A Song of Faith

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4;  Psalm 37:1-9; Luke 17:5-10

In January of 1949, Pete Seeger sat down at the piano with his friend, Lee Hays, and plunked out a song he was working on.  Hays liked it and they massaged the lyrics together.  A year later, they recorded the song on Charter Records with their group, The Weavers.  They only sold maybe a thousand copies and never got any airplay, but that didn’t surprise them because Seeger and Hays were both blacklisted by the McCarthyism craziness that was making life impossible for so many artists and others.   People suspected that the song had some kind of communist message because, as Seeger said, “In 1949 only ‘Commies’ used words like ‘peace’ and ‘freedom.’  

Somehow the song made its way down to South America where it became fairly popular and local groups created different versions of it. Twelve years later, Peter, Paul and Mary recorded it and it became a top-ten hit.  The next year, 1963, Trini Lopez recorded a version with a Latin vibe that landed at number 3 on the charts.[1]   

Suddenly the song was everywhere.  People were singing it in coffee houses and cocktail lounges.  Folk groups were singing it at Hootenannies.  Teenagers who only knew four guitar chords were singing it in church.  I know, because I was one of them.  

The song was originally titled, “The Hammer Song,” but is more commonly known by its first line: “If I Had a Hammer.”  

I thought of that song this week when I was reading our first reading from Habakkuk because the first line of the chorus is  “I’d sing out danger, I’d sing out a warning…”  That’s exactly what poor Habakkuk had been trying to do as the mighty Chaldean army drew ever closer to Jerusalem.  He saw his beloved nation beset from without by forces bent on conquest and colonization, and beset from within by denial and corruption.

I think we’ve all felt like Habakkuk at one time or another.  His words are so honest, his feelings so raw, his anger so palpable, and he doesn’t buffer any of it with any false piety.

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,

                  and you will not listen?

         Or cry to you “Violence!”

                  and you will not save?

         Why do you make me see wrong-doing

                  and look at trouble?

         Destruction and violence are before me;

                  strife and contention arise.

         So the law becomes slack

                  and justice never prevails.

         The wicked surround the righteous—

                  therefore judgment comes forth perverted.[2]

Many scholars think that Habakkuk was a temple prophet, a Levite who also served as one of the temple musicians.  If so, he spent his days singing and composing psalms of praise for worship.  But now songs of praise and worship aren’t speaking to him anymore…or speaking for him.  He’s angry with God.  He sees the world falling apart.  He sees that his society is corrupted.  He sees that the enemy is coming and his country won’t be able to withstand them.  He feels like God isn’t paying attention.  So instead of a psalm of praise, he composes a song of rage and lament.  He sings out danger.  He sings out a warning.

In his frustration with God, Habakkuk finally says, “You know what?  I’ve said all I can say. I’m just going to go up in the tower and wait and watch.  You’ve heard my complaint, God, so what do you have to say about all this?”

Habakkuk stood in the tower and waited for God to respond.  I can’t help but wonder if another song came into Habakkuk’s mind while he was up there waiting and watching on the rampart.  He surely would have been familiar with Psalm 37, a psalm which tradition says was written by King David when he was an old man.  The answer God finally gives Habakkuk seems to resonate with that Psalm 37’s advice: 

Do not fret because of the wicked;

                  do not be envious of wrongdoers,

         for they will soon fade like the grass,

                  and wither like the green herb.[3]

When God finally spoke to Habakkuk, God gave him neither advice nor a pep talk.  Instead, God gave Habakkuk a task list. Habakkuk recorded God’s instructions by adding another verse to his song:

Then the LORD answered me and said:

         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 of the end, and does not lie.

         If it seems to tarry, wait for it;

                  it will surely come, it will not delay.

         Look at the proud!

                  Their spirit is not right in them,

                  but the righteous live by their faith.[4]

Remember the vision.  Write it down.  Make it visible.  Make it plain and simple so that even someone running by can grasp it.  The righteous will live by faith.

