Saturday, October 16, 2010

PENTECOST 21 - Oct. 17, 2010

Texts: 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

A friend of mine sent me this in an email a few weeks ago:

Sign seen posted in the cafeteria of a Florida hospital:
NOTICE: Due to the current budget cutbacks,
the light at the end of the tunnel will be turned off
until further notice.

Today's Scripture lessons remind us to hang on to our faith, even when the light of God's love grows dim or even seems to have gone out.

August 5th of this year was an ordinary day in the life of 33 miners in Chile.

They got up early as usual, packed a lunch as usual, drove or rode to work as usual,
some kissed their wives and children goodbye that day; others left house with slammed doors and angry words; most of their mornings were somewhere in between.
Like I said; an ordinary day.

Then, sometime that day, everything changed.

Something happened, the mine collapsed, the 33 were trapped. For days they were presumed dead; then discovered alive; but how much hope was there? They were so deeply buried.

We have all been watching the news, paying attention to the story, know about their open space in the darkness, the small hole drilled to send them light and food,
the family members up top, keeping vigil, praying and hoping the drilling, drilling, drilling to find a way to get them out alive.

And this week, justice was done, hope was rewarded, the persistence of the miners,
and the families and the drillers paid off; the men were rescued, all is well.

I remind you of that story because it goes to the heart of the Biblical message for today.

The text from Jeremiah reminds us that God has promised that "the days are surely coming" when God's justice will fill the earth.

In 2 Timothy, the old Elder reminds the young preacher to "be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable," or as the old King James put it, "in season and out of season."

And our Gospel lesson is a story about not giving up in the face of difficult times.

This is a story about continuing to pray and trust God, even when you're getting no results; even when it feels like and looks like the windows of heaven are shut up tight and God either cannot or will not hear your plea.

Actually, preaching on this text is pretty easy. For once, Jesus told us what the parable meant before he told the story. Verse 1: "Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart."

The story uses courtrooms and bad judges and poor widows to teach us lessons about life and God and our need to pray without ceasing.

A judge in Israel was a powerful, powerful figure.

Biblical Scholar Raymond Bailey says,

In Israel, the judge was the final arbiter. There was no jury, no court of appeal. . . . . . The judge in the parable is a law unto himself, who has no sense of accountability to persons or God. He shirked his duty by not bothering to even hear the case . . . . . The widow throughout the Bible . . . . was a vulnerable victim . . . a symbol of helplessness.(The Lectionary Commentary, The Gospels, Eerdman's Press p. 429)

Jesus has set up for us a scene in which a poor, helpless person has nowhere else to turn but to the judge. And the judge appears not to care about her,
appears to be unwilling to help.

She has no money to bribe him,no power to coerce him, no important relatives to influence him; what is she to do?

Well; she has two choices:

1) she can quit, give up, crawl away in despair and frustration.

Or 2) she can continue to beat upon his door, accost him in the streets, stand in his yard with a sign demanding justice, tell his neighbors and friends about his unwillingness to help; in short she can refuse to go away.

And it worked: verse 5 " . . .because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming."
In other words, he gives her what she wants so she'll go away.

As I said, this story isn't really about courtrooms and judges and poor widows; it's about persistence in prayer and faithfulness in living.

God does not "grant us justice," to get rid of us, or because we disturb the divine repose, or to avoid embarrassment. God is not like the unfair judge in that way.

Jesus' point is that God works on a different time schedule than most of us and it is easy for us to get discouraged if the "days that are coming," that Jeremiah talked about seem never to come.

We do our best to live a good life, giving to God and neighbor generously, praying and attending worship and paying attention to our religious duties.

We are faithful to our wives or husbands or significant other; our family members can rely on us to be there for them in time of need; we raise our children with gentleness, discipline and generosity; we pursue our work with both diligence and honesty;

and yet, and yet; sometimes things fall apart; sometimes the roof caves in, sometimes the light goes out; sometimes we find ourselves trapped in the darkness of our souls, with no sign of hope; with no glimmer of grace; with not even a whisper of love.

And when that happens; how do we hang on? How do we keep faith through the dark night of the soul?

How do we keep on praying when things keep getting worse instead of better?

How do we find the will to get up and go out each day trusting God to see us through when nothing we do seems to work?

How do we keep from having "itching ears," looking here and there and everywhere for solutions to our problems;

or, if not solutions, then others to blame for our difficulties?

What does it take for us to stay the course in difficult and perilous times?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently retired from public life. When I read of his retirement in the paper, I was reminded of an incident I heard retold by South African Methodist Bishop Peter Storey.

It was the early 1960's. Tutu was the General Secretary of the South Africa Council of Churches, Storey Was the President. Tutu is Black, Storey is White. They were working together to end Apartheid.

The government and many others were unhappy with them. Someone came to Tutu by night and said, "You have to stop, you have to back down. They will stop you, they will beat you, they will kill you."

Desmond Tutu smiled a little smile and said, "Come now, death isn't the worst thing that can happen to a Christian. I've got a resurrection Jesus, don't you?"

And that is indeed why we can and do persist in our faith and our prayers and our actions, even in the face of circumstances which oppose and seek to defeat us.

We have a resurrection Jesus. We know that no matter how many Good Fridays we face and live though, no matter the number of crosses we are given to carry, no matter how many times things grow difficult and dangerous,

We have a resurrection Jesus; Easter morning has come for Christ and will come for us.

Amen, Come Lord Jesus.

Friday, October 01, 2010

GOT FAITH? Pentecost 19, Oct 3, 2010

(A sermon preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Bristol, TN.)

