Singing a Capella (A sermon from Hab. 1:1-4; 2:1-4)
This was a big event in the life of the small denomination that hosted the annual conference. It was a two day event, and worship on the final night was always the most attended. It was their custom to have an interesting and challenging keynote speaker and music of the highest quality. The program bulletin that named the vocalist said that she would sing accompanied by sound track. She had rehearsed this song numerous times in preparation for this event and the time had now come. She walked confidently to the stage and nodded for the gentleman in the sound booth to start the music. She waited and waited and waited. The sound operator finally looked up and made some motions. The unthinkable had happened. The player had malfunctioned. She knew there was a decision to make. Either leave the stage rather awkwardly calling attention to the problem, or sing the song unaccompanied by the sound track. Out of the silence, strong and sure, the vocalist’s voice rang true and powerful.
The question I pose today is this: Can we sing the song of faith without the music? Sooner or later we all face life without the music. It is simply not true that if you love God and are faithful to God you will always hear the music, that all will go well or that you will never have any doubts or face any uncertainties. The prophet has to face life without the music. He expresses his complaint to God in the opening verses of chapter 1. He wants to know why God is not doing something about the violence and injustice that Israel is experiencing. The wicked hem in the righteous, he says, and justice is perverted.
Now, it’s important to keep in mind that many ancient Hebrews believed that God directly intervened into the world and their lives, and the prophet would have lived within those theological limitations. God’s response to Habakkuk compounds the prophet’s frustration. “Be astonished! Be astounded! says the Lord. For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told.” Now, that last phrase really speaks to me: “you would not believe even if you were told.” If God’s voice thundered it from heaven you they would not believe it. And we are still that way. In our context today we are told clearly in the Gospels that if we follow Jesus we have to love and care for people who are different than us, especially the most vulnerable. Jesus made that a priority. We can’t treat them like they are less than human. But there are many Christians today who apparently don’t believe that at all. That theme of caring for the oppressed, the disadvantaged and the most vulnerable runs through scripture. It’s in the law and the prophets. Israel is told to care for widows, orphans, and the non-Israelites (the undocumented, the aliens in the land), and this theme finds its climax in the life and teachings of Jesus. But many Christians today don’t trust it and are not faithful to it.
Now, what are the people being told in Habakkuk’s time? They are being told that the Babylonians are coming. They are a ruthless and violent people; a law unto themselves. They worship might and power. They promote their own honor. They are a people to be feared and dreaded. They will sweep down and set their hooks and nets into the land and gather the people of Israel into their nets like a fisherman gathers in his catch, to be used and disposed of at will. So the prophet cries out to God, “How can you be silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” How can that be?
Sooner or later, all of us must face life without the music. It is simply untrue that if you love God there will always be music. Life with God is not all sun and summertime. There are dark, cold days in wintry places. So what do we do in those times when we cannot hear the music on account of the screams of violence or from the noise of our own fearful chatter and cries for help? What do we do when things don’t go as expected? When our plans get thwarted, our dreams dashed, and our questions and our prayers go unanswered? What do we do when circumstances entrap us in prisons of disappointment and bring us to the brink of despair? Do we give up on faith and say it was all a mistake? Do we say it was all an illusion, that we were just kidding ourselves to think that we ever heard the music at all? What do we do? We learn to sing without the music. We may complain and question and find ourselves in a quandary, but we refuse to walk off the stage.
The prophet says that the righteous or just shall live by faith. Paul quotes this line from Habakkuk in his letter to the Romans. This is a dominant theme in that letter, but here is where he got it. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann makes the point that the righteous or just person or just community is the person or community who keeps God’s covenant. A righteous or just person is one who loves his or her neighbor. A just person invests in the community, and is particularly attentive to the poor and needy. Living by faith is not about getting our beliefs right; rather, it is about doing right. It’s about being faithful to God by loving our neighbor as ourselves and treating others the way we would want to be treated. This is the heart and soul of God’s covenant with us.
I like the way author Sara Miles has said this. Sara 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 participated. She ate the bread and drank the wine and discovered that it somehow nourished her soul and quenched her spiritual thirst. She kept going back and was encouraged to serve others. So, she started a food pantry. Being in California, she discovered that they had access to inexpensive fresh fruits and vegetables. So on Fridays, she opened a food pantry – in the middle of their beautiful new 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 to those who need to talk. They bless those who need a blessing. And get this: Those who come are considered part of their church community, even though they may never come to a worship service.
