SJF • Proper 22c •Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The righteous live by their faith.+
Although the Old Testament reading this morning ends with encouraging words, “the righteous live by their faith,” the lead-up is far from comforting. Who can hear this passage about terrible destruction and warfare and not feel that the prophet is talking about our own times rather than the ancient years gone by. The sorrow and terror is kept alive by the continuous wars and rumors of wars in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and even the actual land of the Chaldeans the prophet refers to — Iraq. Even into the most innocent-seeming things in our lives — baseball!
Did any of you see Ken Burns’ documentary this past week, the last episode of his documentary history of baseball, aired just this past week? Even there we were treated to images of the fall of the towers on 9/11. And seeing those images again, and hearing word of past and present destruction, the falling towers, the burning, the warfare, the continuous threats of further terror — why, I just heard this morning there’s a travel advisory on for Europe — I felt like the prophet, when he lamented to God — or at least would like to speak out to Ken Burns! — “Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise… Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told.”
How many of us, on those dark days nine years ago, felt such feeling of disbelief as we watched the TV news coverage, thinking, “this simply can’t be happening; this can’t be real”? I felt like it again this past week, watching the baseball special — seeing those towers fall once again. And how many times since, watching the evening news, do we shake our heads, astonished and astounded at the horror, that such behavior can be carried out, much of it in the name of religion.
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The prophet complained to God, much as we are tempted to do, Why is this happening, Lord? “How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?” Why do you look on the treacherous and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” How many of us have said or thought such things ourselves over the last years? How many times have we wanted to plant ourselves on the rampart, and demand an answer from God.
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And yet God is not silent. God does give us an answer, as he gave an answer to the prophet Habakkuk, the same answer now as it was then. It is an answer for the ages. It is an answer so important that God tells Habakkuk to write it in letters so big that even someone running by will be able to read it, we might say, to post it like a giant billboard by the superhighway so that no matter how fast the traffic goes by the message will not be missed. And the message is this: Justice will prevail. The unrighteous proud will fall; but justice will prevail. “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay… The righteous live by their faith.”
That is God’s everlasting promise, the promise of the power of faith over evil, of right over wrong. Faith will triumph in the end; although it may be delayed, it will not be denied. Faith is life abundant, and nothing can ever conquer it. Faith is what we live by, the source of our trust in the God who is our life. Faith endures.
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So what does it mean to say we live by our faith? Doesn’t it mean that our faith is an actual source of our life, something that keeps us alive, because it is alive?
To look at the other side, I am reminded of a short scene in Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night, in which Viola asks the joker Feste what he does for a living. He says, “I live by the church.” She responds, “You are a churchman, then” — meaning a minister. He answers, “No, I do live in my house, and my house is by the church, and so I do live by the church.” That is not what the prophet means when he says we live by faith: faith isn’t just something convenient in your neighborhood, something you can pick up or put down as you please. No, faith is not just near you, it is in you, inside you, the source of your life, something without which you would be dead.
And because faith is living, because it is alive, faith can be passed on.
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The Saturday after the 9/11 attack I baptized a child right here in this church, right there in that font — though it was over there at the time! That child is still here, still coming to church week by week, coming to this altar rail week by week to be fed with the bread of heaven. And that simple action then and that continued action now says to me the same thing: even in the midst of tragedy and wrong, the tragedy of almost a decade ago and the tragedies that have happened since, life goes on: the life that is nourished and fed by faith. The life of faith goes on, the new life in Christ that begins in baptism goes on in the Holy Communion, and can never ever be taken away from us. Faith is alive! Write it in letters a mile high, my sisters and brothers: faith is alive and we live by it and through it.
It lives in us, and what is more, we pass it along to those who come after us, who make up the church make up the living body of Christ on earth, the blessed company of all faith-full people. And neither the Chaldeans nor the terrorists can stop it, no matter how much they try.
The life of faith goes on, passed from hand to hand like the sandbags that hold back the flood of evil from swamping the world. Faith lives, and is transmitted by the faithful. Paul reminded his own young disciple Timothy of this, reminding him about how his faith first lived in his grandmother who passed it along through his mother and on to him. And Paul recalled Timothy to that faith, as we today are recalled to our faith in the face of much opposition: called to rekindle the gift of God that is within us through Baptism with water and the Holy Spirit, “for God” as Paul told Timothy, “did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
This is the miracle of faith and this is the power of faith. Faith lives, and is passed on generation to generation, even as the older generation passes away. Faith lives and is passed on from person to person, as the church takes on new members and grows in strength and power, fed with the bread of heaven and nourished with God’s abiding presence.
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Now it is true that sometimes we may not feel as strong in our faith as we would like to be. We are challenged, the world faces us with sinister evils sometimes. We look around, as Habakkuk did, and tremble and maybe even doubt. How many people lose their faith amidst the storms, and cast about seeking a savior other than the One Lord? How many turn to the cheap substitutes that seem to offer the ready answer rather than the living faith that endures and in which alone salvation is found? How many refuse the faith when faith is all that can truly give them life?
One such doubtful man once fell off a cliff, but happened to catch a tree limb as he fell. He hung there a while, yelling out, “Is anyone up there?” A voice came back, “I am here. I am the Lord. Do you have faith in me?” The man called back, “Yes, Lord, I have faith, but I can’t hang on much longer.” And the Lord replied, “All will be well; if you have faith you have nothing to fear. Just let go of the branch.” The man paused, then called out again, “Anybody else up there?"
It is no good calling for other help when faith in God alone will save us. We live by faith, and not by sight — faith that God is up there on the cliff as we hang from the branch, even though we cannot see him; faith that God is below us to catch us as we fall, even though we cannot see him; that God surrounds us — above, below, to our left and to our right — and will never let us go. Other helpers have we none: we depend on God alone, our faith in him is our life in this present time and is our life beyond death, beyond the grave, into the world to come. The righteous live by their faith.
And it doesn’t take a whole lot of faith, you know. Just that little bit the size of a mustard seed. For that little seed gets planted and gets watered in baptism. And when I sprinkle the congregation with water from that baptismal font four times a year on the festival days, and I preach God’s word week by week, I hope to water your faith — and mine too — so that it may flourish and grow and become so large that the birds can nest in its branches.
For we bear the word of God in our hearts, and we hear the word of God each week, not just to divert ourselves from our daily lives during the week, but to give those daily lives the faith-full meaning they would never have without that weekly reminder. Faith is what we live by. Even if it is as small as a mustard seed, the power of God’s Word and Sacraments will help us to grow, reminding us all of our own part in Christ’s church, as we too pass that faith along to others. By that faith we will do the great deeds that are required of us all in these violent days. Such is the power of faith, and such is the power of our Lord and God. He will not stand idle, nor remain silent. If he seems to tarry, wait for him; he will surely come, he will not delay. He will increase our faith within us, and give us the assurance of his justice and his power to save.
So let us, as God said to Habakkuk, write our assurance large, let us write our faith in letters big enough for runners to read them, big enough for the people caught up in the rat-race of this world to pause and be recalled to the truth and life and light of salvation. Let us shout from the ramparts so that all can hear. Above all, let us each and every one wear our faith in our faces, our faith shining with trust in our salvation, so that when we go forth from this place, we may be lights those who dwell in the dark places of fear and violence, to bring the hope and power of faith to those who need to know the greatness of our Lord and God. To him be ascribed all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for ever more.