How Long, Lord? How Long?

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October 02, 2016

The Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost

O Lord, how long will I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save?

This lament of the Prophet Habakkuk might as well have been written last week in Aleppo, or in the streets of Chicago which run with the blood of innocents.

Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous – therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

Writing from his context twenty six hundred years ago—in a society imperiled both by corruption within, and by the impending invasion by the Babylonians—the prophet puts God on the spot and demands to know, "Where are you?" And "Given your ultimate sovereignty over the world you have created, how are you allowing this to happen to us?" This prophet's lament is one that rings down through the ages. For anyone paying attention to our city, our nation, our international human family, we can easily join in Habakkuk's wrestling with God.

In the Dean's Forum this morning, we have heard from Chicago-based orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Samer Attar, whose death defying, live-saving work in Aleppo is giving us insight into yet another societal context in which the people cry, "O Lord, how long?" In advance of welcoming Dr. Attar this morning, I read his piece recently published in the Opinion section of the New York Times. In it, he describes the constant stream of bombings, desperate surgeries, and split-second decisions determining who lives and who must be left to die in order to save others:

"It can last for hours. I lose all track of time. Eventually, the chaos dissipates. The floors are mopped clean. The dead are wrapped in white shrouds and laid in the street to make room for the next incoming tide of the wounded and dying.

You feel powerless. You can't stop it. There aren't enough hands to help, and you can't save everyone. Should we give all of our blood supplies to save one life? Or ration them to save five who all need some? The choices are impossible, yet we make them.

The Syrian medics and rescue workers in Aleppo have sacrificed everything, some even their lives. They show up to work every day despite all the horrifying brutality. Those of us who go to volunteer cannot stop the bombs, but we can serve in solidarity with Syria's full-time lifesavers. Who would I be if I could not support them and follow their lead for a few weeks a year?

They are among the most heroic, courageous and selfless people I have ever met — much like the New York firefighters I met on Sept. 11, 2001. A medical student at the time, I squeezed into an ambulance with nurses and medics and we drove toward the smoke and ashes to help. I saw firefighters, paramedics, police officers and citizens rushing to the World Trade Center. That was the side I wanted to be on.

We wrote our names on the back of our scrubs with black markers in case our bodies needed to be identified. I was scared, but I was surrounded by good people doing the right thing."

In the darkest of human failure and evil, there, too, we find the mystery of a transcendent God who does break through – just often enough to remind us that we are all bound for the loving embrace of a God who sees: who sees all, and who weeps with those who suffer. In all of the Old Testament Prophets there are two elements to their often poetic utterances: Judgment and Hope .

For those who were up early enough this morning to see the sunrise, you will have seen as did I, a jaw dropping skyline – with the top half of the building completely blotted out in an encompassing thick blanket of dark cloud – and then beneath it a perfectly golden-glowing sky with blue and wisps of white clouds. The sky cut perfectly in half. It was a stunning icon of the prophet's dual task of the unmasking of evil and the proclamation of hope. One without the other is either naïve optimism or faithless despair. For as people of faith, we are not without hope. And we are not helpless to change the course of history.

Again from Dr. Attar:

"The boy's father saw me and asked who I was, and why I was speaking in a strange language. A nurse explained to him that I was an American doctor. He told me that he had never met an American. He never thought he would. He never believed the day would come when an American doctor — one with Syrian blood but born and raised with the freedoms and luxuries of the United States — would come to Aleppo to help in a time of war. That gave my work a new dimension of meaning: a palpable connection to alleviate the suffering of a people long abandoned. It lets them know that they're not alone. It has made me only more grateful for my life in America. It's also why I go back." 

Dear People of God: If one person can bring this amount of hope in the darkness of Aleppo, can you imagine what the several hundred people of this Christian community could do – if we were to show similar courage and willingness to move towards the violence and destruction that besets our world? With whom might we join in solidarity to amplify their voice of lament? Whom might we astonish by risking our freedoms and privilege to come alongside and alleviate the suffering of those who feel crushed and abandoned?

I know members of this congregation well enough to know that there is no one single answer to these questions. Some of you are saying, "Yes! This is exactly what we do when we come alongside the hungry to offer Just Meals!" Others' hearts are on fire with the thought of how we might change lives by truly committing ourselves to solidarity with those who lives are decimated by gun violence and a justice system that says that Black Lives matter – but too often says they matter less. Some will be checking their bank balance on their smart phone to see how much they can stretch to give in this morning's collection for medical relief in Aleppo; Some are inspired to imagine what we could do to welcome the stranger – to truly welcome to our country those fleeing the devastation of a war torn homeland. And I am certain that those are just a sampling of the ways that God has set our hearts on fire with zeal for a more just world that more truly reflects the beautiful Kingdom of God.

Just as in the time of Habakkuk, the injustices of our society flourish when the interests of the ruthless and powerful ride roughshod over the lives of those who are without power – when the interests of the few destroy the lives of innocents. But Habakkuk's lament and challenge to God is met and answered by a holy vision, God's assurance, that – all appearances to the contrary -- God is watching. God is bringing all of creation unto God's self. Further on in the text, God responds to Habakkuk and invites him to "look over the nations and see, and be utterly amazed! For work is being done in your days that you would not believe, were it told to you..."

Now I have to admit that with that kind of talk, God sounds a bit like one of the current major candidates for President; assurances that it there is an amazing plan that is a bit short on details. But let's just acknowledge it — and then also acknowledge that God has quite a bit longer track record. In Habakkuk's vision, God is pointing to two things: First, that God by his nature as the creator of all things has a perspective that is more comprehensive than any human being's. And secondly God assures Habakkuk (and us by extension) that it is at the heart of God's nature to save, to heal, to reconcile and yes – to judge the world.
We are assured that despite the temporal and situational victories of those who practice evil, that life—true life—belongs to those who put their faith, their trust in God. Not only are we assured of our place in the heart of the Divine, but we are called to be courageous agents of that same saving love—in the life of others to whom we are given. We are to put a human face on God's declaration, "You are not alone".

But how can we do this is such a broken and frightening world—where the problems are so big, and we feel so small? How can we possibly make a difference in the face such large-scaled tragedies? For this we turn to Luke's Gospel where—when asked to do the impossible (forgive without limit) the disciples' cry is, "Increase our faith!" Jesus reminds them, and us, that there is no size requirement on our faith. Even the tiniest amount is enough for God to work with. As Dr. Attar has shown us and encouraged us this morning, one person can affect the lives of many.

As Christians, we are empowered by God's Holy Spirit at our baptism, and we are reminded in today's epistle that "God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and love" (2 Timothy 1:1-14).

With the spiritual gifts given us in our baptism, with our faith—even in the smallest measure—it is enough. It is enough to make us agents of healing and solidarity with those crying out "How long, Lord, How long!?"

Trusting in the knowledge that God is with us, may our faith give us the courage to rush towards the violence and suffering of this world, with not our telephone numbers scrawled on the backs of our scrubs, but rather with the imprint of the cross, the alpha and omega, traced on our foreheads at our baptism. We will be scared. But we will be surrounded by good people – doing the right thing.

In the Name of God, Amen.