Thursday, December 12, 2013

Prepare (a sermon about waiting and visions)

I'm blogging for Advent, following along with the themes that we're focusing on at Crossroads. I talk more about why I'm doing this in an earlier post. This week's theme is "prepare."

This is a sermon I preached in class on Nov 19 and was supposed to preach at AU on Nov 21. I ended up scrapping it for the AU service because it felt a bit more put together than I was feeling at the time, but same general themes and ideas.

I'm posting it here because I think some of the ideas of waiting and the true meaning of patience connect well with this week's theme of preparing a way for God.\

The text is Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 2:1-4.

"Still a Vision"
This past weekend, 10 of us hopped in the Metropolitan church van and headed to New Jersey to help in the continuing rebuilding efforts after last year’s devastating Superstorm Sandy. We had an incredible time. I could tell you stories about it all night, but here’s one quick one: We were working in the home of a man who lived right across the street from the wall separating Atlantic City from the bay. Our host was really encouraging, and completely hilarious. At one point, he had us all laughing, and he said: “You gotta laugh at this stuff. If you don’t laugh, you cry. And Lord knows I’m tired of crying.”
            Our host has had plenty of reason to cry. His house filled with four feet of water a little more than a year ago when Sandy made its landfall. Bay water, ground water, and sea water formed a toxic mix that rendered much of his house uninhabitable. More than a year later, he’s still rebuilding, and he’s not alone. This weekend we learned that 40,000 people in New Jersey still have been unable to return to their homes in the aftermath of Sandy. And that’s just in New Jersey.
            “O LORD! How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” Our passage from Habakkuk starts with a cry—a shout! God—how long are you going to let this happen? How long are you going to wait before you act?
This semester that cry has been resonating with me. I mean, I’m exhausted. Here in DC we’ve had government shutdowns and shootings and healthcare snafus. This past few weeks we’ve seen a monstrous typhoon pound the Philippines and killer storms in the Midwest, and our New Jersey team was made aware of just how long it can take to rebuild after natural disasters. Not only that, but we heard how human-made systems exacerbate the effects of disasters—disasters that are, perhaps, not as “natural” as we think of them. It’s worth noting that, two days after the storm subsided, the Atlantic City casinos were open for business, while people crowded into shelters and hotel rooms or returned to survey devastated houses. The economy in Atlantic City relies on these casinos, but the jobs they promise are low wage, low benefit, and low security.
 In Atlantic City a year ago, you could gamble; but you couldn’t live.
“So the law becomes slack,” says Habakkuk, “and justice never prevails.”
            In the Philippines, the destruction of the typhoon itself intensifies the reality of systemic poverty, structural inequalities, and government corruption. And the massive resource extraction projects of transnational corporations have not only threatened the rights of indigenous peoples in the Philippines but have also contributed to global climate change, which in turn has its most disastrous consequences in poor coastal areas and small island nations already struggling with economic inequality.
“How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’, and you will not save?”
            Of course, maybe you came here tonight, thinking not about hurricanes or typhoons but about the personal storms battering your life. Perhaps you have your own reasons, not of national news interest but nevertheless of vital personal meaning. Depression. Anxiety. Sickness or death in your family. Your own storms that do not simply disappear because you have essays to write and articles to read. Your own reasons for yelling, “How long, God? How long?”
            If, tonight, you have some questions for God—if, tonight, you, too, want to yell “How long?”—if you have ever felt angry or confused or hurt—then you are not alone. Habakkuk, the prophet we heard from tonight, is just one in a whole line of biblical voices—including patriarchs, prophets, psalmists, letter writers, and Jesus Himself—whose faith is deeply connected with lament and complaint. In our worship together and in our prayers to God, anger and doubt are not only allowed—they are necessary. It is with lament and complaint that Habakkuk comes to God, and it is only by challenging God with difficult questions that Habakkuk is able to develop trust in God’s justice and faithfulness. “Why?” and “How long?” are not questions that we need to answer and “get out of the way” in order to go back to believing in God. They are foundational questions for our faith. Honest lament is, I believe, preferable to feigned piety.
            So we heard, tonight, from Habakkuk, who grapples with questions. Who challenges God, and who refuses to quit: “I will stand at my watchpost,” he tells us, “and keep watch to see what God will say to me.” I will stand here and wait.
            And God answers Habakkuk! But if you are anything like me, you don’t find his answer particularly satisfying. “There’s still a vision,” God says. “Wait for it. It will come.”
            All of the suffering that Habakkuk sees. All the violence. All the injustice. And God says:
A year after Sandy and you still don’t have housing?
