SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: Benevolent, merciful God: When we are empty, fill us. When we are weak in faith, strengthen us. When we are cold in love, warm us, that with fervor we may love our neighbors and serve them for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
This week’s lessons are a hot mess of contradiction. On one hand, the psalmist’s confident assertion that those who “trust in the Lord and do good…will live in the land, and enjoy security.” Psalm 37:3. On the other, the cries of Habakkuk protesting the reign of senseless violence, cruelty and injustice. In the psalmist’s world, righteousness is rewarded with safety, health, wealth and long life. The wicked “will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.” Psalm 37:2. But the experience of Habakkuk does not comport with this rosy picture. Habakkuk lived and preached during the period of Babylonian domination over the Southern Kingdom of Judah. He witnessed the selfishness and corruption of Judah’s leaders that finally led to the small kingdom’s loss of its land and its temple. He saw first hand the brutality of the conquering Babylonian army as it systematically destroyed his nation. In response to this ocean of blood letting and cruelty, often visited upon the innocent and that, in any event, seems out of all proportion to any sin anyone might have committed, the prophet has this to say:
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgement comes forth perverted. Habakkuk 1:3-4.
So, who are we to believe? Whose words ring true? Those of the prophet or those of the psalmist? Perhaps both of these biblical witnesses speak truthfully. Practicing honesty, integrity and compassion do lead to a better life-at least often enough that we encourage our children to work hard, tell the truth, play fair and be kind. In a society where justice is prized, righteousness is rewarded. But what happens when the institutions of government become instruments of oppression? What happens when commerce is driven by human greed rather than harnessed to meet human need? What happens when partisan lies become the coin of public discourse? What happens when white supremacy, patriarchy and nationalism are systemically imbedded in the foundations of government, education and the workplace? In the words of another psalmist, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Psalm 11:3.
It is hard to teach your children kindness and compassion when you are compelled to send them each day into a school plagued by bullying and violence. It is hard for employers to treat their employees justly when they must choose between terminating an otherwise productive employee or ceasing to provide health insurance for all employees. It is hard for judges to administer justice where law enforcement systematically singles out persons of color for prosecution. Righteousness is not a solo act. In a sense, no individual can be anymore righteous than the community of which s/he is a member. Habakkuk is speaking to a context in which “the foundations are destroyed.” So, the question is, how can the righteous live justly in such an unjust world?
The answer given to the prophet’s question is this: “the righteous live by their faith.” Habakkuk 2:4. That brings us to the gospel lesson where the disciples implore Jesus, “Increase our faith!” Luke 17:5. The lectionary has failed us here by omitting verses 1-4 of Chapter 17 in which Jesus describes the kind of community required for persons to live righteously:
Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent”, you must forgive.’”
This sounds very much like a twelve-step community in which each member takes on the responsibility of ensuring the sobriety of the other. Under no circumstances must any “stumbling block” be placed in the path of another that might lead to relapse. Moreover, because the possibility of relapse exists for each member, the health of the community requires that forgiveness and acceptance be the rule.
It should be obvious that life in such a community of recovering sinners requires faith. It requires faith in the redemptive presence of God’s Spirit that never gives up on anyone. It requires faith that each member of the community, however recalcitrant, annoying and seemingly disruptive, has been claimed by Christ and is present because s/he is precisely the one God needs to help build the mind of Christ within that community. It requires faith because the community might not recognize, appreciate or even desire the gifts you bring to it, much less reward you for your efforts. You might never see any positive results for the work you do or get the recognition you feel you deserve. But that shouldn’t matter. What matters is that God is at work and you are privileged to share in that work. That’s as much reward as is needed and can be expected.
The church exists to bear witness to a better way of being human, showing the world the kind of community required for people to live righteously. To be sure, the church is not a perfect community made up of better people. It is rather a gathering of people who know they have become intoxicated by the false values of a society whose foundations are cracked. They are gathered to help each other gain and maintain sobriety in a world drunk on selfishness, greed, violence and hateful ideologies. They are gathered to live under the gentle reign of God which, in a violent world, necessarily takes the shape of the cross. The cross is what righteousness looks like in an unrighteous world. The righteous live by faith because, where the foundations are destroyed, there is no other way to live.
It being Rosh-Hashanah, I thought it appropriate to cite this poem by Emma Lazarus who plumbs the depths of this ancient Jewish observance and the strong, stubborn, resilient faith it represents. It speaks, I believe, about the kind of faith for which Jesus calls in our gospel lesson.
The New Year
Not while the snow-shroud round dead earth is rolled,
And naked branches point to frozen skies.—
When orchards burn their lamps of fiery gold,
The grape glows like a jewel, and the corn
A sea of beauty and abundance lies,
Then the new year is born.
Look where the mother of the months uplifts
In the green clearness of the unsunned West,
Her ivory horn of plenty, dropping gifts,
Cool, harvest-feeding dews, fine-winnowed light;
Tired labor with fruition, joy and rest
Profusely to requite.
Blow, Israel, the sacred cornet! Call
Back to thy courts whatever faint heart throb
With thine ancestral blood, thy need craves all.
The red, dark year is dead, the year just born
Leads on from anguish wrought by priest and mob,
To what undreamed-of morn?
For never yet, since on the holy height,
The Temple’s marble walls of white and green
Carved like the sea-waves, fell, and the world’s light
Went out in darkness,—never was the year
Greater with portent and with promise seen,
Than this eve now and here.
Even as the Prophet promised, so your tent
Hath been enlarged unto earth’s farthest rim.
To snow-capped Sierras from vast steppes ye went,
Through fire and blood and tempest-tossing wave,
For freedom to proclaim and worship Him,
Mighty to slay and save.
High above flood and fire ye held the scroll,
Out of the depths ye published still the Word.
No bodily pang had power to swerve your soul:
Ye, in a cynic age of crumbling faiths,
Lived to bear witness to the living Lord,
Or died a thousand deaths.
In two divided streams the exiles part,
One rolling homeward to its ancient source,
One rushing sunward with fresh will, new heart.
By each the truth is spread, the law unfurled,
Each separate soul contains the nation’s force,
And both embrace the world.
Kindle the silver candle’s seven rays,
Offer the first fruits of the clustered bowers,
The garnered spoil of bees. With prayer and praise
Rejoice that once more tried, once more we prove
How strength of supreme suffering still is ours
For Truth and Law and Love.
Source: Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems and Other Writings, (c. 2002 by Broadview Press) Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) is most famous for the words of her poem, The New Colossus inscribed on the base of the Statute of Liberty.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
She was one of the first successful and publicly recognized Jewish American authors. Lazarus was born in New York City to a wealthy family. She began writing and translating poetry as a teenager and was publishing translations of German poems by the 1860s. Lazarus was moved by the fierce persecution of her people in Russia, a frequent topic of her writings, as well as their struggles to assimilate into American culture. You can sample more of Emma Lazarus’ poetry and read more about her at the Poetry Foundation website.