Sunday, July 30, 2017

“Will He Find Faith…?”

Luke 18: 1-8
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
8th Sunday After Pentecost, July 30th, 2017,    (Series:  Questions Jesus Asked  #6)

In the movie Kicking and Screaming, actor Will Ferrell plays Phil Weston, a father and coach of his son’s soccer team.  Phil grew up with a very arrogant and dysfunctional father, and continues his ways of ‘kicking and screaming’ his way through life.   In one scene, Phil is at the back of a long line at a coffee shop, and begins to demand that the line ‘move along’ so he can be served.  As his frustration boils over, he shows his frequent visitor card demanding for quick service.  It happens to be a video store card, because the coffee shop has no frequent visitor card.  Phil keeps venting his frustration and making loud, obnoxious verbal demands, until the line turns against him and everyone throws him out of the shop. (

We’ve all been there, haven’t we?  Perhaps we didn’t speak outlandishly out of turn in a public line, but we’ve all been up against life in a way that we become frustrated, and perhaps even angry.   Germany is known as the land of well-established bureaucracy.  Anytime I had any kind of government business, I had to prepare myself to wait for hours in long lines.  Once, I walked into an office to renew my passport and took a number. “I took the number 27 early in the afternoon, but they were only at number 4.”  Another time, on a Monday, when I went to complain to Apartment administrators about a loud neighbor, I discovered they only took complaints on Tuesdays and Thursday.  I returned on Tuesdays and found a room full of people.  They didn’t get to me until Thursday and then they said there was nothing they could do.  I needed to use ear plugs. 

In the question of Jesus we are considering today, Jesus also sounds ‘frustrated’.  It may seem strange, even upsetting to some, that Jesus, the Son of God, could be having
‘one of those bad days’ but here it is. 
After Jesus has told a very unusual story about a widow trying to capture the ear of an unjust, unwilling, and unrighteous judge, whom he preposterously compares to God, Jesus turns the story upside down saying, God is much better than this, so you should ‘always pray, and not give up.’  But then, right after this, comes a dramatic shift in attitude with a very cynical sounding question:  “However,” Jesus asks, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

If you listen closely, there seems to be a ‘pessimistic’ tone in Jesus’ voice.   It is not conclusive, but there is a question about ‘faith’ and the future that is still open, but headed in a negative direction.  Most of the parables in Luke’s gospel have been ‘parables of grace’ (Robert Capron).   You know some of these well, like the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son.   But now, this pleading widow stands in the transition stage between those beautiful ‘parables of grace’ and an increasing amount of more harsh ‘parables of judgment’.  Is Jesus beginning to feel the heat and frustration in his ministry that will ultimately lead to his betrayal, crucifixion, and death?
This frustration appeared even more sharply in the gospel of John, which was written sometime after Luke’s gospel.  After Jesus gave some hard lessons in faith, many of his disciples began turn away.  Seeing what was happening, Jesus turned to the small group of 12 he had left, and asked, “You don’t want to leave too, do you?”  (John 6:67).  You could ‘cut’ frustration tone of his voice with a knife.

You can see other ‘hints’ of Jesus’ growing frustration in the surrounding context.  Hear, Jesus envisions a widow in an unjust society.  He also likened the current times approaching the times ‘like the days of Noah’ when the flood came as a sign of God’s judgment (17:21).   Just before that, Jesus healed 10 lepers, but only 1 returns in gratitude (17:19).  This immediately follows a story about a Rich man who enters hell because he didn’t care about his poor neighbor (Luke 16).  A most direct references to Jesus frustration is when he outwardly sorrows over Jerusalem,  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you.  How often, I’ve longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.  Look, your house is left to you desolate (Luke 13:34-35).  Note, this is not frustration at how bad the world is, but it is frustration for how bad things are among God’s own people.

In our own time, way back in 2008, evangelical news reporter Julia Dunn, wondered why so many of the so called faithful are ‘Quitting Church’.   Even she admits not going to church much anymore herself, though she grew up with a strong evangelical faith, and still professes to be a believer in Jesus Christ.   In the opening of her book, she quotes a Barna Survey printed in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today back in 2002.  It was a survey among Christians who were leaving the church, and sometimes the faith.  Hear the reason why:  
(1)Worship was stale; the ‘same old same old’. 
(2) Evangelicals watered down their beliefs—wouldn’t talk about the ‘hard’ issues.   (3) Most churches were segregated in a multi-cultural world. 
(4) Christians take the Bible literally, but not seriously, especially on issues of divorce and sex.   
(5) The Christianity of most people is ‘comfortable’ without any built-in costs.  (6) (6) There is little expectation for God to act, or Robert Capron said, “In seminary they teach you want God can’t do, and then in church you ask God to do it”, but you now believe he can’t.
(7) No one is ready or willing to allow the next generation to remake the church.
(8) US churches would rather compete than cooperate, and finally
(9) Churches don’t desire or allow their leaders to lead(As reported in Quitting Church, by Julia Dunn, Baker Books, 2008, pp 21-22).

