Saturday, November 30, 2013

"Swords into Plowshares" - December 1, 2013

Isaiah 2:1-5

                What I'm holding is not exactly a sword beaten into a plowshare, but it sort of follows those lines.  It’s a bell, a little jingle bell made of brass.  It used to be tied with a red and green string.  Very festive!  Once upon a time, however, it was something else.  Metal, after all, is a great thing.  It can be recycled over and over, sometimes for centuries.  The silver in a filling in your tooth may once have been part of a coin – a Roman denarius or a Dutch ducatoon.  This brass was part of a shell casing that was fired in Cambodia during the murderous reign of the Khmer Rouge.  Now it’s a bell.

            There are a couple of ways of looking at that.  On the one hand, it might seem a little creepy.  Here is something that, if it did not harm someone, was manufactured so that it could have done that.  Maybe it did.  I don’t know.  On the other hand, here it is, and it isn’t hurting anyone anymore; it couldn’t, in this form.  In fact, if you just saw it somewhere used as a decoration, it might catch your eye in a pleasant way.  A baby might get a big smile from playing with it, or it might be a good addition to a cat’s collar. 

Is it good or is it bad?  That all depends upon how it is used.  Human abilities and human technology of all sorts can be turned to good or turned to evil ends.  The same skill that makes a sword can make a plow.  The same long pole can be fitted with a spear point or a pruning hook.  Back in March the people of Boston learned, as we all did, that something as innocent as a pressure cooker could be turned into a bomb.  On a larger scale, uranium can be put into reactors or missiles. 

It’s the human heart that guides the mind that guides the hand where the difference begins.  It is in the human heart where God acts and where we respond that the ways even of nations are determined.

It’s an old-fashioned way of thinking, according to historians, to put a heavy emphasis on the private decisions of individuals, but there’s no doubt in my mind that part of God’s plan for the redemption of the world from its slavery to what Paul called “the law of sin and of death” [Romans 8:2] was that the minds of world leaders, no less than others’, would be transformed and turned away from quick resort to force.  The prophet Isaiah foresaw a time when

Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” [Isaiah 2:3-5]
And it does make a difference whether certain people are reluctant or eager to seek peace.  Michael Dobbs, who has written extensively on the history of the Cold War, says that during the Cuban Missile Crisis

“The uniformed military, including Taylor and Gen. Curtis LeMay, the legendary Air Force chief, were unanimously in favor of air strikes followed up by an invasion.  What they did not know at the time was that the Soviet forces on Cuba were equipped with 98 tactical nuclear weapons that could have been used to wipe out an American invading force or the United States naval base at Guantánamo.  The use of these weapons on Cuba could quickly have escalated to an all-out nuclear war.”[1]
It was a hard call at the time, but when he chose blockade over invasion, he probably preserved civilization as we know it.

            We, as God’s people, as followers of the one we call the Prince of Peace, can and should hold in constant prayer the people who have the capacity, by their decisions, to decide between swords and plowshares.  In a democracy, when we choose our leaders, the people whom we entrust with powers of life and death, one of the questions that we should consider is whether they are people who at least hold a peaceful world as an ideal. 

            We are also here to hold them, as far as we are able, accountable for the decisions that they make, and to remind them that there are real, live people who experience the consequences of their policies.  Later in the service we’re going to sing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, which is based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  I say, “based on” because some of his original poem, called “Christmas Bells” is left out when it is sung.  In 1861, Longfellow’s wife had died of burns sustained when her dress caught fire and then, two years later his son enlisted in the Army without his father’s permission and was sent off to the front lines of the Civil War, where he was wounded on a battlefield in Virginia.  We sing,

“I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
            And wild and sweet
            The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

We don’t sing the most agonized stanzas:

“Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
            And with the sound
            The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
            And made forlorn
            The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Even the most justifiable of wars, the fight to end slavery, or a later war to end the genocidal tyranny that gripped Europe and Asia, takes its toll on those who fight and those who are left behind.  People who deal with large questions sometimes (not always, but sometimes) forget that.  Maybe part of our calling is to remind them.

            Isaiah’s great vision of how the nations will one day follow the paths of peace concludes with a word, not to the great empires of the day nor even to the king of Israel (who, incidentally, seems to have been Isaiah’s cousin, so he could easily have addressed him directly).  No, he speaks to the people as a whole.

