November 11, 2007
Only a handful are living, but there are still a few men for whom the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month has great personal meaning: veterans of the First World War. It was decided that that particular hour would mark the formal end of hostilities in that great and terrible war, a war in which warfare itself was changed forever by the introduction of technologies from aircraft to mustard gas to the machine gun to the tank. In the end, the destruction was awful, and possibly past our ability to imagine: an entire generation of young men, lost to the fields of Flanders and the Somme and Gallipoli: ten million dead, nearly eight million missing, and 20 million wounded, many maimed for life. So traumatic was the war and its aftermath, those who lived through it became known as the Lost Generation. It took decades for nations to recover; many individuals never did. And all of it came to a halt, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, exactly 89 years ago.
We have a scripture reading this morning that is dated nearly that precisely: “In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai” (Haggai 2:1). Translating from the Hebrew dating, and taking into account the historical record concerning the reign of Darius, we know that Haggai received his revelation on October 20, in the year 520 BCE. Let me tell you what was going on in the world at that time. This was 67 years after the beginning of one of the most traumatic events in the life of God’s chosen people of Israel: the Babylonian Exile.
The story of the Babylonian exile and return has been called one of the great defining stories for the people of Israel, a story that even today gives Jews a sense of their identity.[i] It’s important to understand that, before the exile, the remnant of God’s people lived in Judah, in the shadow of the great Temple of Jerusalem. King Solomon had built the Temple more than four hundred years earlier under the direct supervision of God, according to scripture. It was a place of unimaginable splendor to the people of its time. It was understood to be the literal house of God, the dwelling place of God here on earth. The people came to the temple to offer their sacrifices, and the priests entered the Holy of Holies on their behalf, that hidden, screened off area where the presence of God was thought to dwell. God and human beings interacted directly in the temple; heaven touched earth.
So imagine the devastation when Judah fell to an invading army: the year 587 brought Nebuchadnezzar’s display of irresistible force, the carrying off of political and religious and intellectual leaders, and the splitting up and relocation of families in a foreign land. The Temple was destroyed, reduced to rubble, desecrated. Like the survivors of the First World War, survivors of the Babylonian exile felt lost, relocated to a place and time separate from the world in which they had previously lived. Psalm 137 is thought to have been written during the time of the exile:
By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down
and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? ~ Psalm 137:1-4
But now it is 67 years later, when Haggai speaks the Word of the Lord to the people. Exiles are beginning to return home to the land of Judah, and its capitol Jerusalem. The people have been instructed to rebuild the temple—the authorities have given their permission, and building has actually begun. But some in the community are not happy about the reconstruction project. Some in the community are critical of the new temple. It seems that those whose memories are longer, some of the older members of the community, remember the gorgeous edifice that Solomon had constructed. Now, as they return to an occupied Jerusalem and the new Temple is being built on a more modest scale, they can’t abide the difference between their cherished memories and the current reality. God tells Haggai to ask the people, “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” God puts the ugly truth right out there for all to hear. The new temple just doesn’t measure up to their memories. The people are not impressed. They are bitter and they are disappointed.
Does any of this sound familiar? This passage actually describes a very common dynamic abroad in mainline Protestant churches today, for congregations who remember days of splendor not too long ago. I have heard that under one minister about thirty years ago, the congregation of Our Church swelled by an additional 500 members. The Sunday school probably had 100 or more students. I think it might be a very natural reaction for those of you with good and long memories to feel some anxiety, some depression or sense of loss when you look around the sanctuary to see 75 or 85 people on a Sunday morning. When we look around us and all that we see is colored by powerful emotional memories of the past, we can lose the ability to see the blessings that are right here in our midst today. We can lose sight of the fact that, right now, we are building.
This is a time of building here at Our Church. I’m not speaking of building a physical space, like a sanctuary or a Temple or an education wing. I’m speaking of building as Paul describes it in the letter to the Corinthians. “For we are God’s servants, working together. You are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:9). Paul is speaking, not of a structure of stone, but of the church that is found in the people. He is speaking of the building up that is done, not with bricks and mortar, but through intentional engagement with the Word of God. Paul is talking about discipleship.
We are building up, not a building, but the body of Christ here at Our Church. How are we doing that? For the last several weeks I have been meeting with several folks who are contemplating joining our ranks, and last week I handed out to them a couple of pages copied from the denominational Book of Order. It is a section called, “Membership as Ministry.” As a refresher for those of you who joined some time ago I will read the first part of this passage.
