Sunday, October 6, 2013

Sermon for Proper 22

St Thomas, Salem--Habakkuk 1:1-13, 2:1-4; Luke 17:5-10; Psalm 37:3-10

OK, I’ve got to level with you right at the beginning here. This gospel passage is not one of my favorites. I’m talking about the little mini-parable Jesus tells about the landowner who has a field hand working beside him all day, working just as hard, doing the same stuff, and when quitting time rolls around, the boss puts his feet up and makes the field hand—now turned into a domestic servant—he makes his servant fix dinner and serve it to him, and only then can the servant sit down and have some for himself. The insufferable arrogance of that landowner! The obvious injustice of it all! And we’re supposed to see this guy as a symbol for God, and identify ourselves with the hard-working but exploited servant? Who would want to serve that kind of God, anyway? He certainly isn’t the kind of God that makes you proud to call Him your own!

I suspect that many of you have a reaction similar to my own, and in that—I hate to tell you—we’re being quite typical twenty-first century Americans. For us, the motto that gets us through life is, “It’s all about me.” When we go out to a restaurant, we expect top-notch attentive service, and if we’re working at a restaurant, we expect courteous customers who tip generously. When we buy something at a store, we expect to be able to return it for a full refund with no questions asked. As employees, we expect top pay with full benefits, flex-time, and a generous company contribution toward our retirement plan. As employers, we expect workers who don’t have a personal life, and preferably never have to go to the restroom during working hours.

Well, Jesus’ little illustration encourages us to realize that it’s not all about us. That’s a hard lesson for Americans to learn. Our British cousins perhaps have an easier time of it because, until rather recently, theirs was a rigidly class-oriented society. When the now-retired Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, was appointed to that position in 1990, he was considered a remarkable exception to the rule, because he had been born into a blue-collar working class family, and didn’t have the benefit of a prestigious private school education. The fact the he even was made a priest, let alone appointed bishop and then primate, was seen as evidence that he was one the very few who was able to transcend the class into which he was born. Even during his term as Archbishop, there were those who saw him as a sort of country bumpkin, and explained various things that he said or did with reference to his supposed poor breeding. The majority are taught to be content with their “place.” If you’re nobility, do not aspire to become royalty. If you’re a commoner, do not aspire to become a noble. If you’re a coal miner, learn to accept the fact that you will never have a country estate. This can be a tough lesson to learn, because we are all naturally self-centered, and want to think of ourselves as exceptional, in a good way.

Jesus’ disciples say to him, “Lord, increase our faith.” It’s no surprise, then, given how we’re conditioned, that, when we think of the notion of faith, we associate it with hoping that God will choose to act in accord with our own best interests, according to our own desires—our own desires for safety, for health, for love that is returned in equal or greater measure than we give it, and for material prosperity. There’s a prayer attributed to a certain British noble and wealthy landowner of the nineteenth century that beautifully capsulizes this attitude. It goes something along the lines of, “O God, I beseech thee of thy tender mercy on behalf of the counties of Essex and Lancashire, that is may please thee to spare them excesses of wind and rain, and also on behalf of certain estates in the county of Hertfordshire, that thou mayest establish such civil tranquility as shall issue in the prosperity of the region. In all other diverse parts of the country, thou mayest exercise thy divine providence according to thy holy will.” Well, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out where this guy owns property, does it?!  Seriously, though, the problem with identifying faith with God granting our wishes—aside from the fact that it buys into the “It’s all about me” syndrome—is that, when our wishes are not granted, it becomes a crisis of faith for us. Where is God? Why has He abandoned me? Why am I being punished? What did I do to deserve this? God must not love me. God must love my adversaries more than He loves me. Where is God? After all, it’s all about me, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

This is where it becomes wonderfully good news that grace abounds and that God is an opportunist. In that place of brokenness and self-pity, God comes to us and enables us to transcend our own egos. When that happens, we see faith in a whole new light. There’s a pop song from the early seventies with the repeated refrain, “If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.” Now, that can certainly be interpreted in a rather cynical and scandalous way, which I’m sure is what the author of the lyrics intended (!), so let me see if I can redeem it with a paraphrase: If faith doesn’t make what God is doing conform to what you want, then let what you want conform to what God is doing. Faith is not about God doing what we want; faith is about wanting what God does. 

We have a fascinating reading today from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk. Habakkuk starts out by complaining about how miserable life is, and why doesn’t the Lord do something?
O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongs and look upon trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is slacked and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous, so justice goes forth perverted.
But God replies, in effect, “I am doing something. You just don’t see it yet.”
Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.
And not only that, but look at the instrument God has chosen to carry out His plan:
For lo, I am rousing the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize habitations not their own. Dread and terrible are they; … They all come for violence; terror of them goes before them. They gather captives like sand. At kings they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. They laugh at every fortress, for they heap up earth and take it. Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god!
In other words, these Chaldeans are really nasty guys. And God has chosen them to be the means of accomplishing what He wants to accomplish with His chosen people of Israel. So, let’s see if we have this straight. We complain to God that life is miserable, and ask Him why He isn’t doing something about it. God replies that He is doing something. And we go, “Oh, by using the neighborhood bully, the Bad Boy on the block, our worst enemy? What are we not getting here?” And the answer is, Yup. But wait, there’s more! God is not only doing something we can’t see, and God is not only using the Chaldeans to do it, but He’s going to take His own sweet time! God says to Habakkuk:
Write the vision; make it plain upon tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seem slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Behold, he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail, but the righteous shall live by his faith.
There’s that word “faith” again. Faith in a God whose love will never let us go, faith in a God who redeems even the most distorted and twisted set of circumstances for His glory and our good, faith that God can use even our worst enemies to accomplish His purposes, faith in a God to whom one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day, faith in a God whose grace is ubiquitous and permeates every situation we might find ourselves in.  When we place our faith in this God and what He is doing, rather than spinning our wheels waiting for Him to do what we want, we are on the path which leads to peace, to patience, to contentment in life, and to growth in holiness. And the best part is, it’s also the road to increased faith. 

Amen. 

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