Funeral Homily

Psalm 121

The Faith of a Child

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The Faith of a Child

Psalm 121

Pastor Daniel W. Brettell

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my soul be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

I first met Vanessa Elizabeth Kaiser eighteen months ago when Mark and JoAnn and Vanessa and Brian joined us for worship at the beginning of Summer 2008. Vanessa was then, as she became known to most the members of St. John’s Church, a bubbly, giggly, loving little girl who could steal your heart with but a single smile. I confess that it took her just about five seconds to steal mine. When the Kaisers joined St. John’s, Vanessa had been in remission for almost a year, and most members of the congregation were not aware of her struggle with Leukemia. Mark and JoAnn had requested that nothing be said, as they were prayerful that Vanessa’s remission would be permanent. At that time, the medical prognosis was good, but they were being cautious.

But as we all know now, Vanessa’s leukemia returned six months ago and then three months ago, it became obvious that the outcome of Vanessa’s illness was not going to be what we were all praying for. When Vanessa died in the early hours of Friday morning, word traveled quickly and we all felt the loss—Mark and JoAnn and Brian, please know that the whole congregation of St. John’s joins you in your grief.

JoAnn and Mark, you shared Vanessa with us and we are all grateful. On Saturday afternoon you shared some other things with me as we spoke about Vanessa and her life. You graciously gave me permission to share your stories during this homily.

Some of you may be wondering about the choice of today’s Gospel—the story of our Lord when he was 12-years-old and stays behind at the Temple.

About a month ago, when visiting Vanessa in the hospital, I asked her what her favorite Bible story was. I expected she would talk about the Christmas Story or perhaps the little children coming to Jesus. But she surprised me with her choice—the Gospel lesson we read today. She said she liked it because—and this is a quote—“Sometimes kids just do things. See! Even Jesus got in trouble once in a while when he was a kid.” That’s an interesting little piece of theology that came from this little girl. And you know what? I never really thought about that Gospel Lesson in quite that way before; I was too busy being a serious adult Christian thinking about the wonderful foreknowledge Jesus was demonstrating to the elders and scribes and to Mary and Joseph. But now, I’ll never think about this Gospel lesson exactly the same way again. I have to wonder if Luke might have even added that story to give children something to identify with in the Gospel.

On Saturday, when I sat with Mark and JoAnn and Brian, I told them about Vanessa’s favorite Bible story, they laughed—and cried. JoAnn said she wasn’t really surprised, given Vanessa’s love of mischief—a side of Vanessa that most of us did not see in Church. Apparently, our bubbly, giggly Vanessa—like most children and perhaps even like our Lord—enjoyed making her mom and dad crazy once in a while. JoAnn, when we spoke on Saturday you mentioned one time about a year ago, when you and Mark came home from a PTA meeting to discover that Vanessa had removed the labels from just about every can you had in your pantry. The sitter apparently heard nothing, and I believe you described the following two weeks as vegetable roulette. As I said earlier—on Saturday we laughed together and we cried together.

Mark, you also told me something else about Vanessa that I would like to share with everyone today. I want to share it because this story is a testimony to Vanessa’s faith in her own salvation. It’s also so very, very appropriate for this season of the year—for the Season of Advent that we began this past Sunday. I asked you if Vanessa had a favorite book. You didn’t say anything; you just quietly stood up and left the room. When you returned you were carrying a children’s book and a small box.

This is the book you were carrying—The Littlest Angel by Charles Tazewell. The inscription inside reads:To our little angel, Vanessa. From Grammy and Poppy. Christmas 2003.

How many of you remember reading—or having read to you—The Littlest Angel when you were a child? In the story, the littlest angel has just arrived in heaven. He is described as being “four years, six months, five day, seven hours, and forty-two minutes of age” when he presents himself to the “venerable Gatekeeper” for admittance to the Glorious Kingdom of God. What follows is a description of how the heavenly peace is never quite the same because of the mischief and antics of the Littlest Angel—his ear-splitting whistle is heard at all hours, he sings off-key in the heavenly choir, and . . . well his halo is just so tarnished and keeps falling off and rolling down the golden streets. And to top it off, he’s always biting his wingtips! Eventually, his mischief lands him in trouble and he has to report to an Angel of the Peace.