In her spiritual memoir titled, Take this Bread, she says that one of the main things she learned about faith by directing and working in the pantry is that authentic faith is more about “orthopraxy” (right practice) than it is about “orthodoxy” (right belief). She wrote, “I was hearing that what counted wasn’t fundamentalist theology or liberation or traditional or postmodern theology, it wasn’t denominations or creeds or rituals. It wasn’t liberal or conservative ideology. It was faith, working through love.” What mattered was faith working through love. This is exactly what Paul tells the churches in Galatia. He says in that letter that the only thing that ultimately matters is their faith working through love. Faith, here is not belief. It is trust and commitment. What matters is our capacity to trust one another and trust God, and be faithful to our relationships with God and others by loving others the way God loves all of us. She realized that faith working through love meant (in her words), “plugging away with other people, acting in small ways without the comfort of a big vision or even a lot of realistic hope.” She discovered it meant “opening up my vulnerable self to others and sticking with tasks that helped people in the middle of confusion.” She realized that God cared much more about how we help people, than what we happen to believe about God.
So how do we find the inner strength and power to be faithful when the music doesn’t play? One of the things we do is remember. In 3:2 the prophet says, “O Lord, I have heard of your renown, and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work.” The prophet was part of a faith tradition that rehearsed God’s mighty works in times past and he remained in awe of those works. The prophet next cries out, “In our time revive your work; in our time make it known, in judgment remember mercy” (3:2). His cry for help and for grace is based on an inherited tradition of God’s salvation – a tradition of God’s acts of healing and liberation.
Again and again in scripture the people of God are told to remember God’s great creative and redemptive acts. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we are remembering that our Lord was not called to be served, but to serve, and to give his life in the service of God’s love and righteousness in the world. We remember that Jesus gave his life in service for the healing and liberation of many. We remember the revelation God has given to us in Jesus of God’s redemptive hope and dream for the world and for our lives. We remember the life of Jesus of Nazareth and that we, too, are called to be the body of Christ in the world. We may not feel worthy – that’s okay. We may not feel close to God – that’s okay. We may not be able to see beyond our own disappointment or hear beyond the cries of our own pain – none of that matters. When we come together and partake of the bread and cup we are remembering how God has acted in and through Jesus Christ to draw us into relationship with God’s self and to show us how to love and care for one another. When we share the Lord’s Supper together we share in the Holy Communion of God’s love that makes us one people, that says everyone belongs, and that gives us hope that we can become more.
Heather Whitestone, was the Miss America winner who had the disability of deafness. 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 perform her dance, she moved precisely and beautifully to the rhythm of the music she couldn’t hear, but had heard before, and she remembered. We, too, can benefit from remembering past encounters and experiences of God’s love. But you know, sisters and brothers, even if we cannot recount a personal experience of God’s love, we can remember what is truly worth remembering in the Christian tradition that has been passed on to us – namely, that God has revealed God’s self though the inclusive love incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth. We can enter into the experience of that love any day, any time of day, because the God of love is still speaking and drawing us to God’s self
We also wait in hope. Sometimes, all we can do is wait for the music to start again and that is never easy. You walk in the convenient store at the gas station to get some milk late at night for your child. Everything else is closed. There is one check- out line, it is long, and the girl behind the counter is new and the scanner is not functioning properly. What do you do? What can you do? You wait.
The prophet finds himself in a place he could not avoid. We all do. At the end of his song of faith he says: “I wait quietly for the day of calamity to come upon the people who attack us.” (3:16b). He is looking for justice, for vindication, but he knows it is not going to be soon, so he must learn to wait. But you know, sisters and brothers, there is a lot we can do while we wait. Waiting is no excuse for inaction. There is no excuse for doing nothing when there are things we can do. The prophet has faith that a new day will come. He echoes that faith in 2:14 where he envisions a day when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” The glory of the Lord, as John’s Gospel makes clear, is the glory of divine love that extends to the whole world. The fulfillment of that hope seems a long way off sometimes. But as we wait for that day, we do all we can do to embody and express God’s love and help bring about its fulfillment.
The prophet closes his oracle with a beautiful expression of faith: “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; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights” (3:17-19).
Living in faithfulness to God and neighbor, loving God and loving others can be sustained by one, looking back in remembrance of God’s great love expressed in Jesus, and two, by looking forward to a time when God’s loving dream for the world will be fulfilled. As we remember and wait in hope, we join God in God’s healing and liberating work by loving others the way God loves all people, and the way Jesus showed us.
Our good God, help us to keep covenant with you, to trust you and be faithful to love and support one another in the midst of the heartaches and heartbreaks of life. When the music doesn’t play and when all we hear is silence, help us to courageously sing the song of faith anyway as we remember the ways you have revealed your love to us in Christ. Help us to have hope that no matter what injustice befalls us in due time you will make things right. Let us be faithful to embody and mirror your inclusive love. Amen.