Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4 | 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14 | Luke 17:5-10
Almighty and everliving God, who in the abundance of your kindness surpass the merits and the desires of those who entreat you, pour out your mercy upon us to pardon what conscience dreads and to give what prayer does not dare to ask. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
For as long as I can remember, I could never understand that story in Genesis of that tree in the middle of the garden, the tree of good and evil and the desire of human beings to want to know what’s right and what’s wrong and this creature, this strong, powerful creature saying to them, “I know you were told not to do this, but really God wants you to do this, because he does want you to know what’s good and what’s evil.” And that’s a hard argument to work against. Of course God wants us to know what’s right and what’s wrong. But does he? The problem is to know what’s right and wrong would lead a human being to judge most everything as right or wrong. There’s the problem. It’s taking this mysterious world that God has created for us, this mystical experience of our living on this earth with God dwelling inside of us and reducing it to something as simple and binary as either we’re doing what’s right or we’re doing what’s wrong. Either what’s happening is right or wrong. Either God is there, or he’s not. It’s so dangerous, and we still fall into that trap. Religion falls into it all the time. It’s so interesting to listen to different denominations of Christianity and see how different they are as far as what is right and wrong, and the more they stress the thing that’s right over wrong, you know they drift further and further away from something that is so important to hang onto. It’s the subject of this set of readings, a thing called faith. What do you believe? What do you believe in?
So the first reading is interesting, because it’s complaining about things being wrong. It’s complaining about the fact that the world is in such rotten shape. There’s violence everywhere and pain and suffering and like, “Okay, God. You’re the God that takes care of your people. That’s the right thing to do, and now here we are wallowing in pain and suffering. That’s the wrong thing for us. We shouldn’t have that, so what’s going on? What’s wrong? This is wrong. Where are you? Fix it.” And the Lord has such an interesting answer to Habakkuk, well, to the people in the book of Habakkuk. It’s this: “Realize something. Write it down. Write the vision. The vision is what you need to hang onto, not judgment of what’s right and wrong but the vision. If you see the vision, then you’ll be okay.” So what’s the vision? It’s a thing, the vision, and what I believe it is is what do you understand this God to be about? What do you understand your role here on this earth — what is the vision of this whole thing? It’s interesting. If you have a project, you have a plan, right? Well, a vision is different than a plan. A plan is you know what you have to do. You know what you need to do it. You need the time to do it. You do it, and it’s finished. It’s pretty simple, but a vision is connected with something more mystical. In fact, we would say a vision is something that comes from something other than the logical brain. It comes from some supernatural force.
I wondered myself as I read this reading, “What is my vision of my God, my church, my faith? What do I believe?” It was interesting what came to me, because I have this vision that we’re here, because that was what God wanted us to do. It’s his plan. It’s his idea, and he’s a loving God, so I know that somehow in all of this there is something good happening. And then I think about the evolution of human beings, and I realize, “Okay, it seems that there is in this vision of who we are and who God is, there is this progression of understanding and growth and change.” So we’re moving. We’re changing. We’re not the same. The consciousness that we have now is radically different than what we had at the time of Adam and Eve, start with that, and 100 years ago, 1,000 years ago. We’re different, so something is moving. There is something happening. Something is becoming, and in my vision of that, we’re becoming more and more who God intends us to be, more like him, and then how does that work? What’s our part in it? Well, it seems to me that, if we reduce religion to rights and wrongs, do this, or don’t do that, there’s not much going on in terms of a vision, but if we imagine that the promise of God is that he wants us to participate with him in a process that he has created, that ultimately will bring about something wonderful. We’re participants in this work with God, not just the receivers of it, but we work with him. So my vision is that we have a God who is good, who is drawing us to something even better than we have now. It’s a long, slow process, and we’re not just simply sitting back and receiving it. We’re invited, by this mysterious thing called incarnation, that God is going to dwell in us like he dwelt in Jesus, and then with him in us, we do this work together, and we build this thing, this kingdom. It’s a movement from slavery to something better, to freedom, to wholeness. So the vision is there’s something big going on that we participate in, and it’s mysterious. It’s moving in the right direction, but it’s impossible to judge whatever is going on as helping or hurting. That’s where we get in trouble. “Oh, that’s good. Oh, that’s bad. That’s a step forward. No, that’s ten steps back.” Don’t judge. Don’t use your mind. Use your imagination — imagination. This is really big, big work. Every single person is a part of it.
