Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Broken Chains

Broken Chains
Lk 8:26-39[1]
  We live in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Or so the song goes.  The annual celebration of our “freedom” is just around the corner.  But the people I meet don’t seem to be free.  They’re bound by all kinds of things.  Some are bound by fear--fear of dying, fear of illness, fear of becoming financially destitute, fear of being alone.  Some are bound by pain--the pain of some disease. Or the pain of some trauma that was inflicted on them.  Some are bound by addictions--to alcohol, drugs, food, and gambling, among many others.  I find that many who are addicted to something are usually trying to cover over the pain of whatever trauma they may have suffered.  Then there are those who are bound by economic issues.  Perhaps they simply cannot make enough money to support their family.  Or perhaps they’ve made some bad choices and have gotten themselves into more debt than they can handle.  Or perhaps they simply live in a place where a decent house costs more than a family can afford, and are strapped with a huge mortgage that they can barely pay. 
  When you look more closely, it doesn’t seem like many people in our society are truly free.  And if you asked them were freedom is to be found, I’m afraid not many people have a very good answer.  These days, it seems that we as a people believe--I mean really believe--that all our problems would be solved if we had enough money.  And so we have a fascination with playing the lottery--which most people have about as good a chance of winning as I have of walking on the moon!  Others believe that if they just meet the right person then all their problems will go away.  And so we’re just as fascinated with finding “the right one” with whom we’re “meant to be.”  I’m afraid we’re looking for freedom in all the wrong places.
  Though it might not be apparent on the surface of things, our Gospel lesson for today has something to say about true freedom and where it is to be found.  It’s the story of a very strange encounter between Jesus and a man who’s soul was incredibly tormented.  Apparently the man was “possessed” by demons--not just one but many.[2]  This brings us into a realm that isn’t something we run into everyday.  And yet, like Jesus’ healing miracles, his exorcisms seem to be an important part of his ministry.  Unlike other exorcists of his day, Jesus didn’t have to use elaborate means to “cast out” the demons that tormented people.  All he had to do was say the word.  In fact, in every instance when Jesus encountered someone who was “possessed” by a demon, the spirit cries out in fear at the very sight of Jesus.  In this story, they begged him not to banish them to the “abyss.”[3]  They seem to know that he has a power they cannot possibly withstand.
  Ironically, although people generally responded favorably to Jesus’ healing miracles, they didn’t do so in response to his exorcisms.  When Jesus released a people from whatever was tormenting them, those who witnessed it were afraid.  In this case, in fact, they begged him to leave them.  You would think that they would welcome one who could set them free from the powers of evil that oppressed them.  But this was Gentile territory, and perhaps they simply valued their pigs more than they valued the freedom Jesus offered.  Or perhaps it was because they were afraid of Jesus because he had the power to say the word and free a man who had been horribly tormented for years?[4]  It’s hard to say exactly why the locals asked him to leave. 
  One thing we can say, however, is that when Jesus worked exorcisms, there was a purpose to them.  We said last week that the healing miracles were intended to demonstrate that through Jesus God was present among them and at work carrying out the compassion and mercy of his kingdom.  In the same way, I think that the exorcisms were intended to demonstrate that through Jesus God was setting people free from all that kept them bound.[5]  And in the face of the freedom of God’s kingdom, the powers of evil have no defense.  As I mentioned, whenever Jesus encountered someone who was “possessed” by a demon, the spirit of evil was instantly terrified.  Not only did they know who he was, they also knew what he could do--he could banish them with just a word![6]  And though Jesus couldn’t stay to help the people of this place because they were so afraid of him, he left the man who had been set free as a living testimony to the truth that evil cannot prevail over God’s freedom.
