“Engaging the Powers”

First Lesson: Habakkuk 3:2-15; 

Gospel Lesson: Luke 18:31-34

Habakkuk was a prophet. Not much is known of him except what we have of his ‘Oracles.’ If you have watched the “Matrix” movies you do not know what an ‘Oracle’ is: It is not, in our view, simply being a wise person, a soothsayer, who can know something of the future. No. In our biblical view, an oracle is a message for God, sometimes sought out, but more often than not it is uninvited, as when Joseph is guided to change his mind about the virgin he was to marry. Or, it is a prophecy such as the one that Jesus offers his disciples in this text from Luke, but they do not understand.
Habakkuk receives and answer to a complaint that is lodged against God:

1:2 O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and thou wilt not hear? Or cry to thee “Violence!” and thou wilt not save?
3 Why dost thou make me see wrongs and look upon trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
4 So the law is slacked and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous, so justice goes forth perverted.
The answer that the prophet receives, the content of his oracle, is at once comforting and confounding. God reminds the prophet that the purposes of God are at work, God is not absent from the prophet’s world. God is not ignorant of what is happening in Judah or Jerusalem or Washington D.C. God is at work in the midst of events to fulfill his good purpose.
This same reality is part of the assurance that Jesus is offering the disciples. It is the reality sung in Luther’s famous hymn,

Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still;
His Kingdom is forever.

And this is the point, that God’s intention is to redeem all of creation. The hope for salvation noted by the prophet Habakkuk and by Jesus as he prepares to enter Jerusalem is for us, but only as we are part of that greater movement for God’s work of restoring the whole of creation.

Despite some television commentator’s comments to the contrary, one central theme that is woven throughout the entirety of the Judeo-Christian history is justice; and I mean God’s justice, not the pale, weak, partisan, self-serving justice to which we usually subscribe.

This Lenten season I’ve tried to share with you various Christian disciplines, practices if you will, that Christians have participated in since the very beginning. It is easy to make the connection with prayer, and worship, healing, and hospitality. Then, just when we are about to make a comfortable turn toward Jerusalem, I raise this practice: Justice.

This kind of justice is about doing the work of God, it is not about backing some political agenda, whether liberal or conservative. Justice, says Diana Butler Bass, is a part of Christian Spirituality. Justice does not leave this Christian exercise at the doorstep of forgiveness, but seeks to do something, to address worldly wrongs.

In her chapter on Justice, Diana notes a sermon offered by Puritan governor John Winthrop titled “A Model of Christian Charity.” Before the pilgrims set foot on the soil of North America, Winthrop insisted that God had called New England to be a model Christian society…shaped by justice, compassion, and charity. “The test of American faithfulness would not be purity of doctrine; rather, God – and the world – would judge the colonist on the basis of how they cared for one another,” with Justice and Mercy. (Diana Butler Bass, “Christianity for the rest of us” p. 162.)

This certainly includes advocacy and in many cases working for legislative reform. But what the biblical text points out most clearly is that this idea of Christian Justice is linked with actually doing something to help those who are oppressed. This is the power of the incarnation, that God came to us in the flesh, and as the confused disciples discovered was willing to sacrifice for the sake of the world. Habakkuk cries out: 13 Thou wentest forth for the salvation of thy people, for the salvation of thy anointed.

Today, March 24th, is the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. “I have often been threatened with death,” Archbishop Oscar Romero told a Guatemalan reporter two weeks before his assassination. “If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. If the threats come to be fulfilled, from this moment I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality.”

Romero spent his years up until 1977 as a typical quiet, pious, conservative cleric. Indeed, as bishop, he sided with the greedy landlords, important power brokers, and violent death squads. When he became archbishop, the Jesuits at the Univeristy of Central America in San Salvador were crushed. They immediately wrote him off — all but one, Rutilio Grande, who reached out to Romero in the weeks after his installation and urged him to learn from the poor and speak on their behalf.

Grande himself was a giant for social justice. He organized the rural poor in Aguilares, and paid for it with his life on March 12, 1977. Standing over Grande’s dead body that night, Romero was transformed into one of the world’s great champions for the poor and oppressed. From then on, he stood with the poor, and denounced every act of violence, injustice and war. He became a fiery prophet of justice and peace, “the voice of the voiceless,” and in great theologian Jon Sobrino’s words, “a new Jeremiah.”(John Dear, SJ, National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2010)

I have had a reoccurring dream, where I am brought before a firing squad, asked to renounce my actions, “No,” I say. The blindfold is placed, the guns fire, there are widows weeping in the afternoon. Later I see a man pointing to a stain along the wall, saying, look son, that’s where Pastor Fogle gave up his life for Christ. But there are not so many instances like that here, in my life, where in one fell swoop I give my all. But I am keenly aware that almost daily I am asked to side with the poor, the sick, the outcast in our world; to do something, for God’s sake, to help their situation and I must make a choice between them and the “principalities and powers” or I die a little bit, inside, every time I choose silence.

Compassion, you see, is not an emotion. Compassion is an action. “Justice is not a program, a political platform, or a denominational position on social issues. No, justice is the pilgrimage of the beloved community, ‘the journey toward the establishment of the Kingdom of God.'” (Butler Bass, p. 170)