Sunday, November 28, 2010

Hope and Readiness in the Dark

Sheepscott Community Church November 28, 2010

Isaiah 2: 1-5

Romans 13: 11-14

Matthew 24: 36-44

Hope and Readiness in the Dark

There are some stories and some things that I think are important enough to repeat from the pulpit from year to year. One of those things is the need to cover the windgate when the weather changes from summer to fall, a lesson we learned from Karin Swanson.You recall that the windgate is this valley between the bony ridges at the back of the neck, which the Chinese believe needs to be covered to protect the individual from cold. Covering our windgate not only protects us from the cold and wind, but is a reminder in the wider sense of how God protects us. A habit of prayer is like a scarf that protects the windgate of the soul. We are not so vulnerable when we are in the habit of daily prayer.

One of the stories that I think important enough to repeat every year is the story of my descent into the Ailwie Cave in the Burren, in County Clare, Ireland. I like to tell this story on the first Sunday of Advent because it parallels so well the reality of the four-week spiritual journey we as a church and as a people of God, embark on today.Brie has lit the first candle of the Advent wreath, a sign of hope for us, a reassurance that even as we descend toward the winter solstice on December 21, the longest night of the year, past experience tells us that there will be a re-ascension into light. The sun will return to give us more light than darkness, and the world will go on after all.

And we have heard Jan read words of hope, written in the book of the prophet Isaiah over 2500 years ago. We are poised to believe realistically that in this world of war and rumors of war, of nation pitted against nation, person against person, of cholera, hunger and HIV AIDS: with all of that, still we are poised to believe that there is reason for hope. Hear what the prophet says: “[God] shall judge between the nations and shall decide for many peoples;/ and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,/ and their spears into pruning hooks;/ nation shall not lift up sword against nation,/ neither shall they learn war any more.”

That may sound unrealistic and overly idealistic to some, considering what we have seen over the centuries, over the millennia, and just in our lifetimes. But the truth is that the faith uttered in this prophecy is indispensable for the hope of the world. It embodies a conviction that there shall be a day when all people shall live together and walk together in faith and righteousness. Without the inspiration of such words and their power to sustain our search for a way of peace, we are condemned to the prospect of wars upon wars. Thank God for the likes of George Mitchell and his kind. He is willing to sit at the table between sworn enemies––Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Palestine and Israel––and not go under to the enmity between them. Rather, he keeps talking and bringing them back to talk again and again. How else does change happen, except that we keep talking together? Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.

Way back there I promised to take you down into the Ailwie Cave in County Clare. Here we go. It is an excavated descending entrance into the womb of the earth itself. At the time I was there, in ‘94, the cave had been cleared about a half mile into the earth, and visitors were invited to descend a decidedly rickety footbridge to view, among other things, the illuminated hibernation pit of a prehistoric bear, and an abyss-like cavern within the cave that featured dripping––one drop every five seconds––stalactites, and the receptive stalagmites. The relative unsteadiness of the footbridge, which was a mere one-person wide, discouraged any protracted meditation on the natural wonder.

The guide had told us at the beginning of the descent that when we reached the furthest-most accessible point of the cave, she would turn off the jerry-rigged strand of single light bulbs that stretched the length of the walkway. We arrived at the end, and, true to her word, she switched off the lights, and we all were plunged into absolute darkness, which is darkness without even a pin prick of light.

The guide had told us that the human being can only bear absolute darkness for about 30 seconds before becoming agitated and anxious. We weren’t simply predisposed because of her words; that’s the way it really felt. The movement on the bridge as seconds passed was disquieting in itself, considering its seemingly haphazard construction. With the addition of the aforementioned anxiety, you have a nervous mix of people poised to turn and return to the entrance to the cave. But we needed the light, the turning on of which was welcomed with audible sighs of relief, small talk and the shifting of purses from one shoulder to the other.

That descent into the Aelwie Cave has always been a metaphor for me for this season of Advent we begin today, which is really an ascent toward Christmas. We are a people in complete darkness waiting in fear of the unknown, whatever form that might take––terrorist attacks, an uncertain economy, advancing age with its increasing health risks, and so on. For the most part we are willing to have faith and not despair, to wait for the coming of the light. And, as we believe, that light is the Light of the World, Jesus, the Christ.