  The real source of freedom from all the evil and pain and trauma and injustice that binds people in our world today is the power of God’s kingdom at work among us and through us.  I wish it could be as simple as “saying the word” and granting freedom to those who are suffering from the powers of evil in our world.  Unfortunately, true freedom may only come for some people after years of work--whether it’s overcoming trauma or digging out of debt.  But I think the journey for those who are bound begins by those of us who have experienced God’s freedom carrying out our calling to live  as witnesses to that amazing good news.  We can show them our broken chains as a testimony that God can give them the freedom they’ve always longed for.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/23/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Possession by “demons” poses more difficulties even than healing miracles for the contemporary mind.  Most either attribute them to mental illness or to the destructive forces of oppressive social institutions.  Among others, Walter Wink attempts to unite the two in Unmasking the Powers, 41-68, where he specifically deals with this passage as a case in point.  Cf. similarly, Paul W. Hollenbach, “Jesus, Demoniacs, and Public Authorities: A Socio-Historical Study,” Journal of Biblical Literature 49 (Dec 1981): 567-588.  Perhaps Joseph A. Fitzmyer, in The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, 733 puts it best when he describes this simply as “evil afflicting the psychic being of a mortal man.”  Cf. similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 106: “These demons are apparently forces, conceived of in personal terms, which are destructive of life and annihilate being itself.”  See also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:230, where he says that Jesus “saw and experienced what there was actually to be seen and experienced: an abyss of darkness which was not merely supposed or imagined or invented or projected into the sphere of being but was actual and concrete.”
[3] Cf. Fitzmyer, Luke I-IX, 739: where he says that the “abyss” can refer to “the abode of the dead” or “the final prison of Satan and the demons (Rev. 20:3).”  Cf. also F. Bovon,  Luke 1: A commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1–9:50, 329.
[4] This is the view of Fred Craddock, Luke, 117.  He says, “the fear is evoked by the recognition of a power present which was greater than the power of evil spirits.” Presumably the evil spirits were the greatest power they could comprehend.
[5] Cf. Fitzmyer, Luke I-IX, 543, where he says that Jesus' exorcisms are “the powerful manifestations and means whereby the dominion of God is established over human beings in the place of the ‘dominion of Belial,’ freeing them from the evil to which they have been subjected.”  cf. also Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 104: “The lordship of God drives out of creation the powers of destruction, which are demons and idols, and heals the created beings who have been damaged by them. If the kingdom of God is coming as Jesus proclaimed, then salvation is coming as well.”  Cf. similarly, Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:230, where he says that Jesus’ exorcisms “reveal the total and absolutely victorious clash of the kingdom of God with nothingness, with the whole world of the chaos negated by God, with the opposing realm of darkness.”
[6] cf. Bovon,  Luke 1, 327.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Pharisees and Sinners, Each and All

Pharisees and Sinners, Each and All
Lk 7:36-50[1]
  There are a lot of reasons why people practice their religion.  For some, it’s simply what their family has always done, and so they do it too.  For others, attending church or synagogue or mosque is an integral part of their ethnic identity.  Then there are those who have more interesting motivations.  Some practice their religion as a way of “keeping up appearances.”  For others, their religious accomplishments are a source of personal pride, and they parade them every chance they get.  In recent times, especially in this country, the Christian faith has become a sanctified means of wish fulfillment: if you pray the right way or follow the right steps, all your dreams will come true.  You’ll have the marriage you’ve always wanted, you’ll have perfect children, and you’ll never have to worry about your finances.  As I said, there are a lot of reasons why people practice their religion.
  I think our Gospel lesson for today provides us with a study that contrasts two very different people and their very different reasons for practicing their religion.  Jesus attends a dinner at the home of a Pharisee named Simon.  He must have been a person of some prominence, because he’s one of the few Jewish leaders to be called by name in the Gospels.  Apparently, Simon had heard about Jesus and he was curious to see for himself what this rabbi from Nazareth was about.  There’s no indication that Simon had any genuine interest in becoming a disciple of Jesus.  The fact that Jesus wasn’t the only guest suggests Simon must have invited some of his friends to the dinner--presumably other Jewish leaders.  It’s hard to tell what his motivation was on the surface of things.  Was he simply curious?  Did he want to question Jesus?  Was he out to demonstrate that his piety was superior to this carpenter from Galilee?  It’s hard to say.
