Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Living Vision

Matthew 26:26-29
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

Habakkuk opens with a complaint. If you are ever apologetic in your speech to God about the problems you face, the struggles you see in the world, let Habakkuk change your mind a little. “O LORD, how LONG shall I cry for help?” he begs. There’s no tip-toeing around how he feels about the state of the world. He cries out about the violence he sees. To him it seems that God is inactive, uncaring about the suffering of the world. Laws have become meaningless since their power to protect is weakened. Justice is non-existent since the righteous are hemmed in by the wicked. The world, in his eyes, is going to hell in a hand basket, and despite all the crying and all the begging he is doing before God nothing seems to be stopping it.

If the clues he has given us lead us to the correct conclusion, Habakkuk was a prophet in the decade just before the devastating Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and all of Judah. The kingdom that had been united under King David about 400 years before had later split into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The northern kingdom, Israel, had been picked away at by Assyria the century before Habakkuk ministered, but the southern kingdom, Judah, was still relatively independent. It lay at the crossroads of the world’s powerful kingdoms of Assyria, Egypt, and Babylonia, its peace threatened as the bullies struggled to gain control of this prime piece of real estate.

Yet not only were they fought over, the people of Judah also fought among themselves. Outside influences corrupted their worship. Feelings of despair allowed them to drift away from God. Tempting alliances with larger, more powerful nations pulled them down paths of injustice toward the needy among them. The stresses on the nation turned neighbor against neighbor instead of drawing people together to find collective strength in their hardships. Everything seemed to be spiraling downward and further and further away from God and God’s vision for the world.

I remember in seminary a friend of mine was taking a class about preaching and youth. I don’t remember if she was assigned the book of Habakkuk or if she found it on her own, but I remember how she claimed that this historical context made this was one of the most relevant books of the Old Testament for our times and for our youth. That may be even more true now than it was 10 years ago.

How long, O Lord, do we have to cry for help? How long do we have witness violence in our communities and around the world? How long do we have to watch young people kill themselves because they feel there is no other option, because they feel there is no way for them to live with their sexual orientation? How long do we have to watch the intolerance of some lead to the death of others?

Why do we have to see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Why do we have to wake up each morning to read in the newspaper or hear on TV how a person in power has broken our trust yet again? Why do selfish ambition and greed seem to be in front of us more than compassion? Why are spiritual leaders abusing power and hurting those to whom they are called to minister?

Why is destruction the only answer we have to disagreement? Why are factions within communities, countries, and churches at one another’s throats? Why aren’t we able to find a way forward together instead of constantly digging in our heels? Why are we so unwilling to build consensus or even compromise in the interest of finding a third way forward out of a deadlock of ideas?

How long, O Lord, will all of this go on before you come in and save us? It is an honest question, one that has great biblical precedence. We ask it in the admirable company of the prophets of Israel, the writers of psalms, and even Jesus who cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We can afford to ask these questions because God is big enough to handle our anger. God won’t toss us aside for asking these questions.

What we can’t afford to do, though, is cry out then walk away. We can’t start this dialogue with God, begging for God’s help, God’s vision, God’s obvious activity in the world, but walk away from the relationship in frustration and disgust. That’s the way of the wicked that threatens the righteous Habakkuk talks about.

Righteousness in the Hebrew Scriptures is not about a moral code of conduct or following and impersonal set of rules. It’s not about who is naughty and who is nice. Righteousness is found in those who understand that their relationship with God is one of total dependence. It is because they know they need the grace and guidance of God in their lives that they follow God’s laws. The laws don’t make them righteous, but because they are in right relationship with God, they follow God’s laws. Righteousness is not the opposite of sinful; it is the opposite of the despair that comes from life apart from God.

When we are in right relationship with God, we can hear God’s answer to Habakkuk’s cry. We can hear what God tells him when Habakkuk says he will wait for an answer; he will stay engaged in the relationship even when the world is crumbling around him. We can hear God’s promise, not that all the devastating things we experience will magically be lifted, but that in them, through them, God is with us. We can hear God’s promise that there will be a day, someday when God’s vision will be fulfilled.

The righteous live by faith, the bold belief that the story in which we find ourselves is not the real story. The REAL story is the one of God’s power over evil, God’s salvation from sin and oppression. Righteousness means trusting in this story, the one in which God is present and reaching out to us in love and compassion. Righteousness is life lived in relationship with God, the opposite of desolation and despair that without God is what fills our beings. Even with God we can mourn and experience pain in our hearts and our lives, but with God there is also a profound sense of grace, which fills us more and eases the sorrow - - bringing an even stronger sense of peace. Staying in relationship with God, even through the desperation that plagues us when it seems like the world is crumbling, means remembering that the end of this will come, and God’s vision will be fulfilled.

As their world is crumbling Jesus shares his vision with his disciples. Huddled in an upper room, avoiding the angry authorities, but knowing it won’t be long before they come for him, Jesus shares his vision with his closest followers as they celebrate the Feast of Passover. As he hands them the bread and pours for them the wine, he gives them a glimpse of the future he has planned. This meal they are sharing is just an appetizer for the banquet they will celebrate someday in heaven. The danger they are facing, the sorrow they will experience, the pain and terror that will invade their lives, the loneliness that will blanket them, will not be the final answer; it is not the REAL story.

The REAL story takes place around a table. It is the story we tell every time we gather at this table, especially when we do it on a day when we know people all over the world are gathering with us. The REAL story of God’s love is a story of grace and forgiveness, a story of abundant provision and beautiful diversity, a story of acceptance and inclusion. It’s a story where God invites us to stay in relationship, God even feeds us with the very bread of life and cup of salvation, when all we can do is cry out “How long?” And when we stay in that relationship, when we persist through the tempting detours of despair, when we trust that God’s vision is still coming, we discover the peace of living by faith.

The meal we share today, we share with the faithful all over the world and across the barriers of time. We are sitting with the disciples themselves who were hosted by Jesus. We are sitting with the men and women of churches in the centuries before us. We are sitting with the faithful across continents today, and those who will come after us tomorrow. We are sharing this bread and this cup just as Jesus promises us we will do when someday he hosts us again at his table. Even if it is for just these few minutes, we are living completely by faith, living as if nothing else is true, but the promise of God that when we eat this bread and drink this cup we are united with Christ and with one another, the promise that no matter how desperate life gets, we will someday feast together in peace and in glory.

At this table we live the vision Jesus has for the world, a world where emptiness is filled, death is answered with resurrection, and God’s merciful love is given to all.

(Pictures from gallery of altar photos on website of Yorktown UMC, White Plains, NY)

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