Thursday, June 13, 2013

Who Can You Believe In?

Who Can You Believe In?  
Ps 146; Lk 17:11-17[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
[3] Jeff Scott Cook The Elements Of Speechwriting And Public Speaking, 17; cited from
[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
[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).”

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