Faith that Invalidates the Impossible and the Absurd

Luke 17:1-10

Jeremiah warned of thing to come. When the trouble came, he lamented.

How lonely sits the city

that once was full of people!

How like a widow she has become,

she that was great among the nations!

She that was a princess among the provinces

has become a vassal.

She weeps bitterly in the night,

with tears on her cheeks;

among all her lovers

she has no one to comfort her;

all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,

they have become her enemies.

Pastoral Prayer: Lord God, our world seems impossible to navigate without making enemies. We think it absurd to to think we may take up a different approach to faith. Remind us that our faith is in Jesus, not in our own faith. Compel us toward the impossible and living out the absurd. Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you . . . And all God’s people say, Amen.

In 1978, Bessel Van Der Kolk began his first day at the Boston Veterans Administration Clinic. Barely settled into his new office his interior decorating was disrupted by a large fellow in a stained three-piece suit, clearly hungover. Van Der Kolk wondered how could he help this fellow. Could he help Tom?

Ten years earlier Tom had been in the marines. He served in Vietnam. It wasn’t until 1980 that a group of Veterans and two psychoanalysts persuaded the American Psychiatric Association to create a new diagnosis: posttraumatic stress disorder, PTSD. Van Der Kolk tells Tom’s story in his book, titled, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

Tom graduated in 1965. Valedictorian. He followed the pattern of his family and entered the Marines. He felt prepared. Like most who enter the service, Tom had found a friend, Andy. They were from different parts of the Country. The time they spent together led to a strong friendship until they were ambushed in a rice paddy. Tom was the sole survivor. He witnessed the gruesome death of his friend, Andy. Tom had never had a friend like Andy. The resulting trauma left him suffering and so his family. Van Der Kolk’s research aims to point out the way the body responds to trauma.

In order to make sure readers know the pervasiveness of trauma, that it is not only soldiers who survive traumatic events, he notes,

Research by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention has shown that one in five Americans was sexually molested as a child; one in four was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body; and one in three couples engage in physical violence. A quarter of us grew up with alcoholic relatives and one out of eight witnessed their mother being beaten or hit.

Our world, even our Country, is impossible. Ignoring these realities is absurd.

The statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention don’t name all the ways we experience trauma. But it makes the point that trauma is more widely experienced than we like to talk about. And, that is part of the problem. We don’t like talking about trauma – even our own. The failure to talk about our trauma, the trauma in our world, has the unintended consequence of fueling the way we divide up against others.

Van Der Kolk tells how his group therapy sessions took some time to get going. It was only after the group accepted him as one of them that members actually opened up. One group of veterans gave him a Marine captain’s uniform for his birthday. It was their way of saying, “You are one of us.” Another group of veterans gave him a 1940’s GI issue wristwatch. He concluded, “I could not be their doctor unless they made me one of them.” Van Der Kolk observed,

You are either in or out – you either belonged to the unit or you were nobody. After trauma the world becomes sharply divided between those who know and those who don’t. People who have not shared the traumatic experience cannot be trusted, because they can’t understand it. Sadly this often includes spouses, children, and co-workers.

When we talk about the Incarnation, the coming of Jesus the Christ, we are admitting that all of humanity has experienced the trauma of Powers under which we have suffered. The Scriptures names these Powers – Sin, Death, Grave, Satan, Hell. Unleashed in our world the oppression of these powers often leads us to tell ourselves lies that bring us even more suffering. We are alone. No one has faced what we face. I cannot tell anyone. They won’t understand. In fact, one of Van Der Kolk’s teachers said, “The greatest source of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves.” For those Grey’s Anatomy fans that are still keeping up with that show, it is reflected in one of the early season episodes titled, “I’m OK.” Meredith kept telling herself and everyone around her she was OK. All to hide her suffering.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Our claim that God in Christ Jesus defeated the Powers that have caused us great trauma is the very story we hope connects with our body, our lived experience. So, we gather weekly because not only do others tell us lies during the week, but we are in environments where we lie to ourselves and contribute to our greatest suffering. Trauma, according to Van Der Kolk, robs us of mental flexibility. We lose imagination. We cannot consider the impossible for it would be absurd.

If only we had more faith. 

If you may imagine Jesus pointing out that the nature of relationships in the Kingdom require repair, you may understand the bewilderment felt by the disciples. Luke stitches together a series of sayings Jesus gave to the disciples. Tied together they create quite a weight under which the disciples respond in what can only be read as desperation, “Lord, increase our faith.”

