Bold-Faced Praying

So, I know this attorney……and he represented a client once who was feisty. Her life had been hard and she struggled to keep afloat financially. Her mobile home was in poor shape, barely keeping the cold out. Her youngest daughter had significant medical issues that kept her out of school for long stretches of time. The woman herself came to the attorney seeking Social Security Disability status so that she could be released from the grind of physically taxing jobs that her body could no longer do. In addition to her social security claim, the woman had purchased a car from someone that was a lemon. She spouted off angrily about the money she had paid for the vehicle and how much she had spent in repairs within the first six months of owning it. “This is not right,” she pronounced repeatedly to the attorney. He went to bat for her and she refused the settlement terms the first couple rounds of negotiations. “For all I’ve gone through with this car, that’s not enough!” She had learned from her hard-scrabble life to stand up for herself. The opposing attorney complained about her to her attorney but he explained, 1) She’s been through a lot. 2) That’s who and how she is, and 3) The car was justifiably a lemon. A final deal was struck with the car dealer stating, “Part of this settlement agreement stipulates that, upon receipt of these funds, she may never come to us again with any complaint.” Her badgering was effective in winning for her a greater settlement than a meeker person would have received. It also sealed the deal in the opposing side stating to her attorney that they never wanted to have to cross paths with her again!

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Jesus told a parable about a widow who presented her case relentlessly to a judge who was known to lack compassion. In fact, it sounds like he didn’t even like people. That’s an interesting trait for a man put in charge of other people’s well-being! The word “bothering” in Greek translates as “causes me trouble.” The judge worried that she would “wear him out”, which can be interpreted “give me a black eye…). This widow could stand her own ground and the judge realized that!

In this parable that Jesus tells, the woman’s laudatory trait is her persistence. Standing before a heartless judge, Jesus makes it clear that the poor are to be defended. According to Jewish law, widows are to be cared for by the community so he is under moral obligation to settle her case fairly so that her difficult lot in life can be eased. It’s a story that is unique to Luke’s Gospel which isn’t surprising since he is known as the social justice advocate of the four gospel writers. Fairness in our human interactions is a chief concern of Luke’s Jesus so a Godless, heartless judge would immediately be seen as the enemy. Garrett travels the state presenting the case of individuals who are looking for social security disability or worker’s compensation benefits. He knows going into the courtroom what that particular judge’s record is for favorable decisions. There is one judge who only decides in favor of the plaintiff 15% of the time—no matter how compelling their hardship! Garrett feels pessimistic before he even opens up his mouth because he knows that this judge is not moved by how difficult life can be for some folks. He has to be honest with his client before the hearing that their odds of winning are not good simply because of what judge was assigned to their case. This is the judge you do not want to get for your case!

Jesus tells parables to hit home a point. Margit Ernst-Habib writes, “…the widow…represents not only the need to pray always, as Luke puts it, but also the Spirit’s incessant work of encouraging us to pray, the Spirit’s nagging persistence and unrelenting perseverance.” If an unjust judge can grant justice in response to a badgering, scrappy widow, then how much more will a God who loves us heed our cries? The parable tells us how to face injustice as believers. Notice it never suggests that we will be able to avoid injustice in our lives. The key to our survival in a dog-eat-dog world is to persevere in prayer and to have courage! Jesus calls for our faith to carry us forward over the long haul.

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At the end of the sporting event, what do we expect to hear from at least one of the interviewed winners? Very often they thank God for giving them the victory. I don’t even mind that they say that. At least someone in the winner’s circle is invoking God’s name without profaning it! But what would impress me even more is if one of the losing team members, in their interview, thanked God for being with them in their losing match. I can’t ever remember hearing that! This parable challenges us to examine that for which we pray and how we pray. Do we wear God down by repeatedly asking for God to use our own witness to the faith in powerful ways? Or are we usually sidetracked in our praying by focusing on the ways our body is failing us and the brokenness we face in our own relationships? Kimberly Bracken Long offers this insight into the passage: “Jesus makes it clear that faith is actively hoping, eagerly anticipating the coming reign of God, never ceasing in our prayers for others, for the world, even for ourselves.”