No more than we can stand absolute darkness beyond 30 seconds can we stand or bear being without God, whether or not we know that as the name or label of what or who is sustaining us moment by moment. Our hope in these days of early sunsets, early suppers and early bedtimes is that there will be light at the end of Advent with the coming of Christ at Christmas. We let that hope build in us and give us the wherewithal to continue in the multiple responsibilities of our individual lives, which now include preparations for the season, from Christmas cards, to decorations, to gift-buying; from cooking and baking, to wreath-making, to re-baptism into shoveling, which some of us experienced Friday, to wider service in the community.

All of these activities are part of the preparation for the 12-day Christmas season, which by the way runs from December 25 to January 6, the Feast of Epiphany, regardless of what the retail outlets would have you believe. The most important preparation of this penitential season before Christmas is that of the individual heart. Once we get past our primal fear of the darkness associated with the season, we can focus on the four weeks of Advent preceding Christmas in the same way we focus on the season of Lent before Easter, as a time of penitential reflection. That is why the altar cloths, the paraments are changed today. They have been green since the first Sunday after Pentecost, with the season of so-called ordinary time, but now the purple of penitence is in place.

So, we agree that the season of Advent with this first Sunday of a new liturgical year, begins today; that it is a penitential time to get the heart as well as the house ready for Christmas. We can also agree that there is hope in the darkness, as we wait in faith to see the promised coming of Christ. In addition to hope, let us then consider the second leg of this morning’s readings: readiness.

Get ready, Paul exhorts his readers in the epistle to the Romans, which we heard this morning. Paul speaks about that “present time,” not so different from our present time because people do not change in the larger sense.”The hour has come,” he writes, “for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.”

Wake up! he is saying, which is reminiscent of what Jesus himself said in this morning’s gospel: Keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. “Watch” is an often-repeated word on the lips of Jesus. A person must live with eyes open, watching. It’s easy to become absorbed in one’s career, or in one’s daily chores and responsibilities and forget the life-and-death issues of the soul, what finally matters. A person has to stop, look and listen at more than railroad crossings. That awareness should be a way of life, and the practice of prayer is crucial to that way of life, whether it’s five minutes or 55 minutes a day; or whether it’s standing on the edge of a field at dusk and simply being consciously before God. Prayer takes many forms and God receives them, is on the other side of them all, listening and answering.

To watch does not mean to forsake our daily round of tasks. If we’re always looking at the sky for signs, we’re never going to reap any harvest. If we’re always wondering and saying, “Tomorrow may be the day,” we’ll never feel at home fully in this life. So how do we do it? How do we find the balance? Consider the farmer at the plow. He keeps his eye on the furrow, because that is how a plowman plows, but he also looks up at the horizon from time to time to make sure that the furrow is straight. He might also pause to greet his friend or neighbor who comes by, and also take some moments of prayer during the workday. That is an example of a balanced approach. Watch. Keep it all in mind without anxiety, but with trust in God for the outcome. Again, as our friends in AA wisely say in this regard, Keep it simple; One day at a time; and, Help me to change the things I can change, to accept the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Cultivate hope even in this deepest darkness of the year, watch and be ready. Remember this candle during the week. See the flame and the light it gives in your mind’s eye and remember: Jesus is on the way. Jesus is the Way. Amen.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

In the Vicinity of Sheepscott Bridge

Sheepscott Community Church November 21, 2010

Jeremiah 23: 1-6

Luke 23: 33-43

In the Vicinity of Sheepscott Bridge

As I have mentioned before, Jon’s father was a Unitarian minister. On the top of the parish’s order of service each week were the words, “We gather for the worship of God and the service of man.” I think we here at the Sheepscott Community Church gather for the same reasons, with only a nod to gender correctness, which would make it, for the worship of God and the service of humankind.

These are our unifying principles, as we come from a number of different traditions, as I pointed out at the beginning of the service. When I look around the church, I see Congregationalists, Methodists, Presbyterians––displaced from New Jersey––Unitarians, displaced from the Midwest. There are those who were raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, Episcopalians, maybe a Lutheran or two, and the group of so-called “unchurched.” But they’re not really unchurched, are they, because here they are with us, we with them, one worshiping body. And most welcome you all are; if you’ll look at the mission statement on the front of today’s bulletin, where it appears every Sunday, you can read for yourself that we open wide the doors for anyone and everyone to worship here freely.

