Luke 17: 5-10
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
TEXT: "The Apostles said to the Lord, 'Increase our Faith! "
In one of his plays, Tennessee Williams tells about a mentally ill woman who is sitting at a card table set up in her garden, working a jig-saw puzzle. She is extremely tense. Her hands are shaking. She tries to force the pieces together that don't fit. Some of the pieces fall off the table. The woman becomes more and more agitated. Finally, she looks up at her daughter and says poignantly, "The pieces don't fit together! The pieces don't fit together!" That is the way it is for many people today. The pieces just will not fit together for them--and never will until they discover Faith in the Gracious God who is always working in us and around us to give us life. This God, this Creative Force, this Energy (spelled with a capital "E"), not only is deep within us, but also is pulsating in the world all around us--in other human beings and in what we call "nature." And if we take a good look out there, we can see the tragic result when men become estranged from this reality. We can see the chaos that ensues when Faith in the creative, energizing, life-giving presence of God in the world is diminished and even lost.
Life is not just one big glorious sunset. No one will deny that. There are times of stress when it becomes terribly difficult to fit the pieces together. Our lives can become crowded with legitimate concerns, big and small. You may see certain people who seem to be riding on top of the world, everything coming up roses. But when you really get to know them it is amazing to discover the burdens they are carrying. For us Christians it is important to talk about this in terms of our own experience. But it is important also because of our duty to equip ourselves for a ministry to others. If you are not hurting right now, there are people all around you who are. And we are called to minister in love: to know what to say, to know what to do, to know how to be there at the point of another's need.
I am now going to read to you a letter which was sent to a radio preacher by one of his regular listeners. I don't know how he answered it but I want you to think about how you would answer:
Dear Rev._____: I listen to your program and rarely miss it. Please read this account of an occurrence in my life, which I can neither understand nor accept. My daughter passed away a few years ago from cancer--still a young woman, married, three children. She had been ill for some time, yet never complained. She cared for her family and even found time to be helpful to me. But her husband was mean to her, went out on her, night after night, even when she was desperately ill. Now that he has remarried, he treats his second wife beautifully. Why should this be so? It hurts me tremendously to think of it. Please reply to me in simple words that I can understand. Try to explain why my daughter suffered so much, why she was taken away so young when she was such a good person. This is very important to me. Sincerely yours ...
How would you answer the letter? The woman obviously has Faith in the goodness of God, and that's where the crunch comes. If God is really good, if He really loves us, then why would He let this happen? Some of us might be inclined at this point to begin talking in an intellectual way about "God" and "life" and "suffering." The word for this manner of justifying the ways of a loving God is "Theodicy." Theodicy can be a helpful thing and there have been some great Theodicy’s written. In modern times, the C. S. Lewis book entitled "The Problem of Pain" has been widely read. If you would like an intellectual discussion of this problem you might want to read it. But you should understand that no amount of intellectual discussion can produce the magic formula for understanding God's ways. C. S. Lewis came to realize this when he lost his wife, whom he dearly loved. He became embittered with life. His carefully developed intellectual theories about God's ways could not console him. He discovered that, important as it might be to address problems of Faith in an intellectually appealing way, it is not the way the New Testament writers confront these problems. Then Lewis wrote another book called "A Grief Observed" in which he recognizes the folly of trying to confront God on the level of the head alone and describes his agonizing search for God's goodness at the deepest levels of his whole being.
There is not a single New Testament writer who would answer this woman's letter on the level of Theodicy. We who belong to Christ need to understand this about His Gospel. The New Testament writers would help this woman and would help you, not on the level of Theodicy, but on the level of the Good News of Jesus Christ that pulsated through their entire beings. They are so much aware of the Grace of God and the Good News of God's love that every problem is confronted in that context. They had had so overwhelming an experience of God's goodness, they just knew that in every experience of suffering, without exception, this Gracious God is operating to bring good out of it, to transform it, to redeem it, to bring healing and forgiveness. This is what they would try to get across to anyone who is suffering.
In a scene from "The Big Fisherman" by L. C. Douglas, St. Peter is in prison awaiting his execution. He is visited by his friend, Mencius, an influential Roman Proconsul, who is trying to have Peter's death sentence commuted. "How do you find it possible to live down there in those caverns?" Mencius asks Peter. Peter replies, "It is not so difficult to do what one must do." He goes on to describe how he, a condemned man, ministers day and night to his frightened, beaten, sick and hungry fellow-inmates. "I pray with them ... I offer words of comfort when they die ... And I bid them be of good cheer, for the Kingdom is coming!" Mencius then says, "It must take great Faith, Peter, to believe that the Kingdom of Christos is coming when everything they had is lost." To which Peter replies, "That's when our faith is strongest, Mencius, when there is nothing else to lean upon. The Spirit of God is very real, and near, to those distressed ones."
God's love makes it possible for us to fly on broken wings. Lord, "Increase our Faith" so that we may fly high enough above the chaos to see more clearly that the pieces do fit together!"