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Sunday, October 27, 2013

“Being Right or Becoming Righteous”

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 18: 9-14
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Year C, 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, October 27th, 2013

“The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people…. (Luke 18:11 NRS).

In this story Jesus tells, the Pharisee has everything going for him.   He’s better than most: He’s not a thief, he’s not a deceitful rascal, he hasn’t committed adultery and he doesn’t work for the government.  Besides what he’s not, he’s also doing his very best to do what he’s supposed to do: He shows control over his natural appetites by fasting, not once but twice in a week.   He shows his control over his spiritual life by giving a tenth of his income to God.  In the way he knows, he’s is doing everything right. 

However, Jesus says this Pharisee still comes up short of “getting things right with God.”   His lifestyle of ‘being right’ doesn’t even measure up even the worthless life of this “sinner” who has gotten it all wrong; who has probably has been a deceitful rascal,  maybe has committed adultery, and certainly has been working for a very corrupt government.   This ‘sinner’ has been wrong all along, but according to Jesus, he’s the one who God says, has finally gotten it right.       

Can’t we still see just how scandalous this story was, and is?  It’s the very kind of talk that made people mad enough to kill Jesus.  We should be able to understand why.   If this is true-- that you can be wrong in your rightness and you can be righteous, even with your wrongness---what’s the reason to try to do what’s right in the first place?   How can this kind of approach to religion or righteousness save a single soul, let alone save the world? 

To help us understand why Jesus pictured God’s rule in our world with such a shocking story, we need to start by remembering those people who crashed the White House party back in 2009.   Do you remember the Salahis?  Somehow they were able to get past White House security and walked right into a presidential party of dignitaries.   They claimed to be invited to the party to honor the Indian Prime Minister, but the truth was they were nothing more than thrill seekers, party crashers, people who thought they were important enough, or wanted to be, but they weren’t.  It was what was “missing” in their credentials that made it all so crazy and outrageous.  In no reasonable way, were they the people they pretended to be (For the full report see:     

Even a room full of lawmakers couldn’t find anything wrong with what the Salahis did.  They simply beat the system.  Their SUV got stopped in traffic, they took off on foot and got to the door, and due to the rain and the rush, nobody had time to check the lists very closely.  You also can’t find any wrong with the life of this Pharisee either.  The problem was not in what he did wrong, but it was in what was ‘missing’ in his life and in his attitude toward everything he did.  He came to God in prayer, but it was a prayer which was ‘self-assured’ of in his own right ‘standing’ before God.   The trouble was, he did not approach God in prayer as if he were really ‘standing’ before God.  It was all show. Because he claimed to be as good as God is why Jesus had a big problem with him (recall Jesus asking, “why call me good, there is none good but God”).  Only when our very partial “rightness” is done in full sight of God’s perfect righteousness, can our own “rightness” be has as modest and humble as it should be.   

People in our world today, who seem to about as self-absorbed as the Salahis, speaks volumes to the self-assuming, self-focused, and haughty spirit that permeates our culture.   Our instant access to wealth, knowledge, and power, has caused many, to overstep their bounds and assume a position of prerogative and entitlement.   It figures, that having the world at our fingertips can make just about anybody assert a form of ‘rightness’ without seeking or pursuing the righteousness of God.   With the divine perspective missing, life will most easily be reduced to “my” opinions, “my” views, and “my own” thoughts, without any regard or reference to God.    

Especially In a moment when people can express whatever they feel at the click of a mouse, we must watch out even more for the Pharisee in us.  For example, we have watched the use of personal ‘people’ power in the so called ‘Arab Spring’, which quickly swept across the Middle East, especially in Egypt.  It is a people power that has toppled governments and regimes, many of which were unjust and corrupt.  But does ‘power’ make ‘right, even when it is the power of the people?   Well it didn’t in Egypt, did it?  Is the power of ‘rightness’ by the people any more ‘right’ than when it is in the hands of one person?’  Maybe, it can be, or maybe it doesn’t come that easy?  Whenever a tyrant is toppled, we all pray that the door for justice and righteousness will fly open wide, but it is no guarantee, is it? 

Unless people come together and keep coming together in humility, with mutual respect, having genuine compassion accompanied with a vision of fairness and justice ‘for all’ that is also ‘under God’, our own views of rightness will not necessarily equal righteousness. Only genuine humility before God can grant us the reality of righteousness, which remains forever beyond all human claims of rightness.  This is the testimony of Scripture: God’s righteousness can’t be seen, realized, or appropriated alone in our own human strength or effort.  The Pharisee of this story, who was seen ‘standing alone’ in prayer in his own little world, might claim his own rightness, but he can never claim God’s blessing of righteousness.  Righteousness is a much larger vision of truth and justice that comes as a gift of God when people humbly work together to discover what it takes for righteousness and “justice to flow like an ever flowing stream.”   Without this divine vision of the ‘righteousness of God’, our own rightness will always fall short.

With this understanding that only God’s righteousness can make us “right”, we need now to consider this sinner, who had so much wrong in his life.  We aren’t told everything that was wrong with him, but we are told that he was a ‘tax collector’.  In that world this made him the worse scoundrel anyone could imagine.  Tax Collector’s made their living by taking more money than the government required.  So how could Jesus ever suggest that such a sinner, through a few nice words, could automatically make everything right with God?  How could his “wrongness” be made right with mere words, even if they were sincere?   Again, we might get how the Pharisee got it wrong, but could such a sinner get it right?

