“Live By Faith: Fight for Peace”

03 October 2010

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

October 3, 2010

Habakkuk 1:1-5 and 2:1-4
Luke 17:1-10

“Live By Faith: Fight for Peace”

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

Each week we pray for peace, and we mean those prayers, I’m sure.  But how long, O Lord?  How long?  That opening lament of Psalm 13 is echoed by today’s text from the prophet Habakkuk and by many other Psalms prayed by earnest and faithful Jews and Christians and Muslims around the world, perhaps most especially in the Holy Land, where our president is trying yet another round of peace talks.  Do we really dare to keep praying and to keep hoping for peace?  On this World Communion Sunday, are we able to gather at the table with even one tiny mustard seed of faith still stuck in our teeth?  Do we still have the courage to fight for peace?

After more than 7 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, Islamic terrorism seems to be increasing rather than decreasing – now with additional threats from Pakistan and Iran.  And as for us in the United States – with all this going on, plus economic troubles and threats from other hostile nations like North Korea – our own country seems to be brimming over with fear and anger, much of it directed against our own government.  Tea Party activists are escalating an “us against them” mentality – whether it’s “us” against illegal aliens or “us” against members of our own U.S. Congress.  Citizen militias in many states are arming themselves for battle.  There are good reasons to give up hope for peace.

No matter which side of the political aisle we stand on, I expect we can sympathize with our first scripture today – this rant of the ancient Hebrew prophet Habakkuk.  It’s so visual.  If he had a TV, we could almost imagine him leaping to his feet to shout at the bad news of the day on CNN.  Many of us can identify, I’m sure, when we get worked up with a good head of steam against whatever most outrages us. Just listen to Habakkuk again and see if you don’t feel like shouting these words with him:

“2O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted. 5Look …and see! Be astonished! Be astounded!”  I don’t know which is worse – the fact that we are shocked at the violence out there in the world – or the fact that we are no longer shocked. Don’t most of us prefer to just change the channel, to hide in our beautiful New England village and look the other way?  The autumn leaves are so pretty.  Scenes of war are ugly.

But there is a lot we can learn about living by faith from book of the prophet Habakkuk.  We don’t often hear from Habakkuk – his short, four-chapter book puts him in the list of the so-called “minor prophets.”  Little is really known about him, or about his life in Israel 600 years before Jesus.  What we do know is that the Chaldean army was massing for war on Habakkuk’s people – the army of the Babylonians who would later conquer Judea and take many of Habakkuk’s people in chains into exile in what is today Iraq.  It was not a happy time for the Hebrew people, to say the least.  They were living in a time of great terror and violence; nations nearby were being massacred without mercy or enslaved, and Habakkuk’s people appeared to be next.  He was preaching to them in a time where some were tempted to lose their faith, because the almighty God who had saved their people in the past, was conspicuously absent.  Hope for peace was all but dead.

His frustration reminds me of our own time, and a prayer prayed more than once by Archbishop Desmond Tutu when justice was slow to come to South Africa, during the struggle against Apartheid.  Tutu would pray, “God, we know you want change, but why do you not make it slightly more obvious?”  Aren’t there days in all our lives when we pray some version of that prayer ourselves?  More often than not, I suspect, our prayers seem to echo off the distant back wall of the universe rather than arrive safely in God’s ears. It’s easy to forget that the Bible is not just full of Red Sea partings and other miracles of deliverance – it is also full of unanswered prayers, like the 40 years Moses and his generation wandered in the wilderness, or the 70 years Jeremiah and his generation lived enslaved, in Exile in Babylon – a time that was soon to follow Habakkuk’s prophesy.

But at the end of his desperate prayer, Habakkuk does hear a word of hope from the Lord: “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it …does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right…but the righteous live by their faith.”  After this sermon, you could almost hear the apostles there in Luke’s Gospel text some 7 centuries later shout their own angry demand:  “OK.  Fine.  We will live by faith, Jesus, but first, ‘Increase our faith!’” That’s where Jesus gives his famous reply, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”  I’ve always loved this saying in Luke.  You know the phrase “Faith can move mountains”?  Well, that’s from Mark and Matthew’s Gospels, Matthew 21 and Mark 11.  Luke scales his miracle down to a believable size: mustard-seed faith that can move a mulberry tree.  That gives me hope that my own puny faith might be able to accomplish something too.

We have to be careful not to lecture each other about mustard-seed faith – faith can’t be increased by sheer willpower.  That’s not the point.  Help in increasing faith come in the verses before and after this mustard-seed saying.  The verses after it are among some of the most politically incorrect in the Bible, since they were once used to justify slavery – “9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?”  But in this context, they remind the disciples that, as followers of Jesus, we are commanded to act, whether or not we feel like it, whether or not we think we have faith sufficient to the task.  To quote Nike, we should “just do it” – because, as servants of God, we should do as we are told. 

And in the verses that come before the mustard seed, Jesus tells us more about how to do it – correct one another’s sins, apologize, and freely offer forgiveness.  This is the Christian way, how we fight for peace without violence – we do the hard work of correction, repentance, and forgiveness. I can’t bring about world peace all by myself, and neither can you.  Political and military solutions are not God’s way – God works on the battlefield of human hearts, and invites us to make peace one relationship at the time.

Last week, Jen and I spent two days at our annual General Association at Silver Lake. Our interfaith retreat on “Building Tabernacles of Peace” reminded us that we have angry fundamentalists in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. All 3 Abrahamic faiths call us to do this kind of active peacemaking.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all supposed to “love neighbor as self,” since this Levitical law (Lev. 19:18) is from the Torah, which all 3 faiths share as a Holy Book.  This is a commandment, not just a suggestion, for all of us – not just Christians.  As servants of God, we are called to obey without question. 

The Turkish Imam who spoke, Abdullah Antepli, is so committed to making peace as an act of faith – not politics – that he turned down an opportunity to work in DC as an advisor to President Obama.  Instead he accepted a new position teaching about Islam to Christians like us at Duke Divinity School, because he believes that there is so much that we can do – as righteous people who live by faith – to make a difference.  For instance, he ended his time with us with a blanket apology for anything he might have said during our time together. He said it’s Muslim custom to offer apology after spending as much as 6 hours with anyone – assuming some offense must have been made during that much time together.  What a great idea – wish my family would try that at Thanksgiving! 

We all have the power to fight for peace. We can educate ourselves about other cultures and world politics.  But we can also chip at the hardened hearts of difficult people with these mustard-seed pellets of faith – we can speak the truth in love and make peace.  We follow Jesus in this holy work of peacemaking, not because we are his “worthless slaves,” but because we are so grateful for his forgiveness and his friendship.  Because on the last night of his life, Jesus reversed the world’s expectations about masters and servants when he knelt down to wash his disciples’ feet and serve them the bread and the cup.  And now, when we accept the invitation to join him at his table, we are servants who are fed first.  Through God’s amazing grace, we really are given the gift of mustard-seed faith – fed by our small morsel of bread, we go into the world with our faith strengthened.  Real peace comes like this – from human hearts changed by small miracles of God’s grace, like the love poured out upon the world in Jesus Christ. 

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.



Habakkuk 1:1 - 2:4

1The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw. 2O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted. 5Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told.

2I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. 2Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. 3For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. 4Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

Luke 17:1-10

17Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! 2It 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. 3Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4And 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.” 

5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

7“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”


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