,
building our lives upon faith, so that when the times comes, and it always comes, we will be ready.
Whether it is the storm of tragedy, illness, loss or our own deaths that we confront, faith is what will decide how we handle it.
James, the patron saint of our church wrote in his first chapter, “when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will become whole, needing nothing more. But if you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you without question.” (James 1: 2-5).
Last week I had the great fortune of being shown the journals of a woman whose in presently in the midst of the storm of her life. Anne Belk, sister of Kathy Philips, a parishioner here, is battling severe cancer.
Her journal, which is available online, is not only a record of rounds of chemotherapy, pain management, exhaustion and doctor’s visits. It is a testament of faith. It is the record of a woman who long ago founded her life upon the sturdy rock of faith, a solid rock deeply laid in scripture, prayer, and community. And with raw honesty, Anne shares what has happened to her body and her faith since her diagnosis 2 years ago.
Early on, as Anne is crying with having received her foreboding diagnosis: “Pelvic Sarcoma”, she is drawn to pray and as she does so, she heard God’s words, “Be joyful in all things”. In the midst of the darkest news of her life, Anne realized she had a choice and right then she chose “joy”.
The night before her first chemotherapy treatment Anne writes, “Well, the fight officially starts tomorrow. That’s not a true statement; is it? We began this fight with the first prayer lifted to God, our Father. And WOW! I have been amazed at the prayers lifted on my behalf in groups, in families, in churches.
God has heard our prayers.
I know what the peace that comes from the LORD, (that peace that passes all understanding) feels like. Nothing else can explain why I feel such peace in the middle of this pain and uncertainty…and so I will put on the armor of God. The belt of truth…, the breastplate of righteousness…, fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. I will take up the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit. I will pray…” (7/1/07)
Rather than scattering her support network of family and friends, the storms have drawn Anne’s friends and family to pray. Hundreds have encircled her in prayer, their own faith deepened by the witness of hers. In the face of painful treatments, suffering and uncertainty, Anne’s foundation of faith holds, indeed it has strengthened.
All because of faith.
As of today, the cancer has now spread into several organs of Anne’s body. In Anne’s most recent entry dated last Thursday, she tells us her stomach is upset, her platelet count is alarmingly low and she is on her way, for yet another round of blood work. She also writes “Before I had cancer, I never took baths. They were too inefficient… took too long. Before I had cancer I never sat on the back patio with my eyes closed listening to the birds and the wind. My calendar, which I took everywhere, was too full. I took pride in how much I could do in a day – how many “To Do’s” I could check off. Now I never know how I am going to feel one day to the next so I do not schedule much. I can be more spontaneous now – how freeing and fun! God makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.” (Ps 23:3)
Faith such a simple word and yet it decides the trajectory of every one of our lives. Whether it will feed us joy in the midst of great physical suffering (as it is with dear Anne) or drive us to follow Jesus to fight evil in human form as it did for Bonhoeffer, depends upon the depth of our faith, our love of God and our trust in God. Today, Jesus Christ invites us to follow him to have faith, to build faith, to deepen in faith.
Thanks be to God.
Anne Belk’s web journal: www.caringbridge.org/visit/annebelk