When I consider this story, I couldn’t get it either if it were not for the rest of the story of Jesus, which gives us the bigger picture.   Just to say a few words, even if they are the right words, and even if we mean them with our whole heart, certainly does not justify any of us.  Certainly Scripture clearly shows that ‘words without deeds’ will not grant anyone the full gift of God’s grace.  But what does ‘begin’ to unlock the gift of God’s righteousness and grace in us is that we come to God with the right kind of heart, the right kind of perspective, and the right kind of humility.   When we know that all we can do, whether we are at our best or we are at our worst, is to put ourselves at the mercy of God, then we unleashed God’s grace, because we have come to God in a graceful and saving way.   That’s what this Sinner did and what the Pharisee never did.   The Pharisee’s haughty attitude blocked the way of God’s mercy in him, but the sinner’s genuine spirit of humility paved the way for God’s grace and mercy to take hold in his life.

When we know that our hope, our only hope, is, as the song say, in “Jesus’ blood and righteousness”; and when we know that the mercy of God is all any of us ever really had, have, or ever will have, we begin to understand what God’s righteousness means.   When we know this, are ready to live our lives in a whole new way.  For in Jesus, it’s not where people were or have been in the past that matters, but it’s where they go and what they do after mercy and grace appears in them.   God does not save us by looking back at what we did or didn’t do, but God saves and justifies us by looking to what Jesus has done and by looking forward to what we become in Jesus Christ as we recognized God’s mercy, grace, and righteousness that flows through us as a gift of grace.     

This is exactly what happened to Albert Switzer, the Medical doctor, professor, theologian and talented organist, who left all the position and prestige he had in England, to work with the poor in Africa.   More recently, it happened to an American mom, Beth Masters, who along with her son Jake, got involved helping handing out toys to children in a violent, drug ridden area of South Africa.   She was so moved over the situation with these children, now she runs a non-profit organization to tutor these children and help them make good enough grades to move into private boarding schools and then graduate.    It all started with her son’s high school service project and now it is a major effort to save these children from certain destruction.   She now lives her life based on a promise to these children,  “study hard and do your best and I will be hear to shake your hand at your graduation.” ( What we all need to understand about faith in Jesus Christ is this.  It’s not about being right, but about being righteous.  And as the book of James says,  true righteousness in Christ is: “religion that is pure which helps orphans, widows (James 1.27); or cares for any of those who are the last, the least and the lost.      

What Jesus has done for us is not the end of the story, but only the beginning.  The grace that God gives this sinner makes no sense unless his words for mercy are the only beginning of a whole new kind of living in Christ, just like very different kind of lives that were lived by others who were transformed by faith in Jesus, such as those other Tax Collectors like Matthew, or Zacchaeus.   Humble words must be followed by holy action because this is what the gift of God’s righteousness works in us.  It not only humbles us, it makes us new people who are willing and ready to live the rest of our lives in Christ, because we are grateful to him.  

But, this talk of righteousness that works, is not works righteousness, which is made clear in in the third great lesson from this parable.   This is something we should already know, but we often forget:   God’s righteousness is never finally about who we are, nor how good we are or how right we are, but the righteous life we live in Christ is always finally about who God is.   It is all about God as revealed in Jesus Christ, because only God can give us the righteousness we need.

You need to know how important this final truth is; not through some theory but through real life.  It is the kind of real life situation the Amish in our neighborhood faced a few weeks ago, with a young 27 year old, Father of three, lost his life in a construction accident.   Our entire community was in shock over the incident, and few of us can feel what those young children, ages 5, almost 4, and 2 were feeling.   The 5 year old girl leaned up on the casket and could only peek into the casket at her Father, not able to fully bear the weight of what she understood.   But the boy who was almost 4, gave us the real insight into the pain they experienced, when he refused to eat after the Funeral.   When one of the adults encouraged him to eat something, the little child answered,  “I’m not eating until Daddy comes home.”   When I heard that, my heart broke all over again.

What we must be able to say, in life and in death, is that our lives are not finally about us.   This is the only hope we have.   Because if this life is only about us, we are hopeless.   None of us will ever get home or ever come home again,  unless the revelation of God’s righteousness in Jesus is true.   Everything we are, hope and believe is based in the righteousness of God revealed in Jesus.   Listen to what the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans:   But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been revealed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom 3:21-26 NRS). 

You certainly don’t have to get all the details of what Paul says here to grasp the big picture.  The ‘righteousness’ we are to live is never our own alone, but it always and forever remains the righteousness ‘of God’.   Over and over, Paul is saying the same thing:  our salvation in Christ and the hope of the justification of our lives is revealed as God’s righteousness in Jesus.   Our only right response is to put our faith in Jesus Christ and to commit to living the rest of our lives in him.

With this in mind, let’s go back once more to the beginning to see again what this Pharisee did wrong by being right, and what this sinner did right, by being wrong.  The Pharisee was ‘standing alone’ when he prayed, and that never changed.  He never really stood ‘before God’ in his prayer, but he only stood alone because he only compared himself with others.  He was as alone in his praying as he was in his religion, because it was all about him.  That’s all his faith was ever about: him.  Because his life was only about him, his life ends with nothing.  

The sinner on the other hand, was not left alone in his praying, because his prayer was never about him, but his prayer could only be a cry to God for mercy.  There was nothing else good in this sinner’s life that his prayer could ever have been about.  He could not even look up, because he knew he was bowing in God’ very presence and this is why he could only throw himself down at the mercy of God.   What justifies this sinner is not his wrongness or rightness, but his complete faith and trust in God’s mercy.   When you take all your own ‘rightness’ out of the picture, God’s righteousness can’t help but come flowing in.  God’s grace and mercy do not like a vacuum.  This is the physics of faith: If you get yourself out, God comes in.  If you stand in the way, God won’t come.  For the person who’d rather go it alone, there is no mercy given, because in their heart, they have decided to go it alone.   But that is not where we want to be left standing, is it?   We don’t want to stand alone in our rightness, but we want to stand with Jesus in his righteousness.   We can only be found righteous standing together, and standing in him.  Amen.      