In his first letter, Peter defines the life of the believers in an interesting way: “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul.” Do you ever feel like you don’t fit into this world? Do you feel alone in some crowds, noticing how differently you interpret events from others? Do you read the signs of the times in a way that brings scoffing, even ridicule, from others? That’s because we are not of this earthly realm, Peter tells us. We are the aliens, the E.T.s in our own neighborhoods, precincts, national census! When we look at the context of this parable we see that it is preceded by a conversation Jesus has with the Pharisees. In Luke 17:20 they ask Jesus when the kingdom of God is coming. He answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

One of the ways that we are separated from non-Christians is our understanding that our world is coming to an end—in some way and at some undetermined future time. Jesus goes on in chapter 17 to talk about the end times and warns the Pharisees that the way God breaks into our earthly history will be as in the time of Noah, when people were carousing and going about their everyday life with nary a concern about their spiritual well-being. Then God’s judgment swept in, taking a Godless generation by surprise. So our passage in chapter 18 follows upon this conversation. We hear Jesus give a summary statement in verse 8 when he warns, “And yet, when the Son of Many comes, will he find faith on earth?”

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I wonder: Is our world at all like the world they prayed for in Jesus’ time? Or are we still experiencing life as it was in the days of Noah, when no one gave a thought for their accountability to enter into each day as a gift from God to be spent shining a light on the presence of Jesus. In this parable about the unjust judge and a badgering women, we are urged to choose wisely when it comes to the things of God because it is by these choices that we will be graded. Jesus teaches that we must pray unceasingly and watch for God to multiply our efforts at making peace. We tend to reject the image of a judging God who punishes or rewards based on our feeble efforts. But stripping God of judging capacity makes as much sense as it does to do away with our traffic signals. Have you ever tried to drive a car in a country where everyone does their own thing? Have you ever tried to find a location in an area that didn’t have good signage and no clear directional signals? We highly value our system of laws and established order and we hold folks accountable based on our accepted laws. A God of judgment is really a God of accountability. It is our choice how we live in response to God’s overwhelming goodness but we face consequences when we decide to go rogue and live by our own set of rules.

So Jesus urges us to navigate our course carefully so that we can finish the marathon that stretches before us. The way that we will survive as faithful Christians is by persistent prayer. We know all too well what it is to hear someone make a bold-faced lie. But, in this story, we meet someone who isn’t afraid to repeatedly offer a bold-faced prayer. John Buchanan describes it in this way: “The scene must be something like a hall of justice, a judge seated on the dais, throngs of petitioners gathered about, some represented by lawyers, others just shouting their requests from the crowd. The woman is in that crowd every day when the court convenes. She wants ‘vindication’ against an unnamed adversary. Every day she asks for justice, shouts for justice. Every day the judge ignores her. Maybe she follows him home and repeats her request nightly and the first thing in the morning. She nags and badgers; she is relentless. Finally, realizing that he is encountering some kind of primal force, that she is not going to give up, the judge relents and renders a favorable judgment. ‘Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?’ Jesus asks.”

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Are you pestering God to show up in force and shape this world into some likeness of heaven? Are you holding on for dear life in your prayer discipline trusting that God is in control even if you haven’t experienced any God-sightings lately? Jesus was not trying to resolve the mystery of answered or unanswered prayer in this lesson with the disciples. He gave them the best survival tips He could for surviving the injustices here while keeping our sights set heavenward: Be a bold-faced pray-er. Pray without ceasing. Persevere. Have courage. Amen.


