Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Luke 19:1-10; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Pastoral Prayer: Lord God, we gather today bringing our questions and our burdens, we gather today longing to be embraced in your love, we gather today to witness the Spirit increase our love for one another. We gather, here in Church the space beyond enemies. May the words of my mouth and the mediations of all our hearts be pleasing to you our Restorer and Reconciler. And all God’s people say . . . Amen
[The sermon is a mashup of 3 of the Lectionary Readings for Sunday, November 3, 2019]
When the Church gets caught up in the enemy making machine, there is no space, no Good News Community to which we may point to God’s love in Christ. Absent a witness to the reconciling, restorative work of God in Christ in a living community, the world is left in Hell.
Jeffrey Malinson calls it Secular Hell. That is the living experience of being condemned with no means to be restored.
Last week the New York Times ran a piece telling the stories of a number of youth and college students sharing their experience with what is called “Cancel Culture.”
It took some time for L to understand that she had been canceled. She was 15 and had just returned to a school she used to attend. “All the friends I had previously had through middle school completely cut me off,” she said. “Ignored me, blocked me on everything, would not look at me.”
Months went by. Toward the end of [her] sophomore year, she reached out over Instagram to a former friend, asking why people were not talking to her. It was lunchtime; the person she asked was sitting in the cafeteria with lots of people and so they all piled on. It was like an avalanche, L said.
Within a few minutes, she got a torrent of direct messages from the former friend on Instagram, relaying what they had said. One said she was a mooch. One said she was annoying and petty. One person said that she had ruined her self-esteem. Another said that L was an emotional leech who was thirsty for validation.
“This put me in a situation where I thought I had done all these things,” L said. “I was bad. I deserved what was happening.”
Two years have passed since then. “You can do something stupid when you’re 15, say one thing and 10 years later that shapes how people perceive you,” she said. “We all do cringey things and make dumb mistakes and whatever. But social media’s existence has brought that into a place where people can take something you did back then and make it who you are now.”
In her junior year, L said, things got better. Still, that rush of messages and that social isolation have left a lasting impact. “I’m very prone to questioning everything I do,” she said. “‘Is this annoying someone?’ ‘Is this upsetting someone?’”
“I have issues with trusting perfectly normal things,” she said. “That sense of me being some sort of monster, terrible person, burden to everyone, has stayed with me to some extent. There’s still this sort of lingering sense of: What if I am?”
Do you hear the pain? Trapped in a world where the rules for playing the game of life don’t come with a means to escape the world’s judgments creates quite a burden to bear. Can you see that if the Church is caught up in the enemy making machine someone like L would only hear confirmation of her alleged social crimes and the experienced punishment? What L needs, what everyone needs, is a space beyond enemies. When we break free from a faith that feeds the enemy making machine, the Church becomes the space beyond enemies.
That means, rather than consider the Church obsolete, unnecessary, it may be as important as it has ever been – a space where no one is canceled.
When God is the place we go with our biggest questions, the Church may become the best place for all to come with theirs.
Habakkuk wastes no time getting to the issues that trouble him. His big questions actually reflect our own big questions,
“O LORD, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen?”
“Why do you make me see wrong doing and look at trouble?”
For Habakkuk, and really all of us, God doesn’t have a hearing problem, God has a timing problem. That is, God does not seem to respond as readily or quickly as we think God should. We have been chastened to mute our questions by well-meaning people who too quickly point us to God’s words to Isaiah,
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways says the LORD,
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
In other words, we press down the things that trouble us with a quick proof-text of shut up juice. We flatten out the Scripture, removing it from its context and quote a reference that has more to do with really the same issue that Habakkuk raises. God declares forgiveness and offers an invitation to the very ones who stirred up the violence and practiced perverted justice. No wonder God tells us that God’s ways are not our ways. When we are treated unjustly, when we witness God’s patience with others we prefer to cancel them, to cast them into secular hell, even wishing them an eternal hell.
When the Church responds to the big questions of those whose cry for help has gone unanswered, we send them away without empathy, without hope.