            Two weeks after Typhoon Haiyan and you still don’t have access to drinking water?
            Just wait.
            Centuries of race-based oppression? 
            Just wait.
It’s 2013 and a United Methodist pastor can still be brought up on church trial for presiding at his son’s marriage because his son is gay?
Just wait.
            I can’t help but think of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote a letter while jailed in Birmingham for his campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. Responding to a group of white clergymen who had criticized the timing of the Birmingham campaign, King wrote: “For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied.”[i]
            So is that all that tonight’s scripture has to offer us? Justice delayed? Is that all God has to offer Habakkuk? I think not. I think the text points to something much deeper than that.
            To understand the text, we need some sense of who this Habakkuk character is, and what is happening in his world. Scholars know very little about the person Habakkuk. He is a prophet in Jerusalem, probably associated closely with worship in the temple. His ministry of preaching occurs sometime in the late 7th or early 6th century BCE, when the rise of the Babylonian empire in the East has begun to threaten the safety of his homeland, the kingdom of Judah. It’s a time of great violence and anxiety, and yet many of the residents of Habakkuk’s beloved city of Jerusalem believed themselves to be immune to harm—after all, God was dwelling in their midst, in the great temple.
            But Habakkuk sees through the charade. He sees the injustice and structural violence perpetuated by the elite of his society. He sees the advancing Babylonian armies and knows that the myth of Jerusalem’s impregnability is a lie. In fact, in the section of the text that we skipped over reading tonight, we get a vivid description of the destruction that the Babylonian forces would bring to Jerusalem. And so Habakkuk cries out to God. Cries out in response to the corporate sin of his people. Cries out against God’s unsatisfactory answer:  that the catastrophe of invasion could somehow bring justice. Cries out, I think, in despair. “I will stand at my watchpost,” he says, perhaps evoking the doomed walls of the temple that he has served so faithfully. I will not give up, God. I will keep crying out until you answer.
            God’s response to Habakkuk’s lament seems cryptic. “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 it does not lie.”
God tells Habakkuk to write a vision.
            So what is this vision? What is Habakkuk supposed to write? And what are we to say, in the midst of a world that seems so broken, so wrought with violence and suffering? What is our vision?
            I do think we have a vision to hold up. A vision of a God who is still at work, in the midst of all the mess, to redeem a hurting world. And we need to be reminded of that vision, because I think when we walk around this city and we see cracks in the façades of power, when we see our unhoused neighbors shivering on the streets, when we read the news of disasters and when we talk to our friends who are struggling with mental illness and depression and suicide, it is easy to feel despondent. It is hard to imagine a better world, a world in which mercy and justice and faith rule the day instead of cynicism and violence and despair. We have to hold on to a vision. We have to lay claim to a missional imagination that truly believes that God is at work, and that we have a role to play.
            We need a vision because justice and mercy and faith are long-term propositions. American University is often ranked as the most politically active campus in the country. That makes this a really exciting place to be in ministry. I love that there’s always people tabling outside of the Mary Graydon Center. The other day I scored free fair trade coffee and chocolate, learned about domestic violence and what groups on campus are doing to stop it, and bought ice cream to support a school in Honduras. You in the United Methodist Student Association[ii] host interfaith events, plan discussions on creation care, and organize service trips to New Jersey. There is so much important ministry going on here.
            But in the hectic world of Washington, DC—and you know as well as I do that American University often serves as a mirror for that hectic world—burnout is common and anxiety reigns supreme. And so I want to challenge our community to be, not solely standard banners for particular causes, but bearers of a vision. Not to fall victim to the temptations either of apathy or of a cynical sort of strident societal criticism, but ministers of reconciliation who lift up in our collective imagination the hope of a better world. Many of my colleagues complain of burnout, of what we call “compassion fatigue.” If we’re going to participate, in the long term, in God’s healing work in this world, than we need to have a vision, a dream, that can sustain us and keep us focused.
            Earlier I quoted Martin Luther King’s letter from prison: “Justice delayed is justice denied.” But King knew, better than anyone, the need for patient hope. One of King’s mentors, Howard Thurman, the dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University during King’s time there, writes eloquently of the need for patience: “Paradoxical as it seems, patience is an important technique for accomplishing difficult tasks, even in matters having to do with social change….Some things cannot be forced but they must unfold, sending their tendrils deep into the heart of life, gathering strength and power with the unfolding days.”[iii] Thurman continues: “Patience…is only partially concerned with time, with waiting; it includes also the quality of relentlessness, ceaselessness and constancy. It is a mood of deliberate calm that is the distilled result of confidence. One works at the task intensely even as one realizes that to become impatient is to yield the decision to the adversary.”