Hanging On

The oak leaves hung on! It’s the leaves at the top of an enormous oak tree that are still attached to the branches. In spite of an early winter that blew icy winds and snow through our Michigan landscape, these leaves are still in place! Their non-descript brown color could be easily overlooked against the colorless landscape. But on this cold November evening, the setting sun is sharing the last act of the day with them. In the fleeting light they are transformed into an auburn hue. Moving in response to a slight wind, they grab my attention. It seems like they should have let go when the storms hit a couple of weeks ago. How much longer into the winter will they avoid falling? Standing on my back deck wrapped in a down jacket, I admire their tenacity.
It seems like the people with the least protection from their environment have the greatest endurance. Maybe it’s because that’s the only way they will survive. With no one going to bat for them and no safety net to catch them, they maintain whatever shred of control they have by hanging on. At our church we have a discretionary fund with which I can offer assistance to those whose needs fall through the crack. I usually help folks only one time from this fund. But some people have become known to me, like part of the flock. They have never come to worship. Some I’ve never laid eyes on. But I’ve paid by phone to cover their utility bill lest it be shut off. I’ve called in commissary money to one of my regulars who ended up in prison for a time. I’ve taped a gas card to the outside of our parking lot door. On their evening drive home from a thankless job, when I’ve gone to the comfort of my home, they stop by the darkened church to retrieve their ticket to $25 worth of gas. Some stop by my office to pick up a check that can be used to pay for wood that keeps their modest home warm in the winter. When we meet we size each other up. They’ve learned not to trust their world. I don’t assume that walking into a church feels safe for them because too many people have failed them.
A few of the individuals I’ve helped through our church fund call me with some regularity. I remind them that I can’t help them more than a time or two but we talk about their circumstances. I am their pastor. Over the phone they talk about challenges that I can’t imagine surmounting. Many times their problems are not neatly resolved. They have to move to a new apartment. She loses her boyfriend because he slept with her 20-year old daughter. This fall I had four women stop by the church in a months’ time asking for a gas card. Each had suffered abuse at the hands of a boyfriend or husband. Two had ended up in the hospital with their injuries. One drove into our parking lot pulling a trailer with her worldly goods. Her husband was in prison because of his abuse. She and her twin daughters were driving off to a new life and needed gas to do so. These are courageous people who hang on. With seemingly no community to support them, they are survivors.
One woman, Sylvia, called me with some regularity. I met her at a pharmacy once so that I could pay for her prescription. She and a man lived together out of financial necessity. I helped him a time or two as well. They were not romantically involved but shared close quarters and living expenses so as to have a roof over their heads. She reached me one day as I sat on my front porch reading on my day off. It was a lovely day for me, relaxing and safe. Not for Sylvia. She knew I couldn’t help her again financially so I assumed she wanted to talk. She told me that her roommate had come up behind her in the kitchen recently and made advances on her. He was a big man. She was horrified. She reminded him that she was a married woman. (Her husband lived 45 minutes away in a care facility and they couldn’t bridge that distance without cars or money.) Her voice cracked as she shared her fears of being violated by the man she had to live with. Fortunately he backed away, realizing perhaps that any violation of her will could mean the end to his shelter. It’s the only time Sylvia ever showed any sign of stress when talking with me. She was at a breaking point–so I listened and offered to pray.

For a couple of reasons I’m thankful we have this discretionary fund at our church. Although it may feel like an insignificant gift, whether it’s a $25 gas card that gets them to their doctor’s appointment or $200 to turn the heat back on, it makes a difference in their well-being. It reminds them that somebody–from a church, a Body of Christ–cares. But I’m also glad to manage this account because the people I meet through it change me. They let me in on their vulnerability. They tell me their tales of unthinkable hardship. I witness how one surgery and subsequent leave from work can set them back on the most basic needs. About the time I’m thinking I need a new winter coat, I need to be reminded that I have more than enough in my closet, my wallet, my heart.

So the brown, dried-up leaves on a wintry evening stir something up within me. I admire their stubborness. Oak leaves are usually some of the last ones to fall. They end of getting stuck in the snow, resting in place until the winter melts away and new grass pushes them into the swirl of Spring breezes. While I may feel helpless to truly make a difference in the lives of a few of “the least of these”, as Jesus called them, I am reminded that there is a greater Provider who keeps watch over them. The Spirit invoked in prayers over the telephone or with hands held in my office shows up and carries them forward to another day. Relaxed and released for a moment, the ride is good.