“O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”  [Isaiah 2:5]
If we do not ourselves live as people of peace, if we ourselves don’t choose the plow over the sword, we have no right to fault others for doing what we do.  That’s why the church looks at questions like whether any funds that we hold end up invested in arms manufacturers, and why we get behind campaigns to ask parents not to buy children war toys for Christmas.  (Picture, if you will, a G.I. Joe holding a rocket launcher in the manger of a nativity scene.  If there’s a discrepancy, that says something right there.)  It’s why we take seriously the deep, spiritual wounds that warfare inflicts even on those who come through combat physically unscathed, who sometimes have to hear a message from the bell towers, over and over:

“Then rang the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.
            The wrong shall fail,
            The right prevail
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

And so,
“O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”  [Isaiah 2:5]

[1] In the New York Times “Times Topics” (Cuban Missile Crisis)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

"Rejoice in the Lord" - November 24, 2013

Philippians 4:4-9

            I had prepared a sermon for this morning on the text “Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again, I say, ‘Rejoice.’  Be anxious for nothing, but in prayer with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God, and the peace that passes understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”  It’s a good sermon, not a great one, and entirely appropriate for the week of Thanksgiving.  There are copies of it on the church web site, and if you want to read it, that would be where to find it.  I need to elaborate on it, though.

            My problem is that this past week I, and many in the United Methodist Church, were challenged to live by that scripture.  (That’s the pesky thing about the Bible – it’s easy to read when you’re sitting there at the breakfast table or before you go to bed or on your coffee break.  Then something happens and you hear it saying, “Do you get it?  This is what I’m talking about!”)

            The Rev. Frank Schaefer, a member of this conference, was put on trial for going against the letter of the Discipline, our book of organization and procedure, when he presided at the same-sex marriage of one of his sons five years ago in Massachusetts.  For the record, he broke no civil law, but church law clearly forbade him from doing what he did.

            The trial took place against the backdrop of current debates in the wider society about the rights of sexual minorities, about what marriage is or should be, and about how to allow for dissent on religious grounds without permitting inequality before the law. 

It took place amidst arguments within the church about biblical interpretation and how far our basic outlooks have diverged from one another’s – have they stretched so far that they are about to break?  The Methodists split over slavery in 1844, only reuniting in 1936, and there are rumblings of that again because a lot of these differences are expressed along geographical lines, this time complicated by the fact that since then we have become a global denomination and there are a whole lot of United Methodists in Africa and Asia who approach things very differently from those of us in North America and Europe.

And Paul says to rejoice?  Really?

            Bishop Johnson has asked that a letter about these events be read across the conference this morning, and I want to do that.  I’ll only skip some sections where she thanks those who assisted, as deeply torn as most of them were in doing so.

"A pastoral letter to the people of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference

My brothers and sisters,

            I bid you grace and peace in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. It has been a difficult week for our conference as many gathered at Camp Innabah for the church trial of the Reverend Frank Schaefer.  A trial is a somber event in the life of our church, and one that we approached with prayer and sadness.
            I want to share my thanks to all of those who worked to make the process go smoothly, from the camp staff to those who served as chaplains, bailiff, TIP staff, greeters, and many people in our churches who were praying for this process and all involved.  Our goal was that the trial could take place in an environment that was gracious, hospitable, and respectful.  This was possible only because of the dedicated and caring efforts of staff and volunteers.
            The issues involved are difficult for people of faith and conscience.  The trial court’s task was not an easy one, and we trust that they listened intently to the evidence that was presented and considered it carefully in order to make the best judgment they could.  I want to express my appreciation for their time and their service, as well as to Bishop Alfred W. Gwinn, Jr. (retired) who presided over the trial in a dignified, compassionate and fair-minded manner. …
            After finding Rev. Schaefer had violated Paragraph 2702.1 of the 2012 Book of Discipline, the trial court voted to suspend him from all ministerial duties for 30 days.  During the 30 days, Rev. Schaefer is to discern whether he can uphold the Church’s Book of Discipline in its entirety.  If he cannot, he must withdraw from ministerial office at the end of the 30 days at a meeting of the Board of Ordained Ministry. 
            This is an issue that causes pain for many in our church and we hold all those affected in our prayers.  We know that United Methodists have diverse opinions on this issue and our hope is that pray and work together toward unity, greater understanding, and healing.  Settling our theological differences through church trials is simply not an effective form of problem solving.  It is expensive, grueling and it leaves numerous painful scars behind. The hard work of relationship-building and holy conferencing needs to replace a win-lose court setting.
            I ask that you hold Rev. Schaefer and his family in prayer at this time.  Rev. Schaefer has a heart for Christ and for the church and this is a most difficult place to be.  He has taken a difficult stand and during this period of discernment our prayers and support are very important.
            I ask that you follow the Book of Discipline where it says: “We affirm that God’s grace is available to all.  We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us.  We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.  We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.” (Paragraph 161.F) 
            Let us also follow words of Paul who advises us: “You were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.  For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” (Galatians 5:13-15).
Bishop Peggy A. Johnson"

