Monday, October 31, 2016

Living by Faith (Hab.1:1-4; 2:1-4; Luke 19:1-10)

Sara Miles, in her spiritual memoir titled, Take this Bread, explains how she came to faith. She was raised an atheist, but for some reason wandered into an Episcopal church one day in San Francisco, where everyone was welcomed and encouraged to take Communion. So she ate the bread and drank the wine and found that it somehow nourished her soul and quenched her thirst. She kept going back and grew into a disciple of Jesus.  

Being in California, she discovered that they had access to inexpensive fresh fruits and vegetables. So on Fridays, she started a food pantry – right in the middle of their beautiful Sanctuary. All are welcome. There are no forms to fill out. People come and choose what they want. The down-and-out, the addicted, the messed up, the homeless, all are welcome and all are treated with dignity. Sara and the other volunteers pray with those who want prayer, they listen and bless those who need a blessing. And those who come are considered part of their church community.

In her book she underscores that Christian faith is more about “orthopraxy” than it is about “orthodoxy.” That is, authentic faith is more about right practice than it is about right belief. She discovered that faith was not foremost about theology. It was not foremost about denominations or creeds or rituals. It wasn’t about liberal or conservative ideology. It was primarily about faith working through love. She writes: “That could mean plugging away with other people, acting in small ways without the comfort of a big vision or even a lot of realistic hope. It could look more like prayer: opening yourself to uncertainty, accepting your lack of control. It meant taking on concrete tasks in the middle of confusion, without stopping to argue about who was the truest believer.”

In other words she learned that growing into faith meant growing into a lifestyle of compassion and love of neighbor, and the neighbor could be anyone with a need. It meant growing in one’s capacity to trust God and trust other people. It meant growing in faithfulness to stay with the tasks that might help heal and encourage others.

When Habakkuk says in 2:4 that the righteous or just live by their faith he is not primarily saying that they live by a set of beliefs, though I don’t want to downplay the importance of healthy beliefs. It is certainly true that what we believe about God will impact and influence how we relate to God and how we relate to others. But what Habakkuk is saying is that the just or righteous continue to be faithful to God’s cause in the world no matter how bad things get. For the just to live by faith means that they continue to trust God and faithfully live out their commitment to do what is just, good, right, and merciful regardless of the obstacles and the challenges they face in pursuing justice and peace, and living out the social ethic of God’s kingdom which is love of neighbor. Living by faith is being faithful to God’s cause, not believing doctrines about God.

Habakkuk’s oracle begins with a complaint. Why, O God, is there so much injustice? Why is there so much violence and bloodshed? Why is it that the wicked hem in the righteous? Why is justice being so perverted?

What do we do when hell engulfs us? When we face wave after wave of hardship or difficulty? When we find ourselves up against a brick wall that impedes our progress? What do we do when things don’t go as expected, when our plans get thwarted, our dreams dashed, when our questions and our prayers go unanswered, just the way Habakkuk’s did? Can we continue to live by faith? Can we continue to believe that God is good? Can we continue to trust that God is with us and God is for us, even though we cannot feel or sense or see God’s presence and participation in our lives? Can we continue to be faithful to do what is just and fair and right?

Let me offer two responses that I have found helpful, so maybe you will too. First, we can look back with a sacred memory. Chapter 3 of Habakkuk takes the form of a psalm that was most likely set to music. And in this song of faith the prophet remembers and rehearses God’s past participation in the lives of God’s people. He remembers how God brought healing and liberation. “I have heard of your renown, and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work,” says the prophet.

People of other faith traditions will have a different sacred memory than we do and there is nothing wrong with that. That doesn’t mean they are wrong, because God is a big God and God works in many diverse ways through many different mediators, prophets, healers, and teachers of wisdom. God can work through many different religious traditions. But for us Christians our sacred memory culminates and is centralized in the one we confess as Lord. We remember the life and teachings of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and that gives us the hope to trust in his living presence with us, among us, and in us. This is what we are doing when we share in the bread and cup of Holy Communion. When we come together and partake of the bread and cup we are remembering what God has done for us, how God has acted in and through Jesus to draw us into relationship with God’s self and to show us how to love and care for one another.

Heather Whitestone, you may remember was the Miss America who was deaf. Do you know what she did for her talent competition? She danced. I read somewhere that in her preparation she placed a special hearing device to her ear and played it very loud, which allowed her to faintly hear the music. She then memorized the music — every beat. When the time came for her to dance, she moved gracefully to the rhythm of the music she couldn’t hear, but she remembered. We too remember the music of past encounters and experiences, but especially we remember and celebrate the ways God has broken into our lives through Jesus.

For Habakkuk, the sacred memory of God’s past engagement in the lives of God’s people becomes the foundation for the prophet’s prayer and hope. He says, “O Lord, I have heard of your renown, and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work. In our time revive it; in our time make it known.” God has acted and God continues to act. God continues to speak and participate in the human project. The prophet hears God say, “For there is still a vision for the appointed time . . . if it seems to tarry, wait for it.” In 2:14 the prophet shares what he sees. He says, “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

So, if we are to live by faith, first it will be helpful to look back in sacred remembrance of a God who has acted and spoken. Second, we can also look forward in hope that the vision of a just and peaceful world will one day be realized because God is still acting and speaking. God is still drawing, luring, and moving humanity forward – inviting and inspiring us to grow, evolve, and become more like the God who loves us, who is with us and for us and will never forsake us or let us go.

