The Prophet Habbakuk
Ps. 37: 1-9; Habbakuk 1: 1-4, 2: 1-4; 2 Tim. 1: 1-14
First Congregational Church of ******
October 7, 2007 (World Communion Sunday)
Pastor and author Max Lucado tells the story of a parakeet named Chippie. Chippie was like any other parakeet: she sang, she preened her beautiful green and yellow feathers, and she brought much joy to her owner. One day all that changed, when Chippie’s owner decided to clean out her cage ....
With a vacuum cleaner.
She was almost finished when the phone rang, so she turned around to answer it. With a thwup, Chippie was gone. Frantically she ripped open the vacuum bag. There was Chippie, stunned, her bright feathers coated with thick dust, but still alive. She carried the poor bird to the bathroom and gently rinsed her off under the faucet. Poor Chippie was wet and shivering, so, trying to be merciful, her owner took hold of the hair dryer and blew Chippie away with a gust of hot air. A few days later, a friend asked her how the little parakeet was recovering. “Well”, she replied, “Chippie doesn’t sing much anymore.” (1)
Have you ever felt like Chippie? Have you ever felt like life sucked you in, left you washed up and blown away? I know I have. We can’t always see what’s up ahead of us. And no matter how hard we try to eat right, live right, do the right thing, say the right thing, be the right person, our lives can change in a heartbeat. It only takes one phone call from the police about one of our children or our spouse, one messenger delivering the divorce papers, one pink slip from work, one meeting with our boss or supervisor, one bad test result or mammogram or biopsy, one misplaced footstep or turn of the steering wheel, to leave us feeling like poor little Chippie. Some of us have survived one Chippie episode only long enough to be hit by another.
We like to kid ourselves that we are in control of our destiny, yet we know in one moment it can all change. I myself am a self-avowed control freak. I take great comfort from this morning’s psalm from the lectionary: Psalm 37, the psalm for control freaks. I call it this because not only does it tell the reader to wait, to not fret, to refrain from anger, to trust in the Lord, but it does so over and over again. We who need to have the world, or even the church, ordered according to our own specifications cannot be told just once to trust in the Lord. We need to be told again and again for we have repeated difficulty keeping our meddlesome ways out of the way of the Lord.
But not only do we suffer from the unfairness of our own lives but also from the injustice we witness in the lives of others and in the world around us. We see friends divorce and the effect it has on the children. Many of us live in the ‘sandwich generation’: caring for our children as well as our aging parents. Military families dread the telegram, the knock on the door, the phone call from a commanding officer. Some of us are living long enough to lose our siblings, spouse and friends, one by one, to old age, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and stroke, some not receiving the medical care they need. This past week we were reminded of the violent reality of domestic abuse by the display of 104 purple ribbons around town, representing the 104 domestic abuse calls made to the local police in the last year.
Buddhist monks and nuns protesting in Burma.
And in this Internet age, with high speed communication, we hear of the catastrophic effects of global warming, infectious disease, famine, war in Iraq, violence in Burma, Afghanistan, and many other places, and genocide. In the media-forgotten province of Darfur, 300-500,000 black African Muslims have been killed by the Sudanese army and police. Another 2-3 million have been displaced within the region.
Surrounded by all this bad news, by the seemingly inevitability of injustice and evil, like Chippie, it can be difficult to sing, to be joyful. Our faith wavers. In one of the lectionary readings not read today (because of its violent content), Psalm 137, the Israelites in their Babylonian exile are goaded by their captors to sing the Lord’s song. But how can they sing, they lament, in a foreign land? At the close of the Psalm they rage against God, wishing the same violent end upon the children of their enemies that they witnessed against their own children: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (v. 9). Believing themselves to be abandoned by God and isolated from his mercy and justice, the Israelites, these oppressed victims, become the new oppressor, meting out their own brand of justice.