                Let’s get back to the text for this morning:

“Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again, I say, ‘Rejoice.’  Be anxious for nothing, but in prayer with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God, and the peace that passes understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
When Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, there were a lot of things going on in his life and theirs that made it look like the whole project of being a church, a community of faith, was doomed.  For one thing, he was writing from prison [1:7].  For another, although he had been glad to hear from the church in Philippi, which he had helped to found, and glad to receive a gift from them to help provide for his needs [4:10], sending it had led the messenger to contract some kind of illness that almost killed him.  Then, when he reached Paul in jail, he told him about some messy internal politics among the Philippians where there were two women whose inability to get along with each other [4:2], was endangering the whole church and it weighed on him especially because he respected them both.

            Yet Paul doesn’t spill any ink complaining.  In fact, in a letter that is only four chapters long, relatively short for Paul, he uses the word “rejoice” nine times. When he thinks about his imprisonment, he sees that it gave him a chance to bring the gospel to the Imperial Guard [1:12-13] and he says,

What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice.” [1:18]

When he thinks of the trouble that he’s been through, he looks at the good that it has brought to the Philippians and the way that they stand out in the world like stars in the night sky [2:14], and that leads him to say,

“But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you— and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.” [2:17-18]

Over and over again, he urges others to do the same.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” [4:4]

Therein lies the key to his persistence.  It isn’t rejoicing for troubles, or even rejoicing amidst troubles.  It’s rejoicing “in the Lord”, who has overcome troubles.  It’s thankfulness for the profound work of Christ, who has redeemed the world, and us, from all that would separate us from God’s love.  That’s how he could write to them at a time when he wasn’t sure whether he would be executed or released, saying,
“It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.  For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. [1:20-24]

As it turned out, he never made it back to them.  Just writing to them, though, brought him some comfort, and what he wrote was,

“Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is not troublesome to me, and for you it is a safeguard.” [3:1]

Are you spotting a theme here, yet?

            I am dreading further trials and the news coverage that is always so black-and-white that it misses the deeper debates and the agony that is real within many lives.  But if I cannot rejoice about any of it, I can and must rejoice “in the Lord”.  The greater our human brokenness, the more clear it is that only a gracious God would bother with us, no matter who we are.  The greater our fragility, the clearer it is that it is not we who hold things together, but the Holy Spirit that makes us one, not just in some voluntary organization, but in Christ.

            In that there is peace and, yes, it passes understanding.  But it is real.  We are going to get through this, and when we do, there will be something else that will threaten our unity in Christ.  It will not succeed, either.  The gospel isn’t about how we get things right.  It’s about how wrong we get things, but that we are still loved by God, and loved infinitely, and if you have to have proof of it, then let me tell you about a man who was dying on a cross who looked at his tormentors and said, “Father, forgive them.”

            Forget rejoicing in us.

            Never, ever fail to rejoice in the Lord.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

"Turbulence" - November 17, 2013

Luke 21:5-19

            This is section 295 of the Pakistani Penal Code.[1]

“Whoever destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to their religion shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”
That doesn’t sound too unreasonable to me.  It strikes me as very similar to American laws forbidding what we call “hate crimes”.  Pakistan, however, has laws that privilege Islam over all other religions.  That results in sections 295-B and 295-C of that same Penal Code.