When life seems precarious and frustrating, it’s tempting to worry if our faith is going to do us any good.  When the world seems to be trying to tear itself apart, it’s tempting to wonder if I have enough faith to fix even one small piece of it.  But God tells us to keep moving toward the vision, the new reality, the kin-dom that God is working to create.  God reminds us that even when it looks like God is absent, God is not only present but is deeply engaged in the process of making things new.  God tells us, “Don’t worry about having enough faith.  It’s your faith that’s telling you there is a problem.  Start with that.”

Theologian Joy J. Moore of Luther seminary said, “Habakkuk speaks to me.  I hear him saying, ‘I have enough faith to believe that things aren’t right, things are not the way they’re supposed to be—and enough faith to watch and see what you’re going to do, God.’  In days like these, I need those words.”

In days like these we all need those words.  Write down the vision.  Keep it in front of you.  Make it simple so even someone in a hurry can read it and carry it with them.    

While they were on their way to Jerusalem, Jesus had reminded his disciples that there were consequences for wounding or misleading others.  In the next breath, though, he told them that they needed to be generous with forgiveness.  “If someone sins against you seven times in one day but repents seven times then you must forgive them seven times.” Forgiving so freely must have sounded like an insurmountable challenge to the disciples because they responded by saying, “Increase our faith!”[5]

I think we’ve all had that moment too.  We’ve all had our Habakkuk moment where we wonder if God is seeing the wrongs that we’re seeing and we’ve had our disciple moment when we have felt that if we just had more faith we could maybe live in the healing and mending way that Jesus is asking of us.

But what is faith?  Is it belief?  Is it power?  Is it obedience?  Is it humility?  Is it quantifiable?

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” said Jesus, “you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”  What is he saying behind the hyperbole?

Faith equals trust said Martin Luther.  “Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that you would stake your life on it a thousand times.”  

Faith is confidence.  Faith is acting on your trust and confidence that God is faithful and trustworthy.  Paul Tillich said that faith, when you see it, will look a lot like courage.

Faith isn’t just a feeling.  Faith isn’t even just believing.  Faith is doing what God has asked us to do, being bold enough and courageous enough to participate in what God is creating.  Faith isn’t quantifiable.  It’s not a noun, it’s a verb.

Faith isn’t interested in accolades and trophies, because faith is motivated by love and captivated by hope.

“Who among you,” said Jesus, “would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?  Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’?  Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?  So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

Jesus may have said this tongue-in-cheek—it’s unlikely that any of his disciples had any slaves—but his point was clear.  “When you’ve done all that you’re ordered” then you’ve done what you were supposed to do. 

We try to keep people from stumbling and pick them up when they do because that’s our job—as  followers of Jesus and as a decent human beings.  We forgive and keep on forgiving because Jesus told us to, and because we know that forgiveness is the starting point for healing and restoration of relationships.  Faith isn’t interested in accolades and trophies, because faith is captivated by the vision of the kin-dom of God.

Sometimes we sing the song of Habakkuk because the brokenness of the world just seems so overwhelming.  Sometimes we are reluctant to take on the work of embracing God’s vision, of building the kin-dom, because we feel ill-equipped, like we just don’t have the tools.   

In his autobiography, How Can I Keep From Singing, Pete Seeger talked about the message of The Hammer Song.  “The message,” he said, “was that we have got tools and we are going to succeed. This is what a lot of spirituals say: we will overcome. I have a hammer. The last verse didn’t say ‘But there ain’t no hammer, there ain’t no bell, there ain’t no song, but honey, I got you.’ We could have said that! The last verse says ‘I have a hammer, and I have a bell, I have a song.’ Here it is. ‘It’s the hammer of justice, it’s the bell of freedom, the song of love.’ No one could take these away.”

We have the tools we need to fix the world.  We have the vision of God’s kin-dom.  We have the hammer of justice and the bell of freedom.  We have the song of love between our brothers and our sisters and our non-binary siblings all over this land.

We just need to have faith…and even the littlest bit of faith is enough to change the world.

[1] Hammer Recalled;  Richard Harrington, The Washington Post, Feb. 1, 1983

[2] Habakkuk 1:1-4 (NRSV)

[3] Psalm 37:1-2

[4] Habakkuk 2:1-4

[5] Luke 17:1-10

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