Some years ago I was talking about this very thing. That we had some folks with some deep-seated questions that resulted from the sense that their cries for help to God had gone unanswered. My conversation partner simply responded, “I’ve settled those issues.” It was as if to say. “I really am not interested in the trouble they have, I don’t have that trouble anymore.”
I am not suggesting that we simply create space for folks to wallow in their angst. But that we should not be afraid of their trouble. For if we are honest, we also have had those troubles. If ever you prayed, cried out to God, and did not get that answer for which you hoped, you surely have wondered, “How long? Why must I see these things?”
Habakkuk means “to embrace.” God embraces Habakkuk’s question of timing and responds,
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 will live by their faith.
Rather than be tossed by what we see, God tells Habakkuk and so the people, live out of your faithfulness to God. In other words, the wicked order their lives in pride, order your lives in trust.
The Church that provides space for the big issues people face with an embrace, with empathy, will offer not pride in itself, but a pointer to the faithfulness of Jesus which is the One in whom we put our trust even when we see the wind and the waves.
When Jesus embraces Zacchaeus, he leaves for the Church the shape of our embrace of those who have been canceled, consigned to secular hell.
Zacchaeus – viewed as a traitor to his people, canceled as it were, consigned to his own secular hell, heard Jesus’ words as an embrace of grace. For some of us, this story is told of Zacchaeus who climbs a tree to see Jesus as if Jesus has somehow not been looking for Zacchaeus. We commend Zacchaeus for looking to catch a glimpse of the One at the center of the Gospel story. But, are we missing that Jesus pursues Zacchaeus?
Rather than cancel the one who colluded with the Romans against his own people, rather than consign him to secular hell, Jesus lives out his mission to seek and to save the lost. And, when we use the words save, we need to keep in mind that Jesus’ mission was to give meaningful life. Rather than remain bracketed out, blocked on every social media platform as a pariah, Jesus brought him a life of restoration and reconciliation. Zacchaeus need not wait until some eternal time for really living, Jesus saved him to live well.
This is the shape of the Church’s embrace, our expressed empathy, for those living trapped by the powers of Sin and Death to a life of antagonisms. Zacchaeus celebrated with a meal for his friends and restitution for those had cheated.
We can only imagine the reversal for him at the recognition he was loved by God.
When Paul describes the increasing love among those who themselves had big questions and faced their own cancellation, the Church was evidence of the work of the Spirit.
Paul commended The Thessalonians in his first letter grounding their faithfulness in their awareness they were loved by God. Paul describes the witness to God’s love through The Thessalonians that their reputation had become well known. By the time we get to the second letter, it is clear that The Thessalonians continued in their faithfulness, but now they were experiencing persecutions and afflictions.
Even at that, they did not become a space for antagonisms, a space for enemy making. Instead, Paul identified a feature that Jesus himself would bear witness to the love of God when he told his disciples,
They will know you are my disciples for your love for one another.
Here, Paul points to their, every one of them, increasing love for one another. It is important that we connect this reality to the work of the Spirit. While we may rightly point out that we are to love God and love others, that without the work of the Spirit may become just another law to keep. We will use it to prove to others our own self-righteousness. Paul would have none of that. In fact, though he will sum up the whole of the law in,
For the whole law is summed up in a single command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
He is not commending this as the new law. Instead, he goes on to say,
If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
The Church is the space beyond enemies and as it is we will be characterized by a growing love for one another, every one of us. And, that will be, if you will, the calling card of faithful living.
Today we observe the Lord’s Supper having been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Our lives are now hidden with Christ in God. No longer canceled but loved.
Sharing the Lord’s Supper, Communion, is to participate in the space beyond enemies. It is the space where we remember that God in Christ suffered his own cancellation, his own secular hell, only to be vindicated in the Resurrection making his message of God’s love for all and to all the message we proclaim until he makes all things new. When we share in the body and blood of Christ, we risk our own bodies and blood as we embrace all others with the love of God in Christ for those who have been canceled, consigned to secular hell. When we practice celebrating the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim God’s end to enemies, where God made of we who were enemies his friends.
I generally take a manuscript with me to preach each week. However, the preached message is often a bit different than what you will find here. You may listen here.