“Whoever willfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.”
“Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”
Section 298 extends that protection of reputation to Mohammed’s family and then specifically condemns certain branches of Islam that it declares, basically, heretical.

            So if you are a Christian living in Pakistan, and someone asks you what you believe about Mohammed, what do you say?  Do you refer to him, as the law of the land does, as “the Holy Prophet” when you do not believe him to be a prophet at all?  Despite the official protection of one part of the law, if you express disbelief in what he claims was the revelation of God to him, does that not amount to calling him (at best) mistaken or (at worst) a deliberate liar?  And if you do that, are you not in violation of laws that carry the death penalty?

            There has been a spate of accusations in the past several years brought against Pakistani Christians (and Hindus, also) under these laws.  A lot of people, meaning Pakistani people – and Muslims of good conscience among them – have pointed out that the accusations have been known to arise from personal vendettas or in situations where the accuser (“Abracadabra!”) stood to benefit in some direct way from the conviction of the accused.  All the same, we have seen the bombing of churches and the murder of Christians by angry mobs under the guise of religious zeal, and it is incumbent on us to speak up about it, just as it is when a synagogue or a mosque is vandalized in our country.

            I say this because we sometimes forget that the Church is universal.  We are part of those people in Pakistan and they are part of us.  The words of the Bible may seem distant to us at times, but I wonder what the Christians of South Asia hear when these words fall on their ears:

“…they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” [Luke 21:12-19]
            The heart of that is that turbulent times and the troubles that characterize them “give you an opportunity to testify.”  In good times and safe places, like ours, we can and do become complacent and far too often that means that we tend not to share our faith in any way.  When the hard times come, then, we only bemoan our problems and fail to see them as an opportunity.

            Our troubles do not compare to those of Christians who are denied employment for their faith or who see their homes destroyed or who cannot send their children to school.  We do, however, all face the common problems of human life that face everyone on earth.  We have times of illness.  We see the hopes and the work of decades come to nothing.  We watch families fall apart.  There are terrible accidents and natural disasters.  Hamlet spoke of

“the heartache and the thousand natural shocks
that flesh is heir to.”

When those come along, do we or do we not use them as an opportunity to testify to the faithfulness of Christ?  Do we or do we not both remember and declare,

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies,
You anoint my head with oil.
My cup runs over. …”?

I am not happy that the Church is troubled anywhere in the world, but I do praise God that in places where that happens, there are people who faithfully repeat those ancient words, and demonstrate them.

            Maximilian Kolbe was a Catholic priest who, early in his life, may have held and shared some anti-Jewish prejudice, but in the midst of Nazi-occupied Poland he hid two thousand Jews in the monastery where he was the superior.  In 1941, the Nazis arrested him and he ended up in Auschwitz.  While he was there, a man from his barracks went missing and the deputy camp commander picked ten men to be starved to death as an example to others.  One of the men chosen began to cry out, not for himself, but because of his family.  Kolbe, who did not even know him, volunteered to take his place.  During the three long weeks of torture ahead, he led the others in songs and prayer.  At the end of that time, starving and dehydrated, four men, including Kolbe, were still, although barely, alive.  They were then murdered by the injection of carbolic acid.[2]

            Not many, thankfully, face those circumstances.  Not many find their likeness, like Kolbe’s, carved onto the front of Westminster Abbey.  But how many people do bear witness at the end of their lives that they can face death calmly because they know where they are going?  How many accept the turbulence of life calmly, knowing that God will see then through?  How many sing, with full confidence,

“I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free;
For his eye is on the sparrow,
And I know he watches me.
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know he watches me.”

Maybe, just maybe, there is someone here who, by doing that, will bear witness in just the way that Christians have done throughout the ages and, by God’s grace, will do until the end of time.  Whoever you are, thank God for you.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

"God of the Living" - November 10, 2013

Luke 20:27-38

(Note: Each Sunday the Confirmation Class gives me a word to include in the next week’s sermon.  If I fail to do so, I am obligated to provide ice cream for everyone the following week.  This week they altered the rules slightly and I agreed to try leaving out a word.  They gave me my choice of three: “God”, “Jesus”, and “the”.  At some risk, I attempted option #3.  Since Luke 20:27-38 uses all three words, however, I am ruling quotations – and this introduction – as out of bounds for this editing, and only applying the rule to my own words.  Actually preaching this will be a challenge, and I have no doubt that some of the students will hear "these" as "the".  In other words, "Chocolate, strawberry, or butter pecan?")