  The contrast in the story is with the woman who comes to Jesus.  Luke’s Gospel simply says that she was a “sinner.”  Although some translations assume that she had lived an immoral life, we don’t really know that.[2]  Yes, Jesus said that her sins were many, but that’s a statement that could apply to us all.  In Jesus’ day, people like Simon had all kinds of reasons for calling someone a “sinner,” most of which had nothing to do with that person’s actual character.  But she knows that she’s a sinner.  And she knows something else as well: her sins have been forgiven.  It’s hard to know what motivated her to break all social conventions and “crash” this dinner with its VIP guests.  Apparently, she has had some kind of encounter with the love of God that Jesus embodied and shared with those around him.[3]  And so she comes, overwhelmed with gratitude to the point that she begins to weep.  And her tears flow so hard that she’s able to wash Jesus’ feet with them!  As if that weren’t surprising enough, she also dries them with her hair.  These were things that a woman simply didn’t do to a man who was not her husband.[4]
  Apparently, she had a “reputation” in Simon’s town.  Simon recognized her and looked down on her as a “sinner.”  And because Jesus allowed her to even touch him, he made an assumption--the rabbi from Nazareth must not be all that he heard he was.[5]  But Jesus responded to the situation by offering Simon a riddle that is pretty obvious: if two people have their debts cancelled, the one who owes the most is going to be the most grateful.[6]  Turns out Jesus did know who it was he had allowed to touch him--a person who has experienced the love of God as unconditional acceptance and forgiveness, and who was deeply grateful for that.[7]
  On the other hand, it would seem that Simon’s true motivation for inviting Jesus to dinner was transparent enough.  As Jesus pointed out, Simon denied Jesus all the customary courtesies a host would extend to a guest.  So it would seem that the dinner was an elaborate scheme to demonstrate Simon’s superiority to Jesus, the friend of sinners.  I think this gives us a clue as to why he practiced his religion--it was a way for him to feel superior over those he considered beneath his level of piety.  He didn’t have any real interest in anything Jesus had to say or anything he might do.  Simon simply wanted to humiliate this famous upstart, demonstrating who was really at the top of the religious ladder. 
  Two people encounter Jesus, with two very different motivations.  The one comes to Jesus out of profound gratitude for the gift of acceptance.  And she is so grateful for God’s loving acceptance and forgiveness that she cannot control her tears.  It would seem clear that she’s practicing her faith because her heart has been radically changed.  The other brings Jesus into his home simply to demonstrate his religious superiority to the man everyone is talking about.  It would seem that he practices his faith simply to make himself look good in the eyes of his peers. He seems stuck in the mindset that his “righteousness” means that he deserves God’s favor.  Unfortunately, we’ve read the stories about Pharisees and sinners in the Gospels so long that we make another assumption: the woman’s sins were forgiven, but the Pharisee’s were not.  But that’s not what Jesus said.  He said the one who was forgiven little loves little.  Despite all that Simon has done to publicly humiliate Jesus, he offers forgiveness to him as well![8]  Unfortunately, Simon will have to undergo a change of heart before he can even be aware of his sins, and that they are indeed great.[9] 
  I think this is important because we have to realize that we all practice our faith from a variety of mixed motives.  While we tend to identify with the “sinners” in the Gospel stories, if we’re honest with ourselves we have to admit that we all have some of the “Pharisee” in us as well.  We all have that part of us that practices our faith because it makes us feel good about ourselves.  We all have that part of us that thinks we deserve a reward for doing the right thing.  We all have that part that looks down on certain people as “inferior.”  And Jesus offers us all forgiveness and acceptance--whether we’re more “sinners” or “Pharisees.”  The path to the kind of heart-felt faith that the woman displayed by pushing past all the conventions and taboos of her world to express her gratitude is through a radical change of heart.[10]  That kind of transformation, that kind of experience of God’s unconditional love for us, can only come when we recognize that we’re all both sinners and Pharisees.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/16/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. John J. Kilgallen, “Forgiveness of Sins (Luke 7:36-50),” Novum Testamentum 40 (April, 1998):106, where he comments, “By positioning the phrase "in the city" as he does, Luke means to say, not that the woman was a sinner, but that the woman was considered by the city to be a sinner.”  Cf. also Michael Lindvall, “Scandalous Behavior,”  The Christian Century (June 1,2004):119.
