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October 3, 2004 (Pentecost 18)—“A Vision for the Appointed Time”
Pastor David Barber
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Luke 17: 5-10
Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Some of you may remember that one of my favorite movies is The Shawshank Redemption. I've referred to it at least a couple times in the past, but there are so many theological themes that emerge within this movie that I could refer to it again and again and still not repeat myself.
The movie, which is based on a book by Stephen King, takes place at the Maine State Prison during the 1950s. One of the prisoners by the name of Brooks is finally released from prison after many, many years. He's been in prison for so long that he he's become institutionalized.
Instead of feeling a great sense of joy because of his freedom and liberation, life on the outside is terrifying for him. In fact, it's so terrifying and overwhelming that he hangs himself in the boarding house where he lives.
Another prisoner by the name of Red faces the same dilemma. He, too, is a lifer, but the day comes when he's finally released. He works at the same store and stays at the same boarding house where Brooks had worked and stayed.
He, too, contemplates taking his life because life on the outside is just too unbearable. One day he walks by a store and in the window he sees a gun and a compass. The gun and the compass represent two directions that he can travel. The gun represents the way of death, and the compass points him to the way of life.
Which way does he choose? He chooses the compass because the main character in the movie, Andy Dufresne, has shared with Red his dream--his vision--of having his own resort down in Mexico.
Andy Dufresne was an accountant on the outside, wrongly convicted for his wife's murder. So almost from the beginning, he begins to plan and scheme for his escape.
Being an accountant, he gains the trust of the crooked warden and launders some money for him. But instead of putting the money into the warden's account, Andy sidetracks it into his own.
After 12 years, with enough money and his dream before him, he finally escapes by crawling though a lengthy and slimy sewer pipe. He becomes a free man as he emerges from the sewer into the baptismal river of liberation.
One can see Andy's faith in his belief that eventually things will be different in his life. It's twelve years of this faith that sustains him during his exile, as he retains the vision of returning to a place where he can see the sky. His vision becomes a reality as the closing scenes of the movie show Red walking toward Andy on some Mexican beach.
It is a vision says the prophet Habakkuk that will sustain God's people when we're struggling to make sense of dashed hopes, shattered dreams, and uncertain futures. It is a vision that will sustain us and help us to remain faithful when we want to give up and seek other alternatives--alternatives that lead to death and not to life.
Habakkuk is probably not a book that most of you have read lately, and a reading from Habakkuk only appears once in a tree-year cycle.
Habakkuk means, "to embrace." It's not the kind of embrace that one finds in affection, but rather it's a wrestler's embrace much like Jacob or Job or some of the lament psalms.
What's going on here? This seventh century prophet complains to God about the blatant injustice in Judean society. "How long, God, shall I cry and wait for you to do something about the oppression of the weak by the strong among God's own people? Your tolerance of injustice is bad enough," says Habakkuk," but forcing me to observe this injustice adds insult to injury. It's more than I can stomach."
God responds, but Habakkuk doesn't like God's answer, for God tells him that he will use a heathen king and a heathen army--the Babylonians--to discipline his own people.
So Habakkuk laments again, which doesn't appear in our reading for today. He knows that the Babylonians are no models of virtue, and he just can't believe that a pure and holy God would stand idly by and watch them swallow up his people.
What do you do when you're no longer sure how God's purposes are going to be worked out in your life or even on a much larger stage? What do you do when you're confused and uncertain and not even sure that God is at work in your life?
These are contemporary questions not only in terms of the violence and the terror that we see all around us, but also in light of a century that has endured and seen the most horrible atrocities against humanity imaginable. It echoes the anguished cries from the death camps and the killing fields across the years--"how long, O Lord?"
These are profound questions that arise, not necessarily from doubt in God, but from faith in God. Only one who believes and trusts in the goodness of God can look at the state of the world and wail, "How long shall I cry for help?"
The prophet then goes to his watchtower. He waits to see how God will respond. Although confused about the purposes of God in his life and in the life of God's people, he waits with patience in a time of anguish to see how God will answer.
And finally God responds that there will be a vision for the appointed time. God says nothing about the scope of the vision and what it will contain. "But it's a trustworthy vision," says God, "and the righteous are those who commit their lives to this promise.
I find it interesting that this little obscure passage tucked away in this book became a magnet and a mantra for Martin Luther in his own struggle to find peace with God.
"The righteous will live by their faith." Faithfulness to God is the willingness to choose to live life in a certain way under God, even when the vision and the answer may be far off, and the present circumstances are bleak and barren.
It's easy to serve and to trust in God when God's blessings match our expectations--for instance, financial blessings, or the blessings of family or job or health. It's quite another to serve and to trust God when the present circumstances are painful and dark and we cry out, "How long shall I cry for help."
In our book study that meets on Wednesday evenings, the author of our book, The Heart of Christianity talks about faith as vision. It's a way of seeing, he says, a way of seeing the whole or a way of seeing "what is."
What we see, the author writes, will determine how we respond to life. If we see our reality as hostile and threatening, then we will respond defensively and build systems of security and self-protection.
If we see reality as indifferent, our response will be less anxious and paranoid, but we're still likely to be defensive and precautionary. We may seek to take care of our world as best we can, but ultimately we maybe concerned primarily for ourselves and those who are most important to us.
Marcus Borg, the author, also mentions a third way--to view "what is" as life giving and nourishing. This leads to radical trust. It frees us from anxiety and a preoccupation with security and leads to the "self-forgetfulness of faith" and the ability to love and be present to the moment. It generates a "willingness to spend and be spent" for the sake of a vision that goes beyond ourselves.
It seems to me that one of the tasks of the faith community as it comes together in worship each week is to hold up for each other the hope of a vision that goes beyond ourselves. We hold up a vision so that we, too, can journey toward a direction that leads to life and not to death not only for ourselves but for our world.
A couple of weeks ago Karen and I went to see the movie The Notebook. Since it was a dollar, I said that I would treat. It's the story of two older residents in a nursing home--a man and a woman.
She suffers from Alzheimer's Disease and he comes to read to her what is written in his notebook. In his notebook is the story of two young lovers--Noah and Allie. It's a romantic story about falling in love, and all the challenges and joys they encounter in their relationship.
But the greater love story is the man's faithfulness to this woman in her terrible and disabling disease. The man hopes that by reading and rereading the story this woman will have a glimmer of recognition. He continues to hope that she will recognize that this is their story--that he is Noah and she is Allie.
Sometimes we suffer from dementia as a faith community, or we become institutionalized--making our peace and even finding some security with the way things are in the world.
Then we forget about God's faithfulness and God's promises for our lives. We forget our own story, and that's when someone needs to read to us from our own notebook.
It's important to tell and to retell the story of God's vision for our world because the vision empowers and enables us to live faithfully in the midst of all that we face.
It encourages us to be strong in tough and turbulent times, and to continue to hold up for the world, the ways of compassion, hope, mercy, and forgiveness even when the world wants to operate by a different standard.
There is a vision for the appointed time, and this vision will not fail us.
In the meantime, we actively wait with patience, anticipation, and faithfulness. We read to each other. We tell, and we retell the story. We support each other, and we hold each other up and the needs of the world in prayer. We love and we serve and we work for all that's good.
Copyright © 2004 David Barber
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org