November 4, 2001

Girdwood United Methodist Chapel

The Rev. Dianne O'Connell


Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

Luke 19:1-10


Hearing the Message of God

Good morning. I am so very pleased to have been invited to join you this morning. There is one small, but easily resolved, problem. Your pastor provided me the Luke passage this morning, in order to prepare for today's sermon, but not the II Corinthians one. He gave me, as the Hebrew Scripture lesson, a passage from the Prophet Habakkuk - and the first part of my sermon is based on Habakkuk's message. The lesson comes in two parts, Habakkuk 1:1-4, and 2:1-4.

Being a firm believer that the Lectionary has a divinely inspired purpose, I don't want to leave out the words of Habakkuk, especially in our current times.

"How long, O Lord," he says, "must I call for help, but you do not listen?

"Or cry out to you, "Violence!", but you do not save?

"Why do you make me look at injustice?

"Why do you tolerate wrong?

""Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.

"Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails.

"The wicked hem in the righteous,

"So that justice is perverted."

Habakkuk goes on with his complaint against God, but the Lectionary skips to Chapter 2, with Habakkuk saying,

"I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts;

"I will look to see what he will say to me,

"And what answer I am to give to this complaint."

Then the Lord replied:

"Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it.

"For the revelation awaits an appointed time;

"It speaks of the end and will not prove false.

"Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay."

That is all the Lectionary suggests that we read for today. But most of us want to know a little bit more. Habakkuk for instance, was a prophet in Judah between 605-597 BC. The Babylonians were on the verge of conquering Judah. The prophet complains that God does not hear the cries of his people as the Babylonians advance. And God replies that the Babylonians are God's own instrument, doing the Will of God. The prophet asks how God can let the wicked Babylonians conquer those who are more righteous. God replies that the righteous must live by faith.

That's the historical context for the passage. Israel and Babylon - some 2,500 years ago. Israel is, of course, eventually conquered by Babylon and held captive for many, many years. And then Persia conquers Babylon - and on - and on.

The world has changed dramatically in the last 2,500 years - or has it? It is interesting to read the passage from our own perspective, here in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 AD. Listen for the words of a New Yorker:

"How long, O Lord, must we call for help, or cry out to you, 'Violence!'? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are everywhere, conflict abounds, the law is paralyzed and the wicked hem in the righteous…."

"The revelation awaits an appointed time," says the Lord. "It will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it - and will certainly come."

Habakkuk goes on and the Lord does indeed reveal His purpose.

In our times, we still wait. A friend of mine said to me a few weeks ago, "Well, the Children of Abraham are at it again. The People of the Book are bombing, poisoning, and generally terrorizing each other."

Another asked, "What does God think of all this?"

My response was, "Well, I'm sure She has an opinion. And She's trying to send us a message. But I don't think any of us are getting it. Communication lines are garbled something awful."

The Jews, the Muslims and the Christians all recognize that they are all worshipping the same God - it's just that to each one, the other two have God's message all wrong. All three are considered People of the Book - meaning that their faith is contained in great part in written Scripture. All three recognize the historical and genealogical connection of their ancestors --the Prophet Abraham being the father of all three - with the Arabs being descended from Abraham's eldest son Ishmael, son of Hagar; the Jews being descended from Abraham's younger son Isaac, son of Sarah; and the Christians, more like adopted grandchildren through Jesus, also a descendant of Abraham.

Around 610 AD, a prophet was born in Arabia when a voice descended upon a thoughtful, middle-aged man of sensitive feelings. This man, Muhammad ibn Abdallah had taken up the habit of retiring for personal meditation to a cave in a mountainside outside Mecca. He would often dream during his retreats, but at one point, a mysterious personal presence came to Muhammad and announced: "O Muhammad, you are the Messenger of God."

Over the next years, a religion and religious followers developed. The Arabic word "islam" means 'submission" or "surrender" to Almighty God, and one who submits is called a "muslim". Each muslim is a slave or servant to God.

