The Courage to Rebuild

Scripture: Haggai 1:1-8

Most of you know that in our Sunday Bible Study we’ve been reading through the Bible in a year: we’re doing the abridged form, with about a chapter of assigned reading a day. Today we’re going to be finishing up the Hebrew Bible, talking about the last three of the so-called Minor Prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, and I thought I’d bring you all along for the ride here in worship too.

Not all of the Minor Prophets are easy to preach on – join us later on to hear more! – but as I was reading the prophet Haggai this week I did think that Haggai might have a good word for us today. He is not one of the more well-known prophets – even I didn’t remember much about Haggai before putting this week’s study together – so let me start by telling you telling you a little bit about him.

Haggai was a prophet around the year 520 BCE. Years earlier, in 587 BCE, the Babylonian army had laid siege to the city of Jerusalem, broken through the walls, and destroyed the Temple along with the entire city.  The religious and economic elites of Jerusalem, the ones who get to write the books, are led away in chains and scattered across the Babylonian empire, while the poor are left to farm the land. It’s not a stretch to call this the defining event of the Hebrew Bible. The Bible becomes the Bible in light of this event. Even much earlier stories and scriptures are edited and compiled in light of the destruction of Jerusalem and what becomes known as the Babylonian exile.

The Temple was where God resided on earth. When the Temple is destroyed, then what? Well, either God is absent, or your theology has to change.

But that was all before Haggai came on the scene.

By the time Haggai is part of the picture, Babylon itself has fallen. Persia is now in charge in the Ancient Near East. In 539 BCE, King Cyrus tells the exiles to go home, and he sends them with resources to start rebuilding. For this, Cyrus is called no less than God’s anointed, in Hebrew mashiach, Messiah. Back in Jerusalem, reconstructing the Temple is the first order of business. That way, God can dwell with God’s people in Jerusalem once again. The returned exiles get down to work on this holy project that God has called them to – work God has given them both the opportunity and the responsibility to undertake.

You can imagine it’s probably not as easy as all that. The small surrounding nations and some questionable newcomers to the city itself see the Temple beginning to be rebuilt, and they start to feel threatened. What happens to them if Jerusalem starts to gain power again? So they actively work to subvert the process.

And the people get discouraged. They start to believe their neighbors. And the project comes to a halt. It’s not necessarily a grinding halt, as far as I can tell. It just kind of…peters out. And maybe sometimes the people will walk past that half-rebuilt Temple and feel a kind of pang, you know, but mostly they try to push it out of their mind – the Temple was before. And hopefully someday it will be again. Just not right now.  

Maybe there’s some connection here to the way I imagine a lot of us feel right now, discouraged and despairing that life will ever be the same. I’m not saying it’s the same as being forcibly exiled from your home (there are those in our country, out in the West, who are experiencing a version of that too) but I think it’s fair to say that many of us are experiencing a sense of exile from life as we knew it right now. Once in a while there are some signs of hope, some promise of a return to something normal, and discouragement as we realize it’s just not that easy and it’s just not the same.

I’ve experienced this as my kids have returned to preschool, only to have our new rhythm interrupted by the need to quarantine. Young adults are starting college only to be told to return home. Some of you have been through Plans A, B, and C for major life events this year. Or you’ve found new jobs and lost them. Trying to find “life” in all of this just isn’t that easy, and maybe trying to find God in all of it isn’t so easy either.

And so the people say, we’ll build the Temple later. Later, when it’s easier. Later, when resources are more abundant. Let’s just regain our footing, here, and then we’ll get back to God’s work.

That’s where Haggai comes in with a word from the Lord.

At first his words sound angry, or at least disappointed. “These people say, the time hasn’t come, the time to rebuild the Lord’s house….Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses while this house lies in ruins?”

Think about it, God says, “You’ve sown much, but it has brought little. You eat, but there’s not enough to satisfy. There’s clothing, but not enough to keep warm.” And what it sounds like to me is that the people think they just don’t have enough to really invest in anything right now. They’re just trying to survive, here, to get through, and someday, when things are better and easier and more abundant, then we’ll build the Temple.