It is easier for us as human beings to take matters into our own hands, to act on our fear and anger, rather than to wait for what God will do, to wait for what God would have us do. Like Habbakuk, we cry out to God but God seems silent. We look around us, we witness the terrible violence of this world, the evil that human beings can do, and it is tempting to despair, to allow our unbelief to overwhelm the faith that we have been given. Archibald MacLeish, in his adaptation of the book of Job, wrote “If God is God, He is not good. If God is good, He is not God.” How can God be God while so much evil exists in the world? If God is good and loving and just, then this God is not in control.
Scholars and theologians have long debated this issue of theodicy, of the existence of evil in a universe created by a loving God, and it is still unresolved. Many atheists have used this problem as proof that God does not exist. Over the past few years I have been in and out of this place of unbelieving, struggling with these hard questions, not wanting to be faithful simply out of duty but with my mind and heart deeply engaged. But I was also becoming increasingly grouchy and irritable. How can I sing, how can I be joyful in this foreign land of violence, evil, and injustice?
The answer to this question came in the form of a poem:
‘God’s eye is
on the sparrow’
This is how I
The Word made flesh
This is how I
hope for more
for God will
break your heart
This is how I
my husband made
me laugh tonight
from the belly
to my eyes
brimming with black
rivers down my face
My side torn in two
where the despairing
wound had been
And this is how I
In a recent interview, Garrison Keillor said that “gloom and self-absorption are for teenagers. Once you pass a certain point—and I passed it a long time ago—you’re supposed to be cheerful.” Asked if he was a cheerful person, he replied, “Yes, I am, but I have to work at it. I come from dark people, people who were always expecting disaster.” (2)
The question is, to what do we want to give our hearts and minds, for that is what faith is all about. Ironically, what we don’t hear from atheists is a word of hope or joy. (If you do hear a good word from an atheist, let me know, because I would sincerly like to hear it.) In the second letter to Timothy we read of encouragement, to remember the faith given by those who have gone before us, to not be ashamed of believing and the suffering that comes with it, but to persevere in the faith.
Jesus promised to save us from sin, but as blogger Stan Wilson writes, where did we ever get the idea that Jesus would save us from suffering? (3) We know that bad things happen to good people, yet we do not have to let our joy be taken from us. We possess a larger vision of the way things ought to be. I quote from the church’s website: “The avowed purpose of the First Congregational Church of ******, UCC, is to worship God, to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to celebrate the Sacraments; to realize Christian fellowship and unity within the church and Church Universal; to render loving service to all; and to strive for righteousness, justice and peace.”
In the face of all the bad news of human living, you, First Congregational Church of ******, UCC, have good news, a treasure to share: a loving community that strives not for itself or for its own profit but for the kingdom of God, that kingdom of righteousness, justice and peace. You belong to a living tradition, alive for 272 years and still going, not by your own merits, but by the Holy Spirit working through you. You follow one who abolished death and brought life and light to those in darkness. The faith that has been passed down to you is not merely personal but intensely communal, intended to build up the faithful and transform your life together. This church does not live out its faith in isolation but as one of many UCC churches in this area and as part of the witness of nearly 6,000 congregations in the whole United Church of Christ
On this World Communion Sunday, when not only the United Church of Christ, but millions of other Christians around the world gather about the table of Christ, I invite this congregation to rekindle its faith in the living God. I urge you to sing of God’s love and justice in an unjust world. I exhort you to be, in the words of Wendell Berry, “joyful though you have considered all the facts”.(4) To be joyful, even cheerful, in the face of evil is a true act of rebellion, of civil disobedience. Christ is calling us to reflect in our lives and in the life of this congregation the compassion, justice, and faithfulness that our world so desperately needs, especially when it is difficult and inconvenient to do so.
1. Story about Chippie taken from Max Lucado, In the Eye of the Storm (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1991), 11.
2. Interview with Garrison Keillor was aired on public radio show Here and Now, October 3, 2007.
3. Stan Wilson, Theolog: Blog of The Christian Century, October 1, 2007.
4. Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”, The Country of Marriage (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: 1973).