The Controversy Section


Many years I was new to the staff of a church and very green to ministry. At a staff retreat we had a chance to get to know each other. The typical questions were asked of me: What strengths do you bring to the job and what are your growth areas? I have no idea what I named as my strengths but I remember clearly my answer about weaknesses: I don’t like conflict. Not many of us do! I had gone through two lengthy interviews with the search committee, been wined and dined by some of the folks and finally preached to the congregation in a “candidating sermon”. In spite of all my interactions with a variety of individuals there, it turned out that I had stepped into a conflict already brewing when I began my ministry with them. We ultimately hired an outside agency to navigate the choppy waters of heated divisions with a reluctant congregation. Even when the hired consultant mapped out the process by which we would speak and listen to each other, some folks raised their hands and objected to his process! Seriously, I thought? So we will introduce conflict into the conflict resolution process for which we are dearly paying?! Unbelievable.
Since that early experience I have interviewed in churches carefully, trying to uncover any hints to their past history and habits, just as search committees try to get a true read on me. I was struck when talking with the search committee at my present congregation in the course of two long interviews that people spoke about former pastors with grace. People seemed to genuinely care for each other. I signed on for the position and I have been blessed with a church family that is relatively drama-free! The result is that we enjoy a deep level of trust for one another. I have never taken that for granted! Thank you, Lord Jesus!
Making my preaching plans this past summer, I looked at the lectionary passages for November 10. This was to be the Sunday we voted on full LGBTQ inclusion including same-sex marriage. I couldn’t believe that the gospel reading for the day talks about marriage! But, as is often the case, it’s about more than marriage when you dig into it. I discovered that this passage is near the very end of what is called the “controversy section” in Luke’s Gospel. This is a pretty good identifying factor for where we find ourselves as a congregation right now. We have had some of the most courageous conversations with one another in the past couple of years. We need simply look outside the red doors of our church to see that we are stepping into a minefield when talking about same-sex marriage. Just as our congregants stand in different places on other societal issues, we are not of one mind on this issue either. And yet we choose to face one another, speak honestly, and listen with respect. We have invited the Spirit of God to lead us in our process and God has shown up powerfully. Why should that surprise us?

So here’s the passage from Luke’s Gospel: The Resurrection and Marriage

20: 27 Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. 28 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”
34 Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. 37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’[a] 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” (Luke 20: 27-38)
So let’s unpack a few details from this story. The Sadducees are one of two dominant groups of Jewish leaders who present Jesus with an exaggerated scenario. They take one Jewish custom and push it to an extreme. Fact: Women were completely dependent on men in Jesus’ day. Marriage was the means by which a woman procured security for her future. On her wedding day, the father gave his daughter to the new husband, as a property deal of sorts. The woman prayed that she would be able to have children as that was the chief goal of the union. If a woman’s husband died the levirate practice ensured that the husband’s brother would marry the widow to provide for her needs. If there had been no children from that first marriage, the first child born to the wife with the new husband would be given the name of the deceased husband. That would keep his name alive. Additionally, a child in the new marriage would save her from the stigma of being childless. So the Sadducees present this fictitious dilemma to Jesus. It’s almost a humorous story because she seems to be the cause of their untimely deaths! They ask Jesus, if she ends up married to seven brothers before she herself dies, still childless, whose wife will she be in the afterlife?

Hmmm. Thoughts? Just crickets? More background to the story is the fact that the Sadducees did not believe that there was an afterlife. So we begin to understand that they are not truly concerned about this issue they’ve placed before Jesus. They just want to stump Him. They want to make Him look foolish. They should know better! Between Luke 19:28 and 20:47 different groups throw potshots at Jesus, trying to bring Him down. They’re threatened by Him. This is called the controversy section of Luke’s Gospel and guess who doesn’t win?!

There was a two party system in Jesus’ day. The Sadducees and the Pharisees held the places of honor as Jewish leaders but they had different stances on different issues, resurrection being one of them. They viewed each other as enemies because they both desired to be the preferred rulers over the Jewish people. Anyone else heard of a two party system where both sides are deeply divided??? There are definitely more parallels to our story than I initially realized. What does it take to get the two sides to stand together in a partisan political system? Something like the crisis of 9-11 perhaps? Apart from that terrible yet unifying moment in our history, it seems like the lines are drawn very clearly. We witnessed that this past week with the election results from around the country. And now, no matter where we stand politically, we brace ourselves for a presidential campaign season that will be grueling at best. Lord Jesus, have mercy!

