Sunday, October 3, 2010

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 27
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Psalm 37:1-9
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye would say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou rooted up, and be thou planted in the sea; and it would obey you.

If you go to, you can see the front page of daily newspapers from cities all over the nation and world. Click into a few of those pages and you'll find certain subjects are repeated over and over again. Nearly every page I checked had some front page story about money. Either local income was down or poverty was up, government or businesses were having a hard time making ends meet, people were finding it difficult to affordable housing, etc.

Another typical subject has to do with politics. With elections just around the corner, candidates are making their stands, having debates and slinging mud at one another. Several front pages had stories about scandals in local, state and federal government. One recurring story described how the $1.5 billion dollars the U.S. government promised to Haiti after the earthquake nine months ago is still tied up in Washington.

The papers on the East Coast filled their headlines with stories about the tropical storm headed north from the Caribbean. While some places, including my hometown of Allentown, Pennsylvania, could use the water, I'm not so sure that six inches in two days is good news. Other papers had pictures and stories about the mudslide in Oaxaca, Mexico. The death and destruction in that region from the seemingly constant stream of storms this month is heartbreaking.

The big news story in our local papers in Texas is about the shooting on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin. This event was truly shocking and tragic. A young man, for reasons so far unknown, took an AK-47 and shot about ten shots outside the library, then went inside to the sixth floor and killed himself. We followed the news story on television and radio all day yesterday, and the newspapers reported the event after the fact this morning. In the end, the only death was to the gunman, and no one was injured. It was surely a frightening day for the students and teachers who were locked down for a number of hours while the investigators tried to find another possible gunman and while they tried to discover the young man's reasons.

We know now, and have since yesterday afternoon, that this tragedy was limited to one man, and that the University of Texas has an excellent plan for emergency response. Though the rest of the students may have had some moments of fear yesterday afternoon, today they are thankful for their own safety and the safety of their friends. The only question that remains is "why?" and we may never be able to answer that one.

Despite the good news that came out of the day, some of the headlines focused on the terror and tragedy. One paper posted in big, bold letters, "Terror grips UT as student opens fire." I don't mean to diminish the reality of the story, but is that headline appropriate or necessary? The Austin American Statesman, Austin's daily paper, didn't even focus on the terror. They looked at the story from today's perspective: "Looking for Answers." They even included headlines about the successes of the day. This is pretty amazing considering their readers are the ones who were "terrorized" by the gunman.

They say that bad news sells, and a 2007 Pew Research Study seems to prove it. Of the top topics listed in the survey, people were most interested in war, weather, disaster, money and crime. So, it is understandable that the newspapers would paste headlines that would catch people's attention and make them want to buy the paper. The study came to the conclusion that bad news sells particularly well in times of stress and fear, as people seek to know what's happening so that they feel like they have some power and control over their lives.

I think bad news sells in the church, too. We can see that in the popularity of end times literature, both fiction and non-fiction. We don't mind hearing about someone else's bad news as long as we are certain that it will be good news for us. Those reading the end times fiction generally think they will be the blessed ones, not the ones who have to undergo suffering. Churches that preach hellfire and damnation for sinners are often busting at the seams. The people who like to hear that type of preaching don't think of themselves as sinners: the hellfire and damnation is for the others, just as the war, weather, disaster, money and crime stories generally affect someone else.

I suppose part of the problem is that it is easier to see the negative than the positive. We don't pray when we are happy, but we pray at length when we are sick. We become far more religious in times of stress and apathetic when we are comfortable. We look to God when we are in the foxhole, but forget Him when we are at peace. We look for the bad news in the headlines because we want to control our own fortune.

Habakkuk had reason to complain. Everywhere he looked he saw nothing but bad news. He saw violence and sin and misery all around him. He looked to God for an answer, "When will you make everything right? When will you save me?" Don't we all feel that way, sometimes?

We do not hear the whole conversation between God and Habakkuk in today's reading. In verses 5-11, God replies to Habakkuk's complaint that He's sending the Babylonians. In verse 11, God says, "Then shall he sweep by as a wind, and shall pass over, and be guilty, even he whose might is his god." He pronounces the guilt of those whom He raised up to conquer the world. Habakkuk adds a second complaint, asking if God intends to destroy His people. He accepts God's justice, but asks God whether He will be silent as the wicked overcome His righteous people.

Habakkuk then says, "I'll wait on the watchtower for your answer." God tells Habakkuk to write the message in bold letters, to make it the headline. "Behold, his soul is puffed up, it is not upright in him; but the righteous shall live by his faith." Those who live by their own power and strength will fail. The answer to the bad news is to live in faith. This is the message that we should boldly proclaim. This is the news that we should shout out loud. We may be suffering, we may be living in stressful times, but God is faithful to those who live in a right relationship with Him.

