Ash Wednesday, 3/2/22

Ash Wednesday, 3/2/22

March 02, 2022 • Rev. Rob Fuquay

Our series this Lent is called Faith Changes Everything. Lent is a good season to give attention to our faith. It is a time for Christians to reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death and deepening and renewing our connection to God.  

But you don’t have to be Christian, of course, to have faith. You don’t even have to believe in God to have faith.

That is a point made by Dr. James Fowler, one of my professors in seminary and whose children were in the youth group I led. He wrote one of the most important books on faith development ever written, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. He points out several important aspects of faith which I think are important to consider as we begin a series on faith. One of Dr. Fowler’s points is that faith is not peculiar to the religious realm. Faith is something every person exercises. Faith deals with what we ultimately believe to be true about life and the world, and when such beliefs direct the way we live, this becomes faith. As Fowler points out, everyone lives by some form of faith, even atheists.

Just finish the sentence, “I believe in…” And you begin to identify the constructs of your faith. You may start with simply things like “I believe mountains are beautiful,” or “banana pudding is good for you.” But take the affirmations to their highest possibility. “I believe love is the most important thing in life.” “I believe the world should be just.” And you start to identify what you believe to be true about life and the world and trusting in these beliefs becomes a faith that shapes you and determines the way you shape the world.

For those of us who place our faith in God, Fowler points out that faith and belief are not the same. Our beliefs are attempts to express our faith. That’s what creeds and doctrines do. Faith is different.

A pastor friend of mine once illustrated it this way. He had a dental problem that required the need of a specialist. He went to this doctor somewhat apprehensive. He arrived for his appointment and while in the waiting room observed all the diplomas on the wall. He believed this doctor was competent. As he walked to his room, he saw out the window a new Porsche with the license plate, “Tooth Doc.” He believed this doctor was successful. When the doctor came in, he took a moment to get to know him and seemed very warm and genuine. He believed this doctor was compassionate. But when the doctor took this large drill and told him to open up, he now had to exercise faith!

The distinction is a more complex than that, but the illustration makes the important point that faith is an active experience. Faith is something we do. It is more verb than noun. Faith becomes the way we live based on what we believe to be true.

And one other point Fowler makes is that faith involves relationship. Trusting another is part of faith.

We practice faith every day. Every time we drive over a bridge we practice faith. We trust that the engineers and contractors designed and built the bridge so that it will support us. Every time we get on a plane we practice faith. We probably don’t know the pilot or the builders who made the plane, but we trust we will be safe.

Now it probably helps to exercise faith when we see other cars drive safely over bridges and other people get off of planes, but still, when we do such things we are showing a faith, a faith in people we don’t know, and this where the traveling metaphor is helpful, because life is a journey. We are all on a journey. And no matter who you are, this all journeys require some kind of faith. The question isn’t really do you have faith? It’s more like where do you put the faith you have?

Perhaps the best definition of faith in the Bible is Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” To understand our faith we simply have to ask, “What do we hope for?” You can probably look back over your life and think about how your answers have maybe changed over the years. A genuine faith always challenges us to ask, “Am I hoping big enough?” Soa genuine faith is like the universe, it’s ever expanding, always growing, seeking to get bigger. Faith that eventually finds its source in that which is bigger than we can even imagine, in God, is a faith that changes everything.

So the point of this series is to examine what Jesus says about faith. This does not discredit other faiths or claim superiority of Christian faith. After all, Jesus didn’t come to advocate for a religion. He came to advocate for God and a faith in God that changed everything about life.

Most of the time Jesus spoke about the little faith people have, usually in reference to his disciples or the people of his own Jewish tradition. When Jesus said this I don’t believe he was judging people so much as acknowledging what many people feel: they want to have a stronger faith. We will consider the desire for a stronger faith this Sunday.

Today we consider one of only two stories in which Jesus commended people for having great faith. In both cases they were not Jewish, but pagan, people. In two weeks we will look at the story of the Canaanite woman who was commended for her faith. Right now, we consider the story of the Roman centurion who sought Jesus because his servant was deathly ill. The story is straightforward. The centurion must have heard about the miracles Jesus performed and wanted him to heal his servant. A delegation of Jewish leaders from the village go on behalf of the centurion to Jesus, which is rather surprising given the relationship between Jews and Romans. But they plead on his behalf and Jesus goes. Upon learning this the centurion sends a second delegation telling Jesus not to go to the trouble to come to his house but just say the word. After all he’s a soldier and he understand authority. When he gives an order others follow it. He knows if Jesus just says a word, his servant will be healed. At this Jesus is amazed and commends him for such great faith and at that moment the servant is healed.

The story ends with this note of faith and another demonstration of power from Jesus, but I want to point how what started it. What initiated the expression of such faith? It wasn’t because this centurion was sitting around having a philosophical debate with himself about the existence of God. It wasn’t because he was lectured by a group of disciples who gave him a tract on the four spiritual laws and told him that unless he puts his faith in Jesus his eternity is in jeopardy.

