Sunday, March 4, 2018

4 March 2018

3 Lent
Sharing our Doubts Together
Habakkuk 3:17-19 / Acts 16:6-10
4 March 2018

This morning we are halfway through our Lenten journey of Sharing our Doubts Together.
With some different, some, seldom-read, Scriptures as our central focus each week, and guided by Jesus’ words of “Blessed are …” in the Beatitudes, so far, we’ve explored together these various ways in which we can encounter doubt, in our faith journeys …

Poverty of spirit
Mourning, grief and loss
Imitating Jesus, and living as meek and gentle people of God

We recall the words of author Anne Lamott, her wisdom on this subject:

The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. Faith also means reaching deeply within, for the sense one was born with, the sense, for example, to go for a walk.

Now, here, today, in this Sunday’s walk and consideration of doubt, we read and hear two texts which may come to us, initially, as having little to do with each other … words of the 7th century BCE Hebrew minor prophet Habakkuk … and an equally obscure portion of the missionary story of Paul, from the book of Acts.
Ah, but I hear, I see, a link here.  Let me tell you how.
It’s about an old movie, and an even older song.

You can’t always get whatcha want … but if you try sometime, you just might find, you get whatcha need

Many of us, of a certain age, remember the movie “The Big Chill,” fondly, especially the scene in the opening, at the funeral of their friend, when the pastor calls one of the gang forward to play one of the deceased’s “favorite songs,” and that one – the Rolling Stones hit from the late 60s – comes wailing out of the church organ.
Maybe you don’t know that song, or maybe it doesn’t come to you, immediately, as you hear or read those verses of Habakkuk.  That’s OK.
For these verses, initially, aren’t just about anyone “not getting what they want” … no, they are words of scarcity and shortfall, drought and crop failure and herd failure.
Nobody’s gettin’ anything.
The setting of this book comes at a critical time for the nation of Judah, that “southern kingdom” that was all that was left of the great nation of Israel around the end of the 7th century BCE.  Recall that the one nation of Israel had split in two after the death of King Solomon, and the north set up its own capital at Samaria.  The southern kingdom remained focused on Jerusalem. 
But by the time of Habakkuk the northern kingdom had fallen to invaders – what other prophets had predicted, the result of that nation’s abandoning God’s Word and God’s ways.  And the southern kingdom was being besieged too.  The people of Judah hoped that they would be able to survive, but with increased hardship brought on by these wars … the prophets pointed out that it was only a matter of time until Judah, too, fell.
And yet … and yet … for Habakkuk, the center of his whole work comes just before our words for today; hear chapter two, verse four …

The righteous live by their faith.

For Paul, and later, Martin Luther, this verse became the center, the rock and ground of their theology.
And so as for our text today – this is part of Habakkuk’s concluding words, coming in the form of a psalm, a song, of faith:

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
 though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food;
 though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls,
 yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.
 God, the LORD, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
 and makes me tread upon the heights.

This does sound rather Job-like in its realistic description of the state of things … crops have failed, flocks are separated and lost … indicating that both settled farmer and wandering herdsman … the two main ways most people made a living in those times … both had “sunk to a net negative,” so to speak … and yet, and yet, there’s that great statement of faith at the end … not, NOT, a ‘theology of glory’ which takes comfort in the rich material blessings of this life … no, this is most definitely Martin Luther’s ‘theology of the cross’ … strength through suffering, gain through loss, life through, in, in spite of, death itself.
The Theology of the Cross is at the heart of what it means to be a Lutheran Christian.
But beware how you use the Theology of the Cross.  In fact, please don’t “use” it at all.
Because you can’t “lay it on” someone.  You can’t “lay it on” someone. 
Let me give you an example.  Remember back on Ash Wednesday, I told you about my cousin at Mayo Clinic, suffering from multiple health issues.  Well, she has improved, to the point where she will be leaving Mayo soon, headed toward a rehab center, a place where she can get stronger as she awaits a liver transplant. 
Her husband has been posting things sporadically on Facebook, about her condition – many people saying “I’m still praying” and so on … his words, still heavy with doubt and questioning … AS THEY SHOULD BE ... he is human after all.  But occasionally some well-meant but poor words come in.  You know how they go … “God won’t give you more than you can bear” … and so on.  As I said, I’m guessing well intentioned … but JEEZ.  Who want to be in a relationship with a God who takes sport in piling it on, misfortune after misfortune?
And yet … and yet … the gift, the enrichment of faith, comes, when one who has been there, through the unblooming fig and the failing vine and the dying flock and herd … when they, when WE, see, feel, touch and taste, the living God, present with us, THROUGH all those times. 
Like Habakkuk.  Through his doubts and wonderings … somewhere, somehow, someone has come to him, and shown him, strengthened him, in faith.
NOW – as for those words from Acts, well, you can more likely hear the strains of the Stones echoing more loudly, more clearly, here.  You can’t always get whatcha want … but you get whatcha need.
Here we are with Paul, on his second missionary journey which took him to Asia (what we now call Turkey), and Greece.  It may not come across as a terribly outstanding passage of Scripture, except for that it is the place where the book of Acts switches from being in the third-person narrative (about Paul, “he did this”) to a second-person narrative, “We did this.”  Biblical scholars think that this shows that this is where the author of Acts, Luke or a companion, joined Paul in his missionary journey.
As I said, it may not come across as a terribly outstanding passage of Scripture … ah, but let it sink in for a while.
This passage comes with a particular story for me.
Several years ago, when I was pastor at Nativity, we were headed to Cortez, Colorado on a youth servant trip, with youth and the pastor of Kent Lutheran Church.  Many of those Kent youth are the older brothers and sisters and cousins of the ones we continue to travel with on youth trips, from Faith, even today. 
At any rate, Kent had just purchased two used vans which they were using for youth transportation.  They had both been checked out by a reputable mechanic who sent us off on this twelve hundred mile drive with his blessing.
Which was good until about, oh, Pasco.  When the van I was driving started to slow down to a crawl on I-82. 
We took it to a mechanic there who did a ‘quick fix’ on it, which seemed to do the trick and off we went again, toward Boise which was our first stop for the night.  A church there was counting on us to show up, and we had some service work planned for them as well, as a “thank you” for letting us stay with them.
But then we hit the Blue Mountains on I-84.  And my van simply ground to a halt.  We could go no further.
So we sat there, on the side of the freeway, 16, 17 of us, 3 adults, the rest youth, trying to figure out what to do.
Finally Titus, one of the Nativity teens, said, “hey, my grandpa lives in Pendleton – he belongs to a Lutheran church there.  Maybe they would let us stay the night and help us out.”  We called and, yes, indeed, they would.
So somehow we got my van turned around, to go back down the hill, and we cruised into Pendleton.  It was hot and the church was stuffy.  By now it was quite late and no one had eaten, pizza was ordered and Pastor Jane from Kent, and I, tried to figure out How To Make Some Sense of All This and What We Would Do Next.
Jane wanted to have a time of discussion and devotions after dinner.  So she said, “go to Acts 16 and check it out.”  I did. 