I like the way the writer put this: make it plain so that a runner might read it. The newspaper headlines are designed to catch our attention. When the words "TERROR" are in big, bold letters, we reach for the paper out of curiosity and concern. What's wrong now? What am I supposed to fear? Would we reach as quickly if the word on the front page were "FAITH"? Would we care to read, "You have nothing to fear"?

Yet, how much better would our world be if we only keep the words of the psalmist in front of us daily. He writes, "Do not be afraid. God will take care of things." In Habakkuk's oracle, God says, "… though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not delay." It might not seem like God is doing much, but He is always in control. It might not seem like His Will is winning, but He has the power to overcome all our difficulties. We need not be afraid, even if we face pain and suffering, because the righteous that live in faith will see the promise fulfilled.

It seems impossible, perhaps as impossible as a mulberry tree uprooting and planting itself in the sea. But Jesus says, "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you'll see the impossible happen. The point of this passage is not that you only need a little faith to do the miraculous: it is that faith can't be measured. Two weeks ago we learned that we can't serve God and mammon at the same time. We also can't trust in ourselves and God at the same time. Either you live in faith or you don't. Either you trust in God or you trust in yourself. God did use the Babylonians to get His people's attention, and they might have been blessed for their obedience to God's Will. However, they didn't trust in God, they trusted in their own strength and in the end their power was taken away.

It is interesting that our Gospel passage immediately follows a lesson in forgiveness. Jesus tells His disciples, "If your brother sins against you, tell him and if he repents, forgive him. Do this over and over and over again, as necessary." I can imagine how they must have responded to this statement. "No way, Jesus, how can I do this?" Then they asked, "Increase our faith." He answered their request with the impossible idea that a tiny bit of faith could do the miraculous. He answered their appeal with the command to do what they are called to do, to be His servants.

We are called to His servants, and in the end, when we've done the work, we are to remember that we have nothing about which we can boast. We've done our duty. We might think that because we have faith and because we have done good things in His name, then we deserve to receive nothing but good things.

Can any of us expect anything better than the Apostle Paul? Who deserves more good things for the work they do for Christ and the Gospel than him? Yet, Paul suffered frequently for his faith. He was beaten and imprisoned numerous times. In the end, he was martyred. In the meantime, he took the Gospel to thousands of people, traveled thousands of miles and planted many churches. He trained others in ministry, and his writing has encouraged Christian faith and service for millennia. If his life wasn't blessed with good things, how could we expect anything better?

Yet, Paul was very blessed. Even in his suffering he trusted in God. In the passage from the second letter to Timothy, Paul talks about his circumstances. He was imprisoned, not for the first time, under the rule of Emperor Nero. This particular imprisonment was truly horrid, in a cold dungeon instead of a 'rented house' when he wrote the first letter. He lived in chains and his friends had a hard to finding where he was being held. It is no wonder that the Christians and others might consider him cursed. They might have asked the question, "Should we follow the words of a man who is suffering such a horrid circumstance? Couldn't Paul, who had the power of God behind him, find a way to escape? This letter was probably written near the end of his life, shortly before he was beheaded by the Emperor Nero.

But Paul writes to encourage Timothy and the Ephesian church. "Be not ashamed therefore of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner…" We may be surrounded by violence and sin and misery, and there may not seem to be much good news for us to hear. But the good news is that God is in control, and even when it seems like it is impossible, God will take care of everything. Paul knew this. He trusted that even if he was facing the last moments of his life, even if he was about to lose his head, that God was in control.

We are called to holy service, sharing the love and forgiveness of Christ with the world. The news we have may not sell, but it is Good News. Most people don't want to hear that they should forgive others. They simply want to know that their enemies will suffer for their sin. They forget that they are sinners, too, in need of the love and mercy of God. But we are given God's grace through Jesus Christ so that we will boldly proclaim that God will make everything right, even when it seems impossible.

Who told you about Jesus? Timothy heard the good news from Paul, and from his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois. They gave him that flicker of a flame; they shared the word that planted that mustard seed of faith. Paul wrote to Timothy, "…stir up the gift of God." It says in the NIV, "…fan into flame the gift of God." Someone boldly proclaimed the Word to us, planting within us the gift. But God's grace is not given to sit idle in our hearts. We are called to live in faith, trusting in God's mercy and sharing His grace. We are called to boldly proclaim the good news of God's forgiveness and to forgive those who have harmed us, knowing that God is our Savior. It might seem like the promise is taking forever to be fulfilled, but be patient. God is in control and He is faithful. There is hope in our crazy mixed up world. Though the headlines are filled with bad news, we have good news that will always prevail. Stir up the gift, fan the flames, and you'll do the impossible. Trust in God, and that mulberry tree will be moved.

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