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Based on the Scripture readings:
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Luke 17:5-6

2004 October 3
World Communion Sunday
Rev. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Ancient Pieces of Peace

All this week I've been reading about bad conditions around the Holy Land. The people of Israel remain terrified of their various desert neighbors with their possible weapons of mass destruction and giant armies. Ancient tensions spill into modern behavior. And, I read, the activities of a self-guided world leader, allied with one cruel kingdom one day, and another the next, is unbalancing regional politics. The existence of a world leader who is willing to cancel social programs at home injuring the poor and yet spend untold borrowed sums on military campaigns abroad drives commentators crazy and divides a nation. If you've been reading what I've been reading, you could be quite pessimistic about what is to come, even if there is a change in world leadership before too long.

Of course the problem with what I've been reading, the book of Habakkuk, is that it describes the seventh century before Christ. It is only four pages long, and its message is that there is only one way out of this mire: faith in God's peaceful ways and a change in how we use power.

Now you could say that we can't learn much from Habakkuk. It is about its own time and its own people. It's not about us. Yet isn't it amazing how often the people of the Bible do speak to us? I don't mean about geopolitics, because on close examination there are always enormous differences between them and us. But I mean about the hopes and fears, the social conditions,

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and the hunger of faith in Biblical times, which have extraordinary corollaries to our own.

Habakkuk speaks of Jehoiakim, King of Judah, the son of a great leader, Josiah. You could say they had a ruling dynasty. Father Josiah was a moderate and a reformer. But his son Jehoiakim was described as oppressing the poor and shedding innocent blood abroad while his companions received dishonest gain, according to Jeremiah. And Jehoiakim would ally himself with one tyrant after another to promote the comforts of the powerful although these actions caught him in the end when he broke one pact and someone got him.

I don't want to be coy here. I am not saying that Jehoiakim is George Bush or that his successor Jehoiachin is John Kerry. Although anytime you hear the word "chin" you are inclined to think about the senator from Massachusetts. These ancient rulers were horrible, and history has judged them. That's not our condition. What I do suggest is that for all of us who wrestle with our moment in history, who wrestle with issues of war and peace and faith, there is a rich store in the scriptures, and it is relevant on a day when we lift up the value of something called world communion. It is relevant for anyone who seeks peace, whether that means inner peace, global conditions, or a way to love their next door neighbor.

Now, I am not about to pursue a comprehensive message on peace, although we do have one on our website. I just want to ask what Habakkuk heard from God when he asked the question, "Why do bad these things happen to good nations, and what do you want us to do anyway, God?"

Maybe a little context will help here. The sixth century before the Common Era was quite a time. Some people say we shouldn't make too much of it, but it gave birth to Zoroaster, Confucius, and the Buddha as well as Ionian philosophy and several of our Biblical prophets such as Jeremiah and Isaiah. Across much of the world, amazing claims were being made about God, creation, human life and its meaning. Zoroaster said that there was a giant struggle between good and evil, Confucius examined how we treat each other and asked us to do better, and Buddha spoke of human suffering and suggested moral principles to address it. Someone can disagree with this, but in a way the whole world was looking for peace.

At this same time, the people of Judah were being taken over by a foreign dominator, separated from the temple where they believed God lived,

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and they were seeing injustice triumph. And believing in a sovereign God, they saw God's judgment in their conditions.

Some people said, God, why don't you smite those lousy foreigners, or crush the skulls of their children? Others said, why have you forsaken us, God? Still others said, why don't you leave us alone?

There are a number of Biblical answers to these questions, but there is one in particular that comes from Habakkuk and Luke. It may not be a simply satisfying answer, and on one level it could be a dismissive answer. The answer is, God will address the wicked in the end. Depend on that. But those who are not wicked, the righteous, are called to something else: faith and change.

You know, this means many things, and I don't so easily like all of them, but there you go. For one thing it means that the people of God are called not to live as others do with trust in armies, military power, and political success. That theme is recurrent in the scriptures, up to the time that Jesus says "Put away your swords." Back in the sixth century before Him, God said you don't beat enemies with armies. And lots of us don't like that. Some of us who take other scriptures literally have to totally ignore it. But a second part of it is unlikable, too. What we are to do is develop our faith in such a way that we are not neutralized or immobilized or traumatized by evil. In fact, we're asked to help fix the world that is so broken, even if our contribution is tiny.

Which leads to Jesus' challenging word. He says if we had faith like a mustard seed, which is almost smaller than dust, we could be landscape architects and aqua-culturists. We could plant trees in oceans. Which is either abusive, dismissive, suggestive, or directive and perhaps all four. Is he dissing the tiny nature of the disciples' faith? Is he saying faith is no big deal: just get it? Or is he saying we might be on the cusp of something enormous? Or perhaps, get going, the world is ready for my peace! I'm not sure.

There is no simple definition for faith. Hebrews says it is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen. Daniel Berrigan says faith always leads us into the injustice and suffering of the world. And some other wag asks, if we only use ten percent of our brain power, how much of our faith power lies unused? There is no simple definition here, but there is a consistent call to take a journey without a map into a life of meaning and giving, not one of warring and despairing.

OK, so this is all well and good. Now we've got this ancient wisdom, and it's pretty wise wisdom at that.

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But what do we do with it? What difference does it make? How does it enter our world?

Here is what I wrestle with, and here's an idea. In Thursday night's Presidential debate I was troubled that both candidates are committed to pursue what Habakkuk condemns as our national strategy for the future. Bush is comfortable sending armies to preemptive war, and Kerry on at least two occasions said he would hunt and kill -- his words -- opponents of our people. A Methodist and a Catholic who don't well represent me. You may disagree. But here in my modern world I don't like the options. But I did like other things that were said. For example, ask yourself the moderator's question: what is the most important issue to the world today? Both candidates said global nuclear proliferation. And still thinking of our Biblical challenge, I like that they have a concern for the whole world: for spreading peace. I like that they have vision beyond the politics of the moment. For across the world in the sixth century before the Common Era a new spark of inspiration for how to live together was born. And across our world today we need the sparks of respect and compassion and appreciation that can sustain us whoever we are.

So what can we do, a tiny little church in America, to engage the suggestion of Habakkuk and Jesus? What can we change or contribute to seek peace?

Well, first off, world rulers do matter. I hope you all vote. Second off, however you vote let's not judge but rather love one another. At a time when red and blue, which used to be two of my favorite colors, now reflect dividing lines, we will embody more of our Christian call by sticking with each other and building up our community than by trying to seek political uniformity or offering criticism. Third, if faith is taking a journey without a map, I encourage you to support the special offering for Neighbors in Need. I have to mention it. Because making an offering is always an uncharted choice, giving to needs that have not necessarily emerged just yet. That is an act of faith. But fourth, go up to one person after worship today, one person who is not in your biological family, and ask them what they think is the most important issue in the world today. Ask them if it is nuclear proliferation or hunger or pollution. Really: this will take one minute. And then ask them whether or not our faith in any way whatsoever changes how well that's ridiculous. Ask how our faith guides us. Just get a mustard seed of conversation going. Really.

You know what: I can't finish this sermon so I'm just going to stop. We must finish it together in conversation. In the historical spirit of a world with so many ideas for peac, and in a time with so much need for peacemakers. That's it. Amen.

Copyright 2004 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.

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