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.