Family Values: Faith
Psalm 121 and Romans 1:1-17
Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
Oct. 8, 2017
This month of October, we are celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It all started on Oct. 31, 1517, when Martin Luther, seeking to reform the Church from within, nailed 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. In so doing, he ignited a movement, which started the Protestant churches, including Presbyterian. Luther’s 95 Theses contain the seeds of the most important beliefs of the Protestant Reformers. Five Latin phrases, beginning with “Sola” or “only,” emerged during the Reformation to summarize the Reformers’ convictions and became the slogan of the Reformation:
1. Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
2. Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved by the grace of God received by faith alone.
3. Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our highest authority.
4. Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord and Savior.
5. Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone.
You will see the 5 Solas pictured on the front of your bulletin cover, which illustrates our church which is Reformed and always Reforming. The 5 Solas are in black and white—they are the pillars of the church and are not changing. But, we are also reforming, that is we are open to how God’s Spirit can move us to new ways of thinking and doing. We can add our own interpretations. So, there are crayons in the pews, if you want to color during worship or take it home to color in the week.
I will preach on each of these topics throughout this month, in a sermon series called “Family Values,” to explore the things that our church family values the most about our Reformed faith.
Today we will focus on Faith. Faith is defined as belief not based on proof; it is trust.
As the Bible defines it: the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.
Belief not based on proof. Without proof, no one can say one belief is truer than another. But still we do. And this causes debate and division, violence and war. Belief becomes a way of judging people between good and bad, in and out. I felt the sting of this kind of faith at an early age. I was in kindergarten Sunday School at our Roman Catholic Church. The lesson for the day was on Noah’s Ark. The teacher told the story about the flood and that the animals were saved on the ark, as an illustration of God’s grace. She even had an ark set up in the classroom that I could not wait to get into. After the story was over, at last, she said we could go into the ark…But only if we showed our faith by eating some honey on a stick. What tasting honey had to do with faith, I don’t know. What I did know is that I did not like honey at all. So, I watched my classmates, one by one, eat the honey, and then go onto the ark. I was the last person in line. I said to the teacher, “But, I don’t like honey.” She said, “Only those who have faith enough to taste the honey can enter the ark.” I said, “please.” She said, “no.” The door of the ark was closed and I was left behind alone in a flood of tears.
Ever since that day, I thought there must be a better way to understand grace and faith.
Reformers Luther and Calvin said that we don’t have to prove our worth by jumping through hoops, doing good works—or even tasting honey. God’s grace is a gift—not forced down our throats—but offered freely to all. In response, we simply choose to receive it by putting our trust in God.
But, how do we do that?
It’s easy to do when God’s grace is good and plenty and visible.
When rain falls softly upon the earth and waters your garden.
When you are healthy and all is well. When life is good and people live in peace.
Then It’s easy to have faith. We believe what we read in Psalm 121: “God will neither slumber not sleep. God will protect your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”
It’s a comforting image—God as our protector. And this is the God in whom we trust.
But what happens when the Bible says one thing and reality says something else?
When the damage of hurricanes continues to flood homes and cripple islands, with another on its way.
When the cancer is back and the options are few.
When a man opens fire at a concert in Las Vegas, killing 59 people and injuring nearly 500 others.
What happens when our minds are blown and our hearts are broken?
What happens when it seems as if God, our protector, has fallen asleep on the job?
Where is our faith then?
I am probably not alone in saying that our faith has been stretched thin this week.
Fortunately, faith has great elasticity—it can hold us loosely together when all is well and life is good and easy.
And faith can stretch out to hold us together even when life is hard and we have more questions than answers and we are not sure what we believe. But, faith does have its limits.
This week, in Bible study, we honestly explored the limits of faith in light of the massacre in Las Vegas.
With our questions, we went to the Bible.
We read in Paul’s letter to the Romans, something that surprised us, about his limits:
“For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”
Even Paul, the great evangelist and theologian and church planter, could not do it alone.
He had his limits: and he needed to be with others, so that his faith could be strengthened.
Once I met with a woman who said she was not coming to church because she was struggling with her faith—she was not sure what she believed, if anything. I told her, “in that case, church is the best place for you.”
Faith is not having it all figured out; faith is admitting that you don’t. The church is not a shrine for saints (or an ark for the obedient honey tasters!). It’s a place you can come just as you are and find that you are not alone.
It’s a place you can come with your faith stretched so thin you can see straight to your soul.
It’s a place you come not to find answers, but to find nourishment for your faith. It’s a place you come to learn to trust.
Faith is not something that comes easy or stays the same. It is tested. It is challenged. It is troubled.
And what makes the difference in whether it can endure is if we are mutually encouraged by others.
Faith is not something we can maintain alone; it’s too hard. Faith is stronger and more resilient when shared together.
Together, with mutual encouragement, we come to trust in God, who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, and who lives in our hearts, and through us, is always trying to do good.
Together, we come to trust in God, who despite all evidence to the contrary, is actively at work in the world, trying to bring good out of evil and love out of hatred.
Together, we come to trust in God, who may not be able to stop someone hell-bent on doing evil, but can work through people to do good.
Together, we come to trust in God, who was in Las Vegas, wherever people were doing good to help others.
One man stood up and shielded two women from the gun fire raining down upon them, and saved their lives.
Another man took off his belt, wrapped it around a woman’s leg where she had been shot, put her over his shoulder, and took her to safety, and she survived.
One woman, an off-duty nurse, ran back into harm’s way to help others.
A couple loaded up the wounded in their pick-up truck and drove them to a hospital.
A woman found a man fatally wounded in the head, but conscious enough to wrap his fingers around hers; she notified his family through facebook, promising that she would not leave him. She was with him when he took his last breath.
Faith is not something we can maintain alone; it’s too hard. Faith is stronger when shared together.
Faith needs to be nurtured. The church is a place we mutually encourage each other’s faith.
Reformer John Calvin refers to the church, in a striking way, as our mother. He wrote:
I shall start with the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his children, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith…so that, for those to whom he is Father, the church may also be Mother. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives.
On Monday afternoon, listening to the radio on sober reports coming out of Las Vegas, I drove to Children’s Hospital, to visit a friend and fellow pastor Lisa whose 8-year old special needs daughter Caitlyn had open heart surgery. As I walked into her room in the Critical Care Unit, I saw little Caitlyn squirming and fussing about the tubes and wires, clearly upset and confused. Then I watched her mother Lisa, bend down over the bed, hold her hand, and speak calm and comforting words: “It’s okay, I love you and I am with you.” Over and over again, “It’s okay, I love you and I am with you. “ After awhile, Caitlyn relaxed and fell asleep. Lisa came over to me. We hugged and she thanked me for coming. Then we stepped out into the hall, held hands and I said a prayer, that God would be with her and Caitlyn.
I prayed for them to know they were not alone. I prayed for healing. I prayed for faith.
The image of a mother leaning over her child reminded me of God caring for us, not taking away all struggles and pain, but whispering softly, It’s okay, I love you and I am with you.” And giving us other people to hold our hands and stay with us and encourage us and pray for us. That’s the church. That’s faith. That’s the God in whom we can trust.