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.”


Jo said...

You may have written this 3 years ago but it speaks very vividly to me at this moment - a pastor who apparently does not have the depth of faith that this centurion exhibits. I don't necessarily need a supernatural event to occur to believe God exists or that Jesus answers prayer but I'm not sure what it is I do need. I wrestle with this thing called faith, with the teachings as they have been passed down over the years and what REALLY happened that led to a world wide acknowledgement if not acceptance that someone named Jesus walked the earth and for some, he was crucified, died and buried, waking up on the third day and then ascending to heaven where he is now apparently sitting next to God.
But thank you for giving some clarification in this moment as I read your words.
Pastor Jo

Alan Brehm said...

Hi Jo,

Thanks for your comment. I think we all struggle with faith at times. Life has a way of coming along and yanking the rug out from under us just when we think we know what it is to trust in God. I don't always find myself just brimming with faith every day. And there are plenty of days when I don't have the kind of faith this centurion had. But when push comes to shove, the only thing that makes sense to me is that God is indeed utterly faithful, and that there is nothing that can separate us from God's love, and 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. That doesn't always or perhaps even usually happen in the immediate context, but I do believe this is God's ultimate purpose for us all. Thanks again for you comment! Alan