Getting Bolder in Old Age

October 6, 2013

Preaching Text:

“So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails…therefore judgment comes forth perverted.” (Habakkuk 1:4)

When I first sat down and read this morning’s passage from Habakkuk, it really hit me, in part because the words seem so relevant to today.

In particular, I was thinking of the current political situation in Washington. In large measure I consider this whole mess political theater on steroids. True, there are legitimate and not insignificant issues at stake, but such competing philosophies are not the ones generally being argued.

As one wise ancient Greek dramatist put it, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” So it is here. The basic underlying philosophical principles at stake in the budget showdown are largely overlooked, while retail politics sucks up all the oxygen in the room.

Which is to say that hysteria, hyperbole, slander and mud-slinging grab the headlines while the larger, substantive issues remain undiscussed. For me at least, I say ‘a pox on both their houses,’ meaning both Democrats and Republicans!

This current “shutdown” of the government is, though you’d never know it, the 18th such shutdown since 1976. The media would have us believe the current situation is unprecedented somehow, which no doubt garners good ratings.

Then again, our particular form of constitutional democracy was intended to be contentious, with various ‘checks and balances’ firmly in place to temper one person’s, or one group’s, dominance over all others. Competition in the realm of political and social ideas, thus, is enshrined in our very system of government.

The problem, as I see it, is not that people in Washington disagree with one another. Rather, it’s the way they disagree, routinely trampling on the truth and indulging in coarse incivilities, all cynically designed to sway public opinion. In the process, the public square is necessarily harmed, sacrificed on the altar of, as I say, “retail politics.”

So the ancient prophet inquires of God, “Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous – therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”

As the coarsening of our culture is accelerated daily by media elites and the governing class, such uncouth behavior invariably gets “mainstreamed,” filtering down to all segments of society. It can even seriously affect the church as well!

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years, as we’ve discussed before, is the ever-burgeoning incidences of church conflict throughout the last 20 or 25 years (which is one of the reasons I give God thanks daily for the peace-filled grace found here at First Church!).

After considerable thought, I’ve concluded that this is because as the general culture grows increasingly incapable of mannered and civil discourse, everyone is affected. When political discourse is dragged through the mud, in other words, all of us are dragged down with it.

If the church is not careful, then, if it does not remain a spiritual, countercultural force taking its cues from Christ (and not the culture), it becomes a place where legitimate differences no longer can be addressed respectfully out of Christian concern for the other. In such cases, the church simply mimics the style and behavior of the wider culture, ultimately turning against itself.

Avoiding this unwelcome change, however, is easier said than done. Cultural influences have a way of seeping into every crevice of life, often without conscious awareness. Depression, anxiety, fear, and anger, to name but a few, can occur, often without any knowledge of how they came to be.

In our reading this morning from 2 Timothy, the apostle Paul seeks to buck up his young protégé with words of inspiration and hope. He reminds Timothy of the faith he, Timothy, once had, a “sincere” faith that had been transmitted to him by both his mother and grandmother, a faith that had touched Paul deeply. So much so, that he writes, “I am grateful to God…when I remember you in my prayers night and day.”

Yet the reason Paul is writing, as I said, is to urge constancy in the younger Timothy. “Rekindle the gift of God that is within you,” he implores, and “do not be ashamed” of the gospel.

The older I get, the more convinced I am that the Mainline Protestant tradition has lost its sense of purpose, having ceded much of its hopes to the culture, which once embraced but now mostly ignores us.

More to the point, because of our relative successes of the past in Christianizing much of the institutions and instrumentalities within society, we have come to rely on that same society to effect all positive change, mostly through political and legislative means.

The problem with change through legislation, simply put, is that laws are easily subverted. In the Bible, for instance, the Pharisees are continually criticized for using the written law to undermine its spirit. Today, lawyers routinely work around laws to produce results those laws never intended.

No, for me, the genesis of genuine change must first take place within the human heart. It is there the Spirit intercedes, urging us to bring forth the fruit of God’s holy desires.

Yet today, if truth be told, we’re all a bit embarrassed by the one and only thing that makes the church unique, which forms the very reason for our being. And that is faith.

As our culture descends further and further into chaos and godlessness (take the absurdity in Washington as a timely example), our habitual attachment to that culture necessarily harms us, even our spirit. It causes us to despair and to feel a bit hopeless.

As if speaking to me alone, as an ordained pastor, I read Habakkuk’s faithful reaction to a culture in decline: “I will stand at my watchpost,” he stoutly insists, after having appealed to God for help, “and station myself on the rampart. I will keep watch to see what [God] will say to me, and what [God] will answer concerning my complaint.”

To which God offers, “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks…and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”

God has a vision and a plan for us and our future. Will we search for it? Will we listen? Or in our busy-ness, or diminishing hope, shall we miss it altogether? Amen.