Proper 22, Year C; Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 32:1-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10
I wish I had more faith. Especially after my weekend of gardening when I was moving various shrubs from one location to another. How nice it would have been to say to the Rhododendron bush, “Be uprooted and planted in the bed in the front yard!” Instead my aching back tells me that I have to dig a fresh hole, amend the soil and then dig up the darn bush and cart it all the way from the back yard to its new home outside my front window.
I also wish I had more faith when I look around and see violence, wrongdoing, trouble, destruction, strife and contention. With St. Luke’s location here in Ballard there is no way for me to overlook the personal and communal crises that are harming so many. I can’t step over the homeless man sleeping at our front door because I know his name and have listened to his story. When yelling and fighting break out nearby, I can no longer stay safely inside because people I care about may be threatened by the violence. When a senior pastor who has lived here for 30 years has to move because his rent is increasing, I have to speak up.
Today at noon in the Ballard Commons Park, I will be helping to lead a remembrance service for nine of the nearly 60 people who died on the streets during the past year. Small brass leaves with their names, birth and death dates will be embedded in the pavement. In the past, like many others, I may have failed to notice the 36 leaves that are already in place, but this year will be different. One of the leaves will be for Gary Oaks who died next to the dumpster in the alley down the street. While the police were waiting for the coroner to take his body away, I was contacted to come, uncover his forehead, bless him and pray for him and with those who had gathered in respect for a life ended in such loneliness and tragedy.
So with the prophet Habakkuk I cry for help. We all cry for help. Like the disciples we pray that our faith may increase when we come up against situations and injustices that overwhelm us. When there is no clear solution to the violence and destruction around us, we cry out. We cry in sorrow. We cry in anger. We cry to God, and we wonder where God is. We make our lament because the wicked surround the righteous and judgement is perverted. Wrongdoing and trouble surround us and we cannot hide from the pain and damage caused by the evils of the world.
Sadly this is not a new reality. In ancient Hebrew, the word translated as violence is ‘Chamas,’ which is defined as “the cold-blooded and unscrupulous infringement of the personal rights of others, motivated by greed and hate and often making use of physical violence and brutality.” This kind of violence may be systemic and institutional, but it always impacts directly upon individuals. It is the violence that the prophets who spoke truth to power experienced, and it is the violence that brought Jesus to the cross.
God stands with those who suffer violence. God is near to the oppressed and will not abandon them. God has given to the prophets, to Jesus, and to us a vision that is radically different from the violence and destruction we witness. In Habakkuk’s time, God encouraged him to write this vision in large letters upon a wall, the original billboard. It was to be so plain that someone running away in fear could not fail to read it. It is a vision of peace where the lion will lie down with the lamb, and swords are turned into plowshares.
It is the vision of Jesus where the Kingdom of God is more real than the kingdoms of this world, and all are welcome at the great banquet feast where there are no strangers or outcasts. It may seem like it is not yet here, but we are those who are called to wait for it, to work for it, to speak its reality into existence.
One of the most violent and dangerous places in our world now and over the past 35 years is Sudan and South Sudan. The referendum that split the country into two in 2011 and created the new nation of South Sudan was only three years old before the newest nation was split by civil war. Now there are hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced people in both countries. The cycle of violence and poverty and death is constantly repeating. It is easy to lose hope in face of such overwhelming destruction and wrongdoing. It is easy to lose faith when trouble is all around and the innocent are suffering and dying.
In 2012 I made a trip to South Sudan. My heart and prayers had been with the people there for years and I wanted to meet them in person and let them know that they were not forgotten. I stayed at a small compound run by an extraordinary woman. Cathy was born and raised in Uganda. When she was a young woman she met a missionary from the Netherlands, Wim. They fell in love and married but were unable to have children themselves. What they did have was an unswerving commitment to serve those who were the most vulnerable.
They moved to Sudan before the country split into two. Wim served with a number of non-profits. Cathy ran their compound and got involved in the community. As she traveled through Juba, the largest city in S. Sudan, she was overwhelmed by the trouble and hardship of young girls who were abandoned or on the street, used and abused by adults, unable to go to school, invisible. She began to take them in, one by one. The need was overwhelming. She formed a non-profit organization, “Confident Children out of Conflict.”
Cathy is fearless. She raised funds from all over the world. She confronted male relatives who wanted to hold onto the girls because of the money they could make off of prostituting them or turning them into indentured servants. She went into the most desperate neighborhoods, including the one where people lived on top of a graveyard to pull children from the brink of death. That’s where she found Moses. His mother had no food for him and his older siblings were barely surviving. Moses came home with Cathy and Wim. He was so thin, they weren’t sure he would make it.
When I met him, he had just reached his second birthday and was beginning to thrive. Now he is in kindergarten. He speaks at least 5 languages because of all the volunteers from around the world who have become his caregivers and fan club. He’s just one of the many children, most of whom are girls that Cathy and her team have brought off the streets and provided for.
This year, things got desperate in Juba. The Civil War was being fought in the streets. The children had to be moved to a village for their protection. Violence, destruction, and lawlessness had taken over. Cathy and Wim could have left for their own safety. They could have given up and let evil and wickedness take over. But they didn’t. I don’t know how they find the faith to carry on, but they have.
Things have calmed down. Moses celebrated his 6th birthday. The girls are graduating from school, singing in the Cathedral Choir and learning that they are worthy of dignity and respect.
How do I know all this? Cathy and I are Facebook friends. Habakkuk may have been asked by God to write the vision on a wall. The teachings of Jesus may have been written on papyrus, but social media is the new public forum, and we have a call to proclaim the vision in new ways to new generations.
People use the media to promote a variety of messages. Some are self-serving. Others are racist, sexist, and derogatory. Some try to incite fear, hatred and loathing. Many are divisive and narrow. It seems like the loudest and most damaging and hate-filled get the most attention.
But we know that these are not the most powerful voices or messages. This is not the vision that will transform our world and bring the Kingdom into reality. The voices of our current day prophets like Cathy are filled with faith and hope and love. The voices which echo Jesus’s teaching of love and mercy are more powerful than the hatred and injustice that are around us. As the prophet instructed us, “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.”
It’s less important how much faith I have, but it really matters who I have faith in. Every week we affirm our faith. We believe in the God who has made heaven and earth, and who loves all of creation including the trees and the animals we love and mourn. We believe in the Son who suffered death and was buried and who lives in the ones we encounter who are hungry, thirsty or in need. We believe in the Spirit of life who speaks through prophets and saints like Cathy and inspires us to live as people of the resurrection.
So my friends, write the vision of Christ’s love. Greet a stranger, plant a garden, share a meal, stand up for justice, care for the most vulnerable, post something hopeful, bless a child. For “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love.”
“May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”