How can any worship, that potentially comes from so many different directions be unified and how can it have any depth of transforming meaning if it tries to be all things to all people? And does it? Federated in 1947 by the union of the First Congregational Church of Newcastle and the Sheepscot Methodist Church, the Sheepscott Community Church self-identifies as being in the Christian tradition. I believe we can answer the question of unity in diversity by recalling the line from this morning’s gospel––the seemingly ironically placed gospel of the crucifixion of Jesus on this Feast of Christ the King.

The line that suggests unity in diversity is what was written on the placard and affixed to the crosspiece of Jesus’s cross. The Roman custom was to write the crime of which the crucified was accused and either drape it around the presumed criminal’s neck, or, as in Jesus’ case, attach it to the crosspiece. What it said on his placard was “This is the King of the Jews,” in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, as I read from the pulpit bible. That it was written in the three languages spoken in that area at that time was an eloquent expression of Jesus as a King for all the peoples, not the message the Romans were trying to convey, but one that can be construed theologically after the fact.

What kind of a king was Jesus? Apparently, in the world’s view, a powerless king, a weak king, a king for fools, who was mocked with a crown of thorns and a reed for a scepter. The writer Frederick Buechner considers the kingdom of such a king. “If only we had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength. The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”

And I think that is why we gather here by the river on a Sunday morning, and why generations before us have also gathered here in the vicinity of the Sheepscott Bridge. Out of homesickness we come together from different directions on the theological as well as geographical compass, to be that kingdom, one of unity in diversity. For my money there is only one ticket for full admission to this kingdom of God Buechner speaks of, and that is forgiveness––asking forgiveness for ourselves and offering it to others. Ooh, that last one is a tough one, but Jesus showed us how to do it when he said from the cross, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” The prayer he taught to his disciples, which we ourselves just prayed, includes the line, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Listen to what you’re saying there. We need to forgive others, no matter how deep the hurt, no matter the reasons for the hurt, and God will forgive us in just the same way.

That kind of forgiveness is creative and has nothing to do with the worthiness or unworthiness of the one forgiven. It is creative in the sense that it gives itself to human need, that out of chaos can come order, out of evil good, no matter how much one might get hurt in the process. That is what creative forgiveness does and what we need most of in our community church, what all groups need the most of in order to continue as effective agents for good. It is the Christ kind of creative forgiveness. Father, forgive them. They don’t have a clue.

If the purpose of our coming together is the worship of God and the service of humankind, we also build up our relationship with God and with our fellow human beings as a result of the worship and service. This community church is not simply a place we go to, it is something we are part of, and have an important part in, a kingdom of God in miniature, if you will. As Buechner proposed. “The kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know.” That happens in fellowship in our community church, whre we need to keep forgiving each other.

We become better people because from week to week we acknowledge that there is someone and something more important than we are, and we act out of that. Our model is Jesus, whose teachings we hear about in scripture and whose selflessness we can imitate. Nothing namby-pamby about that selflessness. Jesus knew who he was. He was a man among men, and he spoke right at and through hypocrisy and self-importance. He lived among sinners as a model of forgiveness and empowerment of others, who though broken by life, were transformed through his nonjudgmental love. We can choose to follow that same model in our worship, and in each other’s company both in service and over coffee and cookies on Sunday morning.

For some people, this talk of Christ as King, and of throne and cross has no meaning. And yet a church where people can come together to acknowledge that we have common concerns, common weaknesses and the opportunity to join together to support and help one another, that does have meaning. Both groups are welcome here, and neither group is more loved of God than the other. God meets us where we are, in and on the ground of our being. There, in time, He will reveal Himself as we can best understand because what God is after is relationship with you, with me. For some of us, happily, Jesus is the facilitator of that relationship.

The God whose very habit is to stand up in the midst of the ruins of sacred things, of ancient and timeless precedents, and call them newly into quickened being is in our midst, doing just that. No less than God was with the Ladies in the area of the Sheepscott Bridge when they raised that $16.00 to buy this bible in November 1864; no less than God was with the committee of people who had a vision of reorganization of this church and put together the mission statement seven years ago; no less than God was with Rev. Mary Harrington, who left this earth on October 26, this year, but not before telling stories that inspired. As we appreciate yet again this Sunday these flowers from Mary’s memorial service, which her family asked be used in the church in commemoration of her life, I’d like to share in conclusion a story Mary told me.