No, God says, go to the highlands and get some wood. You all are waiting for things to get better, but actually what would make things better is for me to dwell among you in that Temple again.

We call the Bible the Living Word of God because, even though it was written in and about specific circumstances in specific times in history, it still has the power to speak to us today, and this week, Haggai did to me. Because how many times during this whole pandemic have I said I’m just trying to survive here, I’ll worry about the rest later?

On the other hand, that’s not all wrong, is it? Sometimes just trying to get through a rough period is all you have, and I have to believe God understands that. I think there’s been something good, even, about having to pare things down to the minimum this year, and having to face that question of what really matters and what’s just been keeping us busy. God has never cared if you used this year to write your novel. God has never cared if your house is clean.  God does need us to care for ourselves. God does want us to be well and whole and not just overwhelmed all the time.

So I wondered if this was, in fact, the right word for today. Maybe it’s really not time to talk about rebuilding yet. Maybe the time to bring out Haggai is after there’s a vaccine, after all of this is over, but it’s still hard and we’re still figuring it out.

Maybe I’ll preach this sermon again then. But I still think Haggai has a word for us today.

Building the Temple is doing God’s work, and that’s what the people are stalling on, saying they just can’t focus on it now, they don’t have enough to invest in it now, and it’s to all of those excuses that God says no, it’s time.

I’m not talking about the pressure to accomplish all the things you wanted to accomplish this year; what I’m talking about is doing God’s work, whatever that looks like for you: the work of being part of a community, the work of caring for our neighbors, the work of pursuing justice, the work of prayer; the work I have so often gotten away from in the past six months as it has been so easy to turn in on myself and my own stress and my own fears and my own scarcity. At various times in these past six months I’ve heard God telling me, no, it’s not going to be better later, you’re not going to have more time to help out a neighbor or support a cause for justice later, you can do that now, and your life will be better for it.

What is God asking of you now? Not someday when things are better and you have more time and more money and it all seems generally safer, but now?

Life is different now, but it’s not on hold. That’s what God needs God’s people to know. The time for rebuilding is now.

I am with you, God says to God’s people, and they start to get to work.

The next words of Haggai are words of encouragement. Be strong, Zerubabel, says the Lord. Be strong, Jeshua, says the Lord. Be strong, all you people of the land. Work, for I am with you. Do not fear. When you’re done here, it’s going to be even better than it was before. Not the same! Not the same. But even better.

So who here needs to hear a word from Haggai today?

A Debt of Love

Scripture: Romans 13:8-10

Let’s talk a little bit about debt.

(Are you uncomfortable yet?)

If so I don’t blame you. Money is a hard thing to talk about in general, and the lack of money maybe even harder. No one wants to be in debt. And yet, for many if not most of us, debt is a part of our lives. We have student loans, car payments, mortgages, possibly medical debt if we haven’t been lucky, or we’re behind on our bills, we’ve run up our credit cards. Sometimes debt is about personal responsibility. A lot of the time it’s about social justice. Have you ever been in the position of having to turn over your car title for a 300% interest loan just to pay your rent for the month? I hope I never am.

By the way, it’s not stewardship season yet. In fact, this sermon isn’t really even about money.

In today’s Scripture reading, Paul is writing to the church in Rome, and he has something to say to them about debt. “Owe no one anything,” is how he puts it in the (NRSV) translation we read; the CEB says “Don’t be in debt to anyone.” This is a church that is dealing with its own internal conflict between its Jewish Christian and Gentile Christian members, and Paul is writing to them that both kinds of Christian have a place in God’s story, that all are called to live lives that are transformed by God’s grace. Living lives transformed by grace means living well in community with each other and also living well in relationship to the outside world. Show respect to your governing authorities, Paul says. Pay your taxes. Settle your debts.

Strange words, maybe, for a guy who offended the governing authorities enough to get himself thrown in prison a number of times. There’s a lot of conversation around that that can be had, but that’s a sermon for another day: in the end, Paul may not believe the church should conform to the world (12:2) but he does believe in living peaceably and respectfully within it as much as possible (12:18).