Think about it. You are among those early Jesus followers. You have already witnessed two things: your own arguing about who among you is the greatest and Jesus telling the religious leaders that they add more weight to the burden of the people and then offer no means to help. So when Jesus tells, he warns, the disciples about causing a little one to stumble, that when another disciple sins you rebuke, look for repentance and forgive. And, talk about piling on, if you are the sinned against, keep forgiving. Asking for more faith makes sense. 

Wouldn’t you? Haven’t you? These words spoken then to those following Jesus become words we hear by the Spirit today. Our world was just made impossible, more absurd. 

One of our folks was telling me how they had found a piece that reflected their convictions that we need not choose sides, the Left or the Right. She noted the author struck a cord that the compassionate middle seemed more in tune with Jesus than the sniping, snarky, surly, slinging that goes on when choosing up sides . . . even by Christians. To her surprise, she was taken to task for not choosing up a side from which she could become an enemy of the other. This. This is the way our world is made impossible. The collective trauma of life has us split in such a way that we cannot talk, cannot find a friend for all the ways these forces, these Powers, work to press us into making enemies of others. 

We begin making enemies of others when put our faith in our faith. Or, when we put our faith in the things we believe. 

Charlie Stroud asked me last Sunday if I really said that turning the Bible into a book of principles is like turning away from grace and toward a new law the week before. Yes. This is our great tendency. We end up measuring our faith based on how many principles we keep. We fail to recognize that when we take up to keep one principle we must keep them all. Even more, when we put our faith in our faith, or in the things we believe, we are always open to scrutiny for not paying attention to the things most difficult for us, opting instead to emphasize those things that are easy for us and difficult for others. That by definition is unloving and uncaring – the last two habits that Paul says reveals our own guilt before God in Romans 1.

This habit of putting our faith in our faith, or in the things we believe, represents the conflict at the core of all human relationships that result in the letters we have in the Scriptures. Think about it. There was a division between people over eating meat sacrificed to idols. Some believed it was OK while others said it was NOT. The resulting divisions caused problems in the churches. Some believed that Gentiles must observe all the Jewish laws in order to faithfully follow Christ. Others said it was NOT. The resulting division caused problems. 

Putting faith in our faith, or in the things we believe, becomes the food that feeds the church as an enemy-making machine. 

Jesus responded to the disciples request for increased faith by saying, 

If you have faith, and you do by the way,” 

it is not a matter of how much but in whom. If we discover that we are asking for more diligence to steer clear of causing another to stumble, struggle to speak with another disciple about sin, and forgive over and again, we are asking for help to keep a new law. Jesus says, 

If your faith is in me,” 

you can do the impossible and the absurd. In other words, if you put your faith in the one who did the impossible and the absurd, the Spirit will produce in you the impossible and the absurd – you will not need more faith you will simply need to recognize when you have shifted from faith in Jesus to a faith in your faith, or in the things you believe. The one will leave you feeling as though you can’t, the other will reveal that God will and does.

In short, faith in Jesus invalidates the impossible and the absurd. Let me be clear. This is not easy. For we are always on the lookout for ways we can justify ourselves before God, that we deserve the salvation we receive. This is what presses us to think it hard to keep another from stumbling, impossible to talk to another disciple about their sin and certainly absurd to keep forgiving the same person over and again.

Our tables are set this morning. We celebrate that in Christ, at the table, we bear witness to a faith that invalidates the impossible and the absurd by pledging allegiance to a Savior who did the impossible and the absurd that we could not do ourselves. It cost Jesus his life to so that in our death with him we find life in Him. Our faith in anything else will surely leave us asking for more faith.

Van Der Kolk points out one of the keys to healing from trauma – find a safe place. If the church is no longer a safe place for people, then there is no place for the message of our salvation, our safety in Christ, to be the controlling story that re-organizes our way of thinking, our repentance. We cannot be an enemy making machine. Instead, in Christ, we have been given the ministry of reconciliation, not condemnation.  We point to the safety of the Savior.

Today, as we who identify ourselves as in Christ, having been buried with him in death and raised with him into new life, signaled as we bore witness in baptism, let us take the bread and the cup hearing the truth that heals our trauma together. From there let’s declare the Good News that in Christ, God knows and heals us from the traumas brought by our real enemies, the Powers of Sin, Death and the Grave.

When Jeremiah considered giving in to the impossible and absurd he remembered,

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness

is wormwood and gall!

My soul continually thinks of it

and is bowed down within me.

But this I call to mind,

and therefore have hope:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,

his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;

great is your faithfulness.

The LORD is my portion, says my soul

therefore I will hope in him.

I generally take a manuscript with me to preach each week. However, the preached message is often a bit different than what you will find here. You may listen to the preached sermon here.

About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.