            For Thurman, in other words, the art of waiting is not passivity. It is active, steady engagement. To be patient, to be persistent, requires us to be grounded in the hope of the living God. It requires us to be alert to the vision of an appointed time, a time of peace and of justice. We need that hope and that vision because, in the words of author Paul Loeb, “the impossible will take a little while.”[iv] One doesn’t need to be theologically trained in order to get this at a gut level. Our New Jersey host, welcoming us into his home, making us meatball subs with his favorite local bread, and keeping us laughing, knew that to be in this for the long-term, you have to find ways of tapping into hope.
            Tonight’s passage ends with a verse that is, for congregations and denominations that are in one way or another daughters of the Protestant Reformation, very familiar. Chapter two, verse four, tells us “the righteous live by their faith.” Paul quotes this verse in his letter both to the Romans and to the Galatians, and the anonymous author of the letter to the Hebrews quotes it as well. It has become part of the collective Christian conscious as a reminder that nothing we do can earn us the love of God; that our faith in the grace of God made available to us in the person of Jesus Christ makes the difference in our lives. Yet in its original context, it appears to me that the faith to which God directs Habakkuk is not an individualized intellectual assent to a set of beliefs but is rather trust in a God who is at work, even and perhaps especially in the midst of violence and hopelessness, to bring about a reign of justice and peace.
            For Paul and the author of the Hebrews, “faith” meant faith in Jesus Christ. For Habakkuk, “the righteous live by their faith” would of course have had nothing to do with a man from Nazareth who would not walk the earth for another 600 years. And yet the God who Habakkuk grapples with, the God who he finds at work right smack in the middle of violence and chaos, is, I would argue, the God who Christians meet in Jesus Christ. Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber writes of God at work in the midst of suffering. She says, “God is not distant at the cross…but instead God is there in the messy mascara-streaked middle of it….We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.”[v] The vision that God wants Habakkuk to write is a vision of a world in which we get God’s presence, right smack in the middle of it. For Habbakuk, it was right smack in the middle of Judean corruption and Babylonian violence. For the early followers of Jesus, it was right smack in the middle of crucifixion and persecution. And we look for that presence, and we proclaim it today, right smack in the middle of hurricanes and typhoons and church trials. That’s the vision. That’s the dream.
            Now, this is a service of healing. I don’t know what struggles or concerns you bring to this place tonight. You might be hurting in mind, or body, or spirit. You might be struggling with depression, or with despair, or simply with stress. But I am lifting up Habakkuk tonight because I think that one thing that needs healing is our ability to vision. The scope and frequency of national and international disasters, the seemingly intractable disputes that paralyze our government, the specters of anxiety and cynicism and mental illness, all conspire to impede our vision, to make it difficult for us to dream. So as much as our bodies and minds are in need of healing, our dreams are in need of healing as well.
             As a community, I think that one of the ways we are called into ministry is as bearers of a vision that can sustain and uphold our life together. Bearers of an imagination of a different sort of world, made possible not because of our hectic efforts but because of the healing work of Christ.
Friends, take that vision with you. Make it plain in the tablets that are your lives. In your friendships. In your studies. Make it plain on the quad, in front of Mary Graydon Center, in TDR and the Tavern and the Berks and the dorms. Make it plain in the places of our collective life where people cry out, “How long?,” and where people are told, “Wait.” Because even in places of lament, even in the storm-shattered lives of the people of Atlantic City and the people of the Philippines and the people of Washington, D.C., there is still a vision. There is still a dream. And that is good news indeed.

[i] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” 16 April 1963. Originally published as “The Negro Is Your Brother, The Atlantic, Vol 212 No 2, 78-88. Available online:
[ii] For more information about the United Methodist Student Association and the American University Methodist-Protestant Community, visit
[iii] Howard Thurman, Deep is the Hunger (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 2000; originally New York: Harper, 1951), 53-54.
[iv] Paul Rogat Loeb, The Impossible Will Take a Little While (New York: Basic Books, 2004).
[v]  Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix (New York: Jericho Books, 2013), 86.

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