"Faith, When Nothing Makes Sense

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - July 20, 2003

Psalm 24; Mark 6:17-29

     During my tenure at Cheverly United Methodist Church, there was a gentle man who sang tenor in our choir.  He was the nicest person anyone would ever hope to meet.  Now and then he would stuff a twenty dollar bill in my hand and say, "For someone you meet who has a need."  His spirit was quiet and reserved.  Mike Kelpy was his name. 

     Mike had been planning his eventual retirement for years.  He had purchased a beautiful piece of property in Florida.  During periods of vacation he would go there and spend time building his retirement home.  Mike belonged to a rare breed of men who could do most of the construction work himself.   

     The day came when his home was finished.  He showed me pictures of the view he and his wife had from their deck.  Years ago he had promised to build her "dream house" and he was so happy that he had delivered on that promise.  

     Among Mike's responsibilities as a Federal employee was to supervise the construction of the scaffold for seating during presidential inaugurations.  He had turned over his responsibilities to his successor and at 5:00 p.m. on this particular day he would be officially retired.   

     The scaffold was in place for the swearing in ceremony of Ronald Reagan's first term in office. The man who assumed Mike's position invited him to make one last "ceremonial" inspection of the work.  The two of them climbed the scaffold.  A sharp wind gust came out of no where and hit the unit on which they were standing and it collapsed. Mike was killed instantly and his colleague was badly injured.   

     This accident happened just a handful of hours before Mike was due to go home.  His current home had been sold. The moving van was coming at the end of the week to take their belongings to Florida.  Everything was in place except Mike.  All the dreams for which Mike lived appeared to be for naught.  Mike's death became one of those moments in time that made no sense to me or anyone who had grown to love him.     

     The news media has filled our minds with images of human tragedy that fit into this category.  A week or so ago we saw the result of too many people partying on three levels of decking in Chicago.  When the weight of the people became too great, the decks pancaked as they fell, injuring scores of people.  That evening the biographies of thirteen individuals came to an unexpected, abrupt end.  

     We remember the moment in Israel several years ago where a bride and groom were dancing along with many of their wedding guests when the entire dance floor suddenly collapsed sending everyone to injury and death three floors below.  One of the guests had a camcorder running when the floor gave way and the footage depicting the tragedy was shown repeatedly on the evening news. 

     Our experiences are often filled with life's unexpected reversals.  Some of them we can accept while others we find very challenging, particularly when the incident happens to us.  We figure that if God is a God of love, why is it that God appears to intervene in the lives of some people by parting seas, healing the lame and blind, while appearing at certain times to ignore the twists and turns that fracture the lives of others in ways we perceive are unfair. 

     There is no New Testament story any more heart-wrenching then the description of the cruel death of John the Baptist.  While John's condemnation of the King's lifestyle displeased Herod, he liked John and even enjoyed listening to him.  It was Herodias, Herod's wife, who masterminded the death of this prophetic preacher.  We know the story well. 

     Herod probably had too much to drink on the night of this incident.  He did a little grandstanding in front of the nobility of Galilee.  Herodias' daughter inspired Herod so profoundly with her provocative dance routine that he promised to give her anything she wanted, even up to half his kingdom.   The scheme worked.  After consulting with her mother, the daughter asked Herod for the death of John.  The order was given and this cousin of Jesus was beheaded.  The shortest verse in the Gospels recounts how "Jesus wept" when he heard the news. 

     When life presents us with experiences that make no sense, there is the temptation to wonder about God.  We think to ourselves, "If God has the power to intervene and does not use it, what kind of love is God communicating?"  

      However, when we consider the death of John the Baptist knowing that God did not stand forth and perform a miracle, it may help us to reframe our understanding of God.  Some of us may remember a bumper sticker years ago that said, "God does understand!  Remember, He, too, lost a son." 

     Where does this leave us in dealing with such experiences? What kind of faith is necessary to help us navigate in such troubled waters? Is our dilemma really about God's behavior or is it about our own?  Tragedy is always about those who are left behind.  Most of us want to die while we are doing what we enjoy, or better yet, many of us would rather leave our bodies while we sleep.   

     Mike Kelpy enjoyed expressing his abilities and talents as he slowly watched his dream house take shape.  Creating is where his pleasure for living had its genesis.  This is what gave his life meaning -- not the outcome, not the goal.  Our joy is always found while on the journey and not at the end of the road. 

     Mike perhaps experienced 30 seconds of terror as his life came to an abrupt end.  We are the ones who believe it was unfair, that somehow life was cruel or that God was "out to lunch."  Yet Mike's life was rewarding to him every day of his life.  

     John the Baptist was also doing what he enjoyed.  He had even gained the ear of the King.  He used his gifts to prepare the people in his region for Jesus' entrance onto the stage of human history.  He showed tremendous leadership in confronting the King for marrying a woman who was already married to Herod's own brother, Philip.  John enjoyed challenging the moral fabric of the leaders of his world.   

     Once again, how best can we cope when life's events make no sense?  If we could stop ourselves from making judgments about our experiences, we could manage life's reversals far better than we do.  When we learn how to do this, most of our worries, challenges and resentments will vaporize.  As soon as we believe that something is unfair, for us, that is what it becomes. It is from our judgments that craziness begins to outcrop in our emotions.  It is from our judgments that we begin looking for what caused it and who is to blame.  

