How long, O Lord? I cry for help, but you do not listen! [Habakuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4]
Who hasn’t felt like poor old Habakuk at times? Who hasn’t felt helpless and abandoned? Even saints – some of them certainly – have been known to suffer through such experiences. Some people just never seem to get a break. No matter how hard they try, things just don’t go right for them. Jobs are lost. Careers fail. Husbands and wives betray each other. Children disappoint their parents. Parents disappoint their children. Sickness strikes indiscriminately. And the sheer frustration of it all takes its own terrible toll.
And, when things go wrong, don’t we all want to blame someone? Just look at our political campaigns, which often come down to which groups we prefer to blame for our problems.
And then there is God – often a popular object of blame and complaint. For many, searching for answers to their struggles and pains, the struggle and pain of it all can become a complaint about God. For the Prophet Habakuk, however, his complaint is not a complaint about God but a complaint to God – an acknowledgment of God’s perplexingly mysterious power in the face of human limitations. Complaining to God instead of about God, Habakuk becomes a spokesman for hope: For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint. …the just one, because of his faith, shall live.
Nice words, to be sure, encouraging words even; but what exactly does it mean that the just one, because of his faith, shall live?
Faith – famously defined in the New Testament as the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen [Hebrews 11:1] – seems a lot easier said than done. Even the apostles asked, Increase our faith!
Faith is more than just belief. But even belief can be a challenge. According to a recent study, among the reasons Americans identify as a major motivation for leaving their childhood religion behind, some 60% said it was because they simply stopped believing.
Like Habakuk, Jesus offered [Luke 17:5-10] encouragement to his questioning disciples - assuming one is encouraged by the image of a mulberry tree, despite its deep and extensive root system, being uprooted and transplanted into the sea! Where, one wonders, would one ever find such faith even to try to transplant a mulberry tree into the sea?
Most of us have no real reason to want to transplant a tree into the sea. But, like the apostles, we may desire to increase a faith that may seem sometimes to be at best barely sufficient faith. At minimum, don’t we all want to have sufficient faith, as Habakuk says, to live?
And, indeed, it is in living, day-in, day-out, that Jesus seems to suggest that faith is to be found – as unprofitable servants doing what we are obliged to do. Even supposing I did somehow miraculously transplant a tree into the sea, what difference would that make? Whom would that benefit? On the other hand, if I could at least qualify as an unprofitable servant, faithfully doing what I am obliged to do, now that might make a difference!
Faith is about living daily the way we are supposed to live, becoming over time, through the kind of life I live in response to God’s grace the kind of person God intends me to be – striving to live by faith, surrendering to God with confident hope and love.
Maybe living as we do now in an increasingly superficial culture that overdoses on image and special effects, doing what one is supposed to do lacks the spectacular drama of transplanting a tree into the sea. It is, however, in fact the real challenge of a humanly and morally worthwhile life, the real challenge that faces each of us every day.
Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 2, 2016.