Real, Tangible, Simple—Oct. 6, 2019

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Perkasie, PA

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Source and our Brother, Christ Jesus. Amen.

This past week I was at a leadership training for pastors, at a place called Crossroads Camp in Port Murray, New Jersey, about 40 miles northeast of here. And at one point, the facilitators put up three sheets of paper around the room. Given markers I and about 12 other pastors were silently asked to write some things down. On one sheet we wrote down where we experienced unfairness and oppression in our lives or ministries. On another, where we experienced privilege, and last, what would a better world look like.

There were gay pastors, pastors that were women, pastors of color, pastors of all different shapes and sizes there at the training—and so you can imagine that there were many experiences of hurts and pain that were written on that sheet of paper. Sadly, the Church, like the world, is guilty of all kinds of misdeeds and biases.

And yet, Scripture often gives us the words of lament we need when our world shows how broken and cruel it can be. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” Says Habbakuk. “Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? 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.”

On the paper asking about privilege many things we take for granted were written: food and shelter, enough to pay the bills, and the awareness that many with brown skin in our nation are treated with a deeply unfair bias. Again, this piece of paper was full of real, tangible things that bring pain to many. And again, Habbakuk, has hit the nail on the head in his ancient prophecy: “The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”

Now, on the final piece of paper, hopes and dreams for a better world were written. People wrote things like, fairness and kindness—or no violence or no more war. But, importantly, as one pastor from our SEPA synod, Pastor Bryan, pointed out: these hopes and dreams for a better world were so vague and foggy. Especially compared to the so specific hurts and privileges.

Pastor Bryan said he sees his job as one of the baptized—as a servant of Christ—to reveal and remind his congregation about all the real, concrete experiences of grace, mercy and peace that we’ve been given in our lives. What Pastor Bryan said is close to what Habbakuk the prophet continues on to say today, “I will keep watch to see what [the Lord] will say to me, and what God will answer concerning my complaint. Then the Lord answered me and said: ‘Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For 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. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.’”

The Lord’s answer will come—God’s mercy and justice will prevail—we will really experience it. And, even more, the answer is simple enough that as a runner zooms past it she could read it easily. The Lord says through Habbakuk that God’s answer will be real, and tangible, and simple. Jesus helps point us toward these real, and tangible, and simple things from God.

Back in chapter 9 of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus had sent out the 12 disciples with the power and authority to help and heal. And in chapter 10 Jesus sent out 70 more to do the same. Sending them out he transformed the disciples, the students, into apostles, the “sent-ones.” Jesus tells them, Luke writes, they are “like lambs in the midst of wolves,” which means they were going to experience rejection and violence and failure.

These are the same negative experiences that Habbakuk writes about—the same as my gay and lesbian collegues, my female colleagues, my colleagues of color, from this leadership retreat.

That’s where the apostles are this morning, when in our Gospel reading they ask for more faith. Broken and beaten down—understandably ready to quit—they ask Jesus to increase their faith. They ask Jesus to make this heavy burden easier, like Habbakuk asks God too.

And, as we’ve seen sometimes in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus seems to be a little short with us as we beg for help in a hard world. But not saying you have no faith because you can’t move trees with your mind. I used to sit in the pew as a little kid, trying with my faith to telepathically move the altar flowers… no. Jesus says faith as small as a tiny seed is enough. Jesus says a speck of trust in God is enough. He’s saying hold on to your shred of trust, it will get you through.

And what Jesus says next might seem weird and harsh—with language about slaves and worthlessness, especially in our country with it’s terrible history of slavery. Jesus asks, “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” A cruel metaphor to our ears, but it was meant as a kindness.

Back in April, on Maundy Thursday, I used the metaphor of archery to explain this. You don’t compliment an arrow for being accurate when it hits the bullseye. You compliment the skill and intentions of the archer. Both arrows and servants are sent by somebody. That somebody that Jesus is talking about is God. God sends many graces and mercies to meet us in this world.

As Pastor Bryan said, the concrete hurts and injustices we experience are real, but there are also moments of real, concrete grace and mercy too. These moments are created by God.

Starting with your baptism: when God revealed with real, wet water—that you are beloved, held, known and saved. And this is all done, as the author of 2nd Timothy writes: “not according to our works but according to God’s own purpose and grace.”

And, continuing from your baptism on, with every mercy or word of kindness you have ever known, God is behind it… You may thank the person, the doctor, the therapist, the pastor, the friend, the mother, the son, or the stranger behind the kindness. But why thank the arrow for the aim of the archer? God the Holy Spirit is mercy, grace and peace. And these things God gives.

And yet, things are still hard. Habbakuk’s complaints still ring true thousands of years later. Disloyalty and corruption abound in our elected officials. The purity and joy of youth is ruined by anxiety and the pressure to succeed. Our loved ones get sick, and die, and are gone from our sight…

On Friday, my wife Maddy’s grandmother died. Grandma Joyce was out in Nebraska. She was 91. So, hearing of her rapid decline, Maddy’s mom grabbed the first flight from Connecticut on Thursday. And Maddy’s dad jumped in the car and drove from where he works in Dallas, TX. Her cousins and uncles all drove up from Kansas City.

On Friday morning, when she got the news, I stood by while Maddy’s tears flowed. And yet, amidst the grief and sadness, I could see so much love and mercy. So much selfless care was knit into her family, as they rallied and traveled and attended to their revered great-grandmother, grandmother and mother.

We went up to CT to visit with her brothers Friday afternoon. And walking into the grocery store to pick a few things up, Maddy started crying again. And she said, “It’s not just that I’m sad Grandma died. What makes me cry is how everyone comes together at times like these. It’s so beautiful.”

The most common and ordinary and tangible graces are baked into our lives, like the love of a family for its own.

These things are from God. “This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,” writes the author of 2nd Timothy. Which means this love is part of the whole universe. It is part of the DNA of creation, but the cloudiness of sin makes it hard to notice sometimes. It’s the little gift of faith, the seed of trust, that allows us to see.

God has always been concrete. God is simple in the water of our baptism, God is tangible in the flesh and blood of Christ, God is real in all the merciful actions and tender affections of our lives. 

Amen.