            One big difference between two major religious parties in Judaism in Jesus’ day, Sadducees and Pharisees, was that Sadducees believed that this life is it, while the Pharisees believed in a judgment day when God would raise righteous people from their graves and restore them to life.  In Jesus’ teaching that there is more to human life than what is immediately visible to us, he was much more like a Pharisee than a Sadducee.  He talked about people having “eternal life” [John 3:16] and about each of us having to face God one day, with our lives being reviewed [Matthew 25].  So some Sadducees decided to push him on this point.

            There’s an old debaters’ technique that’s called a reduction ad absurdum.  It means disproving a proposition by showing that accepting it would lead to a ridiculous conclusion.  They drew on that, along with a provision written in Deuteronomy [25:5-6]

“When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.”
It was a way to provide for widows’ long-term welfare by trying to make sure there was someone to take care of them in old age.  These Sadducees put this together with the belief in a resurrection to come up with one of those reduction ad absurdum situations.

“Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” [Luke 20:29-33]
You just know that somebody had some fun coming up with that one.

            It wasn’t supposed to be about that type of question, though.  Old Testament Law was there to provide help, not to trip someone up.  It was supposed to reflect God’s nature, God: who is not out to catch people in legalities but to establish ways of living, as individuals, and as a community, that enhance and protect life.  That’s what all scripture is about.  It bears witness to God’s will for human beings, especially as it’s known in Jesus’ fully human and perfectly-lived life.

            Living involves people in all kinds of situations that come along, where opportunities present themselves to live in narrowness or to live in grace.  Since the Sadducees consider widowhood, let’s look at that as an example.  A United Nations report published just a few years ago notes,

“Widows across the globe share two common experiences: a loss of social status and reduced economic circumstances.  Even in developed countries the older generation of widows, those now over 60, may suffer a dramatic but subtle change in their social position.  The monetary value of widows’ pensions is a continuing source of grievance, since the value often does not keep up with fluctuations in the ever-changing cost-of-living indices, or with expectations that the older generation may have had of what life would be like in retirement.”[1]
Again, scripture provided a means to alleviate at least some of that.  It gave guidance on how to enhance life, and was not ever meant for playing mental games and scoring intellectual points.

Paul's Second Letter to Timothy [3:16-17] says that

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
Our Bibles are there to help us become better people, more Christlike, more and more truly children of God.  They are not intended to be used as a weapon.

            So look at Jesus’ response.  He told them that he was not about to play that game, with scripture or with people’s lives. 

“Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.’” [Luke 20:34-36]
He told them they weren’t getting it.  Eternal life isn’t just some replay of this life.  It is a whole new way of living.

            In doing that, he challenged them (and us) to set aside our preconceptions and see people as people, not cases or files or categories or things.  Eternal life is not like this life, but for his followers, this life, too, is a whole new way of living.  It’s one where women aren’t treated as property.  It’s one where marriage isn’t just a matter of social status or economic survival.  Life in Jesus reveals God as a living reality, and that people made in his image, male or female, are not things, but persons.

“Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” [Luke 20:38]
            By way of contrast to these Sadducees’ question, consider this story, which I often share with couples preparing for marriage and to promise publicly to be faithful as long as they both shall live.  This happened one summer in a small town in North Carolina.  There was a retired missionary couple and the wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  It was hard for them both, but I think that he took it harder than she did.  She loved him very much.  So one day, before she was too sick, she called two of her closest friends, who happened to be part of her women’s circle at church, and they spent an afternoon together in her kitchen while her husband was out.  Soon afterward, she gave him a list with ten names on it.  She explained that these were the women she would consider suitable for him when she was gone. After proper consultation they had been put into order of preference (her preference, not his).  She only asked that he wait what she called “a decent interval” to invite any of them out and that he observe her order of precedence.  I don’t know who Number One was, but I know for a fact that he eventually had dinner on New Year’s Eve with Number Two (who told him she knew about that list and that she hoped he knew it was only going to be dinner), and that he ended up marrying Number Three.  Last I heard, they were very happy.