Each Jew and/or Christian also sees his or herself as a servant of God. I suppose the difference lies in what we believe our God demands of us. Just what part of the message are we receiving.

As with any person of great stature and influence, the life of Muhammad is fascinating. The world religion that started with a dream in a cave has developed into an intricate belief-system with as many variations and reforms and counter-reforms, and feuding off-shoots as Christianity ever thought of having.

I originally planned to develop a sermon stressing the similarities between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. I dug out my Introduction to Islam, and I looked up quotes from the Koran on the Internet. And, frankly, well, my efforts were a failure. Going into the project with an open heart, I frankly have to tell you, fascinating as I find Muhammad himself - not much about Islam, in any of its variations, speaks to my personal spirit. Maybe it's because I'm a woman. Maybe it's because I'm an American. Maybe it's because I'm more of the Christian minister than I sometimes give myself credit for.

No, the Islamic faith does not speak to my spirit. But I am here to tell you that Islam DOES speak to the spirit of 1.2 billion people in hundreds and hundreds of different cultures. And there are a multitude of historical/political twists and religious perspectives in the Islamic world, from mystics to whirling dervishes, to intellectual men of great wisdom and compassion, to suicidal, fundamentalist terrorists -- just as there are in our very diverse Christian world. One does not have to embrace any of the variations in particular, but it behooves us to understand, respect, and differentiate among them

And it is also helpful to put us all in some historical perspective - both ancient history and history-in-the-making. For instance, just as an exercise, let us meditate on the Habakkuk passage as if we were reading it through the eyes of a current day Palestinian:

"How long, O Lord, must we call for help, or cry out to you, 'Violence!'? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are everywhere, conflict abounds, the law is paralyzed and the wicked hem in the righteous. Justice never prevails…."

The same passage speaks to a modern-day Israeli, as well.

Christians and Muslims have warred with one another for nearly 2,000 years. And now, we are at war - again. Americans state firmly that this is NOT A WAR AGAINST ISLAM! And for us, it is not. Osama bin Laden shrieks back, "Yes, it is!" And, for him, it is.

If the "Divine Spirit Who Loves Us All" is trying to send a message through all this, what in Heaven's name is it?

God sent the Babylonians to punish Israel for its transgressions - then God sent the Persians to punish the Babylonians - and now the Children of Abraham are stuck with each other - each controlling the minds and hearts of a large chunk of this spinning globe.

Don't expect me to draw any final conclusions from all this. I'm not Habakkuk. I'm just a woman whose daughter describes her as, "One-third Presbyterian minister, one-third union activist, and one-third Earth Mother" - whatever that means. But I'm glad she thinks of me that way.

There is a whole lot wrong in this world - and a whole lot of it is going on in the Middle East. I've figured out that much. There was a serious lack of long-range planning when the State of Israel was established. I've figured out that, too. And a whole lot of people are praying to God - however they understand Him - to bring about a little justice in the matter. What I don't know is whether America is the victim, or the perpetrator, or the mediator in the whole mess. Maybe the problem is that we are all three. Definitely the victim on September 11th.

Most of us are just trying to live our lives, worship our God, and raise our families. Many of us do this from a set of religious principles we either inherit from our ancestors, or develop independently through the living of our individual lives.

The Muslim integrates these principles through five pillars of their faith. A good Muslim ritualistically avoids that which defiles the body and spirit and ritualistically purifies himself as part of his faith. The Muslim has a defined daily prayer ritual and engages in pre-determined almsgiving. A good Muslim participates in the month of fasting, Ramadan. A good Muslim makes at least one pilgrimage to Mecca is his lifetime. Most of these acts of faith are very stylized and ritualistic. There is private prayer, of course, but the public prayer with its symbolic movements, form, and timing is what is considered one of the pillars of the faith.

