Originally preached on October 30, 2016, at the Keysville Grace United Church of Christ, Keymar, MD. Audio Available here.
“History will teach us nothing.” These five words, paraphrased by the acclaimed philosopher, author and scholar Gordon Sumner, better known as the musician Sting, are a paraphrase of the quote “Those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it,” which itself was paraphrase of a quote from George Satayana. This is one of my life quotes.
“History will teach us nothing.” We continually make the same mistakes over and over, and learn nothing. We KNOW that we should not depend on someone to keep their promise, but we believe they’ll change, so we give them another chance, and they break their promise again.
We know we should not eat certain foods, because they make our ankles swell, but when they are presented to us, we scarf them down with little regard to what will happen 3 hours later. We know we should not drink coffee after 2 pm, because the caffeine will have us all night, unable to sleep. Can I make this personal? I KNOW I should not eat Popeye’s spicy fried chicken, because it upsets my stomach, yet there is something tempting and seductive about smelling that hot chicken, fresh out of the fryer, and me saying “This time, I will be sure to take two Tums immediately after eating it,” only to have an upset stomach because it’s TOO spicy.
History, my friends, will teach us nothing.
If you don’t believe me, look at what’s going on in the political arena in this country as we speak. Politicians declare before every election cycle that they are going to run a clean campaign, free of personal attacks. Within three days of making such an announcement, they start running attack ads, and by the time the actual election rolls around, watching the ads causes me to need to shower sometimes. The venom and vitriol in these “informational blurbs” of 30 seconds are just horrible. Men dismiss women as unable to lead simply because they are women. Women reduce men to brainless troglodytes who fail to realize that not all men fit that category.
We declare that we want “reform” after every election, because, well, “we, the people” declare that we need our voices to be heard, unless, of course, we have an unpopular opinion. History, I declare to you this morning, will teach us nothing. ‘’
This call for reform, of course, does not exist solely in politics. There have been reform movements in this country, from social work to housing to women’s rights to civil rights. We, as humans, are always seeking to make situations better when necessary. Even today, we are calling for reforms in the church.
And those reforms are necessary, because the church, even today, needs to correct some wrongs. We declare that “all people are welcome”, yet let a stranger walk in. While some of us are “friendly”, we are not welcoming. We need to reform that behavior. Some churches, which declare that all are welcome, still exclude people based on their skin tone, socio-economic status, or sexual orientation. We need to reform that behavior. Some churches, thankfully not this church, are still battling on whether 51% of their members can actually serve in leadership roles in their buildings, whether it’s as a deacon, trustee, or pastor, based on misinterpreted biblical translations. History, truly will, teach us nothing, and we really DO need to call for reform.
And that’s exactly what the prophet Habakkuk tells us this morning. We don’t know much about this prophet, because the text does not give us the customary information about family, home, and composition date are not providedHowever, we do know that Habakkuk has a complaint about Judean corruption. To start, Habakkuk draws attention to crimes in his society, not by an indictment as is customary for Israel’s prophets, but by a lament. His lament begins with an address to God followed by a description of the distress. Strife and contention describe a breakdown in Judah’s legal and judicial systems, and Habakkuk is calling for reform.
And like so many other calls for reform, Habakkuk wonders whether the Babylonians’ injustices will go unpunished or whether God will respond.
And let’s look at God’s response: God’s rule is reliable. I go back to the text. God tells Habakkuk to write the vision. And don’t just write the vision. Make it plain on tablets, so that the runners can carry and announce it to the people. Look at God’s response.
And not only is God’s rule reliable. God emphasizes the reliability of Habakkuk’s revelation: For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.
Finally, the main point is that the righteous live by their faith. “Faithfulness” is a better translation, since the Hebrew “emunah” means “firmness, steadfastness”, or “fidelity.” So, write the vision, wait on it, and live in faith.
Like Habakkuk, we too, must write our visions, make them plain, and live in faith.
Even in our own church history, we see that calls for reform DO teach us that we can change unfair systems simply by standing up and saying “enough.” If you don’t believe me, let’s just look at the way we worship. Today is celebrated as “Reformation Sunday” in Protestant, mainline churches, and 499 years ago on October 31, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenberg to dispute the power and efficacy of Papal Indulgences. This document, which explains why Luther believed that you could not pay your way out of Purgatory, documents the abuses of the church at Rome.
And, I would be remiss in my duties if I did not tell you that Luther did not intend to start a religious revolution. He only wanted to address the religious injustices of his day. But like so many revolutions, his words sparked action, and even to this day, we worship the way we do because of Luther’s call for reform. Luther did not intend to break away from the church, but wanted to make it better.
We, too, must call for reform when we see injustices. We, too, must call for changes, and not just for the sake of being cantankerous, but to better the institutions we love and serve. History CAN and WILL teach us something – we can make a difference, even if we don’t see it in our lifetimes. Habakkuk and Luther, I am sure, never thought their words would still be quoted all these years later. But their words and calls for reform still ring true, even today.
History WILL teach us something.