One of the key ways God instills this vision and nurtures this hope is through you and me. God heals humanity through humanity. God saves humanity through humanity. As I have said many times the great truth Christianity brings to the world is the truth of incarnation. God incarnating God’s self in flesh and blood. It is the divine (Spirit) in you that speaks to the divine (Spirit) in me, and vice versa.

The story of Zacchaeus is a story of what is possible. It’s a story that inspires hope. The story of Zacchaeus skillfully picks us threads of previous stories narrated by Luke. One of the threads connects to the story of the rich ruler who comes to Jesus wanting to experience more of the kind of life that characterizes those who live in God’s kingdom. Jesus told him to give away all his possessions to the poor and follow him, and he would discover the abundance of God’s kind of life. He couldn’t do it and walked away dejected. Jesus then said, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this they said in astonishment, “Who then can be saved? Who then can be healed and made whole? Who then can be liberated and set free? Jesus responded, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”

Then next, we hear about Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector who is also rich like the rich ruler who walked away. He too seeks Jesus. Here is a man who virtually sold his soul for money. He was a collaborator with the enemy. A traitor. He was an instrument of the oppressive Roman government that imposed heavy burdens on his fellow Jews. He had wed himself to this unjust system in order to acquire power and possessions. And yet because of his encounter with Jesus that all changed. Money lost its hold on him. He was freed from his greed. None of what use to matter mattered anymore. He awakened to a whole new vision. He says rejoicing, “I will give half of all my possessions to the poor and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will make restitution fourfold.” Jesus proclaimed, “Today, salvation (liberation, transformation) has come to this house.” God working in and through the human Jesus did what the disciples thought impossible and the camel passed through the eye of a needle.

The conversation between Jesus and Zacchaeus is left to our imagination. We don’t get to listen in. Though I can’t help but feel that Zacchaeus was at a place in his life where he was questioning the course of life he choose, maybe questioning his own worth as a human being. He had become wealthy, but at what cost. His fellow countrymen would have despised him. Many would have had contempt for him. He probably thought God felt the same way.

But then, I can imagine, Zacchaeus hearing rumors about this prophet and sage from Galilee who was very different than all the holy people he knew. He would have heard how Jesus sits down to table with both the righteous and the unrighteous, with Pharisees and sinners. He would have heard how Jesus lifts up the downtrodden, heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, sets free the captives, liberates the oppressed, and how he compassionately welcomes all those who have been written off and condemned. Maybe that instilled some hope. Maybe he started to believe that there could still be a place in God’s kingdom for a greedy traitor who turned his back on his own kin.

One evening the Sci-fi channel was playing a movie based on Stephen King’s book, “The Stand” and I caught it about half-way through. I picked up the story line fairly easily. It’s a classic tale about the conflict between good and evil, with some interesting echoes and parallels with the Jesus story. There was a devil figure named Flag and a Christ or Savior figure, who was an elderly African American woman known as Mother Abigal. A young man, who becomes one of the inner circle (of disciples) and ends up playing a vital role in the story is a deaf mute. He is a very compassionate person, but he doesn’t believe in God. In one scene, Mother Abigal is talking about God and the role that this young man will play in accomplishing the will of God, when one of the members of their little group speaks up and says, “But he doesn’t believe in God.” Mother Abigal, not surprised at all, turns gently to the young deaf man and looking directly to him says, “That’s okay child, because God believes in you.”

I wonder. Who do you know or I know that might need to hear that message? Might there be persons in your family, in your workplace, in your neighborhood, in your network of friends who need to hear and know that you believe in them. And sensing that you believe in them maybe they can trust that God believes in them too. You see, God works through humanity, through you and me, to redeem humanity.

This is our calling as the body of Christ. To act in God’s stead. To represent the Christ. The Spirit in us, speaks and works through us connecting with the Spirit in the other. Everyone has the Spirit, everyone bears the image of God, even though many do not know it.   

Well, let me end where I started and say to those of you who may just be tempted to throw in the towel because the storms you have had to face seem overwhelming. Don’t give up. Keep remembering how God has given us Jesus and showed us God’s love through him and in numerous other ways. Keep trusting and hoping because even though we might not be able to see, sense, or feel God in our midst, God hasn’t left. And maybe when one of us is down, God can use the other to left up the one who is down.

Write down the vision, says the prophet. Make it plain. Live by faith. God still speaks. God is at work. The glory of the Lord fills the earth. If we just had eyes to see. So be faithful. Do good. Act justly. Pursue mercy. Walk humbly. Keep loving and caring.

Let’s sing with God’s prophet the final stanza of his song of faith: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vine; 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; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.” And that is my prayer for all of us. Amen



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