[3] Cf. Kilgallen, “Forgiveness of Sins,” 109-110.
[4] Cf. Francis Taylor Gench, “Luke 7:36-50: Making the Familiar Seem Strange,” Interpretation 46 (July 1992):287: “Not only are her actions out-of-the-ordinary, but they are also a violation of norms of decorum. By removing her headdress and unbinding her hair in public, she performs the ‘greatest disgrace for a woman’ (Jeremias).”
[5] Cf. Gench, “Lk. 7:36-50,” 287: she says that Simon’s response is “formulaic and logical according to his routine way of looking at things: An indecorous act means a sinner and an inappropriate association with a sinner means no prophet.”
[6] Cf. Kilgallen, “Forgiveness of Sins,” 107: Jesus’ parable “makes clear the immensity of Simon's error: all has been forgiven, while he can only think that nothing has been forgiven.”
[7] Cf. F. Bovon, Luke 1: A commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1–9:50, 297 , where he observes that “the removal of destructive prejudices in society (the cliques that exist in all classes, from drug addicts to bankers), and self-examination (where does my sin lie?) in the individual occur not in the legal investigation of inability and in the application of written rules, but in an encounter” (emphasis original).  Cf. similarly, Gench, “Lk. 7:36-50,” 288-89.
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ 114, where he says that Jesus’ offer of acceptance to “sinners and tax collectors,” in effect “is breaking through the vicious circle of their discrimination in the system of values set up by the righteous. In this way he is also potentially rescuing ‘the righteous’ from the compulsion of self-righteousness.”
[9] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:797, where he says, “The question is left open whether the Pharisee Simon, who has not shown Him this love, is forgiven to this extent or can receive such absolution.”
[10] Cf. Peter S. Hawkins, “Mousetraps,” The Christian Century 118 (May 23, 2001):17, where he puts it this way: “Because the Pharisee believes that he has very little to ask from Jesus, he has little to give him in return: not a drop of water, a kiss or a drop of oil. The woman, on the other hand, knows the enormity of the debt that has been canceled. As a result, she crashes a party to make a fool of herself, skipping all appropriate expressions of thanks and soaring straight into the stratosphere of the outrageous. Forgiven much, she loves much more than good taste could ever allow.”

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Who Can You Believe In?

Who Can You Believe In?  
Ps 146; Lk 7:11-17[1]
  I think one of the hardest questions we might face these days is “Who can you believe in?”  When the chips are down, when everything is at stake, who is it that you turn to for help, for reassurance, and for the support you need?  There was a time when the President commanded a great deal of faith among the people of this country.  While Mr. Roosevelt had his opponents, I daresay there were few who failed to listen to his “fireside chats.”  And a lot of people in this country did so because they took a great deal of comfort from the fact that this man was leading our country and had such inspiring words to offer in difficult times.  Unfortunately, these days, politicians barely score higher than car salesmen and advertising professionals in the polls of the most trusted professions![2]   
  There was a time when the most trusted man in this country was Walter Cronkite.  In fact, he was actually named “the most trusted man in America” several times.[3]  He reported on just about everything of significance that happened during his tenure as anchor for CBS News.  And if Walter Cronkite said it, most people believed it to be true.  These days, journalists rank in the middle of the most trusted professions.[4]  In our culture where people are so fond of saying “I don’t believe the liberal bias of the media,” I doubt that any journalist in our day would even come close to the kind of trust that Walter Cronkite inspired.  Of course, the reality is that all news is biased one way or another.  Which explains why these days we’re more likely to disbelieve what we hear that to believe it.
