In nomine Jesu!

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 judgment comes forth perverted.

Habakkuk could be speaking today, rather than arguing with God 2,600 years ago. Like the prophet, we also live in a culture of conflict, fear and injustice, tempting many of us to avoid the news because it’s just too upsetting. Today Habakkuk, the apostolic writer of second Timothy and Jesus speak to this avoidance and to the fear that lies behind it.

Habakkuk names the problem: a pervading obsession with self-preservation — personal, institutional and national — an obsession that creates and maintains a climate in which “laws become slack…justice never prevails…and judgment [is] perverted;” when God’s people choose avoidance and “the wicked swallow those more righteous than they,” which sounds exactly
like the message we are hearing from the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Habakkuk also points the way forward, stationing himself in the midst of God’s people, waiting for God to answer and accepting nothing less than that answer; shallow optimism and easy answers will not do. And then, upon hearing God’s answer, Habakkuk proclaims it as a vision for all to see and then urges God’s people to respond with faithful and fearless action because action is the way the righteous live by faith.

It seems to me that Habakkuk’s diagnosis is right on target for our time. We live in a time of all pervasive obsession with self-preservation, in a climate in which “laws become slack, justice never prevails…and judgment is perverted.” We live with conflict we’d rather not hear and rather not know. We live in a time of “selective hearing.”

There is a difference between Habakkuk’s time — around 600 B.C.E. — and our time. Habakkuk and his people — the people of Judah — were in mortal danger. The enemy was at the gates; the temple was about to be plundered; exile “by the rivers of Babylon” was imminent; and the survival of what would eventually be called Judaism was doubtful. Today we are the ones who sit “by the
rivers of Babylon,” but not as exiles. Today our culture, our language and our values are at everyone else’s gates. Yet the same climate of fear and doubt and paralysis remain. In such a climate God is not silent. God acts and God answers and God demands that preachers like us make things clear and plain: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner [as she runs] can read it.” And this is the vision: Fear and doubt, anxiety and paralysis do not come from God; but faith and faithfulness do!

“God has not given us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline,” proclaims the writer of 2 Timothy: This whole apostolic exhortation overflows with confidence and encouragement. If we consider the ways fear and doubt drive our personal and public life, from locks to stocks to congressional gridlock, from weapons systems to punitive prisons; from suspicion of others to obsession with financial security, we begin to see that a life not motivated by fear is deeply countercultural.
Fear constricts the imagination and narrows our options to “fight or flight.” Faith expands the imagination by seeing the power of God at work in surprising ways, inspiring hope, vision and new ways of finding the energy to be an agent of
change. From his prison cell in Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote, “Only to have faith, and thereby to keep life multidimensional!”

With Habakkuk, Timothy and the apostles who question Jesus on the way to Jerusalem and the cross today, you and I are immersed in a climate pervasively obsessed with self-preservation, dominated by doubt and driven by fear. There is no need to belabor this. Yet all of us, and thousands of people like us, long for things to be different; long to be people who make a difference. We long for faith. We desire that our life be multidimensional. We gather here together for precisely that reason, so Jesus will come among us here and increase our faith.

“Increase our faith;” that’s a common temptation: to look at faith the way we look at life quantitatively, as if a better address, better credentials, more resources, and more faith, will enable us to live more effectively. If we have more, we will do more. Whether we’re talking about faith or faith’s resources, that’s a trumped-up, trickle economy” and it never works.

We have little faith, we say so we can’t be expected to do much. We have little faith
resources, so all this “life shaping” business is beyond us. It’s meant to sound like humility, but its real purpose is avoidance. It allows us, as in another of Jesus’ stories that we’ll soon here, to “pass by on the other side.”

But Jesus challenges that attitude. Jesus says that we don’t need more faith — we just need faith! We focus on ourselves; Jesus focuses away from himself and invites us to look beyond from ourselves and see the faithful character of God.

Faith, Jesus says is not qualified or quantified; it is an ongoing relationship with God. Faith springs from God’s character; emanates from God’s passion; is evidenced in Christ’s exemplary living and dying; is certified by Christ’s rising; is sealed in us — as today it was sealed in Aeneid Orpheus —when we were baptized into Christ’s dying and rising and nourished, energized and given focus to be the Body of Christ. Faith always comes with a purpose. Faith is always attached to God’s call. Faith not more to one and less to another — it’s equally given to all the people of God. No one is greater; no one has more; no one receives special notice or praise or thanks. Faith gives a multidimensional life equally to all.
If we are going to wait for more; or the world to change or for the obsessed-with-self-preservation climate to change; if we are going to plead for more faith before we ever do attempt to do anything; if we going to wait for the Church to be whole and well and one before we act like its whole and well and one, we’re going to be waiting for a long time.

But Christ is here among us to passionately affirm the loving relationship God has wonderfully created and yet more wonderfully in us, to show us that relationship writ large and writ clearly in water, bread and wine, and in our Spirit-filled flesh and blood brought together to be Christ’s faithful, fearless Body here for all to see.

Christ comes among us to give us faith; to give us vision so that we have live a “multidimensional life;” a life that changes the way we see ourselves and the world. A life that changes us as well as the world we see.

Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter’s Church
in the City of New York