Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the book Between the World and Me as an open letter to his young son. In this, Coates makes a stunning observation.1 I missed this point on my first reading. I am indebted to Austin Channing Brown for pointing it out in her book I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. It is commonly held that in our nation, slavery lasted for two hundred and fifty years. (Now there’s some debate about this number and I know, if you look at the prison system, you’ll see how slavery is still in practice.) But what this means is that someone who was born into slavery might have known her grandparents as slaves and her parents as slaves. Then she might have seen her children become slaves and her grandchildren become slaves.
For generations, as far as she could see in any direction, there is only slavery.2 Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Text Publishing: 2015. page 70. Just imagine this. How can a person sing for freedom and pray for freedom when all she can see is oppression? It’s like something in her is longing for liberation; where does this come from?
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Instead of a new sermon series, here at Church of Peace we’re beginning to follow something called the Narrative Lectionary. This is a four-year cycle of scripture readings designed to help us focus on the stories in the Bible, especially the stories we might have otherwise overlooked.
If the goal is to uncover the rarely-read parts of the Bible, we’re off to a strong start —our scripture is from Habakkuk! Seriously. On the first Sunday of Advent. No cozy Christmas carols or darling animals. Instead, we hear a prophet railing against God! What is this!
It’s just, if we listen closely, even to Habakkuk, we’ll hear traces of the crashing in the universe when the tyrants topple from their thrones, and the poor start rising up, and the angels stream out of the stars declaring peace.
Our scripture begins like this: “O 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 make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me.” This is what Habakkuk says to the LORD. All you have to do is look at the world for a minute and you know he’s right.
Sandy Hook Elementary.
Mother Emanuel in Charleston.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Tree of Life Synagogue.
The prayer of the prophet makes sense. O LORD, how long shall we cry for help? What I want to know is, how is Habakkuk still expecting God to hear and care?
When your grandparents’ lives are shaped by violence and your grandchildren’s lives are shaped by violence so all you can see in any direction is violence, how could someone imagine what peace is? What if there’s something in us longing for a world of compassion we’ve never even seen…
The book of Habakkuk was named for the prophet, but like so much of the Old Testament, the book was pieced together from a variety of sources. Also like much of the Old Testament, the book of Habakkuk speaks to those who were reeling from the Babylonian exile. This is when Babylonian forces invaded Israel at the beginning of the sixth century, razing the temple, and killing and deporting Jewish people. (In our scripture, Habakkuk calls out the Chaldeans which was another name for the Babylonians.)
Bible Scholar Paul Hanson identifies what he calls the “twin doubts of the exile;” these are the two things people were most afraid of. One: Is our God really powerful enough to save us? Is God able? And Two: Does God even want to save us? Is she willing?3Hanson, Paul D. Isaiah 40-66: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. You can tell this is what the people feared most because from the Psalms to the prophets, we keep hearing the insistence that yes, God is mighty enough to save us. And yes, I know he will. God is both willing and able. We can hear the worry. We hear the worry get answered loudly. And maybe that’s enough.
But the truth is, there is something more. What if this old, clattering poetry could give us a glimpse of God’s promise? What if it could help us see the world’s potential for compassion? Now more than the question, Will God save us? and the answer, Yes she will, what if we could begin to imagine what this looks like…
In the first scripture, Habakkuk lays it out for the LORD. Look at the nations! Be astonished! Be astounded! Come on God, the news is breaking. It is breaking us!
In the second part of our scripture, the LORD our God notices Habakkuk keeping watch. God answers him saying: “Write the vision so a runner could read it because there is still a vision for the appointed time. It speaks of the end and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come….” (Habakkuk 2:2-3).
In the first scripture Habakkuk looked at the world and told God the truth. In the second part of the scripture God said, “Yes I know. But there’s something more. There is a brighter vision you can’t even see yet. It is still coming.” In the third part of the scripture, what happens is that Habakkuk believes God. As though oppression and violence are real, but not inevitable. As though there’s something in us still longing for God.
Even in this world.
Even in this nation where we’ve become weary to the bone from chronic mass shootings.
They keep happening. Every time the news breaks that there’s been another shooting, it threatens to re-traumatize all the survivors and loved ones of those who did not survive. Every time the news breaks that there’s been another shooting, we are forced to admit, this is a problem we have not solved. Each incident exposes our nation’s genuine brokenness.
It would make sense to me if we all started to grow numb. It would make sense to me if we started to give up on longing for God. We have heard the phrase “thoughts and prayers” get tossed around like a cheap apology. We have heard survivors stand up and say “Spare me. You go on and keep your thoughts prayers.” It would make sense to me if we lost our hope that God would care.
Only thing is, that is exactly not what is happening.
After a mass shooting, here’s what I see on Facebook: Right away, somebody shares the news video and asks for prayer. Inevitably, somebody posts their own experience of surviving a shooting or knowing someone who didn’t. When the names are released, somebody will post the list of names. I know somebody will share the Mister Rogers meme to look for the helpers.
There will be invitations to give money, or call congress, or take part in a local action like the one at the Temple a few weeks ago. One of my friends will post Jan Richardson’s Blessing in a Time of Violence. Somebody will share the quote by Ram Dass that in this life “We’re all just walking each other home.”
I’ve been wondering why it is that we aren’t growing numb or giving up. If I were to ask a leadership expert about this, I think I can guess what they’d say. There are two reasons. One, as gun violence continues, more and more of us are becoming personally impacted. If you don’t know someone who has been killed by a gun, you are sitting beside someone who does. Knowing someone personally is the first thing.
The second is having something to do. Increasingly, there are opportunities to take action — signing a petition or helping raise money. It all comes back to two things: a friend and a job. The antidote to apathy is having a personal relationship with someone you care about and having something to do. And I think they’re right; I think the leadership experts are exactly right. But what if there’s something more…
More than a friend and a job, what if we need our longing for God to break into the world? I believe God envisions a world where we don’t kill each other. It could be God is longing for this. It could be that you are longing for this. Imagine if we bring our longing into harmony with God.
Because what’s happening now is that our children have drills at school to practice staying quiet and hiding from a shooter. Our teenagers are learning how to apply tourniquets to each other so they can save their friends’ lives during a mass shooting. This instruction comes from military medics who adapt combat First Aid for our high schools.4https://www.wrdw.com/content/news/High-school-teachers-training-after-hours-to-Stop-the-Bleed-481019781.html Think about what we are teaching our kids. These measures could save their lives. But who’s going to imagine something more…
Of course we need to look for the helpers. Look at the helpers and join up with the helpers, but what I want to know is what are the helpers looking at? Because it might be up to us to keep open our longing for the vision of God.
The helpers might need us to stay at the watchpost. They might need us to sing the songs of liberation, even if we haven’t known liberation ourselves, even if all we can see in any direction is violence. The helpers might be counting on us to believe God when he promises something more.
“Though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food. Though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, still I will rejoice in the LORD” sings the prophet.
As though God is still coming to save us.
As though into this violent world, a baby could get born.
As though a baby could prove there’s something in each of us that still believes those angels who come singing peace into the earth. Amen.
|↑1||I missed this point on my first reading. I am indebted to Austin Channing Brown for pointing it out in her book I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness.|
|↑2||Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Text Publishing: 2015. page 70.|
|↑3||Hanson, Paul D. Isaiah 40-66: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching.|