Sunday, October 20, 2013

“Answered Prayer”

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 18: 1-8
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday after Pentecost, October 20th, 2013

“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart (Luke 18:1 NRS).

Honestly, I don’t watch much T.V. these days, except for news programs, documentaries, a few sporting events, and an occasional movie I rent on DVD.   There’s just not much on T.V. that is worth watching.  But recently, someone told me about a new show called “The American Bible Challenge” with guest host, Jeff Foxworthy.  The other night I watched and enjoyed it.   It’s a game show that tests the Bible knowledge of different teams of contestants who compete against each other for charity.   Frankly, some of the questions are quite difficult, even for students of the Bible.  On the first show I watched, 3 Jewish Rabbis, who claimed to know their Hebrew Bible quite well, were the first to leave.   A group Christians wrestlers won the grand prize, $20,000 for their chosen charity.   I guess it proves that wrestling is good training for Bible Study.

Different questions were asked during the show.  One of the most difficult ones was to try to pick three different names used for money in the Bible.   The choices were: Mina, Penny, Lira, Dinar, Gerah, and Rupee.  Which ones would you choose?   The correct answers were, Mina, Penny, and Gerah.  Did you know that the word “Penny” was in the Bible?   “Tough question, right?   But what really got my attention was another question they asked concerning people’s belief about the Bible.  They asked the contestants to work together as a team and write down the percentage they thought was right about this question:  How many percent of Americans believe that the streets of heaven are literally paved with pure gold?   The possible answers were 72%,  51%, or 28%.   Which one would you answer?  Out of the three teams competing against each other, two teams answered 51%, but the correct answer, which only the Christian wrestlers gave, was 72%.  

Most people take the Bible literally.  It’s very much the same when it comes to the theme of today’s text, answered prayer.   Most people believe that when you pray to God you will get an answer.   As I heard one preacher explain in my childhood: sometimes you get a no, sometimes a yes, and sometimes you get “you have to wait”, but there is always some kind of answer to our prayers.   Yet, here’s the problem with that kind of statement.  Prayer does not always get a direct,‘literal’ answer, at least not immediately, and sometimes not at all.   All of us have prayed prayers that did not get an answer or the answer we asked for, haven’t we?   We have prayed for sick people who did not get well.   We have prayed for jobs we never got hired for.  We have prayed for marriages that did not stay together.   We have prayed for children who did not turn out as we’d hoped.  And we have prayed and hoped for many others good things that have not yet come true.  So, if you take answered prayer literally, and you are honest about it, you must face some road blocks and dead ends.     

Several years ago, Teresa and I were vacationing near Sunset Beach, N.C.   One day at lunch time, we decided to ride our Bikes from Sunset Beach to Calabash, where there was a small seafood hut.   All went well, except for on the ride back.  I decided we would take a shortcut on a dirt road.  As we road back into a wood and neared a house a large Doberman dog came up beside of Teresa.  He didn’t bark, but he stayed close on her heal, marching like a sentry.  He was so close, she felt the dog’s breath.  Another Doberman, which was tied up, was barking in the distance.  It was nerve racking.  I encouraged Teresa, as she frantically cried out for help, “Keep on Riding”, “Look straight ahead”.  Don’t look him in the eyes.”   After we finally got past the home, the dog stopped following.   We got through it, or should I say, she got through it.   Then we came to a dead end in the road.    There was nothing but swamp ahead of us.  We had to turn around and got back.  It was one of the few times in my life, I became more afraid of my wife than I was that Doberman Pincher.  I don’t remember whether how we prayed, but we were both praying, “God, please help us get by that dog without getting eaten alive!”   We proceeded ahead and we heard the Doberman that was tied start barking in the distance.  We expected the other Doberman any moment.  But for some reason or other, it did not come.  This time, thank God, we cycled by without our Doberman “tour guide.”   I still haven’t heard the end of my decision to go down that road, but at least for now, I’m still alive, thanks to my wife, not just the dog.

In our text today, if you liken prayer to the journey of riding down a dirt road being accompanied by a Doberman Pincher, most of us can tell some story about coming to a ‘dead end’ and having no place to turn.   It is this ‘dead end’ place that Jesus is concerned about when he told this story about the Widow and the Unjust Judge.   This Widow faced one dead end after another.   She kept coming to the Judge to get a hearing, who instead was like that Doberman Pincher, completely without concern for her or her situation.   Jesus even tells us that the Unjust Judge ‘neither feared God nor had respect for people’.   He really was a ‘mad dog’ judge.   Jesus wants his disciples to know that this is how unanswered prayer often feels.   In this image of the Unjust Judge, Jesus is putting unanswered prayer on the “hot seat.”    Having such a biting response to our prayers even makes God seem unfair, and makes many prayers seem not worth praying.    We pray and expect answers, but we end up on at a dead end dirt road.   If we go back that way again to pray once more, it’s as if a Doberman Pincher God is waiting to pounce his ‘no’ or ‘wait’ upon our dire situation, so why go at all? 

To people who feel this way about prayer, Jesus surprisingly gives the interpretation or moral of his story, even before he tells it.   He has urgent good news.  He wants people to know why they ‘need to pray always and not to lose hope’.   Even if there is no answer, and even when it seems there will be no answer, and even if the lack of answer makes God looks unfair, Jesus still says we should pray anyway, and ‘not lose heart’.    