We too, if we are observant to what is happening with Christianity in North American, might be wondering alonge with Jesus: “In the next few years, will there be any faith left on this earth?”  Will the church survive?  Will my faith survive? 

We could liken the ‘faith’ situation around us these days to that unforgettable gospel story in the gospel of Mark (4:35-41), where Jesus is in a boat with his disciples headed across the Sea of Galilee when an unexpected storm comes up.  Rembrandt beautifully captured the moment in his famous painting, Christ in the Storm.  If you take a look at the painting (which we only now have photos of, since it was stolen in 1990 and has never been found), you will see a dramatic contrast between the disciples struggling in the storm tossed ship on one side of the painting, and the relative serene, sleeping Jesus, on the other side.  At the stern of the boat, there is a calm around Jesus, even though he sits in the dark.  Another interesting point is that there are 14 figures on the boat, the 12 disciples, Jesus, and in the middle, between the raging storm and the calm surrounding Jesus, is a fellow with his hand slapping his own forehead, as if he is saying, “Hu’oh!  What have I got myself into?”  If you look closely, you’ll see that this is Rembrandt himself, putting his own ‘fears’ into the painting.

If you remember how the gospel depicts this scene, you’ll remember that the disciples awaken Jesus, screaming out, “Teacher, do you not care that will drown” (4:38)?  In response, Jesus doesn’t sound the least bit sympathetic, answering with questions, “Why are you so afraid?  Do you still have no faith” (Mark 4:40)?  The same kind of questions were put to Simon Peter, when Jesus came to them walking on the water during a similar storm (Matt. 14: 22-33).  Peter asks Jesus’ permission to join him and jumps in the water to walk and meet Jesus.  Peter does quite well, walking on the water for a while, but when the winds and waves pick up, he panics and begins to sink.   When he cries for help, Jesus scolds Peter, asking him:  “O you of little faith, Why did you doubt” (14:31)?    Well, can’t you just imagine Peter answering “Because I was walking on the water, that’s why!” 

So, why was Jesus so exasperated with his disciples in such situations?  I agree with Martin Copenhaver, who said the disciple’s failure of faith meant a lack of trust in their relationship with him.  Jesus is not simply frustrated, but he is hurt.  He takes this personal.  After all he has tried to teach them, and all the love he has shown and promised them, and they still don’t trust him.   Jesus is frustrated because a lack of faith in hard times really comes down to a lack of trust in him.  Jesus is not simply asking, do you believe in me, but do you trust me?  Faith is not just a matter of belief about him, but it is a matter of trusting (From Copenhaver, Martin B.. Jesus Is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered (Kindle Locations 718-719). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition).

William Sloane Coffin put it this way: “Faith isn’t believing without proof— it’s trusting without reservation.”  Imagine you are at a circus.  A skilled high-wire artist has accomplished so many marvelous feats that the audience has come to believe that he can do almost anything. The ringmaster addresses the crowd: “Ladies and gentlemen, how many of you believe that this daring man can ride safely over the high wire on his bicycle while carrying someone on his shoulders? If you believe he can do it, please raise your hand!” If you were in the audience you might raise your hand along with all the others, a great silent chorus of belief. “Very well, then,” says the ringmaster, seeing an almost unanimous vote of confidence, “now who will be the first to volunteer to sit on his shoulders?” The difference between belief and faith is the difference between staying in your seat and volunteering to climb on the shoulders of the high-wire artist.

Ultimately, faith is not about believing certain things; it is about putting our trust in someone.   Faith is not a possession; rather it is a capacity.  Faith is not something we permanently carry around in our pocket or even in our heart, because it is stronger on some days than others.   No, faith is a living, dynamic, relationship that we must live and do new each and every day.  

Interestingly, in most other languages, faith is not only expressed as a noun, like we often say:  “I have faith’, but faith can be more accurately expressed in other languages as a verb:  You can say something like “I faith sometimes. I wish I could faith more often.  In fact, I’m working on faithing in God in all that I do.”  I know it sounds grammatically crazy and painful it this way, but it is both biblically and theologically correct.   (As quoted in Copenhaver, Martin B.. Jesus Is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered (Kindle Locations 725-733). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition).

I know it sounds strange, but it’s much more correct to say I‘faith in Jesus’ than ‘I have faith in Jesus.  It is more correct because faith is about being in an active, living, daily, trusting relationship with Jesus than like having a faith that you carry around in your back pocket.   The parable about the Widow and the Unjust Judge makes exactly this point: the relationship we have with God is a relationship this widow couldn’t have with the unjust Judge.   The judge only heard her case, because she kept nagging him.   God hears us, because he loves and cares for us. 