The visit to Mecca is not just a vacation, it is the most dramatic and developed of all the Muslim ritual practices. The pilgrim must be totally debt-free before departing for Mecca. He should draw up his will, and solemnly take leave of his family and former life. Before entering Mecca itself, he must don special clothing. The pilgrims enter Mecca through certain checkpoints and constantly recite special prayers as they proceed. And the rituals continue for ten days.

No, the pilgrimage to Mecca is somewhat different that the Christian's tourist trip to Jerusalem.

And we cannot ignore that fact that some Muslims include a sixth pillar, that of Jihad - defined as the "striving or exertion" in the way of God. This is most often a personal struggle to serve God as God would be served. We in the West have come to understand this Jihad in its military, rather than personal, aspect -- jihad as a Holy War -- an armed struggle against the enemies of Islam - sort of like a Christian Crusade, only in reverse. We're not into Holy Wars anymore. We're more sophisticated than the ancients who might have understood world politics as a battle between black versus white, good versus evil - The Sinner versus The Saved.

But how do we understand our faith tradition? How does our Christianity influence the way we interact with each other, with our neighbors, even with our neighbors on a global level? How many pillars do we have in our faith? What are they?

I'm not the first person to ask this question. Which brings me to a short Jew living some 2,000 years ago.

Zacchaeus the Tax Collector lived some 500 years after Habakkuk - but in the same general geographic vicinity. Zacchaeus was a Jew, but he worked for Rome. (Rome, by the way, had by then conquered Israel. Babylon and Persia were ancient history.) We learn of Zacchaeus through the New Testament Gospel of Luke.

Zacchaeus worked in a despised profession. He was not well liked among his peers. He was none too honest. He was wealthy. And he was short. He was generally recognized as a Sinner.

Anyhow, despite all this, Zacchaeus was curious about this Jewish carpenter/traveling prophet. Jesus was entered Jericho but there was a large crowd of relatively tall people - and Zacchaeus couldn't see a thing.

Not a man easily thwarted, he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore fig tree so he could get a good look at the prophet when he walked by.

As luck would have it, Jesus paused under this very tree, looked up, and said, "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today."

"My God, He has gone to eat with a Sinner - again," muttered the crowd. Jesus had eaten with a bunch of tax collectors earlier in the Book of Luke, chapter five to be exact. He seemed to LIKE these people. So He invited Himself to dinner at Zacchaeus' house.

Zacchaeus, for his part, was a man with a mission. He did not climb a fig tree and risk public humiliation in the process without a reason. He wanted to know just what a righteous person had to do to find salvation. We know this was the question, even though it is not given in Scripture, because this is what the tax collector says to his guest following dinner:

"Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount."

What does it take to be a follower of Jesus, a Christian, if you will? The Muslim has a pretty firm set of rituals that define him in relation to his faith. What defines a good Christian? Or what makes a good Jew? Much of our faith is quite personal - yet our understandings can be extended to the larger world around us. Part of the formula, according to Zacchaeus, is to acknowledge our wrongdoings, make restitution, and share our good fortune with others.

Zacchaeus was operating out of his Jewish theological and legal roots. In the Old Testament, when a defrauder confessed and made a voluntary restitution, the amount stolen plus a fifth was sufficient. When a man was compelled to make reparation for a deliberate act of robbery, if the animal was alive he must pay double, but if dead or sold he must pay fourfold or fivefold. Zacchaeus was willing to treat his wrong acts as belonging to the latter category. Zacchaeus really was what his name said he way, a righteous or pure man.

Zacchaeus' understanding seemed to satisfy the Lord.

Jesus said to him: "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham."

Zacchaeus was a Child of Abraham. He was both a sinner and a righteous man. Not one or the other, but both. Salvation came to his house through acknowledging his wrongdoings, making restitution, and sharing his wealth with others.

What will bring Salvation to the Children of Abraham today? What will bring Salvation to this War-torn corner of the world that we call the Middle East? What will keep us from bombing, and poisoning, and generally desecrating our entire Sacred Earth?

Zacchaeus heard the divine message. Maybe he didn't get it all, but Zacchaeus at least "had a clue".