This is really a hard true reality to face, isn’t it?   But sometime or other we all have to face the ‘music’ of unanswered prayer.   In the comedy film, Bruce Almighty, with “Bruce” being played by funny man Jim Carry, Bruce comes to God telling him hard life is and complains again that God doesn’t understand because God has a much easier job.   God, who is played by Morgan Freeman, decides to prove to Bruce that being God is not as easy as he thinks, so he allows “Bruce” to be ‘God’ for a while.   One of the funniest moments comes when Bruce keeps getting prayer requests through emails and has an impossible time answering them all, without making a mess of the world.  The point of the movie is that it’s not easy to balance what people ask for and what people and the world truly need.   We can all understand that difficulty, can’t we?  We understand that when the doctor tell us Mama’s body can’t get better because bodies are made to wear out.   We understand that sometimes we can’t get a certain job, because someone else needed a job too.  And we even understand that God can’t give us everything we ask for, because getting everything we want is not always what we need, nor what life is about.

Answered prayer is not as easy as it seems.   Someone has said that you don’t understand prayer, unless you have ever knocked on a door and gotten bloody knuckles (Fred Craddock).   So with the difficulty of answered prayer put before us in the Widow who keeps on going to this judge and is not being heard, why would Jesus still dare tell his disciples ‘to keep praying always’ and “not lose heart”?    Why, in spite of the all difficulties of answered pray, would Jesus still believe that when we pray, the answer will one day come?   How can God answer every single request that has ever been asked?   How can God answer every prayer when it sounds as improbable as it seems impossible?  

What might help us understand Jesus’ confidence in answered prayer is that this is not the first time Jesus has suggested that our prayers will be answered.   If you remember, back in Luke, chapter eleven, the disciples came to Jesus asking him to teach them how to pray.   Jesus grants their request by giving them a model prayer, which we all know today as the Lord’s Prayer.   In this prayer Jesus teaches his disciples what they should pray for.   Jesus gives his disciples a list of things they should pray for if they want their prayers to be answered.   Interestingly, when you read through the list of prayer requests in the Lord’s Prayer you don’t find the most familiar prayer topics.   Things like, as memorized in the King James Version, “Hallowed Be Thy Name” and “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done” don’t get on most of our prayer lists, do they?   We make our own prayer lists with needs and names on them that we want and wish to be healed, helped, protected or encouraged, but as far as I can tell, Jesus never modeled any kind of prayer like this.  The prayer Jesus modeled looked very different with a very different kind of agenda.  Even when we get to the more personal part of the model prayer, Jesus only lists the most basic needs like food for “daily bread”, granting and receiving “forgiveness”, and the need to be led away from temptation and evil.   Most of us expect exactly the opposite.  We pray for “all you can eat”, for revenge on our enemies, and for a ‘good time’ that might take us to the very edge of evil.  Have we ever thought about the fact that maybe part of the reason we don’t get what we pray for is because we are not asking for the right things in the way Jesus taught? 

Let’s consider more of what Jesus says early on about answered prayer.   After Jesus gives us the list of things we should pray about, he then gives his story about the Friend at Midnight, who tried to get his friend to get up in the middle of the night and give him some bread.   The friend does finally get an answer, as he finally gets the bread, but it’s not because they were friends, but because he kept persistently and relentlessly knocking.   But remember again, the midnight visitor was not asking for a meal fit for a king, but he was asking for ‘daily’ bread (or nightly bread).    Jesus then goes on to tell his disciples ‘to ask, seek and knock’ which in the original language means, ‘ask and keep on asking, seek and keep on seeking, and knock and keep on knocking.”   When Jesus says “….everyone who ask, receives, who seeks, finds, or who knocks, will have the door open,” he is still not making true prayer a ‘blank check’ to get what we want.  As we all know, when a person is dying and praying to live, that prayer cannot always certainly or immediately be answered.   When a prayer is asked for all kinds of other personal things for specifics we want or need, those prayers can’t always be answered either.  God’s agenda for answered prayer is not answering our own personal agendas.   But the kind of prayer that Jesus promises will always be answered is made clear in this text.  In his closing comments, Jesus likens God’s desire to give us good gifts, like a desire of a good Father, who will only give good gifts to his children.   Like that ‘good Father’ God only gives the best things, but this does not mean he will give us anything and everything we ask for.   No, it can’t mean that, and then Jesus clarifies for all of us, that there is there is only one answer the Heavenly Father will always give, the ‘gift’ of the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:11), which is nothing less than the gift of God’s self.     

Are you disappointed?   Prayer is not always what we make it out to be, is it?   Prayer is not always a “Sweet Hour of Prayer”, but it can be praying with bloody knuckles where we end up with only one answer: God is with us.   Jesus made this very important clarification about prayer early on, and most of us still don’t get it?   But what we need to understand most about prayer that God does not answer prayers like some ‘Bruce Almighty’ getting all kinds of different email requests.   Prayer is not like that at all.   You really have no guarantee anywhere in the Bible of getting everything you pray for, unless you pray for the things Jesus taught his disciples to pray for, and to pray about. 

For you see, prayer is a discipline, not a luxury.   Prayer is not something as simple as one, two, three, or something you can market or sell with a formula for success.   The Diet Industry likes to market quick fixes of diet plans and pills, but you can’t market a true diet, which is a lifestyle choice of moderation and exercise.   Few want a diet plan like this, and that’s why only those who understand what a real diet is, lose weight.   In the same way as learning about the discipline of weight loss, part of the discipline of true prayer is learning both what to ask for, and what not to ask for.  Remember the Psalmists first line in the most famous prayer of praise in the Hebrew Bible: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want”.   Here is an expression of how David learned to pray.   As a new another translation puts it, “The Lord is my Shepherd and Guide, I already have everything I need”.    That’s how David prayed.  That’s also how Jesus taught us to pray.   When we have the Lord, the great Shepherd, which is nothing less than the gift of the Holy Spirit, it is only then that we come to fully know what little else we really need.  When we learn true prayer, our prayer lists get shorter rather than longer.  Only by wanting God and by wanting what God wants, will we know the fulfillment of the promise of answered prayer.  