“Owe no one anything,” Paul says, “except – except – to love one another.”

Like I said, this sermon isn’t really about money.

Which is great, right? I’d rather owe someone love than money. I think.

Actually, when you get right down to it, this talk of love being something that is owed makes me uncomfortable, too.

Talking about love is all well and good. The Bible talks a lot about love. We as Christians talk a lot about love. We all know it’s a thing God wants us to do and we’re generally OK with that at least in concept. Love is a nice, uncontroversial thing to preach about – as long as no one gets too specific.

But it makes me uncomfortable because, again, I don’t like being in debt. I’d rather give and show love out of my own abundance, freely and joyfully, and not because I owe anyone anything.  In fact, that sounds almost antithetical to the Gospel, where we are freed from sin in order to love fully, where our debts are forgiven and there are no ledgers anymore.

And Paul, of course, believes that too, that Christ’s death frees us for love. You could call this talk of owing love just a rhetorical move on his part. He goes from living as good neighbors and settling debts to the real crux of a life transformed by grace, which is loving one another.

But I also find this uncomfortable question to be a meaningful one: what does it mean to owe someone love? To be obligated to them in some way for the sheer fact that they are another person God has created?

I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean that I’m supposed to be a doormat for anyone or endure their abuse or give them anything they want. Nothing like that. This question has come up for me, though, when someone comes to me in need. What does it mean to owe this person love? How much am I obligated to? I’m just one person, after all, and I have other stuff going on, and there are other needs in the world than the one right in front of me, and of course, I suspect that this debt of love I owe is not one I’m going to be able to easily pay off.

A few weeks ago one of my neighbors posted in our community Facebook group. Her next-door neighbor, Sharla, was living alone while Sharla’s husband was in the hospital with heart issues for an indefinite amount of time. Sharla suffered from muscular dystrophy and had lost the use of her legs. She had no way to take care of herself. So, the first neighbor and her husband had been taking Sharla three meals a day, checking in on her, feeding her cat and changing the litter.

We need help, this first neighbor said. We can’t do this alone.

My first thought was, what good neighbors this couple was. A need arose and they met it, even though it was more than they could realistically take on. My second thought was, I have too much going on to get sucked into this very open-ended situation. My third thought was, what do I owe a neighbor in need – to both neighbors in this situation?

Not just what would it be nice to do if I felt like it. What do I owe?

I told the neighbor who wrote the Facebook post that I could bring Sharla lunch the next day. And I did. Jon cooked, and I brought it over, and I chatted with her a bit and made sure she had what she needed, and I left. I said maybe I would be back at some point, but I didn’t make a commitment. And as I drove the few blocks home I thought, “What now?” Because I knew this debt I had was not paid up, and I also despaired of how much more might be expected of me – not just by my neighbors, but by God.

But then, over the next few days, I watched neighbors jump into action. One made an online sign-up form. Other people signed up for meals, until Sharla’s husband eventually came home from the hospital. And I thought, this is what happens when we share that debt and pay it off together.

And you see, in that way, that debt we bear is actually a gift, because it’s what connects us to each other in community: our duty and responsibility to each other, which we call love. And it points us back to the one who first loved us, who loves each of us to an extent we can never repay.

What do we owe each other? It’s a question that goes beyond bringing lunch to a neighbor. What do we owe each other, even the people we know with the most offensive political views we can imagine in the leadup to a national election? What do we owe each other, the most vulnerable members of our society – the poor, the sick, the historically oppressed? Not just what can do we if we feel like it or for extra credit. What do we owe to someone, simply because they are here and alive and created in the image of God?

Nothing, says Paul. Owe no one anything. Except – Except – for this debt of love, which is kind of everything.

Which maybe makes you wish sometimes you could just write a check.

But that’s not how things work in God’s economy, where grace is free but never cheap, and where we have already received more love than we could ever give away.

So I’ll end today with what is probably some questionable financial advice for you: go ahead and rack up some debt. You’re never going to pay it off anyway. You’ve been given too much already. But you might as well live your life paying it forward.

You know it’s not really about money.

It is about love, and grace, and the abundant life we share together.