She enrolled in Starr King Theological School on the West coast in mid-life to prepare for ministry in the Unitarian Church, of which she was a lifelong member. But she wanted a safety school, so to speak, and was at an open house at another seminary to hear and see what she would need to make the best decision when the time came. She was waiting in line to gather information and the woman in front of her struck up a conversation, (Mary was very easy to talk to.) which conversation quickly turned to the woman’s son, who had serious substance abuse problems with all the thorns that go with those problems.

The mother had bailed him out of jail again and again, and nothing changed. She had seen him through drug rehab programs, but nothing changed. She concluded her lament with, “Well, I guess I can always pray for him.” Mary wondered aloud why prayer is always the last resort. “Why would it not be the first thing we do?” she asked. “What if prayer is all we have?”

What if prayer is all we have? Prayer is what we do and give and have here at Sheepscott Community Church. It is what we can offer each other. Whatever we believe or don’t believe, we as caring human beings can come together in this place consecrated for worship to be in each other’s presence and so, in the presence of God. There is no hierarchy here of thought or idea or person. There is only humility and gratitude for the great gift of life we all share and the challenge of what we will do with that life, no matter what stage we are at. By God’s grace we help each other to learn how to give, whether out of our lack or out of our abundance.

Keep in mind that as a community church, we are here for and do represent the larger community before God. We take seriously the responsibility to care prayerfully and practically for all those in the community of Sheepscott and towns in the area, as we are able, and to care as God leads for flood and now cholera victims in Haiti, political refugees around the world, the hungry in North Korea. We are one family of God, who act as we are led, individually and as a group, gathering strength and inspiration to do that from our Sundays and service days together.

What do we do next? We love each other, forgive each other, pray for each other, and serve each other, always keeping the model of Jesus in view. We are the Sheepscott Community Church. Amen.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Let's Get Our Priorities Straight

Sheepscott Community Church November 14, 2010

Isaiah 65: 17-25

Luke 21: 5-19

Let’s Get Our Priorities Straight

As a child I was always thrilled by the readings of the last Sundays of the liturgical year. Why? Because they were scary. Earthquakes, famines, pestilences. Heavy stuff for eight- or nine-year-old ears to hear. Without explication and explanation of the text, a child’s imagination takes sometimes unfortunate flight, as in, well, if there are earthquakes and famines and pestilence, my family will be in danger. We might die.

Ever one to make deals with God, at that time I wrote a promise on a piece of paper: “If you will not destroy the world, I will give you my life.” Nothing big, you understand, just my life. Then I pricked my finger with the pointed end of a safety pin and signed my name in blood. Isn’t that the way it was supposed to be done? After that, I buried my note to God in a field. Apparently God read it, for here I still am all these years later, having just read one of the those same eschatological readings.

The word eschatology means the science of last things, and religiously speaking, as we are here, those last things are death, judgment, heaven and hell. Signs of the end times Jesus was speaking of in the gospel were famine and pestilence, wars and rumors of wars. The apostles wondered, as we ourselves do, especially at this time of the year as we sink towards winter, if that time, if that season was in the far or near future. Jesus was never particularly concerned with the hours of the clock. What he focused on was fulfilling God’s will and intent, and the time for that fulfillment, which is always now.

You may have heard the Shaker admonition to live each day as if it were your first and as if it were your last, consciously, with gratitude, and with a heart after service. For his part, God is always bent on rescuing his own from misery, and planning to do it with the gospel concerning Jesus, and by means of every life that will give itself away to him. That life may be in the form of a note signed in blood, or in a less dramatic way––the opening of the door of the heart a crack to take a chance that the promises of God may be true and that Jesus may be who we are afraid he is.

The time to focus on is now, not some unknown future, when in our own little cosmologies we perceive the signs lining up. Ah, this must be it! You know what the Bible says. No. Get your eye off speculative interpretations of Revelation and other writings, and onto the matter at hand. Who needs some supper? Who needs a visit but doesn’t know how to ask for it? What young mother is pulling her hair out with frustration in her sense of isolation and is becoming afraid of what she is capable of doing? Look around. The time is now and the needs are all around us, challenging us to see with the eyes of love.

In that vein, I want to tell you a story I heard last Sunday. As you may know, Rick Newell, who was pastor of this church for a year or two, and who has been the ongoing pastor of the Alna-Newcastle Baptist Church for the last 20 years, was ordained in that church last Sunday by the people of the church.