At the center of this story about ‘Answered Prayer” is not the answer that finally came, but the Widow keeps going, and going, and going back to the Unjust Judge demanding he do what is right, fair and just.  Again, the point is not, how the Judge finally answers, for he is never anything but a scoundrel.   The point is how this faithful, resilient, and resourceful widow kept on bothering him with what is right.   

Her story can never be reduced to the answer she gets or doesn’t get.   Her story is about who she is and what she does even when the answer doesn’t come.   She’s the kind of righteous, determined person who never gives up demanding justice, fairness, and righteousness, representing all the “chosen ones” Jesus also mentions, “who cry out to God day and night” (v.7).   In a fallen, broken, unfair world, people like her are the answer God has to bring to the world.  People like her are the kind of people who want what God wants.   She is the answer to the prayer Jesus taught us to pray, which says “holy is God’s name, God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth…."    She is kind of person who is the answer to God’s prayer spoken in Jesus Christ.

Can we see ourselves as both the person whose determination to do the right thing is an answer to prayer?    Martha Coldwell was a fellow Baptist missionary who trained with me and served in Rwanda.  So, when the news of the terrible genocide in Rwanda came out in 1994, my ears perked up.   Martha, later told me she was out of the country when the terrible events happened; when that African nation descended into a dark madness, with the powerful Hutu majority beginning a systematic slaughter of the Tutsi minority.  Someone called that massacre "the fastest and most efficient killing spree of the 20th century." In one hundred days, the Hutus killed 800,000 Tutsis.”  (See Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, as cited by Thomas Hibbs, in The National Review Online, January 18, 2005).    Later, some of you may have seen the film, Hotel Rwanda, which shows Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, unknowingly and accidently driving his vehicle over hundreds of bodies of those slaughtered and left dead in the road.   Paul himself was a Hutu, who promised to protect his Tutsi wife and the family he loved, and he also ended up finding the courage to shelter and save over 1,200 Tutsi people by hiding them in the luxury hotel he managed.

But Paul did not start out as a hero, or an answer to prayer.    As the horror built, Paul initially protested that there was nothing he could do.   But his reluctance was challenged by the steady beating of truth upon his door.  Alan Culpepper, a Baptist professor once said something like:  “To those who have it in their power to relieve ... distress ... but do not, the call of Jesus to pray day and night and demand God’s righteousness is a command to let the priorities of God's compassion reorder the priorities of our lives." (R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. IX, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1995, 339). As Paul heard the knock and opened his heart, he began to see the horror and experience the shame. It was a truth he didn't want to admit; but in the end, his conscience prevailed and he acted to save as many lives as he could.  He was the answer to prayer.   He joined in the knocking on the door of injustice, hate, evil and wrong.

But, interestingly, Paul was not the only one to hear the beating on the door and to experience the need to reorder his priorities; it happened also to many viewers of the film.   And I think it happened especially in one telling moment.   About midway through the story, as the slaughter of the Tutsi people escalated in Kigali, Western reporters began to capture scenes of the genocide on tape.   Paul was heartened a bit, because he assumed the broadcast of such images would prompt immediate Western intervention. When a skeptical Western reporter expressed doubt, Paul was dumbfounded. "How can they see that and not intervene?" he asked. But the reporter had seen it all before. "More likely," he responded, "people will see the footage, say 'Isn't that horrible?' and then go right on with their dinners."   The most disturbing moment in that deeply disturbing film is that people often do just that.   Too often we see what is wrong, and we do not feel the shame or respond to bring about the answer for rightness, justice, fairness and the righteousness of God!

So, who are we in this parable of Jesus?  Are we more like the Unjust Judge who goes on ignoring the cries in our world, or are we like the woman who keeps on asking, seeking, and knocking, crying out and demanding that right be done, just as Jesus taught us to pray that God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?   This widow woman, says Jesus, is who we all should be, not just a people praying on our knees, but a people out there beating the bushes and insisting on nothing less than God’s righteousness to be done in our world.

Let me just say, that if we are like the Unjust Judge, ignoring the truth of what we need to do, God has not given up on us.   The good news of this story is, that God wants us to be like this widow, wanting what God wants, --unrelenting, persistent, resilient and assertive.   God hasn't given up on us, even when we have acted as though we "neither feared God nor had respect for people."  And God works through us, when we, like the widow keep on crying out for and doing what is right.   People like her, are the answer to prayer.   They, and we are the answer to the prayer to all kinds of other widows, orphans, strangers and other sojourners of this world. If we will let the cry of the hurting break us, there is still hope for goodness, relief, reconciliation and fairness in our world.   Will we keep knocking and answering the door?  This is how all our prayers will be answered, and God’s too  (This final point is found in Robert Dunham’s sermon, “Whose Persistance” at,

Today, Jesus is like the widow, saying to us: "Behold," says the Christ, "I stand at the door and knock." Maybe today you’ll open the door, or we’ll open the door together to do what needs to be done.  If we would, maybe,  it would be a  good day for everyone!  Amen.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

“What's the Least You Can Believe?”