So we go back to the ordination that we started in last week’s second reading with Timothy being given this priesthood, this work that he does, and it’s called a flame, a fire, a passion inside of him. And so he’s saying, “Believe in it. Do it. Bear your share of the hardships of the gospel. It’s not going to be something like you come onto the scene. Everybody’s not so good. They get better, because every talk you give they get better, and then everything works out, and then everybody cheers, and we’ve created the kingdom.” No, nothing that simple. For those of us who are asked to work in this process that God has in mind for this world, we have to have something, and it’s the vision. We have to have a sense of what’s really happening, but then more than — along with the vision, we have to believe in it, absolutely believe in it, have faith in it. So that’s what the gospel is about. We turn, and we see that the apostles are worried about maybe they don’t understand the full message, and maybe they’re doubting. Maybe they’re wondering if this whole thing is going to work. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be with Jesus for three years and watch his amazing response — watch the amazing response from people who just thought he was so incredible and so wonderful, and they were so excited about who he was and what he could do. Then on the other side was the institution, thieving and burning with anger and resentment that he was taking away something that they thought they owned, something they were in charge of. He was taking away their power, inviting them to participate in a power that was beyond the institution, but it was a gift from the God who created them, God living inside of them. It was terrifying to those people who were in charge, and so they struggled, like we all struggle, every one of us. So what is his response to the question when they say, “All right, we can kind of get this, but increase our trust in it. Increase our belief.” What they’re really asking for is, “Help us to see the vision. Help us to surrender to it. Help us to stop judging it.” So he said, “If you have faith, it’s not about whether you believe a lot or a little.” The vision is sort of true or sort of not. We do that a lot. I do a lot of that. “Yeah, it’s working, sort of, I think.” No, you either believe it, or you don’t. And if you believe it, you have incredible power.
Why he would give an image of the power of faith that you could move mountains or rip a tree out of the ground and plant it in the ocean, impossible things — that’s what he’s trying to say. If you believe, you can do the impossible. What is the connection between belief and the impossible? It’s because the mind is logical. The mind makes logical decisions. The vision is based not in logic but in a paradox, in a very mysterious thing. A God who loves and whose love shows — its expression of love is taking care of us, freeing us from enemies and doing all that, and then he just lets enemies come and crush us, and he does all this stuff. And you’re saying, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Maybe it’s because I don’t do enough. Well, if I did more, if I was more perfect, if I did everything right, then he would take care of me.” That’s logical. Do good, and you get good. No, you can be the most loving, caring, saintly person and suffer horrendous things. So come on. It doesn’t make logical sense. What are we supposed to do? I love the image. It’s believe. Just believe. It’s your job. It’s your work. It’s not extra work. It’s just part of the work. It’s just you have to hold this vision in front of you every morning of your life and say, “All right, here I am. I’m here to do whatever I can. I want to make a difference in the world. I’d like people to feel something from me that’s comforting. If I have — I don’t want to lose compassion or empathy because of the people who treat me the way they shouldn’t. I want to continue to have empathy and compassion for people who, in the eyes of the world, don’t deserve it. I want all that.” And it goes beyond our human nature. It takes us to another level. And so I make this decision to believe that’s what’s going to happen today, and when I do that, I’m just doing what I’m supposed to. I love that. I don't know why that strikes me as so wonderful. All the struggle, all the confusion, all the stuff, God is looking at you and saying, “Well, that’s what we do here. That’s what you’re up to. That’s what I expect you to do. Trust and believe. When every fiber of your body says, ‘Something’s wrong here. This isn’t right. This is wrong,’ get over it.”
I think it’s interesting that there’s one image of the kingdom that is in another passage of scripture where the owner of the house, who represents God, when he welcomes you in, he sits you down, and he feeds you, and he nurtures you. He serves you. Yeah, we have a servant God. That’s true. We also have a God whom we serve, and the service to this God is not something that is simple or easy or about using some kind of logic. Why is it that logic is so helpful when we can say what’s our motive for going to church or what’s our motive for believing? If I look at myself, I’d say, looking back on my life, I’d say — well, you’re a priest, and you think, “Well, I’ll have special favors. I’m going to give my life, so I should expect good things, and the better I work and the harder I work, the more love I will get from God.” I certainly know that’s one of my shadows of my personality, is I’m always with people, and I think, “Well, if I do really good things for them, if I please them, if I tell them things that they want to hear, they’ll love me.” That makes logical sense, doesn’t it? It does to my mind, but what about reality? Do people really want people to tell them what they want? Do people really want you to knock yourself out to please you [sic] without thinking about your own needs? No. It’s much more mysterious. The vision is more than just pleasing people. The vision is deeply hidden, and all these things you might call a paradox, they don’t make logical sense, at least one way of thinking.
So I go back to the promise that was given to Timothy at his ordination. It’s a beautiful thing. He’s saying, “Timothy, you’re given this vision. If you hang on to the vision, the vision has an effect on you, and it’s not that you can understand everything. It’s more like you surrender to something, and when you have this capacity to surrender, you are strong, and you’re loving, and you’re wise.” I love wisdom. It goes way beyond logic. It’s from the heart. Love is being there, knowing that you have a lover inside of you who longs to love the people around you through you and your personality and who you are, and you’re strong. You’re not in need of some comforting realization, some comforting thought that, “I’ll endure this, because something wonderful is coming.” Yes, in a way that’s true, but there’s something about surrendering to the way the world is and an acceptance that is just, “Okay, this is my work.” It’s so different than doing it thinking, “I’ll get a bigger reward when I die.” So it’s about acceptance, accepting something, belief, belief in something. What? Your vision of this world, and where do you get that vision? From the God inside of you, from the God who wants to reveal who he is to you, not always from books or from homilies or from teachings, but trust in the vision being given to you by a God who lives inside of you and then writes it somewhere. And where it is is on your heart.
Father, your gift to us is a life beyond our imagining. One day our eyes will be open. We’ll see how and when we’ve tended your flock, how we’ve made sure your crops grow and are fruitful. Before that moment, strengthen our faith. Keep us close to the vision. Remind us over and over again of your love and your mysterious ways, and we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.