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.  When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them;  so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.  During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us."  When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

With a few names changed … Boise for Bithynia, Pendleton for Troas … we dug into that text.  And everyone got it.  Seeing, feeling God’s presence with and for us in all of this, we ate and laughed and then slept … while through the night, Pr Jane’s husband and Titus’ dad drove Pr Jane’s personal van down to us so we could continue our journey, while we left the broken down van in Pendleton for repairs, to reclaim on the way back. 
The next morning, off we went, to Macedonia … er, Salt Lake City, where we’d arranged a new stop, at a Lutheran church there, where we would worship and serve on our way to Cortez.
You can’t always get whatcha want …
It’s true, isn’t it.  Sometimes, many times, there are roadblocks on our journey.  We sense, we think, we might even hope and pray, and then, in and through all that, become sure, so sure, that THIS IS THE PATH FOR US … IN THIS, WE WILL BE RIGHTEOUS, WE WILL BE DOING THE WORK GOD HAS CALLED US TO DO …
And then, and then … the van breaks down.  The economy changes.  The trends in the community shift and change.  People leave, move away, and the worshipping community grows smaller.
I know, I know, the ‘popular theology’ would say “when God closes a door, God opens a window” but indeed that is not Scripture, it’s Alexander Graham Bell or Helen Keller or even Oscar Hammerstein who wrote them.  And they did.  Not God. 
And indeed, that’s a random, even capricious, way, of looking at God. 
This Scripture says something different. 
It says, yes, sometimes, the Spirit of God will send us in different directions than we thought we would go.  But that’s not God’s fault.  That’s us, putting ourselves in the place of God.
We can, we will, still, continue, to “hunger and thirst after righteousness” because that is God’s call for us.  It’s just that, it may not come in the way we think it will come.  Or on the timeline we believe it should.
And so we come to the place in the message where, for the past three weeks, I’ve used the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from his work “Discipleship,” to tie things together for us.
But not this week.
Instead, I’ll share some other words, from another clergy person / writer, about his “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” in his wish, and work, that the church would take a stand in the important matters of the day:

There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for [this] century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

So when do you think that was written?  20 years ago?  10?  Perhaps, maybe, even, today?
It’s an excerpt from “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” by Dr. Martin Luther King, written in 1963.
The point is, if you are a person of faith, you will at some time or another find yourself hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and wondering, where is God in this, in the midst of, in the face of, a quite unrighteous and unjust world.
I know I do.  And I know I doubt.  Why school shootings?  Why injustice, and poverty, and abuse, and neglect?  Why hunger, and despair? 
In such a time, in such a world, to doubt is to be human. 
And, for this, it was as a human that God came to us, as Jesus the Christ, to live, to suffer and rejoice, even to die on the cross.
So that we might receive his presence in water and Word, in bread and wine and Word, in this gathered community of clay-jar Word bearers … for and with each other, through all the hungering and thirsting and struggling to-get-to-Bithynia-but-ending-up-in-Troas times of this life.
My cousins know those times, well.  And there have been some good words of hope that my cousins have received in the midst of their journey through all this, too.  Here, to close, are some which I think are also for us, this day, as well. 

Although I’ve never been placed into your situation, I do know what it feels like to question and even doubt at times the faith I hold with our Lord. It’s only part of our human condition.  It serves to strengthen my faith in the long run, and I pray that it also strengthens yours.

I pray that it also strengthens yours.

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