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 17: 1-10
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 20c, October 6th, 2013

  "The Lord replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.” (Luke 17:6 NRS)

In my study I have a new book with disturbing title: “What’s the least I can believe and still be a Christian?”  That title disturbed me because it represents the spirit of the times which asks, How can I get something for nothing”?  That is, how can I get what I want without putting in the time, the hard work, the blood, sweat and tears?   It seems that everyone wants what they want, but what they don’t want is to do what it takes to get it.  

Consider these situations where people try to get something from nothing: 
·         “At the lottery stand in Chicago that sells more lottery tickets than any other: Hannah's Finer Food & Liquors sells more lottery tickets than any other place.   A reporter goes there and meets two men who want to get rich quick.  One is trying to win the lottery by spending $3,000 to $4,000 a year on it, so it's hardly something for nothing. But still, he hopes.  The other man is a model of hopefulness: he plays the lottery even though he thinks it's fixed. That's how much people want to believe you can get something for nothing — even though we know we can't.

·         A documentary entitled, Hands On A Hard Body by filmmakers Rob Bindler, Chapin Wilson and Kevin Morse, tells of a contest held every year by a Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas.  Twenty-four people stand around a $15,000 hard body pickup truck.  When the starting whistle blows, each person puts one hand on the truck. They wear gloves, so as not to mess up the paint job.  And they stand there ... and stand there ... until one by one, people get tired and drop away, and one person is left standing.   That person gets to keep the truck. One person was back again after losing the year before.   He says a contest like this is not easy money, because you slowly go crazy from sleep deprivation.

·         Bob Helm helps people make a living by donating their bodies to science for medical experiments.  Bob says he wouldn't encourage people to do spinal tap studies or psychoactive drugs.   He says that the work he promotes is a much better job than most nine-to-fives.  It is risky, but everything is.
·         Finally, Dirk Jamison, once a writer, gave up a 9-to-5 job and succeeded in getting something for nothing: he decided he'd feed the family by diving into dumpsters for free food.  Dirk is now the author of Perishable: A Memoir which tells how his family learned to live on trash.

So, what would you do to get something for nothing?  In applying this to faith, many people today want exactly that; they want a church where they can attend and be entertained, they want a church that offers them all kinds of programs for their family, but they don’t want to have to lead a program themselves.  People want a faith that gives them an anchor in the storm, but they don’t what to ever have to take the ship out to sea.  This ‘least’ kind of faith does not sound like good faith, does it?  But interestingly, in our text today, Jesus is speaking highly of a faith that sounds somewhat like that.  You remember Jesus words; “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say, be uprooted and planted in the sea and it would obey you. (Luk 17:6 NRS).  Did you catch what Jesus is saying, “If you had the faith the size of a mustard seed….”?  That’s like saying with the little faith you can have, if you really have it, you could do some pretty amazing things.  “If” you had it….that is.   

This discussion about faith in this text comes in response to apostle’s request for more faith.  “Increase our faith!” they asked.  But Jesus implies they don’t need more faith, but they simply need to use the “little” faith they have.   Since Jesus surprises them and us by smiling upon such ‘little’ faith, let’s ask again: what is the ‘least’ or the ‘smallest’ amount of faith you can have and still be a Christian?  

In the book that I mentioned, the author is not talking about small faith, but he is talking about getting our faith down to the size of the things that matter most.  The problem is that many people believe too much, not too little.   People get confused about faith and start adding all kinds of things they think you have to do to have ‘true’ faith.   They add things like what kind of Bible you ‘must’ read to be a Christian, what kind of politic you ‘must’ vote, or what kind ‘music’ you like, what kind of ‘doctrines’ you must follow, or what kind of stance you have about some ‘hot button’ issue that is current today.   Churches and Christians might say you have to believe this or not believe in that, but amazingly many of those ‘beliefs’ that are on people's lists have nothing to do with Jesus or what the New Testament actually said.    Nowhere does Jesus say you have to be Baptist, you have to read the King James Bible, you have to be a Republican, or you have to watch Fox or CNN News.   But the Bible does speak about repenting of sins, following Jesus, selling our possessions, and giving to the poor.  We like to change what matters.    

We humans are as good about ‘adding’ things to faith, as we are about ‘subtracting’ things from faith.  
The opening chapter of Martin Theilen’s book is another case and point.  Many people believe that God causes everything to happen, including cancer, car wrecks, and other catastrophes, but Pastor Thielen does not agree.  “Although God can bring good out of evil, God does not cause evil, tragic, things to happen.”  And there many other things Pastor Thielen says people don’t have to believe to be a Christian, but you get the point.   You can go and check out his book yourself.   I want to get back to what Jesus called the most important matters of faith.  

In our text, Jesus is not trying to clear up a misunderstanding, as much as he is trying to give understanding to what true faith means in the first place.   Jesus wants the disciples to know that faith does not start ‘big’, but it starts ‘small’.   Faith does not always get everything right, at least not at first, but it gets the main thing right, even from the beginning and this makes a big difference.   And, according to Jesus, when you have the right kind of ‘small’ faith, you can do some really ‘big’ things with it.   So, let’s consider for a moment; what is ‘small’ faith?  What is the core element of faith that starts small, but can grow bigger and bigger when we start right?

If you look at what just came at the beginning of this chapter, you find Jesus exhorting the disciples to beware of causing ‘little ones’ to stumble (17: 1-4).  Listen you how important Jesus says are the most smallest, must basic elements of faith when he tells the disciples in verse 3: “Be on guard, if another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive”.  Jesus understands that “correction” and “forgiveness” are the most basic elements of Christian faith.   If you do these small things well in a Christian fellowship; that is, if you do them with a Christian attitude, then you can also learn to do the big things well.  But if you don’t do these small things well, then you can’t do the big things either.  And you not only can’t do them, you might hurt the growing faith of young, new Christians.