So Jesus was surrounded by folks who were entrenched in their own positions. They didn’t hesitate to use Him as a pawn to prove their own points. The hypothetical question posed to Jesus was meant to stump him. It was disingenuous and Jesus knew it. His way of unmasking their ulterior motives was to simply teach as if what they asked was of authentic interest. He refused to get pulled into their game. He corrected them on two issues. Even though they really didn’t care about His answer, Jesus assured them (and us!) that the human relationships on this side of heaven pale in comparison with what they will be when we stand with Jesus in glory. Even the richest marriage relationships will not be expressed in the same earthly ways. Our resurrection bodies do not decay or die and our loyalties need not be to only one person. The expansiveness of God’s love allows us to connect with all the saints evenly. For those of us deeply in love with our spouses, we might feel sadness when thinking that we don’t have the same claims on each other in the afterlife. But Jesus urged the believers to let go of this world as the model for the next. Resurrected bodies are transformed. Heaven will be more wonderful than we can imagine and we won’t worry about who is paired with whom. As we have honest and sometimes difficult conversations with each other and with God about who and what constitutes marriage, perhaps it is reassuring for us to know that this is an issue only on this side of heaven!

As I stated earlier, the other irony in this discussion is that the Sadducees, who asked the question, didn’t even believe in the afterlife! But Jesus did. His resurrection from death is the cornerstone to our Christian faith so He needed to address this theological misunderstanding. Jesus does it by questioning their interpretation of scripture. The Sadducees only believed in the first five books of our Bible so Jesus took a passage from Exodus 3:6 in which Yahweh self-identifies as the “God of Abraham…Isaac and…Jacob.” For Jesus, this reference by a living God to men long-since deceased proved that they were still alive in some form. This could only be if there was life after death. The religious authorities of Jesus’ day did not share the same interpretation of scripture and this kept them apart. Each insisted on their rightness and tried to use Jesus to prove their own position. The Pharisees would have embraced Jesus’ teaching on this point of scripture. The Sadducees, not so much!
Folks in our congregation want to be sure their voices are heard when we vote on broadening our inclusion of those in the LGBTQ community. We each have deep convictions about our understanding of the Christian faith including scriptural interpretation. The different places people stand concerning scriptural interpretation of same-sex marriage has divided the Church, divides families and communities. Sitting in the midst of our debates are loved ones who are part of the LGBTQ community. So the way that we speak our minds and listen is very important. As in other areas of church life, we are called to trust that other members of the church family land where they do because they have prayerfully sought to understand Biblical teachings. Otherwise we are among the crowds who pressed in on Jesus in the Controversy Section simply trying to use Him to gain points for our own agenda. There’s plenty of that to go around in our present political climate but we are called, as followers of Jesus, to conduct our business in a different—a compassionate—way.

In the scenario that the Sadducees fabricated, the woman is still childless at the end of her life and widowed seven times over. In the face of this terrible tragedy what is the woman left with? Human relationships have failed her but she is left with God. Ultimately that’s the only assurance any of us has. Our mortal bodies eventually give way to death but we are never alone. Nurturing our relationship to God is our highest calling. If this is our priority in the Church we will be able to act with grace even in the most controversial theological areas. We can speak of our convictions passionately but the way we do it will indicate to others that we are followers of Christ.

It is impossible to have a church family that has no conflict. When human beings live and grow together, there are inevitable differences. I’ve learned that in my ministry. We can’t avoid conflict and it wouldn’t be healthy to pretend like we’re all the same. To run from difficult conversations dishonors the beauty of our God-given differences. We are called to give a glimpse to this world of what life on the other side of heaven looks like by they way we live here. On the other side of this earthly life there are not competing groups grasping for power. No one owns anyone else. No one is alone. No one’s needs go unmet. Like the deepest of loves that we experience here, when we join our Maker at the end of our frail lives God’s boundless love unites us as one family. We belong together. Dividing lines are gone. Conflicts are resolved. Together we lift our voices in praise of the Creator in whose image we all are made. Amen.