Luke 17:5-10

In her autobiography, Broadway actress Helen Hayes tells about her first attempt to cook a Thanksgiving Turkey.

Before bringing it out of the kitchen to the Dining Room table, Hayes announced to her husband and son:

Now, you know this is the first turkey I've ever cooked. If it isn't any good, I don't want anybody to say a word. We'll just get up from the table WITHOUT COMMENT, and go to a restaurant to eat.

She then went back to the kitchen to get the tray. When she came into the dining room with the turkey; she found her husband and her son seated at the table with their coats, hats and gloves on; ready to go out to eat. They did not have much faith in Miss Hayes' ability to cook a turkey.

In our Gospel lesson for today the disciples are also suffering from a lack of faith, or so it seems.

After all, Jesus says to them, "If you had even the faith of a mustard seed. . . " and the seed of a mustard plant is very tiny indeed, like the head of a pin, really.

The message seems to be that the disciples just don't have enough faith. I don't think this is what Jesus meant. I think Jesus meant the disciples have all the faith they need. What they don't have is an understanding of what it means to have faith.

Let me explain. In verse 1-4, right before our text starts; Jesus has said to the disciples that they should forgive a sinner who repents. Then he says, And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says I repent, you must forgive.

No wonder the disciples cry out "INCREASE OUR FAITH!" How can Jesus expect any normal human being to forgive somebody for treating them badly that many times?

When I was a little kid, when I got caught being bad, I always said, with my head hung down and twisting my feet, about to cry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.

One time; my mother whacked me real good on the bottom and said, I know you're sorry. You're always sorry. What I want to know now is WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO STOP DOING IT?

Somebody sins against me, treats me badly, sticks it to me, seven times in a row and seven times in a row they say they're sorry and Jesus expects me to forgive the jerk every time? Really! I think I'm with Mama on this one. Enough's enough. I want to know when it's gonna stop!

And yet; Jesus says forgive. So the disciples cry out, "INCREASE OUR FAITH! WE CAN'T DO THIS." The gap between what Jesus asks us to do and our ability to do it is enormous.

And that is just the point of this lesson. We are thinking of faith as something human, something that we do, some especially intense sort of believing, or some really focused positive thinking that results in good things happening for us and ours.

We think of faith from the human point of view and Jesus thinks of faith from God's side of things. It only takes faith the size of a mustard seed to uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the ocean because: IT'S NOT THE FAITH THAT DOES IT; IT'S GOD!

The disciples are worried about their ability to forgive as much as Jesus demands. So they ask for an increase in faith so that they will be able to perform this superhuman feat of humility and generosity and compassion. And Jesus tells them they don't need a bigger faith. With the God of Israel just a little bit of faith is plenty because God does the work.

The disciples are fretting about the quality of their performance as disciples and followers of Jesus. They are worried about how Spiritual and Faithful and Religious they will appear to their LORD and not incidentally, to their community.

But Jesus carefully reminds them that in the life of faith it is not the believer who performs the act of power or receives the praise for it. Both the act and the credit belong to GOD.

This is the point of Jesus' parable about the master and the slave.To most of us, this story sounds pretty harsh. All that talk about not thanking the slave for a job well done, and not allowing the slave who has been working hard in the fields all day to eat until after the Master has been served; well, it just sounds wrong to us.

There is an important movie coming into the theatres right now. It's called WAITING FOR SUPERMAN. It is not a comedy or a drama; though it has elements of each. It is a documentary about the failure of America's public schools to educate our children.

In one sequence it shows that of the top 30 developed countries, school children from the US measure between 25th and 30th on every measure of ability in every subject but one; we finish #1 in confidence! We have taught our children to think highly of themselves in spite of any evidence to the contrary.

NT Scholar Charles Cousar says a similar thing has happened to us spiritually.

This story (granted in a sneaky way) reminds us of our place and shows how easy it is to exchange roles. God is God; we are God's creatures - no more, no less. But subtly the order can get reversed, as Adam and Eve discovered. Dominion over the earth is a heady challenge! Why stop there? The serpent asks, you will be like God!

We begin to think of Jesus as the one who washes feet, forgives sins, hears prayers, supplies needs. Jesus gives, we receive. Pretty soon we come to expect it.
(Texts for Preaching, A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV - Year C, WJK, p544)

Jesus point here is to remind us of the proper relationship between God and a person of Faith. If we perform our acts of love and service to God out of a desire to earn praise on earth in this life or a secure spot in heaven in the next; we are missing the point; not only of this parable but also of the life of faith.

There is nothing we can do to earn God's love. God's love has been ours since before we were born; it washes over us each day, unbidden and unearned. It fills our lives, melts our hearts, softens our eyes, tenderizes our spirits and turns us away from our preoccupation with ourselves to a fascination with loving and caring for Christ by loving and caring for those whom God has placed in our midst for us to love.

With this story, Jesus reminds us that the true KINGDOM AND POWER AND GLORY do indeed belong to God and to God alone, And any wishful thinking on our part that if we had more faith we could do more things for God misses the point entirely.

The reality is: We have all the faith we need to do great things for God. Or, to be more biblically and theologically correct; we have all the faith we need to allow God to do great things in, with and through us. Faith the size of a mustard seed is all that is necessary for God to put God's power to work in our lives and in our world.

Our calling today is to humbly ask God to increase, not our faith, but rather our willingness to be used by God, in any way God chooses.

Our calling today is to use what little faith we have to stay at the table; hat, coat and gloves off and put away; waiting patiently to dig in to whatever God has in store for us.

Amen and amen.