I recall several years ago a situation in a particular church where there was a matter that divided people.  It doesn’t matter what the issue was, but I assure you the whole issue was not something that was in the Bible.   It almost never is.  But what was in the Bible is what everyone forgot:  Things like speaking the truth to each other; loving each other, not gossiping, serving each other, and making sure you go to a person that offends you; and forgiving and respecting each other.   It was all those things that everyone neglected that ‘offended’ the young believers who never came back to that church; some never went to church ever again.

Do we get the ‘small’ most basic things right?  When we do, church grows.  When we don’t, church stagnates, and worse, churches die.    Jesus will make sure of that because he says, “it would be better if the person who offends a little one would have a millstone hung around their neck and be cast into the sea, that to offend one of these little ones" and have to answer to God.   Churches and Christians who fail to get the small things right, endanger their witness, their future, and their whole existence.   To Jesus, it’s not the ‘big things’ that matter  most, but it’s the small things; the most basic things we expect and need from each other are the things that ensure we will have a witness and a word in the world. 

Again, we need to realize the importance of the smallest things.   Recently a professor at Harvard, E.O. Wilson says that we are in a time of unparalleled discovery in the field of microbiology and similar fields of study.   He says that up to now, Science has only identified 1 to 5% of living things.   This means that that 95 to 99% of living organism are microscopic, like viruses, bacteria, slimes, fungi, and all kinds of sea creatures we haven’t ever seen.  The future of ‘big life’ he says, is in the ‘small life’.  (

Jesus also wants us to ‘think small’ when it comes to faith.  He wants us to know that the key to our life together, is not having the big ministries, becoming the big church, or making a big impact in our community.  The really big thing the church can get right is the ‘small things’;  like holding people’s hands through crisis,  visiting someone whose hurting and alone, taking time to find out what is going on with our neighbor.  If we are not doing these things, then watch out for the millstone!   Our faith and witness is worse than dead.  

And it’s the same in our personal lives.  If we are going after the big things, but forgetting the needs of our families, then watch out for the millstone.   Life does not consist of getting the ‘big things’, but it consists of getting the little things right; like carrying for our parents, taking time for our children, keeping your marriage alive, caring for your neighbors and making sure we are together in faith, worship, mission and purpose in the church.

Why does Jesus get so personal about our faith?   To put it simply, faith is everything we are or our lack of faith is everything we aren’t.  This is why Jesus says small faith can do big things, like move mountains.  Faith is the key and foundation to everything we become.  If you want to get a picture of how important faith was to Jesus just scan through Luke’s gospel and consider what Jesus said about ‘faith’.  Here are some examples:    
(1) Luke 5.20:   The people who brought the paralyzed man to Jesus brought him up on the roof of the house to let him down to Jesus' presence because of the press of the crowd.  How did Jesus respond? "When he saw their faith he said, your sins are forgiven…."(5:20).  Faith was the key to forgiveness.
(2) Luke 7: 9: The centurion sent servants to Jesus to urge Jesus to heal another servant "long distance." The centurion's message was to the effect that he, too, was a man under authority, who gave commands (and implicitly obeyed commands too). Jesus' response is, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith" (9). Faith enabled the healing power of God to be released.
(3) Luke 7: 50: While at dinner with a Pharisee, Jesus was interrupted by a woman from the city, a sinner, who bathed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.  Jesus used this action as an object lesson on gratitude to Simon, his host.  Jesus' point was that the woman's sins, which were many, were forgiven her because she "showed great love."  As a result Jesus said, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace" (7:50).  Faith enabled her to find the peace of God in her life.
(4) Luke 8:48:  Finally, when Jesus was passing through the crowds, a woman suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years broke through, touched Jesus' garment, and was healed from her flow of blood.  Jesus asked who touched him.  When the woman explained what she had done it led immediately to her healing. "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace" (8:48).  Faith was the key to wellness and wholeness---to both being and staying well.  (Thanks to Bill Long for the examples:

In all these instances "faith" is something more like ‘who do you trust’ that ‘what do you believe?"  Do you see that?   It is not just that any of these people had the right kind of understandings of faith, but it is because they had simple faith in Jesus.  Faith is much less about getting all the doctrines right, but it is most essentially having simple trust in God---which is, trusting that Jesus gets it right.   Jesus is the one who has the power over the wind and the waves.  Jesus is the one who holds everything together.  When the disciples were asking Jesus to ‘increase their faith’ they were not asking Jesus to explain all his teachings about faith, but they were asking JESUS for more faith and trust in him.   They wanted to have the faith and trust that Jesus had.  

I remember a sermon that was preached at Ridgecrest Conference Center back in 1987.  It was a dark time, when some people were fighting over the right interpretation of the Bible.   Both sides believed that the bible was true, but both had different views about ‘how’ the Bible became true in our lives.   Some said you had to take the Bible very literally.  Other’s said they took the Bible seriously, but not always literally.   What they were discussing confused most people.  What all this arguing was doing was destroying the unity of our great denomination, and it did.   Ever since that day, the denomination has been in decline. 

But what I will never forget about that conference, besides going away heart broken, was a sermon that one preacher gave about the right interpretation of the Bible.   He said that once he was in the bedroom of a dear lady who was dying.   He was reading the Scripture to her.  Every time he finished a story or read a verse, the dear, saintly lady would open her eyes and say to the preacher,  “That was a good one, wasn’t it?”   This is what trust is.   This is what faith means.  It means we look into the heart of what Jesus was saying, being and doing and we say, “HE WAS A GOOD ONE, WASN’T HE?”   He is the kind of person we want to be.  He is the kind of Lord we want to have.  He is the kind of God we believe in.  We TRUST OUR LIVES TO HIM. 

