November 4, 2007
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
O God --
How long shall I cry out for help, and you will not listen?
How long shall I cry to you "Violence!" --
Every kind of violence – to the body, to the spirit, to the land, to the heart, to the soul...
How long shall I cry, and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are all around me;
Everything is confusion and competition and struggle and fighting and shouting –
This is what I see. The law becomes useless. Justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous,
judgment becomes perverted.
This is what the prophet saw.
This is what we see. Everyday, on the TV, in the paper, on our streets, in our homes. We see what the prophet saw: violence, destruction, death dealing, fear, lies.
This is what we see.
We have been talking about faithfulness for weeks, even months. We have talked about how to be faithful to God and to God’s way of love, and life, and justice. We have talked about faithfulness and practice and perseverance and never turning back no matter what. But what do we do when all we see is what the prophet saw? When it seems like the law is useless and justice never prevails? What good is our faithfulness then?
A year ago last September, I was sitting on the front row of my Hebrew Bible class. It was the day after the school shootings in Bailey – I am sure you remember that day. Some of our faculty had gone to Bailey to offer pastoral care; some of our students were serving churches in that area and had gone to be with their grieving and frightened congregations. In the lobby we had lit candles in prayer for the victim, the shooter, the survivors, and their families. The mood at Iliff was rather subdued, as we struggled with how to process this violence and destruction of innocent life. Some of our thoughts probably sounded like Habakkuk: How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?
At 10:00 am the professor, Mark George, opened his Bible on the lectern – he begins every class with a reading from Hebrew Scripture, usually a Psalm. On this day, the day after an innocent young woman was murdered, he took a deep breath and began to read.
I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what God will say to me,
and what God will answer concerning my complaint.
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.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.
I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what God will say to me, and what God will answer concerning my complaint.
Habakkuk is furious and grieving and lamenting the violence being done to his people. He demands an answer from God, and so he does an extraordinary thing: he roots himself to the ground and waits for God’s answer. And God does answer him. God commands Habakkuk to expand his vision; God doesn’t deny or make excuses about Habakkuk’s complaint, but God does insist that Habakkuk’s vision is not big enough. Write the vision, God says, write it so tall and so clear than someone can read it running by. Write the vision, because there is still a vision, a time when all these things, all of this suffering, will come to an end.
Habakkuk’s vision was not big enough. He could see the destruction and violence around him and that is necessary. It is necessary to see the reality of what injustice inflicts upon humanity. It is necessary to grieve and to lament, and even to shout our complaint at God. But just as necessary is to hold in balance or even in tension both the reality of injustice and violence, and God’s vision for a whole, healed, life-giving world. God tells Habakkuk to remember the vision; death does not have the last answer, God does. There is still a vision.
Zacchaeus was looking for that vision, Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and was rich, Luke tells us. We know several things already by that description. As we learned last week, tax collectors were despised by their neighbors. It is a pretty fair guess that Zacchaeus’s wealth came from extorting tax payers. And being a tax collector meant that he was a tool of the Roman Empire, an important cog in the Roman occupation of Palestine which caused such suffering and injustice on the people of Israel.
But there was something different about Zacchaeus. He was desperate to see who Jesus was. He was not just a curious bystander, not just an accidental or coincidental choice for a dinner companion. Zacchaeus was looking for Jesus, he was seeking Jesus. Jesus, who was the very embodiment God’s vision, written tall and clear. Zacchaeus was seeking that vision, darting through the crowd, climbing up a tree, trying to see Jesus.
And Jesus sees him, and invites himself to Zacchaeus’s house. Zacchaeus is confronted with the embodiment God’s vision, and Zacchaeus is transformed. Zacchaeus repents of any and all injustices he might have committed. But the impact of his repentance is not just returning money to those he has cheated. Zacchaeus rejects his role in the machinery of the empire; he rejects the unjust and violent system, the very system which has provided him with such delectable benefits and privileges. Zacchaeus says no to the death-dealing empire, and THAT, says Jesus, is salvation. Notice that this salvation takes place today, not later after death, or after Armageddon, but today, now, right then in that moment. Zacchaeus said no to the empire’s vision and yes to God’s vision, and he was saved.
There are times when we look around and all we can see is violence and destruction, and sometimes we begin to think that this is all there is and that things will never change. We get lost in our lament. As much as we need to lament, sometimes we get stuck there and we can’t remember what faithfulness is for, because sometimes it seems like faithfulness doesn’t matter. Our lament turns to despair, and cynicism, and paralysis. We forget to root ourselves to the ground and demand that God remind us of God’s vision.
That’s why we come to church every week to remind ourselves that there is still a vision; God’s work is not done. There is still a vision, and together we embody that vision, as God calls us to do and as Jesus teaches us. We embody the vision when
- we treat one another with kindness
- when we lift up our voices to praise God in glorious harmony
- when we take care of conflicts in ways that are healthy and help each other to grow
- when we feed the people in our community who are hungry
- when we weep together and rejoice together in prayer
- when we welcome everyone, period, at this table.
We come to church to remind ourselves of God’s vision for a just, and whole, and inclusive, and peaceful, and life-giving, and loving, and beloved community, and we come to church to practice embodying that vision, because you never know when there might be a Zacchaeus in your life, climbing a tree trying to catch a glimpse of a different way of being in the world.
Last Friday, I was at the court house to support folks who were arrested at the columbus day Protest at their arraignment. My friend N., who was arrested with me, told me that on her way to the building, she met a young man who was also on his way to be arraigned for a small crime of having an open container. He asked her for directions. N, told him she was going to the same place and would be glad to walk with him. He said, “You have to go too? You don’t look like somebody who needs to go to court!” And she said yes, and explained about getting arrested protesting the columbus day parade. Well, he wanted to know what was so bad about columbus, and so N. told him about columbus’s history –that, among other things, he was a slave trader and was responsible for the genocide of millions of indigenous people in the Caribbean. Those of us who got arrested thought such things ought not to be celebrated. He was in the court room when that day’s group of protesters got arraigned, a dozen or more folk of varying races, classes, ages, and genders filling the area in front of the magistrate for the third week in a row. I prayed that seeing such a witness would leave a strong impression on that young man. Maybe he was like Zacchaeus, seeking a vision for a different way to live his life.
Cynics will tell you that nothing will ever change, that people in particular will never change, but Zacchaeus, confronted with the embodiment of God’s vision, changed; Zacchaeus gave up all the benefits and privileges of working for the Empire, and began to embody God’s vision. And salvation came on that day.
We are called to embody God’s vision, even in the midst of our lament for a world gone horribly wrong. That’s what faithfulness is, really, to continue to embody God’s vision even when it is difficult, even when it is scary, even when it seems foolish to do so.
Because you never know when Zacchaeus might be running through the crowd, climbing up a tree, waiting, just waiting, for the embodiment of the vision that will show him the way to salvation.
Write the vision, for there is still a vision.