One of the risks for preachers in running with the lectionary for services of worship designed to address a special issue or theme is that the readings just don’t work.
I don’t mind telling you I had a mild panic attack when I saw these readings: this week for Blue Knot Day we have an iconic gospel reading about the personal transformation of a greedy and corrupt man and a few verses from the very strange little book of the prophet Habakkuk.
Habakkuk is a book of the Bible I have been successfully avoiding until now. And now that I have paid a bit of attention to it, I have a more informed opinion, and that is, that it is indeed a very strange little book. I have also learned that it has a significance beyond it’s disturbing content and its size – some Jewish scholars believe Paul’s reinterpretation of the fourth verse of chapter two in Romans became one of the markers that divided Christianity from Judaism but that’s a story for another day.
Most scholars believe that Habakkuk can be dated to about 605-600 BCE. The Chaldeans invaded Judah in 601 after they crushed the Assyrians. It was still a decade or two before the Babylonian invasion.
The book has three chapters. What we’ve heard today are the first four verses of each of the first and second chapters. The third chapter is in the form of a Psalm.
We meet Habakkuk as a man in despair. He’s crying out to God – tired of seeing so much injustice and tired of watching evil overcoming good; and he’s really, really tired of God not doing anything about it. Now he’s demanding attention and some answers. There is nothing strange about these first 4 verses. In the context of violence and abuse, personal and societal, where justice is hard or impossible to find, even those without faith can cry out to an invisible or imaginary God, desperate for an end to violence and the perversion of justice.
It’s what comes next that makes this one of the more disturbing texts in the Bible. Disturbing for us but totally shocking for Habakkuk. God tells him that he will send an invading force, the Chaldeans, “fierce and impetuous”, to punish the wicked of Judah. And the rest of the chapter described what the Chaldeans did to the citizens of Judah. Habakkuk is not at all convinced about this: “why do you look on the treacherous and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (1:13b)
And so it is that at the beginning of the second chapter we have Habakkuk still watching evil being rewarded and digging in before God. He is standing at his post, watching and waiting until God answers him; this mostly silent, inscrutable, morally dubious God. Well God does answer him, but I’m not at all convinced that it would have been received as a terribly satisfactory answer at the time. But it was a critical answer, so important that Habakkuk had to make sure it would be communicated properly across the land: the Chaldeans have doomed themselves by their violence, greed and arrogance, justice will be done and the righteous, both individuals and the nation of Judah, who have lived by their faithfulness to God will see the justice and peace of God… one day.
And then we have the gospel reading for the week – the story of Zaccheus, a corrupt man living by the values and the rules of empire – the systems and structures of power which dispossess, abuse and oppress. He was not righteous, to use the language of Habakkuk, not living by his faith. He betrayed his own people out of greed; he played the system and prayed upon the vulnerable.
But he was drawn to Jesus and Jesus noticed him, this small, reviled man and in typical fashion upset a whole lot of people by inviting himself to Zaccheus’s house for dinner.
Jesus’ response to Zaccheus was one of scandalous embrace. And Zaccheus’s response to Jesus was that of profound personal transformation. Whatever else this story is, it is a story of the power of relationship to transform.
In this case it was the transformation of a hard and cruel heart. In many more stories of people’s encounters with Jesus, we read of the transformation by unconditional love of wounded and lonely hearts, of impoverished and desperate lives, of oppressed, marginalised and traumatised people. We also see the challenge of Jesus to those systems and structures, especially the religious ones, that fail to live up to the call of God to live righteously and faithfully.
The two readings for today make an interesting pair.
One is focussed on the great eschatological hope that God’s will for the world will eventually be done – the wicked will receive the judgement they deserve and the vulnerable, oppressed and abused will see justice done and peace delivered. The other is focussed on the ‘already and not yet’ – God’s reign of justice and peace is to still come but in Jesus it is here already and transformation is possible. Both readings point to the requirement on the righteous to act, faithful to God’s call to be merciful and to seek justice.
This is the first Blue Knot Day since the start of the Royal Commission on Institutional Child Abuse.
On Blue Knot Day, we remember and stand with those who have suffered so much at the hands of others – physical and sexual abuse, shocking trauma (emotional and physical), and the gravest betrayals by individuals and institutions – and we are called to hear their cries. We hear the cries of the long and agonising wait for justice and peace: maybe for some it is partly a wait, like Habakkuk, in the presence of an seemingly absent and slow-moving, morally dubious God; maybe for many it is a seemingly endless and pain-ridden wait in the presence of institutions whose failures were so grave because their betrayal was so great; and maybe it is the isolating wait in the face of a society that just does not want to know.
The message of Blue Knot Day is that even in the face of such distant justice and such painful waiting, recovery is possible. The organisation that runs Blue Knot Day, ASCA (Adults Surviving Child Abuse) tells us that it is possible in relationship, because positive relationships of good care and appropriate support can make a difference. This is a message of hope in the here and now, if you like, the ‘already’ of the ‘already and not yet’.
When the Royal Commission was announced, I saw in the faces of the survivors who publicly responded, so many powerful and deep emotions, but relief and hope were among the most recognisable. Through this Commission, the institutions that had betrayed trust in such uncaring and even brutal ways, would have to hear, unequivocally and in public, of their failings. The individuals who had perpetrated abuse would be known. And most importantly, as survivors, they will be able to tell their story, confident that it will be heard. Here too, is some of the ‘already’, the first small steps necessary for the transformation of individuals, institutions and society.
As one of the diverse and tragically too many institutions preparing to be called to the Commission, the Uniting Church has promised to listen to the truth about its past, to say sorry to any who were abused while in our care and to work with those who have suffered in an attitude of repentance and with humility and compassion. Nothing less would be acceptable.
In the ‘already and not yet’ of the reconciliation of God with all creation, the task before us is clear. We only have to live faithful to our calling to be the love of God in this world, reaching out to all in need, seeking justice for the oppressed, the marginalised and abused, extending compassion through all that we do, living simply and with humility and worshipping together the God who embraces each of one of us without distinction.
main resources: Howard Wallace’s lectionary resources: http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au, Anna Grant-Henderson’s lectionary resources http://www.oldtestamentlectionary.unitingchurch.org.au, Shimon Bakon (2011) Habakkuk: From Perplexity to Faith, Jewish Bible Quarterly, 39:1 http://jbq.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/391/Habakkuk.pdf
South Sydney Uniting Church 3 November 2013 Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 | Luke 19-1:10