  What about public servants--police officers, fire fighters, public school teachers?  With the exception of police officers, they don’t even show up on the polls of most trusted professionals!  Of course there is another public servant who consistently shows up on the polls of people we believe in the most: clergy.  In 1997 we ranked second on the list of most trusted professionals, behind pharmacists.[5]  In the most recent poll, we’ve fallen to eighth place, behind Engineers and Dentists![6]  Given all the scandal that’s taken place over the last fifteen years, I must say I’m surprised the clergy still rate so high.  I would imagine it’s because despite all the uproar many people still trust their own pastor.  Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misconduct among clergy that never comes into the public eye.  I feel lucky that anybody trusts me as a pastor, given the climate of distrust that is so prevalent.
  So the question remains: “Who can you believe in?”  It would seem that the Psalmist had the perspective that if you place your faith in any flesh and blood human being, you’re going to be disappointed.  In our lesson for today, he says that “there is no help” we can count on from “mortals.”  But there is someone we can turn to--the God who “keeps faith forever” (Ps. 146:6).[7] And if you want to know what “keeping faith” looks like in specific terms, the Psalmist spells it out for us: it means that the hungry are fed, the prisoners are set free, the blind receive their sight, those who are bowed down are lifted up, the “strangers” or resident immigrants have someone to watch over them, and the widows and orphans are supported. [8]   You get the idea--just about anybody in need can believe in the God who keeps faith with us forever.
  Last week we talked about how genuine faith isn’t based on external proof, like miracles.  But the fact of the matter is that the Gospels are full of the miracles of Jesus.  And yet I dare say that Jesus never worked a miracle in response to the demand for him to prove himself.  He worked miracles in response to human need.  And in many cases, as in our lesson for today, the Gospels state plainly that Jesus acted out of his compassion for those who were in need.[9]  In this case it was a widow whose only son had just died--which meant she would probably be reduced to begging if she survived at all.[10]  But Jesus intervened in a way that looks a lot like what the Psalmist said about the way God operates in our world.  In fact, one of the primary purposes of Jesus’ miracles was to demonstrate that God is indeed at work among us with the kind of compassion and mercy the Psalmist describes.
  The only real answer to the question, “who can you believe in?” is the same one it has always been: the God who is utterly faithful.  Let’s be clear: trusting God doesn’t mean that we can predict what the outcome will be, or that we will get exactly what we want exactly when we want it.  But we can trust God to be at work in our lives for our best interest.  In our lesson for today the Psalmist has a lot to say about the character of God and what God is up to in this world.  And Jesus, by his acts of compassion, goes about demonstrating that God is indeed doing just what the ancient Scriptures said: working in all our lives for his good purposes, to bring peace, and wholeness, and joy, and new life.[11]  So the next time you find yourself in between a rock and a hard place, and you wonder who you can turn to, I think you can trust that this God is someone we can all believe in

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX on 6/9/2013.
[2] Frank Newport, “Congress Retains Low Honesty Rating: Nurses have highest honesty rating; car salespeople, lowest,” Gallup News Service, December 3, 2012; accessed at http://www.gallup.com/poll/159035/congress-retains-low-honesty-rating.aspx.
[3] Jeff Scott Cook The Elements Of Speechwriting And Public Speaking, 17; cited from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Cronkite.
[4] Newport, “Congress Retains Low Honesty Rating.”
[5] Leslie McAneny, “Pharmacists Again Most Trusted; Police, Federal Lawmakers Images Improve” Gallup News Service,  January 3, 1997; accessed at http://www.gallup.com/poll/4423/Pharmacists-Again-Most-Trusted-Police-Federal-Lawmakers-Images-Improve.aspx.
[6] Newport, “Congress Retains Low Honesty Rating.”
[7] Augustine of Hippo, “Expositions on the Book of Psalms,” in P. Schaff (Ed.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume VIII:662: “Approach, begin to long, begin to seek and to know Him by whom thou wast made. For He will not leave His work, if He be not left by His work.”  It seems to me that the last condition is unnecessary; God will not “leave His work” is a good way of saying God “keeps faith forever.”  Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 116, where he says that “God reveals himself as ‘God’” in “the historic act of his faithfulness,” that is, by keeping his promise.
