"Does Faith Flavor Our Experiences?

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – March 2, 2014

Centenary United Methodist Church

Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9


    While talking to the Cub Scouts two Sundays ago, I used a number of illustrations that demonstrated that we survive death regardless of what we believe, how we think or how we behave.  Further, there is nothing in this life that is capable of separating us from the love of God, nor is there anything in life of which we need to be afraid.  Has this orientation toward life flavored our experiences so that our confidence cannot be shaken by anything?

    To refresh our memories, I mentioned to the boys the illustration I had used the week before of the man that everyone would have enjoyed having as their neighbor. He knew how to use most tools.  His people-skills were so smooth that 15 minutes with him made you feel as though you had known him all your life.  He was comfortable and quite at home in every setting.

    He had no religious background and his interests and focus were on creating quality relationships and remaining a successful businessman.  Thus far in life, he had done exceedingly well for himself and his lovely family.  He was never without a smile on his face.  As happy as he was, something was about to happen that gave birth to his faith.

    After an impaired driver totaled his car, Tim watched as his dead body was being cut from the wreckage of his car and he observed the process that followed as medical personnel were resuscitating him. He was deeply affected by what he witnessed and that experience flavored the rest of his life.

    We discussed what a 12-year old Jewish girl experienced during her death. She, too, watched as she was resuscitated.  However, while she was outside of her body, she encountered a boy that told her that he was her brother.  The boy said, “Please tell Mom and Dad that I am fine.  Both of them need to tell you about me.”  As she was telling this dream to her father, he paged through a family photo album.  Excitedly she pointed to the little boy as he sat at a picnic table when she was a toddler.  That family’s life was forever flavored by their daughter’s experience.  It allowed her father to talk about a tragedy that he could never discuss.

    Finally, there was the story of girl that was born blind.  However, she watched as rescue personnel resuscitated her body.  What made this experience so unique is that she could see the material world, a world she had known through touch and her imagination.  She was able to describe the accident scene and surrounding area in striking detail.  When she left the hospital, she was still blind, but she said, “I know what it is like to see.  In death, I was no longer blind.”

    In spite of what you might have thought about my message to our group of Cub Scouts, their eyes never left mine.  They sat there riveted to these mysterious stories.  My goal was to stimulate their imaginations with true events for which medical science has few answers.  I wanted the boys to learn that there is more going on in their lives than they realize.  

    Those of us that have been raised in the church can recite from memory countless stories of faith from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to Jesus and the Apostle Paul.  Yet, the test of faith does not come from our understanding this information; it comes when we are faced with a life-issue where the outcome is extremely threatening and remains unknown.

    Years ago, someone dramatically illustrated this point with a story that one does not easily forget. A young couple was walking along one of the ridges of Big Sur, a sparsely populated area along the coastline of Central California where the Santa Lucia Mountains dramatically rise from the Pacific Ocean.  

    Harold was walking on ground that had been made soft from recent rains when a large section of the earth gave way.  He found himself sliding down hill toward a cliff that dropped hundreds of feet to the crashing surf below.  Just as he was about to plummet over the edge his hand grabbed a hold on the root of a shrub that stopped his descent. All he could hear was his girlfriend screaming and screaming for someone to come and help. 

    The young man held on to that root for dear life as he could feel the pounding of his heart.  He was alone and out of sight of his girlfriend.  He did not know whether to try to climb or wait for a possible rescue attempt. Eventually his eyes looked down.  He went into a mild form of shock at what he saw below.   

    He said, “God, I am unable to move.  I know I have largely ignored you for most of my life but I really need you now. I can’t make any promises to you, but I really want to live.  Please help me!”  No sooner had he stopped talking when he heard words come into his head that were clearly not his.  The words were “Do you trust me, Harold?”   He said, “Yes, I trust you!  I trust you!”  The voice said, “Let go of the root.”  

    There will be times during our lives when we are the ones hanging on to that root.  Yes, the circumstances will be different but the outcome of letting go will be ours to make.   The rubber really hits the road when we have to trust what we cannot see or understand.  Our faith tells us to trust God with the outcome.  The question this morning is, “Has our faith truly flavored everything that we experience in life so we are prepared to do that?”

    This morning our Scripture lesson features Jesus, Peter, James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration.  Jesus was with his inner circle of disciples.  These men had been with Jesus since the beginning.  They were witnesses to the healing of others.  They heard his sermons and received personalized instruction.  Yet, when the extraordinary evidence of the other world presented itself, the Scripture tells us, “They became so terrified that they threw themselves face down on the ground.” (Matthew17:6)

    It was as though everything they had been taught about the invisible Kingdom of God suddenly left them.  They were overcome by terror just like the young man holding on to the root.  Being with Jesus had not strengthened them nor had it given them the courage to stand with him during this mystical experience.  What an opportunity to remain alert and to experience the unfolding of a great mystery!  Their faith had not flavored their experiences.  In fact, the strength from their faith did not surface within them until they encountered Jesus after he had been crucified and buried.

    Has our faith truly flavored our experiences?  There is a huge difference between knowing most of the Biblical stories coupled with our strong beliefs about them and having the confidence to trust God when the voice says, “Let go of the root.” 

    Horatio Spafford was a wealthy attorney that had a thriving legal practice in the Chicago area.  He had an opulent home in the suburbs.  He and his wife Anna had four daughters and a son.  Being a man of faith, he looked at his material successes as a series of blessings that came from God.  But this recognition was not responsible for the depth of his faith. He was one that gave back to his church and often defended clients in court that could not pay for his services.

    At the height of his successful career, his experiences slowly became more like a modern version of the life of Job.  The reversals began when Horatio’s family experienced the death of their 4-year old son from scarlet fever.  A short time later, Horatio lost half of his invested wealth during the Chicago fire on October 8, 1817.  The fire destroyed Chicago and all Horatio’s investment properties along Lake Michigan.  The fire killed 250 and left 90,000 homeless.  With their home and estate spared from the fire, Horatio and Anna spent most of their remaining wealth helping the homeless, hungry and injured people of Chicago. 

    With most of the healing of Chicago well underway, the Spaffords were leaving for a well-deserved vacation to Europe.  As the day drew near an acute emergency surfaced in his business.  Not wanting to disappoint his family, Horatio sent his family ahead on a steamer ship.  On November 22, 1873, the Steamer collided with a British iron sailing ship and within 12 minutes the Steamer sank three miles to the bottom of the Ocean with Horatio’s daughters on board.  Only Anna was pulled to safety after clinging to a piece of floating debris.  Of the 307 passengers on that steamer, only 81 survived.

    While on his way to meet his wife in Europe on another steamer, he sat down in his cabin near the location where the two ships had collided and wrote these words:  “When peace like a river, attended my way.  When sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.’”

    This is what it looks like to live when every fiber of us is flavored by faith.   Faith had so flavored Horatio’s life that in spite of what life brought to his doorstep, his spirit was always sending out light.  This flavoring is what strengthened Jesus as nails were being driven into his body. This flavoring gave remarkable confidence to Stephen, the first Christian martyr.   As stones reached their mark, Stephen was able to die with words of forgiveness on his lips.      

    Has our faith flavored our experiences?  We must be gentle with ourselves rather than fill our minds with self-doubt and lists of our remembered failures.  Sometimes our faith does not flavor our lives when we thought it would.  The inner group of Jesus’ disciples learned this same lesson about themselves when they ran away and hid.  

    Last week, we closed our service with the hymn that Horatio Spafford wrote, It is Well with My Soul.  He knew that we are as God created us.  What happens to us does not matter.  What matters is the light from our faith that we reveal while we are here alive on earth.