Wait For It

What I love about delving into an obscure passage of scripture is that there is a message that reaches out from the past and grabs hold of us. The lectionary placed the writings of the minor prophet, Habakkuk, in front of me this past week. I was intrigued. So the circumstances of our faith ancestors living 2500 years ago have applications in our modern life of cell phones, Elon Musk moon voyages and conscious uncoupling?
So, let’s first admit that you didn’t even know there was a prophet by that name? What is the correct pronunciation of his name? We dispute that in our congregation! But, reading this book of the Bible, two dominant themes surface in this brief oracle: Why (or whether) God permits evil to exist unpunished and can our loving God use a wicked people as a means to bringing about justice? I choose to focus on the first question as that’s enough of a challenge in and of itself! In Habakkuk 1:1-4 the prophet is asking God, “Why do you tolerate wrong!” Then Habakkuk sets up shop in a guard tower threatening to stay put until he gets an answer! At this point, I’m all in! I’m sitting in that tower with him and can’t wait to hear what God has to say!

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Scholars point to a date of 639-597BCE for this writing. This places the oracle in the time of King Josiah. He was crowned king at age 8 (poor kid!). Early in his reign the Book of the Law, meaning the scrolls containing the writings of the first five books, was found. It had been lost for generations and no one could remember a time when the Jewish nation had known and obeyed the commands found in these writings! This terrified King Josiah because there were curses spelled out at the end of Deuteronomy for those who didn’t obey the commandments of God. So Josiah began to institute reforms in his kingdom that called the Jewish people back to the faith. Outwardly they embraced the faith as new converts but their long-time secular ways were not easily abandoned.
In the absence of spiritual guidelines the Jews’ life had spiraled into corruption and self-serving pleasures. The Hebrew courts were clogged with lawsuits and quarrels between neighbors were common. The national politics were a circus of power-seekers. Habakkuk cries out to God that his society is rife with violence and crime. He summarizes by saying, “So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgment comes forth perverted.” Their law has lost its effectiveness because it is no longer being observed by the nation. Their narcissism has eroded every aspect to their daily living. As bleak as the situation sounds, we know that God permits lament and questioning because this sort of honest dialogue opens the way for faith in difficult times. Moral decay and Godlessness burned through Habakkuk’s community leaving spiritual destruction in its wake. So the prophet let’s it rip with his Creator, challenging a just, loving, vengeful God to deliver what the scriptures promise!
Are you hearing anything familiar in these themes? Is it depressing to know that some things never change in our communities? Or is it encouraging—like being in a support group with folks who share your traumatic stories?! Habakkuk lays bare his challenges to the Divine, caring enough to be in conversation with God. He keeps the conversation going since his people have long since abandoned their relationship with God. Like students who stage a sit-in, he declares that he’s going to stay put until he has his response.
In our worship service yesterday we read off the names of the saints who have impacted our lives. Folks came forward to light candles in their memory. All Saints Sunday is both an emotional and healing service. The gifts of past generations are celebrated as they live on in us. In the names we read we recognized that our ancestors had to wait for their own dreams to be fulfilled. We know stories of loved ones who immigrated from far-off lands, putting in the hard work it took to make our country their home. We remember those who fought in World War II when it seemed like our world would never know peace again. We remember loved ones who waited decades into their adult years to find the right spouse and start the family for which they had long prayed. We remember those who had their education delayed because of financial hardship and those who found the career they loved after years of laboring at something they disliked to put food on the table. Our ancestors knew what it was to wait for the right answer. Some of them had the faith perspective that gave them the assurance that all earthly matters were in God’s hands. No matter the political climate, the natural disasters, the untimely deaths or international tensions, they delayed their gratification for the sake of their children and because, in many cases, they had no choice! Every generation has their battles, as we witness in Habakkuk’s writing. In every generation there are those who remind others that God is near in spite of evidence to the contrary!
Folks are not always remembered for who they truly are. There was one weekend when I had three funerals in the span of two days. I had a separate order of worship ready for each service and prayed that I would use the right pronouns in referring to each of the deceased saints. I sought to celebrate the unique gifts of each of the three individuals as told me by their family. I met with the son of one of the elderly women to learn more about his mother. When I asked about her interests he said she loved to have a beer while playing cards. Hmmm. She was good at cards, he told me, because she cheated! He laughed. I scratched my head. How does this flesh out into a meaningful memorial meditation? That didn’t seem to be a concern of his. Getting the service behind him was the goal, giving new meaning to the expression, “Get ‘er done!” Not everyone is remembered for their life’s passions! And clearly, not everyone lived their life in the assurance of the Christian faith.
One young student wrote an essay about Queen Victoria for a history project. He might have mixed up a few details but he certainly tried to capture the highpoints of the monarch’s life. He wrote, “Queen Victoria was the longest queen. She sat on a thorn for 63 years, her reclining years and finally the end of her life were exemplatory of great personality. Her death was the final event which ended her reign.”