A good friend and mentor of Rick’s, Rev. Darryl Lavway, originally of this area, but now of Santa Clara County, CA, came East for the occasion. His responsibility was to give the charge to the minister, which he did, but not before making it clear to Rick and all those gathered just what he thought Rick and we ought to know about what is important versus what is not important. What do we need to remember?

He then went on to narrate an experience he had had a few weeks before. Eighty ministers of that county where he has his church, were invited to listen to 10 judges from the county courts, each of whom had a different jurisdiction, as in one for criminal court, one for traffic court, one for family court, and so on. The testimony he wanted to share with us was that of the judge from the court of domestic violence. All day, every day, that judge hears and adjudicates in cases of domestic violence.

The judge played a 9-1-1 tape for the ministers and those other judges. All listened raptly as a 6-year-old boy spoke with the dispatcher about what was going on in the next room. His mother’s ex-boyfriend was hurting her, he said. She had put the boy in another room to keep him safe. “But,” he told the dispatcher, “I have to go and check on my mommy now.” So he carried the phone out into the next room where his mother was and cried into the phone to the dispatcher, “My mommy is dead,” which she was.

In that same week, Reverend Lavway noted that he heard the head of the largest Protestant denomination in the world holding forth on the dangers of yoga, calling it evil. Reverend Lavway was aghast at this declaration, still recovering as he was from the story the judge told about the boy and his mother. That this significant person was using precious time and air space to name as evil something that Lavway thought unimportant in this context, while what mattered, what was important was the death of the boy’s mother and the consequent impact on the life of the boy. That went unaddressed at that level. Mr. Lavway was obviously scandalized by the what he considered the inappropriate declaration about yoga as evil, about who is inside the circle and who is outside the circle, about who belongs and who does not belong. All that when people are suffering and dying for want of human understanding and involvement.

I suspect this was the first time Darryl Lavway had heard a firsthand account of a real case of domestic violence, and it had been when he was ready to hear it. He was not filled with judgment about the mother, about the boyfriend, but filled with Christ’s loving concern for that child, and also Christ’s outraged sense of justice at the unnecessary suffering and death involved.

Darryl Lavway was convicted about this issue because someone had taken the time and trouble to arrange the meeting between judges and clergy, and he had taken the time to attend. He heard something new and passed it on to us, and so Christ’s loving concern for that child became our concern and inherently challengedus to explore the issue in our area. What he said to Rick Newell, and to all of us gathered there, including Lucy, who is the church’s music director, is that he and we need to learn from that story what is important and what is not important, what matters and what does not matter. We need to get our priorities straight. What is important is love, loving the suffering one enough to serve in the way and in the hour as God leads. Incidentally, I don’t think Reverend Lavway was saying yoga itself is unimportant. It has its its place as a tool for physical and spiritual health for some practitioners. What he was saying was the temporal juxtaposition of the 9-1-1 call with the statement about yoga from a denominational leader in a pulpit that could have been used to say something infinitely more important, about suffering in the world and the need for us to address it and be involved––all of that was a scandal to him.

When we are busy judging whether this person or this thing is good or evil, and whether to include or exclude that person or thing on the basis of our judgment, we may miss the task or situation that is right in front of us needing to be addressed. It was a big teaching that had obviously converted Darryl Lavway, and he used it to illustrate to this man being newly ordained what should be important and what should not be important in his ongoing, post-ordination ministry. We would all do well to pay attention.

I’d like to finish with yet another story that I heard last week, a true story from the daughter who lived it. This adult daughter’s mother was the apple of her daughter’s eye. When the mother in her increasing age developed Parkinson’s, her daughter invited her to live with her, wanting to take care of her. The mother moved in, time passed and the Parkinson’s got worse and worse, and so did the circumstances of living together, as they will when people are in close quarters out of necessity. It was hard for the daughter to see her mother failing.

Finally the mother died, and yes, the daughter was devastated because she loved her deeply. Perhaps there was relief as well, as happens when a huge burden is sadly lifted.

Several years later, the woman, who is a psychologist, was called to a nursing home because a patient there was out of control, and the treatment team didn’t know what to do with her. The woman met with the team, and as soon as she saw the diagnosis––Parkinson’s––and the medications that the patient was on, she was immediately able to understand the woman’s behavior and explain it to the team, while suggesting modifications to medications and as a result, to behaviors as well.

