“Live By Faith: Never Give Up”

24 October 2010

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

October 24, 2010

Psalm 121
Luke 18:1-14

“Live By Faith: Never Give Up”

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

When the disciples asked Jesus, “teach us to pray” we know what Jesus said, right?  Our children sang those words of prayer for us today: “Our Father, who art in heaven. …” and “Thy Kingdom come; thy will be done…”  So today’s scripture lesson is another lesson about prayer, but it’s Jesus’s answer to not to his disciples but to Pharisees who were asking back at the end of chapter 17, not “How shall we pray?” but “When will Thy Kingdom come?”  The answer, by the way, that Jesus gives is a famous one, in Luke 17, verses 20 and 21: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”   How in the world are these two parables about the coming of the kingdom of God, much less the kingdom of God right here with us?

First of all, let’s think about what question we are actually asking God, most of the time.  Most of us, I suspect, are not asking God the more humble question, “How shall we pray?” We’re much more likely to be asking, “When will Thy Kingdom come?” like the Pharisees.  I have to admit, I don’t waste valuable prayer time asking God how to pray.  All you have to do is pick up your morning newspaper to see why – there’s a lot wrong with this world…plenty to pray about.  “Plunging Economy Continues to Slide”…“O God, when will Thy Kingdom come?”  “Deadly Cholera Outbreak in Haiti”… “Lord, have mercy on those poor people: When will Thy Kingdom come?”  “Iran Arms Terrorists for War”… “Lord, Almighty! When will thy kingdom come, thy kingdom of peace?”

It’s very easy these days to become very cynical about hope, and the world, with the 24-hour news cycle.  Lately it’s become politically fashionable to attack idealism itself. But into our despair at the state of things in the world – a despair that must look kind of pathetic to God when we compare how great things are with how bad they have been in times past – into our despairing, pleading faces our Lord looks back at us as we ask that question, “When will Thy Kingdom come?” And Jesus tells us these stories about the world at prayer, about how we are to pray.  We didn’t ask how to pray, but he answers it anyway.  So even though these two parables about the widow and the judge, and the Pharisee and the tax collector are not often preached together, I believe they intentionally told this way by Jesus to make an important point about how we find God’s kingdom.

First of all, we can probably all identify with that poor widow and her demand that God intervene in her affairs, right?  We come before God with a multitude of concerns – some political (like prayers over the morning paper) and some much more personal.  We have to be especially careful, I think, with this text – that we don’t allow it to shame or blame people who truly are desperate, and suffering.  When someone is sick, or going through hard times, we do need to encourage them to pray and to pray for them too, but we have to be careful that we don’t just dismiss their pain with the easy words of my sermon title: “Oh, just live by faith: never give up!”  Faith shouldn’t be reduced to a bumper sticker.  Living by faith is always easier said than done.

Many of you have heard me tell about the 4 years of infertility John and I suffered when I was in seminary.  It turns out our doctor was a Buddhist, but a Western convert, a former mainline Christian.  So he liked to chat with me casually about my faith on my medical visits – which annoying because as a student preparing for ordination I did not take my faith casually.  So on one of these visits when I was grilling him – absolutely grilling him – about details of medical science and when exactly would I get this baby, he tossed a match on the fire he had been laying with his dismissive attitude toward my faith.  He said, “Well, young lady, you’re a Christian.  Why don’t you pray about it?  Why don’t you ask God that question?  ”  Oh… you did NOT just “young lady me”!  You did NOT just challenge the power of my God!  I built up a good steam of self-righteousness and I wish I could say I fired him on the spot.  Instead I told the story to all my girlfriends at church – because self-righteousness feels so very good – and finally got a new doctor.

But I was praying about it.  When I took that comment from him home and prayed as hard as I could for God to help me forgive him, when I did finally think to ask God to explain himself to me, he came to me in a dream – as a used car salesman.  It was a dream that changed my prayer life completely and proved to me, if there had ever been any doubt, that God has a great sense of humor.  I had had a miscarriage and I was upset about it.  I was thinking of giving up the ministry because I was so mad at God.  It wasn’t fair.  I hated even the word “miscarriage,” because it made it sound like I had fumbled the ball.  My doctor said it wasn’t my fault, but secretly I wondered.  So in my dream, I was buying a used car.  I was test-driving it, and the brakes failed, so I bumped into another car – just a little bit.  And the used car salesman told me, “Oh well. You broke it; you bought it.”  “What?” I was really angry then and I followed him up the hill to the office where he was going to write me up the bill of sale.  “It’s not fair!” I screamed.  “I did nothing wrong.  It’s all your fault.”  And that’s when he stopped, turned around and smiled at me.  “You’re right.  It was all my fault.  I love you.  Now give me a hug.”

