The portions from Scripture we have heard this morning use bold language and present startling images. Already we have heard about trees spontaneously leaping from the ground and planting themselves in the ocean; when Matthew and Mark deal with the same saying from Jesus in parallel passages, they are even more dramatic—they speak of mountains jumping around! In his letter to Timothy, the writer stirs up the reader with the rousing reminder: at your baptism you were given not a spirit of cowardice, but of courage. The prophet Habakkuk, and the psalmist, too, sense there are signs of momentous social, economic and political change in society, like rumblings before an earthquake.
This sermon is about momentous change in our world, but it is also about courage and about hope and about action.
Habakkuk lived in a time not unlike ours. There were international developments that some were beginning to realize would have domestic implications. The world was shrinking and the nation would not be unaffected. What was happening in other nations was now having direct impact at home. Much of what was changing was unsettling. Old economic patterns were changing and causing unrest. Violence seemed more random. International order was shifting and no one was sure of the future. Where Habakkuk begins his book—it is not where he ends up, as this sermon will not stay where it is beginning—but Habakkuk begins by asking God directly the questions we might have on our minds: What in the world is going on? Does God have anything to say? Are we powerless?
In recent days, the United Nations has released some startling statistics that describe vividly just exactly what is going on in the world. The latest data, however, are part of a trend that has been underway for about twenty years. This trend is projected to become even sharper in the future if there are no changes. Here is the picture. The wealthy nations are getting a greater and greater share of the world’s money and goods and the poorer nations are getting less and less. The latest figures show that 20 percent of the people in the better off nations consume almost 90 percent of the world’s goods and services; the poorest 20 percent consume just over 1 percent. Today, the average family in Africa consumes 20 percent less than it did twenty-five years ago. Of the 4.4 billion people in developing nations, three-fifths lack access to safe sewers, a third have no access to clean water, a quarter do not have adequate housing and a fifth have no access to any sort of health care. What about the future? by 2050, 8 billion of the 9.5 billion people in the world will live in developing nations.
These are very significant changes and Americans sense we will not be unaffected. Indeed, we already have signs. Stock exchanges around the world are so intertwined now that if one falters all the others feel it immediately.
Resentment against first world nations, America more than any other, fuels terrorism. We were stunned when the World Trade Center in New York was bombed. We now know how quickly and effectively terrorists from other nations can strike here at home. Just a month ago, there was a deeply moving memorial service in this Cathedral for the victims of the terrorists bombings in Africa in August. The President of the United States, Vice President, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense each paid moving tribute to those killed by terrorists’ bombs in our embassies.
But there are other, in some ways more surprising expressions of resentment bubbling up. This past summer, Anglican bishops from around the world met in Canterbury England as they do every ten years. This time, for the first time in history, there were more Anglican bishops from Africa and Asia than from England, the United States and the rest of the world combined. American bishops returned stunned at the great gap between them and the bishops from developing nations. Even with the best of Christian goodwill, their lives are so markedly different from ours, many dealing mostly with issues of survival in their nations, that communication was difficult. And there was more than a little resentment against the United States, which is perceived as uninformed and uncaring about the worsening plight of most of the rest of the men, women and children of the world, even our brothers and sisters in Christ.
It was in such a time of unpredictability about the future and a growing awareness that what was happening internationally would affect the nation that Habakkuk began questioning God. “How can all this be happening? What is our future?” But soon, his anxiety turned to trust and hope, as must ours today. Soon, Habakkuk hears the Lord’s answer. “Write this so large, in bold, capital letters, so that even someone running by could read it all. Write: ‘There is still a vision….’”
The biblical vision is plenty for all. It is where we began in Eden before the Fall. It is where the story ends in the Book of Revelation with that image of a great feast. It is expressed in our psalm today this way: “God’s world is plentiful enough for everyone. Those who take the most are obligated to make sure there is some parity. But those who do not want and will work for adequate distribution of God’s bounty to all are like a bright light in the dark.”
“There is still a vision,” a vision of God’s goodness for all people.
One who has embodied that vision, even in this time of dramatic change, is Nelson Mandella.
A week and a half ago, he spoke at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. He is eighty years old now. As a young lawyer in Johannesburg just after World War II he became a leader in the African National Congress, which sought to gain political, economic and social parity for native Africans who were in the majority but who were controlled by the white minority. For his leadership, he was imprisoned, from 1964 until 1990, twenty-six years. Soon after he was released from prison, he was elected President of South Africa in elections in which Africans could vote. He has led his nation through an amazing transition in recent years.
Next May, there will be elections in South Africa, and Mandella will not run for re-election. He acknowledged that this would be his last speech to the United Nations as President. He chose his words carefully. I invite you to listen carefully.
“Born as the First World War came to a close and now departing from public life as the world marks a half century of the University Declaration of Human Rights, I have reached that part of the long walk when the opportunity is granted, as it should be to all men and women, to retire to some rest and tranquillity in the village of my birth.
“As I sit in Qunu and grow ancient as the hills, I will continue to entertain the hope that there has emerged a cadre of leaders in my own nation, on my continent, and in the world, which will not allow that any should be denied their freedom as we were; that any should be turned into refugees, as we were; that any should be condemned to go hungry, as we were; that any should be stripped of their human dignity, as we were.
“Then would history and the billions of men, women and children throughout the world proclaim that it was right that we dreamed and that we toiled to give life to that dream.”
The Lord told the prophet: “There is still a vision. Write it so big it can not be missed.” How many and who will be in that cadre of those who will maintain the vision next? Will you be among them? Will this Cathedral be among them? What can you do?
When Jesus says in our Gospel today that if we had the faith of a mustard seed we could cause trees to jump into the ocean or even mountains to jump and accomplish spectacular and seemingly unlikely changes, he is not being caustic. In the original Greek, what Jesus says is that a little makes a huge difference. If all of us were to make even a little movement toward the vision of God’s bounty for all people, twenty-year-old trends and dire predictions about the future could be reversed. Especially knowing that just a little can, quite literally, make all the difference in the world, we should feel not cowardice but courage.
One final statistic from the report recently released by the United Nations will illustrate vividly how even a little can change much. It is estimated that the cost for every man, woman and child in developing nations to have access to all basic health care, all reproductive health care for all women, adequate food for all and clean water and sewers for all is roughly $40 billion a year. To put this figure of $40 billion into perspective, consider this: Americans spend $8 billion a year on cosmetics. Even a little can have a dramatic impact
If we are ready to ask of our Lord the same request his followers did at the beginning of today’s Gospel, “Lord, increase our faith,” we should be prepared to look at the current changes in our world not with cowardice but with courage. We can act according to a plan, “the vision” of Scripture that seeks for all people to have access to God’s bounty. It is the ancient vision; it is God’s deepest desire for all of us; and it may have never been more globally relevant in the history of the world than it is today.