Again, what we must not miss is this: When we hear the disciples ask for an increase in faith, we might be tempted to think they were asking for some more larger quantity, or some measurable quality of faith.  Some people will read what Jesus says about Mulberry Trees being uprooted and planted in the sea as ridiculous.   But my guess is, you’d think differently if you were living in Florida and a sink hold opened up and swallowed your house, or swallowed the ‘tree’ before you into the sea that exists ‘under the house.’  My guess is that you would also see this text differently if you were living in Colorado and a wall of water came suddenly came crashing down the mountain washing everything away.   We just don’t realize how everything we have, even the ground we stand on is not eternal, but is all built something we might call faith.   Faith is what will outlive and outlast all the things we know, be they mountains, trees, or houses and lands.   Could we see this as the meaning of Jesus words about faith?   Faith is bigger and stronger than any tree or any mountain.   For Luke and for the all of the NT authors, this kind of ‘strong’ faith is not so much something we have or can hold on to, but it’s something that has and holds on to us, when the mountain move, when the earth shakes, as the oceans swell and when the rains fall.   Faith is the rock that will not be moved, not the sand that will shift. In other words, faith is everything and it has all our heart, or it has nothing of us at all. Faith is what we put our ‘feet’ down upon and stand upon, or we are not standing on any kind solid ground at all.     

The final picture of faith---the kind of faith that gets the smallest matters right, comes in the ending parable Jesus gives about the slave.   This could be an offensive picture, but Jesus is not teaching that slavery is good, or acceptable.   At the time Jesus taught, the Jews were practically ‘slaves’ to the Romans.   He is not condoning slavery, but Jesus is taking the ‘slavery’ of his own people and giving them a spiritual lesson that they can fully understand because they are living it.   Again, it is the simplest of lessons.   Jesus says that if you are a ‘slave’, don’t expect you master to do you any favors.  You are a slave.   Don’t expect to be ‘thanked’ for being a slave.   While you are in that position, the best you can do is what you are supposed to do, what you are ordered to do, and what you are expected to do.  

What kind of spiritual lesson is this?  It is a spiritual lesson about what God expects from a ‘faithful’ person.  The picture of an obedient slave is all God expects from any of us.  It is not the picture of an Einstein, a great Scientist, a wealthy person, and Entrepreneur or some other shaker or mover.   God does not expect you or me to move mountains, but to have faith that can.   God does not expect that we all will grow the kind of faith that can change the world or even change the mind of people around us, but to have the simple kind of faith changes our own attitude about everything.   The faith that Jesus expects from all of us is the simplest and greatest expression of faith of all: Do what you are supposed to do when you know it is your job to do it.   In other words, “Bloom where you are planted."  Don’t waste your time trying to be something you’re not, or only dreaming of what else you could do or be if you were someone else.   Great faith begins in much more simple or humble place: “Do what you must do!”  “Do what you should do!”  “Do, what you know it is your responsibility to do and let God do the rest.”

The other day on TV News, I saw someone who does something I could never do.  It was Basketball player, LeBron James.  All of us know he is the probably the greatest basketball player alive today.  He has great skill.  He is a great leader on the court.  He is at the top of his game.  He is also a doing some wonderful things with his position in life.   In the news spot I saw, James is spending his off season, working at his home, catholic High School in Akron, Ohio, called St. Vincents and ST. Marys.  He is working not only with the school but with children in some low income areas, promising bicycles if they work hard and stay in school.  He actually does hands on work with the kids and he backs up his work by caring for his own children and loving his wife.  James is not perfect, but he is doing what he can, with the position he has, and he takes his responsibility seriously to ‘do what he must do’ and ‘what should be done’.   This is how he practices great faith by reaching out to help children in need.

But what can you are I do?  We can’t be LeBron James and we certainly don’t have his money or position?   Besides no one could say that LeBron James is not doing everything that needs to be done---but he is doing something.   And more than that, he is he is doing, as Jesus says, what any ‘servant’ should do with their position.  He is doing what ‘should be done’!    But the question is, why does LeBron James believe he is the position to do these kinds of things?   What you need to see and what he wanted the world to see are the words on the locker room at his catholic school, where LeBron James learned some greatest, but simplest, and perhaps most basic values for his own life.  Every time he and his teammates left to play the there was a sign on the wall they were required to respect, touch, and obey as they went out the door to play.   On that sign were some very simple, basic, easy to understand, but hard to implement words---words that everyone was expected to play by and live by.   The words were small, but great: "humility, unity, discipline, thankfulness, servanthood, integrity, and passion."  It was if LeBron James wanted the world to know that he was not doing what he was doing because of LeBron James, but he was doing what he was taught to do, told to do, was even ordered to do with his life while at that catholic school.  That is what made him and his work great. (

Jesus’ teaching on faith should teach us all that is smallest things that lead to the greatest things in all our lives.   This plays out all the way through the teachings of Jesus.   Jesus uses the ‘simplest’ and ‘smallest’ things in life to teach us the biggest truths.   Jesus requires not that we move mountains, but that we have ‘faith’ that can move mountains.   Jesus does not ask us to do the impossible, but to trust in the God, with whom all things are possible.   Jesus does not ask us to have ‘big faith’ but to have faith that starts with the smallest expression, just the size of a mustard seed.   

Maybe today, the great faith you need in your life might start with the smallest step in the right direction.   If you take a step in Jesus’ direction today, I can’t promise you that the sky is the limit, but I can promise you that you will ‘increase’ you faith and you will ‘decrease’ your chance to ‘stumble’ or to cause others to stumble, because you didn’t do what you know you are supposed to do.   Amen.