God had to remind me – as Jesus reminds his people in this parable about the unjust judge – of exactly who God is.  He had to remind them of what they already knew.  “I am who I am,” says the Lord to Moses, remember?  The first commandment of Israel, “You shall have no other gods before me,” begins “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” who took you by the hand and led you “out of the house of bondage.”   (Exodus 20:2-3) God is not an unjust God.  God loves us as our Heavenly Father.  My dad bought me my first used car.  He didn’t try to rip me off.  He loves me.

That’s when I realized my prayers had been all wrong up until then.  Here I was going to seminary – studying hard, working part-time on the staff of my local church doing youth ministry (the hardest ministry in the world), volunteering at the homeless shelter – I was such a good person.  Plus I was married to this wonderful man, John Smallwood-Garcia, who I knew would be a great dad.  Why would God not give me a baby?  I kept asking God this.  I mean, I was meeting some moms at the homeless shelter – drug addicted mothers of crack babies, single teenage mothers with 15 facial piercings and 5 worthless good-for-nothing boyfriends, any of whom might have been the dad – who were clearly less well-qualified than I for the job of motherhood. 

Now I didn’t pray that prayer out LOUD – I had read this story, read the Bible, so I knew better.  But in my heart of hearts I had to admit it was very hard for me NOT to pray the Pharisees’ prayer in my most private prayers.  Thank you, God, that I am not like this poor woman who has to steal to get her next fix, or like this promiscuous, stupid teenager who got herself pregnant and had to run away from home.  I knew I was wrong to think like that – I knew humility was right and self-righteousness was wrong.  But eventually I did learn to pray like the disgruntled widow, bringing my case to God over and over, “Give me a break, God!  When will thy will be done?  When will you hear my cry for justice and give me a child?”  And when I changed my prayer to the honest prayer I was really feeling – I shed a lot of tears.  And at the bottom of all my frustration and grief, when I had cried all the tears of regret and remorse and was lying on my face before God, the only words left to me were those: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 

God meets in a lot of places, I know – sometimes on the mountaintop, sometimes at a joyful family table as we give thanks for our blessings, sometimes even here at church – but God ALWAYS meets us there at that thin, small place… at the very end of our rope, where we give our whole selves to God and let God love us.  That’s where we find the Kingdom of heaven.  Because here’s the cool thing: you know how this passage ends?  With another kingdom saying, one of the most famous and beloved ones in the whole Bible, one that I preached on just this past September to launch our church school year:  16Jesus … said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 17Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 

Salvation does not come with having a child.  Salvation does not come with having a nice, happy family and a good job.  Salvation does not come with graduating seminary with honors.  Salvation comes in having the HUMILITY of a child, in trusting in God the way a child trusts a parent.  Jesus cartoons this picture of God that so many of us adults have – the unjust God upon the throne who just won’t rule the world the way we (in our infinite wisdom) would do it.  But he reminds us, once again, of the beginning of the prayer he taught us, “Our FATHER who art in heaven.”  God is not our judge, not our king, not even our chief executive or commander-in-chief.  God is our Father who loves us and wants nothing more than our love and trust in return, as any parent does. 

The way into the Kingdom of Heaven is the way into God’s arms – the way to find the Kingdom is to pray like a child, naked and afraid, frustrated and tired, pitiful and helpless.  When we can remember that posture of prayer, we are there – we have arrived in the lap of God’s mercy.  The Kingdom of God’s love was there in the midst of us all along. 

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.



Psalm 121

1I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?
2My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
3He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
4He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
5The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
7The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
8The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

Luke 17.20-37

20Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” 22Then he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. 23They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. 24For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. 25But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation. 26Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. 27They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them. 28Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, 29but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from heaven and destroyed all of them 30—it will be like that on the day that the Son of Man is revealed. 31On that day, anyone on the housetop who has belongings in the house must not come down to take them away; and likewise anyone in the field must not turn back. 32Remember Lot’s wife. 33Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it. 34I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. 35There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.” 37Then they asked him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”

Luke 18.1-14 (15-17)

18Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

15People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. 16But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 17Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”



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