October 30, 2016

More to the Story


Text: Habakkuk 2:2: “I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.”

Most books live very short lives. They have a brief moment when they’re published, and then, for the most part, they are forgotten. But once in a great while, a book will appear that does something like the opposite; almost no one notices it when it first appears, and then over the years more and more readers slowly come to it and see in it something important and timeless.

One such book was published just a little more than fifty years ago. It started out as a series of lectures that were given at Bryn Mawr College by a professor of literature from a British university. They were collected and published, and at first no one paid much attention, and then more people did, and soon enough a great many people did.

The professor was a scholar named Frank Kermode, and the book that came out of his lectures was a slim little volume called The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. That probably sounds like about the most boring way ever to spend a couple of hundred pages, but it was one of those little books with a big message and a large impact.

Professor Kermode wanted to try to answer a seemingly simple question: What have we learned about the way we tell stories, and what does that say about us?

And his answer, like his question, was seemingly simple. Kermode’s idea was that when we tell stories we do so knowing that history, life, the things that have made us what we are have happened at a time before our own time; and that the stories we tell about ourselves are stories that know there will be a history that unfolds toward the future after us.

To say it in the words of the title, even though the stories we tell might end with “The End,” we tell our stories knowing that there is a story that continues after the end. That’s what he means by saying we have a sense of an ending; we know that no matter how we tell our story, whether it’s a tiny set of verses or a great epic, there is always a time after our ending that we are headed into. We have a sense of that ending.

What that means is something that seems sort of obvious, but that we keep forgetting. What it means is that no matter what we think we know, there is always more to the story. No matter how bad we think things are—or how bad they really are—we don’t know, at least not yet, how it all unfolds in the end.

We know almost nothing about Habukkuk, but we know at least this: He wrote his own story in a way that almost perfectly demonstrates what the professor would teach thousands of years later. To the people around Habukkuk, it seemed as though all that was good was coming to an end; the best people, the best ideas, the best visions had been defeated, and the worst people, the worst ideas, the darkest visions seemed to be winning.

What we have from Habukkuk is a very small book of three chapters—you could read the whole thing over lunch today. The reading we heard this morning is only a thin slice of that thin book, but it captures the two basic themes the prophet offers.

One of those themes is a classic theme for prophets: It’s angry, heartfelt, eloquent complaining. And it basically comes in this form: God, how can you be so uncaring, so indifferent to our plight? How can you let all this go on, all this unjustice, all this inhuman cruelty, all this war and violence?

Habukkuk would feel right at home in our headlines. Not a lot of what outrages us today would surprise him. And none of it would make him think twice about doing what comes naturally to a prophet, and—if we’re honest—to any of us: shaking our fist at God in righteous indignation.

But then there is the second theme—and this is the one we have the most to learn from. It the message that acknowledges that there is more to the story, that the final accounting has not yet been taken.

If you think this is all there is, if you think this is the story, then you would probably be right to respond in fear, or anger, or despair. But the prophet is a man of faith. Fear, and anger, and despair are never the right responses for the person of faith.

Instead the prophet takes a different posture. The short version of that faithful posture is this: I’m going to stand right here, and I’m going to wait and see. That isn’t said as a defiant challenge; instead it comes as a statement of deep trust in God’s absolute and unwavering intention to carry out God’s plan in God’s time.

We may feel we live in dark and difficult times. We may even feel we live in a time when good things are ending, when hope is hard to find, when the good people are defeated and the wrongdoers are exalted.

But we are people of faith. That means we know, as surely as we know anything, that there is more to the story, and that the whole story is ultimately and totally held within the sovereignty of God, and God alone.

Zaccheus knew there was more to the story than he could see; so he climbed a tree and waited to see what would unfold, and he ended up finding himself hosting the Lord in his own house.

Paul knew here was more to the story, and he pressed on with his journey sharing the story of the Gospel wherever he went, even though the forces against him were incalculably large.

Martin Luther King knew there was more to the story. Reading again this text from Habakkuk this morning put me in mind of that line from Dr. King that our president is so fond of quoting; “the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” I am told that those words are even woven into the edge of the carpet that adorns the Oval Office.

But both President Obama and Dr. King, in looking past our time to a time to come, were drawing on a time in the past, and a preacher of the past. Specifically they are both quoting a man of Boston, and a leader of the abolitionist movement, a Unitarian minister named Theodore Parker.

Parker lived through the great division of the Puritan Church into Congregational and Unitarian elements. He was among the early Transcendentalists, and kept company with Emerson and Alcott and Bronson; he was one of those great nineteenth century preachers whom to hear was to attend an occasion.

His most passionate subject was the dignity of all people and the evil of any system that would deny that dignity. In his own day it was slavery; and this is what he said:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but a little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice. Things refused to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God was is just. Ere long all America will tremble.

Parker knew that there would be more to the story. And we, we must know that there is more to the story. We know that our part of the story is not the end, but a passage on the way to God’s ending; and by faith we will stand at on the ramparts and wait to see what the Lord will say to us. Amen.