[8] J. Clinton McCann, Jr, “The Book Of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible, IV:1264: these verses portray “a God who cares about human hurt and who acts on behalf of the afflicted and the oppressed.”  He adds that they constitute “a policy statement for the kingdom of God.”  Cf. similarly H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 553: “His faithfulness consists of the fact that he sets up the justice of the Creator among all the oppressed and poor.”
[9] Cf. Pheme Perkins, “Understanding Faith and Miracle,” The Christian Century (May 24, 1989): 555, where she says, “No one demands that Jesus intervene. He acts out of compassion for the widow, whose only son has died. She is one of the helpless, poor ones of the world to whom the gospel brings news of a reversal of their fate. God comes into this life in the surprise of compassion and restored life. Any possibility that God or fate might be arbitrary or even cruel is erased.”  Cf. also Craig A. Evans, “Luke's Use Of The Elijah/Elisha Narratives And The Ethic Of Election,”  Journal of Biblical Literature 106/1 (1987): 79.
[10] Cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX: 159: “If religion has nothing to say to a grieving widow, it has nothing to say.”
[11] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:1265: “Psalm 146 anticipates Jesus’ preaching of the reign of God (see Mark 1:14-15), as well as Jesus’ ... enactment of God’s will in a ministry of justice, feeding, liberation, healing, and compassion (see Matt 11:2-6; Luke 4:16-21).”

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Believing and Seeing

Believing and Seeing
I Kg 18:30-39; Lk. 7:1-10[1]
  One of the hardest ideas to grasp is that the way you look at the world in which we live determines what you see.[2]  For example, just within the last few days there have been public servants who have died in the line of duty, seemingly random drive-by shootings, and children taken away from parents for colossal neglect.  Seems like our world is filled with tragedy.  And that’s just in Houston—and it’s just what the local news reported.  You don’t have to look too hard to see even more tragedy—loved ones and homes lost in storms; women and children killed in the collapse of a clothing sweat shop that makes it possible for us to shop at discount stores; and we need only mention the wars that are still going on after years of fighting.  If that is the primary focus of what you see in this world, it’s easy to believe that the world is a place of suffering.  And it can be easy to think that “God” must be a fantasy.[3]
  There are others in our world who seem to take a completely opposite approach.  God is the only reality they see, and so they tend to minimize the suffering and tragedy in the world, because they assume it’s part of “God’s plan.”  And since they assume that God is good and loving, they can’t bring themselves to believe that God would allow anything bad to happen to people who are good.  And their evidence for this is that they see miracles everywhere.  Someone whose cancer goes into remission, a child who lives despite the odds, last-minute gifts that supply their needs.  These are evidence to them that everything that happens is God’s will. These kinds of things serve as proof that God directly intervenes in our lives in everything—from our grades in school to our love lives to our careers to our finances.  And whenever that happens, it always seems to be something miraculous or supernatural.  If God as a miracle-worker is the primary focus of what you see in this world, it’s easy to believe that the world is good and our lives are exactly what God intends for us.  From this perspective, suffering is the fantasy.
  In our lesson about Elijah, it would seem that the biblical view is the second one.  God is the one who proves his existence with signs and wonders—like fire falling from heaven to consume an offering.  Prior to that, the people of Israel were “wavering” regarding what they believed.  But the miracle demonstrates to them that God is real.  Once they see that, they are convinced: “the Lord is God indeed; the Lord is God indeed” (1 Kg. 18:39)!  But you don’t have to read very much farther in the biblical story to find out that it never took much to shake Israel’s faith.  The prophet Hosea, speaking in the name of the Lord, told them that their faith was about as lasting as the morning dew (Hos. 6:4)!