Our lives are not always remembered by the younger generation as we might like!

So Habakkuk reminds his people that they need to call upon God for answers to their deepest questions and to be prepared to wait for an answer. In Habakkuk 2: 1-4 God showed up! God told the prophet to write the prophecy in large letters on a sign so that it could be read easily even from a distance. It makes me think of the “cardboard testimonies” some of us offered in our worship service last Sunday. Focusing on the theme of addiction and grace, we held up signs that acknowledged the challenges we have encountered because of addiction. On the flip side of the cardboard we named the way(s) that God redeemed our struggle. We tried to tell our story in succinct language and bold print. Our hopes were that those in the pews would be able to understand each story in just a moment’s time. We prayed that God would use our words on crude cardboard to bring healing to others. From the tears I could see in people’s faces, I know that happened.

I’ve wondered recently what our congregation would write on a billboard, if we leased space on one? Where would we place it and what would we want to communicate to our neighbors? Do we have a word of hope to share for those who have run out of it? Is there a scripture passage that might awaken those outside of the Church to the presence of a God who loves them? What message would we write so that it would minister to those flying by at 78mph with their thoughts focused on how to pay their bills for another month? What word might give them the faith to hang on?
God continues to offer words of comfort through Habakkuk in the answer at the beginning of Chapter 2. There is an answer, a vision that is perfect for our time. If it seems to take awhile, hang on! It will come. We Christians continually learn to trust in God’s timing. The Psalmist writes, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.” (Psalm 62: 5-6) What Habakkuk needed was a broader worldview with a willingness to wait longer than hoped for God’s will to be accomplished. God’s justice is meted out in our human history but sometimes it seems impossible to endure the wait. The saints who shaped our lives were not spared hardships. They prayed for respite that may not have arrived as they hoped. And so we pick up the prayers where they left off. Like this obscure prophet, we seek to glorify God even in the darkest times because we trust that our history is still being written by the Creator of our world. There have been and will always be those who are “puffed up” with pride, as one translation describes those proud for the wrong reasons. Violence is on the nightly news. People with selfish motives seem to gravitate to positions of leadership. Families are driven apart by arguing. Schools become fortresses to keep their students safe. Lives are lost and countless homes burn as another fire rages through California, a fire believed to have been set by some malcontent. But God gives Habakkuk an answer we hang on today: “the righteous will live by their faith.”
On All Saints Sunday we cherish the opportunity to remember those whose faith has become an anchor in our own lives. We remember grandmothers who talked to us about Jesus, grampas who got emotional when offering grace at the dinner table, mothers who served Sunday dinners where folks talked about the worship service and fathers who read stories to us out of the Bible. We give God thanks for their example of being in conversation with their Maker, even when others proclaimed there could be no God in such a troubled world. We are grateful that they voted their consciences and took a stand for their beliefs no matter the cost. We take heart noticing that they trusted that all was well, at all times, because they knew Who shaped their days. Like them we dare to address God and ask for answers. We position ourselves so that we can discern God’s movement, ready to share our faith stories with others. We live with the eternal assurance that, in the best of times and the worst of times, the righteous live by their faith. That’s where we take our stand. Amen.