A faithful member accepts Christ’s call to be involved responsibly in the ministry of his [or her] church. Such involvement includes:
~ proclaiming the good news.
~ taking part in the common life and worship of a particular church.
~ praying and studying scripture and the faith of the Christian church.
~ supporting the work of the church through the giving of money, time and talents.[ii]
There’s more… much more, including statements about how our church membership calls us to service in the world, to transforming society according to the way of Jesus. Membership in the church is a tall order. But I want to focus, for today, on these first four essential building blocks in our faith formation.
Did you know that, as members, you are called upon to proclaim the good news? Don’t panic: not everyone is called to preach sermons from the pulpit, though some are. But we are all called to proclaim the good news of God’s love for us in the course of our everyday lives. God’s love for us: we are called to let it inform the conversations we have with friends, family, co-workers, fellow students. Every member of the church is called to proclaim the good news in that way. We build up our own faith and one another’s every time we allow the good news to inform our day-to-day lives and conversations.
Taking part in the common life and worship of a church seems pretty obvious. As members of the church, it stands to reason that we would worship in that church regularly. But I believe worship is the cornerstone of our lives together, even more deeply than we can imagine. Everything we do should grow out of this experience of gathering around the Word of God, hearing it proclaimed in words, music and actions, and bearing that Word out again into the world: we are bearers of the Word! It is here that we are refueled for our lives of service and witness. It is here that we forge our common and yet distinctive identity as Christians. It is here that we receive the spiritual nourishment that helps us to get through another week. Every member of the church is called to take part in the life and worship of the church. We build up our own faith, and one another’s, every time we do it.
Because being a Christian isn’t a one day-a-week (or even a one hour-a-week) enterprise, we are also called upon to study scripture and pray at times other than Sunday morning. Here at Our Church we try to offer opportunities to do just that… the Women’s monthly bible study, which takes place tomorrow evening, is a wonderful opportunity to participate in some really thoughtful conversation about scripture. Beginning the first Sunday of Advent, I will be offering a bible study designed to take us through that season. It has been suggested that a book group would also be welcome. I think a great goal for us would be that every member of Our Church has an option for small group study and prayer. Every member of the church is called to pray and study our scripture and faith. We build up our faith and one another’s when we let the stories of our own lives and the stories of scripture come together.
At last, we come to the three T’s: Treasure, Time and Talent. Though the Book of Order is a little more direct: it says, “money.” I briefly considered calling this “The Money Sermon,” because I knew we would get to this moment eventually. We are in the midst of our stewardship campaign: members of our Finance and Endowment committee have been working hard to present you with materials designed to prompt you, inspire you, even enlighten you into giving generously to Our Church so that we might be able to, not simply maintain the ministry we currently have, but to grow it.
I’d like to offer one little thought about giving. I’ve heard it said that some people give time and talent, and other people give in dollars and cents. Actually, that’s not true. According to all the research, money follows time and talent. In other words, the people who are most generous with their time and talent are usually the people who are most generous with their money as well.
I’d like to offer another little thought about giving: we are one body. That means we are committed to one another’s well-being, in and out of the church. Pledging can be scary for some people, because life is uncertain. This has been a week in which nearly every major economic indicator is pointing to trouble. For those who have very real concerns about how the economic climate will affect their families, who may be facing layoffs or job changes, I want to say this: pledging conveys your intention to give. It is not a binding contract; it does not lock you in. If your economic circumstances change for the worse, of course, you can and should adjust your giving accordingly. And, if your economic circumstances change for the better, of course, you can and should do the same. We are all called to give, money, time and talent for the mission of the church. Whenever we do so, we are building up, not only our own faith, but also one another’s and the well-being of the whole church.
The prophet Haggai speaks to people who have been traumatized by the loss of everything they held dear, everything that spoke to them of their relationship with God: the Temple, their leaders, their homes and homeland, their families. Haggai brings them these words from God: “…take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts…My spirit abides among you; do not fear…” We are building, here at Our Church. We are building up our faith through our lives together. We are building through our worship, through our proclamation of the good news, through our pastoral care of one another, through our study and prayer together, through our service of God and God’s world. And God’s word to us is this: Take courage. Work. Do not fear. I am with you. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.
[ii] G-5.0102, a-d, The Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (USA), 2005.