Expecting to be disciplined he trudges off to his fate, but when he comes to the home of the Angel of the Peace, he finds a kindly elderly angel known as the Understanding Angel. Eventually, the Understanding Angel discovers that the Littlest Angel is just homesick for his mommy and daddy back on Earth. He takes the little angel under his wing—literally, and asks what might help him feel less homesick. The little angel tells the older angel that hidden under his bed back on earth is a box that has all his earthly treasures in it. If he could just have that box, he would feel so much better. So, the older angel sends a messenger to earth who retrieves the box and brings it to heaven. Well, it just so happened that at about that time, heaven is all abuzz because they are preparing for the birth of the Christ Child on Earth, and all the angels are preparing magnificent gifts for the Holy Child. Well, after much agonizing, the Littlest Angel decides to give the baby Jesus his box of treasures.

He places the box on the pile of gifts, but when he sees how magnificent all the other gifts are, he begins to cry thinking his gift is unworthy. Running to the pile of gifts, he tries to reach the little treasure box, but before he can, God reaches down and picks it up. The Littlest Angel hides his head in shame and begins to sob. Trying to run, he trips and falls at the very foot of the heavenly throne. But God opens the box and holds it up proclaiming, “This is the perfect gift for my Son.” The box begins to glow, and now floating in the heavens begins to glow more brightly than all the stars and is seen on earth as hanging just above a stable in Bethlehem.

Now, I want to show you the other thing that Mark carried into the room last Saturday. This box—Vanessa’s treasure box—was on a shelf in her bedroom right next to “The Littlest Angel.”

This little box was a gift to Vanessa last June from her Uncle John, who brought it back for her from his deployment in Afghanistan. When Vanessa opened her gift from her uncle, she said, “This is my treasure box. I’ll give it to the Baby Jesus when I go to heaven.” What incredible faith is the faith of a child!

What incredible faith! It is a faith that can only be given through the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a faith that Paul talks about in the lesson we read from Romans this morning,

“Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; 5:2 through whom we also have our access by faith into this grace in which we stand. We rejoice in hope of the glory of God…. and hope doesn’t disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:1-2, 5).

So many times in the last few days and weeks and months we have all—along with you JoAnn and Mark and Brian—we have all struggled with Vanessa’s illness and we all prayed for a miracle that would spare her life. But God had other plans, and we—none of us—can ever hope to know what is in the heart or mind of God. But I can tell you this. I can proclaim this to you. Here is a miracle! Here is the wonderful miracle of Vanessa’s faith! Here is her gift to all of us this morning and every morning hereafter. It’s a symbol of a faith that can and will live on here in us, just as Vanessa lives on in the arms of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

When Vanessa was baptized in April of 1999, she was marked with the sign of the cross and claimed by Christ as his child for all eternity. Every time I spoke with Vanessa in the last few months, we talked about her Baptism as I prepared her for her first Communion. She received her First Communion in October, coming to the Lord’s Table with a faith that she wanted to share with everyone she spoke with.

Mark and JoAnn and Brian and Grammy and Poppy, your pain and grief is overwhelming, and there are no words that can take away that pain and grief. But know this and believe it with all your hearts—Vanessa’s life and her faith was a gift to all of us. Her faith continues to be a shining example of the kind of faith God would have each of us experience. She has most assuredly shown us how “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5).

Let us pray.

May the love of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, as we seek to open our hearts to the Holy Spirit so that we, too, might experience the incredible faith of a child. This we pray in the name of the One who loved us and gave himself for us, Christ the Lord. Amen.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2009 Daniel Brettell. Used by permission.