No! What precipitated his expression faith was concern for his servant. He went to Jesus on behalf of someone he cared about very much and it not only revealed faith, it led to an experience of God’s power. Great faith according to this story is one that goes to Jesus on behalf of others. Who do you plead to Jesus for?

During this Lenten season we encourage everyone in the church to practice the 5-3-1 Challenge. This is a challenge to pray for at least 5 people, invite at least 3 people to a St. Luke’s event, and bring one person to an Easter service on April 17. Let start’s start with the last one. Who is someone you want to try to bring with you to an Easter service, or get them to watch online? Think of someone who does not have a church family. Someone you can tell you would love to celebrate Easter with them. Its not about judgment. Its not an offhanded way of saying, “I think something is wrong with you because you are not in church.” Based on the experience in some churches it could be a sign of what’s right with them. But you could say, “You are someone who gives me life and uplifts me and the most uplifting day of the year is Easter and you’d love to share that with them.”

You might include that person in one of three to invite to other St. Luke’s events. We have a number of less intimidating ways to give people a taste of St. Luke’s. Begin list – 6 slides total – click as he says each.

And then all of these people might be among 5 folks you pray for everyday? Start your list today. Think of 5 folks, maybe all five are people who do not have a church family. People who may be helped by a supportive community, or people who have a lot to offer a spiritual family. There may be a lot more people you want to include in your prayer list.

Why would we do this? Because the faith we share is a relational faith. We can’t separate our relationship with God from our relationship with each other. Jesus even said, “If you are at the altar to make your gift and realize someone is upset with you, go to that person even before you go to God!” Faith in God cannot be separated from our love for each other.

But the benefit is not just for the person we pray for. We often experience God’s power as a result. Don’t you think the centurion’s faith was stronger after going to Jesus on behalf of his servant and then discovering the servant had been healed. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

For now, let’s think about the nature of the centurion’s faith. He must have heard about the miracles Jesus performed and that is why he believed Jesus could heal his servant. The delegation that came to Jesus gave reasons why Jesus should help him. The centurion was generous and had bult them a synagogue. They said, “This man deserves to have you do this.” (v.4)

Now what does that statement imply about faith? That God will only help you if we deserve it. Some believe mistakenly believe that’s how faith works. You have to earn your blessings. No wonder when something bad happens we instinctively ask, “What did I do to deserve this?” If we believe that we have to deserve the right to ask for God’s help, most of us will probably never get around to asking. One of the obstacles to faith in the goodness of God is probably our doubts about our own goodness.

But look at this centurion’s response. When he learns Jesus is coming to help him, he sends a second delegation to say, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.”(v.6) Now there was a practical reason for him saying this. He knew that a Jewish person would be defiled if he entered the home of a Gentile. The centurion is being considerate of Jesus.

And this is where his faith is revealed. He tells the delegation to say to Jesus, “If you just say the word, I know my servant will be healed. I am a man under authority. When I give an order, others carry it out. If you but say the word, I know it will be done.” And at this, Jesus says, “I have never seen such great faith in Israel.” His point was our acceptance by God, our deserving to be blessed has nothing to do with our deserving it. It’s a matter of faith. It’s a matter of putting out trust in God. Our leaning into the faith impulse every human being has and saying, “perhaps God is worthy of such authority. Maybe I should trust.”

So let me close by going back to that point of praying for others as a way of experiencing God’s power.

Many years ago I had a board chair in a church who led our devotion one night at a meeting. He told everyone that they probably don’t know much about his son-in-law because he and his wife didn’t talk much about him. He was not a real nice guy. He was often rude or inconsiderate of them. And eventually they learned he had been abusing their daughter. Mostly the abuse was verbal, but they suspected there had been some physical abuse.

One night he and his wife were doing their usual run-down of the son-in-law, and by that I mean they were running him down. Then as if they both had the same idea at the same moment they said, “You know we complain about him, but we don’t pray about him.” And from that moment on they decided to start praying for him. Rather than just complaining they would pray.

Some months later he said they got a call one night from their son-in-law. He shared how a friend at work invited him to go to church with him and he did. It started a spiritual kind of awakening in his life. He realized what a bad husband he had been. He apologized to his daughter for the things he had done and they were working on their marriage. His reason in calling them was not just to acknowledge that, but to say, “I know I’ve been a lousy son-in-law. You both have been good to me and I have returned the goodness, and I’m sorry. I know I’ve hurt you too.”

They went to Jesus on behalf of another and their own faith was deepened. It is not automatic. Prayer is not some way of getting God to do what we want. But it brings us into the mystery of faith. A mystery that is about a power we can’t control but we can experience. Sometimes that power comes when we don’t seek it for us, but for others. This season we are invited to invest in our faith and enter deeper into the mystery of God and see how faith really does change everything.