As she was leaving the building, the woman said she heard a voice that clearly said to her, “See? This is why your mother had to come and live with you.” The woman was able to bring the knowledge and wisdom from her own and especially her mother’s suffering to bear for the sake of this other member of the family of God. She was listening, she cared, she wasn’t focusing on the big questions of who and what was good or evil. That wasn’t her business. She was focused on dealing with what was right in front of her face: helping to relieve the suffering of another human being. For her the time is always ow; she learned that with her mother, and she has her priorities straight. For Darryl Lavway, the time has become now in a new way for him, and he has his priorities straight.

You may see it differently. That’s fine, but for me that sharing of stories––the judges with the ministers; the minister with the minister and the congregation; and the woman who had a story to tell over coffee––the willingness to share the stories, with those who have ears to hear them, and then act, this is a way to be fully in the moment, in the now, not worrying about or fearing a possible future time. It is recognizing the gift of Jesus, the Christ to the world, and what that means: new heavens and a new earth, where we care for one another, where God can bring good out of suffering, when we surrender to him our idea of the meaning of that suffering and make ourselves available for God’s purposes. Amen.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Time for Poetry, A Time for Prose

Sheepscott Community Church November 7, 2010

Haggai 2: 1-9

Luke 20: 27-38

A Time for Poetry, a Time for Prose

The message this morning will be right out of the Book of Haggai the prophet. His timing, God’s timing, shall we say, couldn’t be better on this reading out of this minor prophet of the Hebrew Bible, from which book Jon read this morning.

Our treasurer Bill Robb sent out pledge letters this past week. Pledges and weekly offerings, bean suppers, lawn sales, other special events and occasional bequests are what keep our church afloat financially. We don’t have the luxury of an endowment. This message is not going to be a complaint, or a harangue, I promise; only an illumination of our situation through the writing of a sixth-century lesser Hebrew prophet.

The pledge letter notes the reorganization of this church seven years ago under the leadership of Joan Yeaton, a lifelong member of the church. We have had at least three or four ministers during this period and perhaps as many organists and choir directors––those figures usually seem to go hand-in-hand––and a Board comprised of long-term and repeating members, with a few newer members, including Lee Roberts and Cyndi Brinkler. While people have continued to come in greater and lesser numbers, we have continuously worshiped God in this Sheepscott Community Church.

This message I will deliver today is at some level distasteful to me because I perceive the church as the people, the living Body of Christ in the world, interdependent, as in, what happens to you affects me and vice versa. A friend made the analogy between the people of God and a spider web. When you pull on one thread of that web, the whole web trembles. Probably that’s as true for the entire web of creation as well.

My topic this morning is considerably more modest than the interdependence of the whole of the web of creation. You can be grateful for that. I only want to talk about this building, this temple, this church, and the need to rebuild it, physically and metaphysically, which for us means maintenance, because, unlike the Temple of Jerusalem in Haggai’s time, our temple has not burnt down with only stone foundations remaining, but is just a little rough around the edges and needing, as I said last week, care and feeding.

A little background on the reading from Haggai. His brief prosaic prophetic utterances, which were recorded by someone other than the prophet himself, were delivered to the returned post exilic Jewish community. The Jews had been led into exile in Babylon in 586 BCE,, according to the orders of King Nebuchadnezzar. In 539 BCE,, 47 years later, the Persian leader Cyrus conquered Babylon, and in keeping with his policy of conciliation with conquered peoples, he encouraged the Jews to return from Babylon to Jerusalem, which they did, and Palestine then became a province of the Persian Empire under Cyrus.

It was not, however, until 520 BCE that the Temple of Jerusalem began to be rebuilt. There were several reasons for this delay. One was that the people had become accustomed to the sight of the burnt out hulk of the old Temple of Solomon. The sorry condition of the building did not deter those who had not been taken into exile from bringing offerings to the Temple. It’s like living in an uncompleted house. When Jon and I moved into our 18th-century Cape on the Old Sheepscot Road in 1969, it was anything but complete. A cautionary note, if you’re young and starting out: don’t do that. Get as much done as you can before you move in because it gets more and more unlikely that it will be done as the years pass. For example, one of our observations about our kids was that the first sentence they were able to read was, “This Side Toward Living Space,” which is what was written on the silver side of the insulation between the roof beams upstairs where they slept.

Anyway, the point is that the people in Palestine had gotten used to the burnt out ark of the Temple, destroyed when the Babylonians conquered, even as we get used to our circumstances and situations when they are not optimal. For example, we had needed a paint job on the outside of this building for a long time before we were able to get it done, and anyone can see that Dale Hunt did a beautiful job.

