PROPER 22, C, 2019
HABAKKUK 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Bad. Things. Happen. You know this. I know this. The news tells us this. From destruction of our ecosystems to economic devastation to violence on large scales and small – bad things happen. From emerging antibiotic resistance to self destructive behaviors to unwelcome diagnoses, to that pesky cold that just won’t let go, bad things happen. From floods and earthquakes to my suddenly soggy feet as I pick my way to the garage – bad things happen. It is a timeless truth.
Certainly the feces was flying fast at the proverbial fan almost 3000 years ago when Habakkuk penned the lament we heard today. Thought to be a contemporary of Jeremiah and Zapheniah, the mysterious Habakkuk wrote in the early 6th century as the Babylonians, whom he calls the Chaldeans, rose to power – shattering the lives of the Israelites, plunging them into chaos. “Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.” He described the chaos in his world, but his words could just as easily have described ours. Bad things happen.
It’s easy to see why the disciples might beg, why we might beg for just a little more faith. “Wait” is the message in Habakkuk. “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” But 6 centuries after Habakkuk and the Chaldeans, God among us set His face for Jerusalem, and the Kingdom remained elusive.
Increase our faith! The Chaldeans were long gone when the disciples voiced their plaintive cry. For some reason the lectionary doesn’t include the verses that immediately precede the disciples’ desperate sounding request-I asked Lee to read them anyway. If someone sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you, you must forgive.’ Seven times a day, one assumes day after day. That’s a lot of sinning. It’s an awful lot of forgiving. Increase my faith…
We talk about faith, they talk about faith, as if it were a commodity, something to be traded and used; strengthened and managed; saved for times of need. Preserved for the times we need the mulberry tree to uproot and jump in the ocean. Commentator Sarah Dylan Breuer writes, “The word ‘faith’ (pistis, in the Greek) is often spoken about as if it meant trying to talk ourselves into intellectual assent to something, with “increasing our faith” meaning that we are successfully persuading ourselves that we have adopted an idea we think is ridiculous. That’s not faith; it’s self-deception, and usually a pretty unsuccessful kind of self-deception that results in our feeling a little guilty and hypocritical, as we know that we don’t actually believe what we say. But faith is not about intellectual projection and assessment; it is not an intellectual analogue to that process we go through to build and maintain hubris.”
So far in Luke, Jesus named as faithful a woman’s desperate confidence that if she only touches him he will be healed (3:48), a centurion’s concern for a sick servant (7:9), and a woman’s gratitude at being forgiven (7:50). Soon he will also call faithful a Samaritan leper who returns to thank him for healing (17:19) and the plea of a blind beggar for sight (18:42). (references from David Lose). Ms. Breuer continues, “Faith is relationship — a relationship of trust, of allegiance. When Jesus talks about “faith,” he’s not talking about what you do in your head; he’s talking about what you do with your hands and your feet, your wallet and your privilege, your power and your time. Faith in Jesus is not shown by saying or thinking things about him, but by following him.”
Now Jesus launches into what to modern ears seems a highly distasteful discourse on slavery – indeed the passage has been used in the past to justify the reprehensible institution of slavery. I’ll let you in on a secret, Jesus wasn’t talking about slavery. He was talking about relationship.
My grandmother was a formidable woman. She raised two daughters under very difficult circumstances, and loved them fiercely. She had this perfect posture and dignity and brooked no nonsense. She came, over time, to accept my father as an adequate suitor for her daughter. He knew how to be polite, and what direction respect needed to flow. He earned his bachelors and masters from MIT and had a good job. He cleaned up nicely, looking sharp in his crisp Air Force Uniform. She found him acceptable.
But the thing that impressed her, the story she told me over and over about my father came after my brother was born. My grandmother came to help very soon after his birth, as new grandmothers do. When she came, of course, my brother was still very much in what my husband sentimentally calls the “leaky sack of fluids” stage of infancy. Fluid in, fluid out. He cried one day as newborns do, and Grandmother came in all her efficiency to remedy the situation. There she found my father. Changing. dirty. diapers. 500 years ago Martin Luther wrote, “When a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other menial task for his child…God with all his angels and creatures is smiling”. I’m sure, had he known her, Martin Luther would be relieved to know my grandmother agreed with him. She fell in love with my father at that point, and was still telling me the story 15 years later. My father shrugs when reminded of this story. That’s what fathers do. Not for thanks, not for payback, certainly not for glory, and not even to win over their formidable mothers-in-law. But because that is the relationship.
We cannot approach a life in Christ as an exercise in maximizing faith or optimizing likelihood of attaining eternal bliss. G.K. Chesterton rightly advised, ““Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”
I paraphrase Thomas Merton slightly, substituting “serving Christ” for “prayer”, “We are indoctrinated into means and ends…But that is not the way to build a life [serving Christ]. In [serving Christ] we discover what we already have. You start where you are, and you deepen what you already have, and you realize that you are already there. We already have everything, but we don’t know it and we don’t experience it. Everything has been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess. The trouble is, we aren’t taking the time to do so.
“Wait” says the God of Habakkuk. In verses we did not read, his faithful prophet responds with hope in a hopeless world:
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength; (Habakkuk 3: 17-19a)
We are not, as Mother Teresa said, called to do great things, but to do small things with great love. Change the dirty diapers of the world, one diaper at a time. Reach out to the stranger in love. Challenge the injustice in your little corner of the world. Teach a child and open her world. Offer a healing touch, a nourishing meal, an ardent defense, all for the love of Christ…That mustard seen is within you. Let it grow. Amen.