  That’s the problem with faith that is based on what you see.  If you need some kind of miraculous sign or wonder in order to believe in God, you’re always going to be dependent on another miracle to bolster your faith.[4]  That’s why even Jesus refused to work miracles for the people who came to him looking for a sign.  He knew that after the “awe” wears off, they would find themselves back where they started: doubting, wondering if God is real or not, begging for God to give them another sign so that they could believe again.  That’s not the kind of faith God wants from those of us who claim to trust in him.
  I think our lesson from the Gospel presents us with a different approach—faith as a deep conviction within that doesn’t need any external confirmation.  The story begins with some Jewish leaders coming to Jesus and asking him to heal the servant of a Roman Centurion.  Apparently this was no ordinary Centurion, because he had been very kind to the Jewish people in this community.  So Jesus agrees to go with them.  But on the way, the Centurion sends word that he is not worthy to have Jesus come to his house, but that if he would just say the word, his servant would be healed!  That’s pretty remarkable faith.  Normally in the Gospels people express their faith in Jesus after he worked a miracle.  But in this case, without seeing any kind of sign or wonder, the Centurion has faith that Jesus can just say the word and heal his servant.[5]  It’s not surprising then that Jesus said, “not even in Israel have I found such faith!” (Lk. 7:9).
  It seems to me that is what genuine faith is like.  It’s a decision you make, no matter what the circumstances of your life.  Believing that God is utterly faithful, that God loves us no matter what, and that there is nothing that can separate us from that love, is a conviction you choose to believe.  And it makes all the difference in the way you see the world around you.  I don’t think this kind of faith ignores tragedy in the world.[6]  It is simply too much a part of the reality  of our lives to ignore.  But this kind of faith also does not surrender to the tragedy in the world.[7]  Without needing any kind of supernatural intervention, without looking for “signs and wonders,” this kind of faith believes that God is always working in our lives for his good purposes, to bring peace, and wholeness, and joy, and life to all of us.  And when we believe in God in that way—with all our hearts—we can see the goodness and beauty and joy in the world, despite the tragedy and suffering.[8]

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/2/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 91, where he lays out the options: believing that the world of faith is what is “really real,” believing that faith is “unreal” in comparison with the observable forces at work in the world, and a third way, in which faith is directed toward the reality that is beyond what our senses perceive as real.
[3] Cf. Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 182: “when we experience tragic suffering in our own lives and see so much tragic suffering in the world, we wonder whether all talk about a loving and just God is not in fact ... wishful thinking.”
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:941, who points out that it is only “the mighty activity of the Holy Spirit” that can awaken faith and hope rather than “a miracle which can be understood only with the help of a mythology which includes all kinds of magical notions, and which is then to be rejected when it is found impossible to accept these notions.”
[5] Cf. F. Bovon, Luke 1: A commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1–9:50, 265: “Faith means trust, and more concretely, to trust without having seen.” Cf. also ibid., 264, where he observes that both Luther and Calvin “believe ... that the centurion ... can see the power of God in the person of Christ, and this suffices for faith ( see Martin Luther, Evangelien-Auslegung, 365; John Calvin, A Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels, 249).
[6] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 124: “We do not find the religious without the tragic, or when you do it is because the tragic has been violently suppressed, repressed, or excluded, which means that we are threatened with the return of the repressed, which is pretty much how the powerful convulsions of fundamentalist violence are to be interpreted.”
[7] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 125: in the face of the “specter of a heartless world of cosmic forces,” “Faith is faith that there is something that lifts us above the blind force of things, .... That there is something ... or someone ... who stands by us when we are up against the worst, who stands by others, the least among us.”
[8] Cf. Keith Ward, God: A Guide for the Perplexed, 213, where he summarizes Kierkegaard’s view of the “religious sense” as “a way in which you see all things in the face of eternity, and you believe in eternal bliss, and love, and hope, despite the agonies life brings.”  Cf. also ibid., 215, where he paraphrases the Bhagavad Gita in describing faith in the following terms: “To look for the good in everything, to see everything embraced by goodness, ... is to be possessed by the Good.”