Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sermon from last Sunday - Habakkuk

Proper 22
Habakkuk 1:1-13; 2:1-4; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

You may have heard the quote of Karl Barth that preachers should practice reading the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other hand. Well, most of the Barth scholars I have talked with say that he probably did not say this quote. Nonetheless, it is still a good practice; living our lives while trying to be aware of the world and aware of the vision of God. This is a pretty hard thing to do. Habakkuk tells us that this is what he was trying to do in the reading we heard today. Habakkuk does not really occur very often in our lectionary. It is a short book; only three chapters. In some ways, it has a certain famous quality, because it has a line that St. Paul uses, and that line has to do with Faith and the importance of Faith. And we have the Protestant Reformation, and importance of being justified by Faith which we find in both Paul’s letter to the Romans and his letter to the Galatians.

Today I want to talk with you about Habakkuk because he is a unique prophet. The traditional theology of prophecy in the Old Testament is that a prophet would be sent by God to proclaim judgment on Israel or Judah. So what we have in most cases is not so much a predicting of the future, not the way we call people “prophets” today. A prophet would usually tell of a dire warning of what would happen if the nation does not shape up. In some cases, such as Jeremiah, it is a proclamation of judgment that the nation is going to punish the nation. Generally, what we see in prophecy is that the prophet is not in dialogue with God, but is the mouthpiece for God, saying that the world events have a reason for occurring. If you are about to be invaded by the Neo-Babylonians, by the Chaldeans, it’s because you must have sinned. You must have broken the covenant.

Now Habakkuk, by contrast, does things a little bit differently. Instead of merely proclaiming judgment in the reading today, he asks God the basic human question of “Why are you punishing us?” What we have in Habakkuk, is that he sees what is going on, he sees injustice. How can you do this, Lord? “O Lord how long will I cry for help and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are bfore me; strive and contention arise.” There is a “disconnect” for Habakkuk between what he believes is a loving God of justice, and a world that does not look so loving or just.

We see a God of justice and love and mercy and yet we don’t have to go very far beyond our newspaper to see the lamentation of our time. Right here on the cover you’ll see here on the cover of the New York Times a dire story of a rape Epidemic in Congo. So I skip to the Sports section and then I see a story of Marion Jones one of my heroes, who comes out as saying she did all kinds of steroids to win those wonderful races.

Then you look to the Washington Post: A story about Arlington National Cemetery and you see that there were more burials there in the last fiscal year than ever before. And yes it is, in part, because the World War II era veterans are dying, but it largely to do with this onslaught of death and destruction in Iraq. On Friday, there were thirteen funerals in the morning and thirteen funerals in the afternoon. And then I was just listening to NPR before this service and I heard about the HIV/AIDS epidemic and I heard that there is a higher proportion of people infected with HIV/AIDS in Washington, DC than in some parts of Africa. One in twenty people in Washington have HIV/AIDS.

And so we call out to God and we say, “How can this be?” “How can this be? How can a just God allow this to happen?” And it is a dark question. It is a question that takes us hits us way down deep somewhere. It is there where we stand in between that just God that we believe in, that loving God, and yet the World does not look so loving. It is there where the prophet stands. And Habakkuk asks God, as Job does, he queries God. He asks, “How can you allow this to happen?” He asks God, and God at first answers that God is going to come in and wipe out the people. God says that he will use the Neo-Babylonians, the Chaldeans, let by Nebuchadnezzar to punish the nation.

But then in the next interchange you have a very interesting response from God. It is so interesting that Hebrew scholars are still struggling with exactly what it means. So God says, “Write the vision, make it plain on tablets so that a runner may read it, for there is still a vision for the appointed time. It speaks to the end, and does not lie, if it seems to tarry, wait for it. It will surely come, it will not delay. Look their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.” And here faith means steadfastness, diligence, allegiance. It is some kind of hopeful allegiance for our forgetful world, even though our world does not often look like a hopeful place.

And so that is where we sit at times. That may be where you are sitting and where I am sit in some ways in the tension within my own church. Where on one side we say we welcome all people regardless of sexual orientation, while on the other hand we don’t exactly do that. So we sit in that tension, that place of some inner tension because of the outer tension of the just God and the unjust world. The loving inclusive church and yet not inclusive church. It is not a good place to sit. It is the already, but not yet. We have the promise of Christ in the past when Christ was amongst us, and God revealed to us in the past, but we also await a time when things will be better.

And so we see some vision of hope, in what seems to be at times a hopeless time. And so we have some ide A hope for a vision of the future. And we know from Proverbs that “Without a vision, the people perish.” And so it is our role to see a vision, to write a vision for the future. And so there are perhaps a few items that let us know the importance of looking ahead, and writing a vision.

Thirty-three years ago, there was something that happened in Philadelphia called the “irregular” ordinations of women. “Irregular ordinations” of women in our Episcopal Church. Now if you said to someone then, “There is this 17-18 year old woman who in 32 years will be the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church,” that would be an audacious, and courageous and foolish thing to say. That vision would be audacious, courageous and foolish. Really foolish!

In the mid-1950s, the first African American graduate of Virginia Seminary was John Walker, who later became Bishop of Washington. I recently graduated from Virginia Seminary and 10% of our class was openly gay. This is a place that didn’t even have women or African Americans until a few decades ago.

So, we can see some vision when we look to the past and see that things do change, that vision leads to hope. We look to the past and remember that we have hope, yet the world looks hopeless. We have the words of that that great warrior for peace, William Sloane Coffin, Jr. said “hope is a state of mind independent of the state of the world.” He said he was not an optimist, but he was a person of hope. That that is our call, we are people of hope, even though we are surrounded by hopelessness. We also have that wonderful poet and farmer, Wendell Berry, who said “be hopeful, though you have considered all the facts.” And, so read the paper, and somehow still have joy. Now this is a most audacious, courageous, and foolish thing, but that is what we are called to be.

It causes us to look to the future, to take the long view. To look to the long view is not so comforting in the moment. It is not so comforting, in the moment, to realize that a thing may not be accomplished in our lifetime. But we have a long history of this. We have Moses, who after 40 years in the desert did not actually get to the Promised Land. There is Martin Luther King, Jr., who, on one hand said, “I have a dream,” and he had a clear understanding that he would probably be killed because of the actions that he took because of that dream. On the other hand he wrote a book, “Why we can’t Wait.” So it is both looking to the future and also getting busy in the present. So he is looking to the long view, but also things need to be done today.

Another hero of mine is Oscar Romero, the deceased Bishop of El Salvador, who did not start out as a Liberation Theologian he was a member of the elite, until some of his priests were killed by the death squads. In the end, he was killed at the altar while celebrating mass by those same death squads. He had this long view. As I said, it is not a comfortable place to stand.

To be joyful, though we have considered all the facts.

To be hopeful, though in some ways the world seems to be hopeless. And so he has this wonderful poem, “a future not our own:”

A Future Not Our Own

It helps, now and then, to step back
And take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
It is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
The magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
Which is another way of saying
The kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

So be joyful, even though you have considered all the facts. And be hopeful, even though hopelessness may surround you. Amen.

The Rev. Peter M. Carey
7 October 2007
Proper 22
Habakkuk 1:1-13; 2:1-4; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10


(Kathy) said...

Peter - thanks for this Romero poem, which may give me the energy to stick with the newspaper a little longer some mornings - in these discouraging times it's easy to be overwhelmed! I'm lifting it for my blog - and finding that it's one of those poems that leads into prayer.

Peter Carey said...


This poem is so important to me as well, it keeps me going in some of these times....

I hope you are well!!