            God brings life because “he is God not of the dead, but of the living” [Luke 20:38].  It is for us to live our lives as real people who serve a real God, with generous and loving hearts, seeking one another’s good, putting life above death, “being children of the resurrection.” [Luke 20:36] 

[1] “Widowhood: Invisible Women, Secluded or Excluded” (United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, December, 2001), p. 5.

"The Righteous Shall Live by Their Faith" - November 3, 2013 (All Saints')

Habakkuk 1:12-2:4

There have always been people who have taken advantage of turmoil and trouble to make a fast buck. 

The Roman historian Livy recounts an example.  The Roman government underwrote losses incurred by shipowners if their vessels were carrying arms or supplies for the Roman army.  In the year 212 B.C. two men were charged with taking old, unseaworthy ships, loading them with useless junk for cargo, and deliberately sinking them, then filing claims under this shipwreck law.  When that had worked, they became greedier and started claiming losses of ships that had never even been built or launched.[1]

It may not take a state of war to bring the rats out of the woodwork.  It may only take fear of war or terrorism.  There’s a company called U.S. Investigation Services that makes its money by doing background checks under government contract.  Two years ago, in 2011, they became the object of an investigation by the District Attorney in Washington for rushing their work but this year they still were assigned 700,000 background checks that they were paid $2.45 billion to complete.  As a result of the investigation, they fired a dozen managers in their quality control division, the division president, and their chief financial officer for cutting corners to meet monthly quotas.  This was the division that gave its approval to Aaron Alexis, who in September shot up the Navy Yard in Washington, killing twelve people.[2]

We don’t know much about the prophet Habakkuk, but we do know that he lived at a time when the kingdom of Judah was on the edge of invasion or had already been overrun, and we know that a big part of his message was outrage not only at the invaders but also at the churlish people who were turning the chaos to their own profit. 

“O Lord, you have marked them for judgment; and you, O Rock, have established them for punishment. Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?”  [Habakkuk 1:12-13]

It’s part of the lingering question of when you can expect God to act.  If we get fed up with the little bit that we see, doesn’t God – who surely sees far more and far more clearly than we do – also get fed up?  When does he say, “Enough of this”?

Habakkuk decided he would get an answer.  He was like Job, who demanded that God give him his reasons for allowing suffering.  Habakkuk announced

I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.” [Habakkuk 2:1] 

He stands there, figuratively, on behalf of anyone who has had those questions. 

Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” [Job 21:7]

Why does that happen when so many good people die young or maybe live on to old age with lives full of trouble?  Have their lives been worth it?

            The short answer is, “Yes.”

            God never gives Job an answer, but Habakkuk does get one, and God says, “Let me spell this out for you, and spell it out in large letters.”

“Then the Lord answered me and said: 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 of the end, and does not lie.” [Habakkuk 2:2-3]

It’s a reminder that the God who has the wide picture also has the long view.  We see and we are part of only a small portion of history.  We are here a little while and then gone.

“Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all who breathe away.
They fly, forgotten like a dream
Dies at the opening day.”

God is eternal. Because of that, our destiny is also eternal, and what happens to us here, as important as it is, will not have the words “The End” written behind it.  We are judged, finally, by our faithfulness and the spirit that is within us, and not by the externals.
“Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.” [Habakkuk 2:4]
That faith is a faith in the God who has come into this world in Jesus, to be with us through the ups and downs, and a God who is also beyond this world and frees us from slavery to its brutal ways.
            Let me finish with an observation from Paul Tillich, who recalls the words of the book of Revelation:
“’I am the beginning and the end.’  This is said to us who live in the bondage of time, who have to face the end, who cannot escape the past, who need a present to stand upon.  Each of the modes of time has its particular mystery, each of them carries its peculiar anxiety.  Each of them drives us to an ultimate question.  There is one answer to these questions – the eternal.  There is one power that surpasses the all-consuming power of time – the eternal: He Who was and is and is to come, the beginning and the end.  He gives us forgiveness for what has passed.  He gives us courage for what is to come.  He gives us rest in His eternal Presence.”[3]

[1] Livy, From the Founding of the City, 25.3-4.  Cited by David Matz, Daily Life of the Ancient Romans (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002), p. 123.
[3] Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963) 131-132.