Faith is about prayer, and prayer is about faith because we trust that when we pray we trust that God is listening and will respond to us.  Unlike Huck Finn, who concluded, ‘it don’t do no good’, we pray because we ‘faith’ that God is at the other end of our conversations.  This doesn’t mean that we always get what we want when we pray.  Like any true relationship, we don’t always get what we want, but because we trust, and we keep our trust, we always get the relationship.  And this is what matters most of all.  The great poet Tennyson wrote out a trusting relationship with God in a way that reminds us that God is always more than who or what we can imagine:
“Our little systems have their day, They have their day and cease to be
They are but broken lights of thee, And thou, O Lord, art more than they.”
             (As quoted in Day, J. Daniel. If Jesus Isn’t the Answer…: He Sure Asks the Right Questions! (Kindle Location 742). Smyth & Helwys Publishing.).
Trusting in a great, living, and loving God which Tennyson spoke of poetically, the Apostle Paul wrote about with some of the greatest biblical prose ever written, saying: “I am convinced that neither death, not life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8: 38-39).  Those words are great, only because they are more than words, but speak of a God whom we can trust, and entrust with our whole lives, who is greater than any problem we will ever have. 

And because we can trust in this love, and in this God, who has been fully revealed in Jesus Christ, interpreting the meaning of Jesus parable about the widow and unjust judge for us,  Luke not only says that we should ‘pray always’, but also we must never give up.  We must never give up on prayer, because of how much God loves us.  Such love does not mean that we will not experience death, troubles in life, terrors or powers that threaten us in creation, but that none of these troubles or terrors ‘will be able to separate us from’ God’s love.  In other words, no matter what happens, or whether our prayers are answered as we will or not,  God loves us and God is the most promising power of love that will always have the final, last, and ultimate word.  God and His love is the ‘who’, the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ we should never, ever, ever give up. 

A final story from early in Martin Copenhaver’s ministry is a story I can’t resist retelling.  He paid a visit to Dorothy, a beloved member of his church.  Her doctor had just left the room, leaving a dark cloud behind him.  Even as a young minister he could not miss it.  Dorothy was an actress with a big personality who was used to commanding a room, but not this room, not now.  She said in a voice softer than I had ever heard her use, “Have a seat, Martin. We’ve just gotten some difficult news.” The young pastor perched on one side of her hospital bed, and her husband, Ed, sat on the other side. Then the two of them relayed some of what they had just learned, news that they themselves could not yet begin to take in fully.  Dorothy’s cancer had recurred after years of remission. A most unwelcome visitor was back. Treatment would begin the following week.

For a moment the three of them sat in silence, while contraptions connected to Dorothy with wires and tubes continued a steady rhythm of drip and pulse and beep. Then Dorothy, looking straight at Ed, said, “I’ll be OK.” Ed replied with his deeply soothing voice, “I know you will be. The doctors assure me that you will . . .” “No, Ed,” she said, her voice gaining in strength, “I mean, I will be OK either way.”  Dorothy did not elaborate, but of course, what she meant was that she would be OK if she lived and OK if she died.  Gratefully, Dorothy ended up living quite a number of years longer, but that was hardly certain on that day— or on any of the days that followed. You never know what a day may hold, which means you need to know something else, which Dorothy did.
(Copenhaver, Martin B.. Jesus Is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered (Kindle Locations 770-782). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition).

Most of us have faced similar moments with our loved ones, and some of us have faced them ourselves.   When such fearful moments come, whether they be physical or relational, we have two options of faith: One form of faith is that reassure ourselves that everything will be all right— the surgery will be successful, the relationship will be mended, the storm will pass, your worst fears will not be realized.  But there are a few circumstances when that kind of reassurance is not ours to give, either to ourselves or to others.  Then, is when we have nothing else to do except to hold fast to the love of God.  It is to say to ourselves, come what may, God will remain with us, and God will not let us go.  God gets the last word. God is greater than any problem we have.  Or, as Dorothy put it, “I will be OK either way because God is with me.” Isn’t this the kind of trust Jesus was looking for from his friends, even in the midst of a most terrible storm.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a news cast about a young girl, suffering from a disease that left her unable to walk and get around.  A young teen, for his School Science project, had taken a child toy, known as a Big Wheel and converted into a wheel chair to give that young child some mobility.  Even though she still had the disease and face many health problems, the smile on her face, because of the gift of new mobility was tremendous.  That smile was made possible by another person’s showing concern and accepting the challenge.   For me, the great gift was the love behind it.  If we humans can love like that, think how much more God’s love should mean.  Why do we doubt?  Because Jesus has come, why shouldn’t we still have and keep faith?  Amen.

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