     When we take our Scripture lesson as a story by itself, it looks as though evil triumphed.  Herodias got her way.  The voice that dared challenge her lifestyle was finally silenced. She could live the rest of her life in the luxury to which she was accustomed without John continually holding his verbal mirror of moral conduct in front of her.  

     Think for a moment about the power that light and darkness have over our lives.  How has Herodias influenced the human race?  Has she influenced any of us into having several spouses?  Is her lifestyle something that makes us envious?  Is the way she manipulated and involved her young daughter, making her an accomplice to murder, something that we are likely to do? Her life communicated who she had become. Every life sends a message. 

     Many years ago, I celebrated the life of a young boy who had died of Leukemia.  Attending the service were several physicians and nurses from Johns Hopkins.  When the service was over, I approached the medical staff with an ice-breaking question.  There were so many of them at the service, I said, "Whose minding the store?" I inquired as to why they had come. 

     They told me that this little boy was so special that they had to come to hear about the rest of his life.  "There was something unique about his spirit," they said.  "It was the way he dealt with other children who were dying.  It was the way he engaged parents who were devastated by what was happening to their children.  He was a miracle worker." 

     A doctor reflecting on the boy's life said, "He was like a healing presence in our midst. He could read us when we were stressed.  He would ask us questions about our lives, and he would patiently listen as we answered. We spoke to him as a peer.  He was, in many respects, like a loving psychiatrist-priest in our midst, and all of us are grieving the loss of his spirit and personality." 

     We are only here for such a short time.  Whether we are nine or ninety-nine, there is room for us to make a difference before we leave.  When we question God's behavior, we are asking what can never be answered.  When we strike out in anger as a way of dealing with tragedy, we are draining our energy in a useless fashion-a fashion that can never bring back our loved one nor heal our spirits. 

     If we understand that we are infinite beings, the length of someone's life or the manner in which they died should not cause us to ask, "Why?"   Making the best of every day, adjusting our attitudes when they no longer serve us and spending our time celebrating what we have rather than what we want -- this is to express our faith when life's experiences no longer make sense.  We need to focus our attention on the light from others and not on the imagined darkness caused by what we do not understand. 

     What makes an imprint on people?   What influences us is the way people live, not the way they die.  Those whose lives create healing and provide us with comforting images leave us a rich legacy. They give us hope.   

     Consider Jesus, for example. He never ventured more than 90 miles from Bethlehem, never wrote any books, was never featured on any of the late night talk shows and yet he has been influential in every generation for thousands of years.  How did he and his message survive before Johannes Gutenberg created the printing press in the 16th century? 

     Expressing our faith, when life does not make any sense, is what changes the world.  It is the light ignited in the shadows that drives darkness away from our understanding.  When we look at senseless acts of violence and convince ourselves that faith is a ridiculous exercise in idealism, we have fallen prey to our own blindness.  

     Yes, Jesus wept, but he went on teaching, preaching and healing.  He knew all things are in God's hands and that life was unfolding as it should.  Again, questioning God will not heal our broken spirits because there are no answers that will satisfy the minds of people who are investing their energy in doubt.  

      Why not let our light shine in the midst of chaos, in the midst of life when it makes no sense?  This is who we are.  This is who Jesus invited us to become.  It is this trust that allows us to sail peacefully when the storms of nonsense rage around us.  We do not need answers in order to radiate light.  We need to be for others what we want God to be to us.    


    Loving and always faithful God, we thank you for the wonderful surprises that life's uncertainties often bring to us.  Yet how often we find ourselves standing in our own sunlight.  How often we allow memories of past hurts, mistakes and failures to define us.  How often we cast blame upon others for the person we have become.  Heal us, loving God, from the cross-currents that can erode our effectiveness as disciples of Jesus Christ.  There is so much about life that remains a mystery.  Help us focus our understanding on our trust and confidence in you; and in your faithfulness and love of us.  Even though life frequently frustrates us, may we never doubt you as our life's partner.  Inspire the infinite, timeless qualities that dwell within us.  Amen.


    Merciful God, we thank you for these moments of reflection.  We confess how easy it is to lose our center.  We blame many of our responses on the stress in our lives.  We can pin point any number of unresolved issues that appear to recycle.  We often become confused that our faith does not appear to work any better than it does.  And yet, when we quiet ourselves in worship, we often hear that "still small voice" asking us, "Where are you anchored?  Where are you investing your trust?  What are you afraid of losing?" 

    So many times, O God, we come to you with our "to do" lists.  We want you to fix something in our lives.  We want a miracle.  We want others to respond to us as we would like.  We want to be filled with your spirit even though we do not access what you have already given us.  When we come here and experience stillness, we are reminded that you are our friend, our support, the one who knows all our unused abilities and resourcefulness that remain hidden until we let them show.  You are the one who believes in us, and we too often forget that when find ourselves standing in what we label as darkness.

    Help us to remember that peace is a decision away.  As we learn to give ourselves to more people, may each of us find comfort and guidance for perceiving our world as the beautiful place that it is.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .