“Take courage all you people of the land, says the Lord; work for I am with you.” Haggai 1:15-2:9
In Hebrew scripture, many of the stories preserve the memory of events or prophecies by identifying the time in which it occurs through allusions or vague descriptions, almost as if it were “once upon a time”. However imaginative these markers may be, we risk detaching ourselves from the stories and relegate them into some age-old fable.
Not so with Haggai. The date formulas are precise. The word of the LORD comes by Haggai on the 21st of Tishri (the seventh month), corresponding to what we would recognize as October 17, 520 BCE (Wil Gafney, workingpreacher.org). More than 2,500 years ago, God spoke through a prophet and changed the course of our ancestors in a way that is directly applicable to us and continues to speak to us today.
Haggai’s prophecy is also unique in that God’s message targets the priest and the son of the governor. These two have shared responsibility for the temple and the leading the people. The prophecy then addresses the remnant people. Everyone is included. Everyone has a unique role. Everyone is responsible.
The Israelites had returned to Jerusalem some twenty years prior. Life was not great, but better than their existence in exile had been. Since returning, they had built new homes, re-established themselves in the community, were getting by, but they were not flourishing. Most of all, they had ignored restoring the temple and placing God at the center of their lives.
Haggai’s question was both rhetorical and searing: “Is it not in your sight as nothing?” In other words; is this temple and the way you are living the best you can do for God? We can imagine the down-turned faces of their reply since only their silence is recorded. The less-than-perfect temple was nothing as compared with the temple as recounted in legends. It had been glorious, built by generations to be God’s abode. Now, it was a nothing. Yet for their future, the temple needed to be everything. Not the same temple, this was a new day and age, and they needed new building plans.
Haggai encouraged this fragile group of people; “take courage.” We heard all three primary players addressed. Priest; take courage. You, governor; take courage. People of all the land; take courage. Followed by one simple command and a promise: “work, for I am with you.”
Work. All the people are to work towards building the temple physically, as a place to adore God, and to work in their lives in a manner that also adores God. God’s abode is to be in the temple and God also abides in their daily, shared lives.
In the past months, I’ve been reading and re-reading a collection of essays from The Christian Century magazine entitled How My Mind Has Changed. Since the 1930’s, The Christian Century has invited prominent theologians, who have made significant contributions to the study and practice of faith, to reflect on this simple statement, “how my mind has changed” during his or her career.
A wide-variety of writers reveal how encounters with prayer, scripture, and tradition were catalysts to change their beliefs and lives. Across these essays, we learn how maturity both strengthened some points-of-view while also softening others. We also read of the truth that endures. It is somewhat reassuring to know any change in our personal beliefs, however gut wrenching it might be, is all too common.
Writer and theologian Scott Cairns’ essay is a spiritual journey, aptly titled: “Lives Together.” As he looks back, he is less inclined to see his spiritual journey as his alone and rather views his life as being a member of the body of Christ, “mutually incarnating” the way into the future, with others. The twists and turns of his faith formation can all be traced to the experience of learning and worshipping in the fellowship of the academy and church and serving others as a Christian.
He dives to the heart of Christianity in describing how his understanding of salvation has been shaped. Over time and through study with countless others, he rejects what he thinks are stifling notions and articulates his belief in salvation. He writes:
“The way of salvation is not the way of the mercenary (who serves to gain reward) nor the way of the slave (who serves to avoid punishment); rather, it is the way of the lover, who serves the beloved simply and purely out of genuine devotion.” (Cairns, Lives Together, How My Mind Has Changed. ed. David Heims, 40).”
His contrasts and clarity took my breath away. In this simple statement, he swept away so much of the rhetoric and doctrines that only distract. He reminds me of the oldest command, the Shema from Deuteronomy, “love the lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.”
Cains continues, “While salvation necessarily happens to persons, it is not to be understood as a merely personal matter.” Then he recounts a story of his friend, who is a wise and kind monk. When a man came to evangelize this monk, asking him if Jesus Christ was his personal savior, the monk smiled and said, “No”, without hesitation; “I like to share him.”
I like to share him. Christ wants to be shared. We do so in the sacrament of baptism. We do so in remembering him in the Lord’s Supper. Sharing Christ and adoring Christ together is what we do as a worshipping community each Sunday. We are stronger individually as we learn to depend upon and commit ourselves to being a member of the church in worship and in our lives.
Cairns has grown to believe the saving relationship with God “is not a discrete, individualized, private bargain struck but comes by way of our continuing participating in divine life, as a member of a whole and holy body that is one both alive and life-giving (Cairns 41).”
I introduced Scott Cairns as a theologian. He is. He is also a rising poet. Let me offer one of his psalms.
O Being both far distant and most near,
O Lover embracing all unlovable, O Tender
Tether binding us together, and binding, yea
And tenderly, Your Person to ourselves,
Being both beyond our ken, and kindred, One
Whose dire energies invest such clay as ours
With patent animation, O Secret One secreting
Life anew into our every tissue moribund,
Afresh unto our stale and stalling craft,
Grant in this obscurity a little light.
A little light. Isn’t that what we are all praying to see, a little light and to feel bound by a tether to God, in this frantic world?
The people in Haggai’s time were called to build a temple for God’s abode and to adore God. This temple, though, was not just the physical structure. More importantly, the splendor and prosperity God promised, that would be more glorious than the former, will rise from the work they were to do in their community and in their daily lives. No longer in exile, the people were to step out boldly, live lives that revealed their individual gifts. They were to work in ways that honored God, and for taking these risks; they were promised God’s spirit would abide with them, always.
So long ago, only so much of any one person’s life really happened in the temple, and only so much happens today in this sanctuary. Real work is done Monday through Friday in picking up kids from soccer, helping them with homework. Real living in God’s kingdom is demonstrated by how we show up at work, fill our calendars, hire and manage employees, serve customers, or allow our faith to undergird how we vote. God’s spirit abides with us at all times and there is no part of our lives that we can partition away as we seek to adore God.
Last month the First Wednesday gathering asked me to describe my call to ministry. After a year, I think they remained curious: how did someone end up in ministry after 20+ years in business? Some days I still wonder, but am deeply grateful.
Following so many years in consulting, becoming a minister was not abandoning business, rather I feel a call to understand and then do a better job of serving people who seek to be wholly Christian in their work lives. As a consultant, I witnessed across so many clients and my own companies the struggle some people encountered to remain faithful or those people who felt it necessary to compartmentalize their lives between work and faith since the two seemed so unrelated, or faith seemed so irrelevant. My call to ministry began and remains keenly focused on Christian faith and work.
For the past three years, I’ve worked closely with a group of senior business leaders and pastors to explore the challenges of faith and work. Combining my consulting experience and ministry training, I was retained on a project to discern if this is a real need, and if so, can we do anything.
We explored organizations, universities and churches that have created and sustained programs to equip and nourish people to be faithful in their work lives. Looking across the country, we found a wide variety of programs that address the challenges of reading the Wall Street Journal and Scripture every day. They have candid conversations about balancing quarterly filings and striving for year-end goals while honoring faith practices. Some of these large gatherings meet at hotels, or the opposite extreme, they are intimate groups meet in someone’s home.
We learned of rich fellowships that have held individuals through challenges and job loss as well as kept some people humble as their stars began to rise. No one professed to have the right answer. None of us will, but that does not preclude the need to continually ask the questions of how to live faithfully as a Christian and put your best into your work.
There is a thirst for safe place to talk about faith and work. We cannot separate our lives Monday through Friday from what we worship on Sunday – or we become hypocrites on Sunday and less than what God created the other days. One Christian leader quoted a Hindu truth; “you cannot pour from an empty cup,” as he described the imperative to remain disciplined in faith practices.
As we continue our work at Kenilworth Union, we announced on Friday the call to a new interim pastor for youth and families, Katie Lancaster. We are deeply grateful Katie will be joining the staff to serve. She will be instrumental to all of us in ministering to youth and children, forming faith practices and nurturing the love of God. In the coming weeks, please warmly welcome Katie. We have much more coming in the weeks ahead and a very bright future.
Our work at Kenilworth Union continues as we baptized a child into the body of Christ and received new members into this congregation. Each action, each addition is continuing to strengthen the body of Christ and his temple.
God came by the prophet Haggai and told us to work. God also promised to be with us. When the road ahead seems daunting in all our work, remember, God is also at work in you, healing hurts and wiping away tears. God is always ready to forgive you, to repair your broken hearts and fallen dreams. God adores us so much to take on human flesh, to serve us, to work with us and suffer with us. God never stops working. When we think the battle to work on rebuilding this temple or in our lives is too great, come and worship with one another, come and fill your cup by the one who loves you most.
I will close with wisdom written about Archbishop Oscar Romero. “It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. … We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.”