Sermon for Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Haggai 1:15b–2:9; 2 Thessalonians 2:1–5, 13–17 & Luke 20:27–40
Two significant events in the life of our parish will take place before the end of this year. First, the Memorial Hall building will be demolished, and second, St Andrew’s Kindergarten will cease to operate. The Hall and the kindergarten both hold an important place in the history of the parish, and there is no doubt these two events will evoke a sense of sadness among members of the parish.
It is only natural that people may be moved to reflect on past times in the life of our parish when the pews were full on Sunday mornings; when Sunday School was flourishing; and when attendances at social events in the Hall were in the hundreds. People might think quietly to themselves, or talk openly among one another, asking the questions, “Remember when . . .? and remember what it used to be like?” This is especially so as we approach the centenary of our parish next year in 2023. People might be left feeling a little disheartened or worried for the future of the parish as they compare its current situation with its halcyon days.
That’s the situation the prophet Haggai finds himself addressing in today’s Old Testament passage. The people of Judah have returned from exile in Babylon. Cyrus, the emperor of Persia, has crushed the Babylonian Empire, and he has permitted the Jews to go home and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. The restoration of the temple has begun, but now it languishes as the people’s commitment to reestablishing the centre of their faith community has waned. Haggai asks those members of the community who are old enough to still remember the original temple to comment on the progress of the restoration. They inform Haggai, and the rest of the community, that it lacks the grandeur and quality of workmanship of the original. At this moment, the goal of rebuilding the Temple to its former glory seems out of reach and pointless.
Haggai asks the people to reimagine the future. He asks them not to simply think about how the Temple looked in the past, but to think about how it could look it in the future. It doesn’t have to be the exact same image of what it was in the past. It can have a new look for the future. Not a look that is necessarily better or worse than the past, but a look that is different. Haggai offers the people the assurance that God is truly present with them as they struggle with their past and their future. “Now take courage . . . all you people of the land, says the Lord; for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt.”
There is a wonderful quote from a commentator named Mary Eleanor Johns who wrote, “The divine call to build the temple is a call to relationship and commitment with God.” She backs this up by saying that whatever trouble or predicament we face, we have God’s promise that He will be with us, which is echoed over and over throughout the Old Testament. Johns also wrote that this promise is given again by Jesus in all four of the Gospels, with perhaps the most moving account being that in the Gospel of John when Jesus says to his disciples, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” (NRSV John 14:16–17)
We are being asked to reimagine the future of our parish. To think about how our parish might look in the future. It might look very different to how it did in the past, and that is neither good nor bad, it is just different. We are blessed to be in a very strong financial position now, following the sale of the land that the Hall sits on, and we can use that financial position to help create a new image of our parish as a place that can still play a role in the life of the local community.
It can sometimes be difficult to imagine new possibilities, but faith does provides hope. In today’s gospel passage, Jesus makes the point that God is the God of the living, and that suffering on earth does not dictate what will happen in heaven. People who suffer under oppression and various forms of dehumanising systems, often are unable to see the promise of hope. The suffering and hope of enslaved African people in North America portrays the transformation of suffering through faith.
Slavery in North America is considered one of the most inhumane and dehumanising systems of oppression ever imposed upon a group of people by others. During their time of forced labour and exploitation, African slaves were not permitted to read or write, and they faced punishment by mutilation or death if they were caught in contravention of this rule. Anyone caught with a book, especially a Bible, were often punished by having their hands cut off, eyes gouged out, or by being severely lashed with a bullwhip. Many enslaved Africans would not have survived their ordeal had it not been for their faith that God is God, not of the dead, but of the living. Their faith told them that things in heaven would be different than on earth.
Let me return now to the questions Haggai posed to the people of Jerusalem regarding the reconstruction of the Temple. “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?” We are being asked to reimagine our future. In the words of Mary Eleanor Johns, “We are being called into relationship and commitment with God, and we have His promise that He will be with us in whatever we do.”