Another reason for the delay in rebuilding the Temple at Jerusalem was that the Samaritans had thrown up roadblocks to the reconstruction, and the people were too dispirited by their post exilic inertia to oppose the Samaritans. More significantly, however, it was the wretched state of the people generally that discouraged them from undertaking the religious duty of rebuilding the Temple. That they would have a roof over their own heads was their particular focus––and we understand that. Harvests had been bad, food and drink were in short supply, warm clothes were scarce and money had little value. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The people’s energy was going to providing for themselves and their families, and frankly, they didn’t give a hoo-ha that Yahweh’s house had no roof on it, as long as their roof was in place.

It was to a people in this state of deprivation and discouragement that Haggai had to deliver the message of rebuilding the Temple. Not an easy task in a hard time, and who cannot see the parallels between that time and ours? History can be seen through the economic lens of recessions and depressions, with only an occasional blip of prosperity on the radar screen for the average household. We know where those Jews were coming from when they heard Haggai make his earnest appeal for rebuilding God’s house. I suspect they were saying under their breaths whatever would have been comparable in that time to our, “Yeah, and good luck to you, fella.”

But Haggai had his commission and he had to keep at the people about it. Where the people found a reason for their indifference to rebuilding in the difficult conditions of their lives, Haggai saw in those same conditions, a consequence of the indifference. He told the people that as long as the righteous claims of religion remained unhonored among the people, and that not honoring especially manifest in the sorry state of the languishing Temple, as long as those claims remained unmet, just so long would their misfortunes continue.

I have to say that while I have been moving in the direction of parallels between our church and the Temple of Jerusalem, I don’t step over the line as Haggai did and say that the misfortunes in your lives, in our lives, whatever form they may take, are a result of applied indifference to the just claims of religion. But that’s my take. Who knows what God’s take is? I don’t pretend to.

Back to Haggai. He appealed to the people to shake off their indifference, and if they would, if they would build, there would be an end of the hard life. Instead, the people would know what it meant to be blessed of Yahweh; life would be better. Haggai’s words were first addressed to Zerubbabel, the civic head of the community, and Joshua, the religious head of the community. His words had their effect, and under the leadership of these two men, the building of the Temple began in 520 BCE. In 516, four years after Haggai first made his appeal, the Temple was completed. It occurred to me that Haggai would have made a great fundraiser, or politician, having the power to move a people from one position to a radically different one, in a relatively short period of time.

A month or so ago, I referred in a sermon to Nobel Prize winner Albert Schweitzer, who went to Africa in the early 20th century, where he founded a hospital in Lamberene, in Gabon. When he returned to his hospital after his first furlough, he found the buildings in disrepair and set about rebuilding them with his own hands. As he said, he realized that the poetry of his African adventure was over; he had entered on its prose period. But he was a mature soul and equal to the occasion.

The prose periods of the religious life are our opportunity to make good the truth of their earlier poetry. Without them, without the prose periods, our insights, inspirations and visions lack substantial and enduring reality. The prophet Haggai challenged his contemporaries to make good the glory of the first Temple in the terms of the reconstructed Temple. He was not deterred by the sentimental mood of his listeners who remembered the first Temple and compared any reconstruction unfavorably. That is the perfect scenario for the indifference that the people felt. Finally the moral earnestness of the prophet prevailed over the sentimental inertia of his listeners.

I consider the vision and inspiration and insights of Joan Yeaton, Chuck Reinhardt, Cindy and Chrissy, Bonnie Gerard, and all the others who were involved in the reorganization of this church through their outreach to the community to have been the poetry phase of rebuilding this church. They had a vision Now have we entered the prose phase, the real work of building. And we have made a really good start. I encourage you, as I have done again and again, to be part of the rebuilding, the reconstruction of this Community Temple in Sheepscot, both financially and n service.

Consider the closing words of the reading from Haggai: “’The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.” In another translation, “’The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former,‘and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.” Glory and splendor. Peace and prosperity.

I think God has for us that peace and spiritual prosperity, but we are in the prose time when we have to work for what we want our church to be. Part of that work can be in responding to the pledge appeal, mailed to your houses this week. If anyone doesn’t receive a letter and wants to, please let me or Bill Robb know. Thank you Joan, thank you all who have continued to hold the vision and do the work of the Sheepscott Community Church. Amen.