November 6, 2022 Hamilton Coe Throckmorton
Haggai 1:15b-2:9 The Federated Church, UCC
Reading the Bible is something like an exercise in archaeology. When we hear the stories of scripture, we’re listening for something deeper, we’re unearthing a wisdom that lies beneath the surface.
Take today’s story from the book of the prophet Haggai. On first glance, these words may strike us as extraordinarily distant from the lives we lead. The people of Israel have been carried off into captivity in Babylon and kept there for several centuries. Eventually, Cyrus, the ruler of Persia, conquers the Babylonians, and decrees that it’s now time for the captives to return to their home in Israel. And for the historians among us, this may prove to be an intriguing tidbit.
For others of us gathered here, though, that historical information may do little more than make our eyes glaze over. Ancient Babylonians, Persians, and Israelites? Not my thing, sorry. And that’s perfectly understandable. After all, as the great twentieth-century preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick once said (and I paraphrase), “No one ever came to church to find out what happened to the Hittites.” Or the Perizzites, the Amalekites, or the Canaanites, for that matter. While some of us may have a strong interest in history, that’s not really what draws most of us to come to this place on a Sunday morning, or to tune into our livestream. It’s not history that beckons us. Or math or linguistics or anthropology or agriculture or medicine, even though all of these are part of the Bible.
What draws us here is something much more basic, and more widely shared. We come here, I suspect, because we know, at some deep level, that shopping and TV and vacations and exercise are not all there is. We come here, I’m guessing—and I invite you tell me if this is so—because we sense that there is something beneath the routines and the triumphs and the frustrations of our everyday lives and we want to connect with it.
What we hear today is a story of some people and politics of an ancient day. But we also hear something more lasting and more deep-seated. We hear about hopes and dreams. We hear about frustrations and disappointments. At the heart of today’s story, we hear about what it’s like to be in exile, and what it’s like to come back from exile. Historical details?
Certainly. But more pertinently, and far more enduringly, an engagement with losses and gains that are common to every time and place. Babylonians and Persians and Israelites? Of course. But even more compellingly, failure and agony and despair. And at the same time also victory and ecstasy and hope. And most crucially of all, the place of God in the life of the world. This story is about exile. And it’s about homecoming. And it’s something we all know in our bones.
A twelve-year-old girl is throwing a softball in the yard with her friend. From the porch, she hears her father’s snide and taunting voice: “You throw like a girl.” When she was young, he seemed to adore her. Now, though, he criticizes not only her throwing, but her taste in clothes and her grades and her choice of friends and her weight and her manners. It’s all judgment, all the time. Whether she would call it that or not, this girl knows what it is to be in exile.
A middle-aged woman trudges off to work every day to labor in a job that sucks her soul dry. She keeps being asked to do things that bore her to death. Or maybe she feels morally compromised by the company’s shady dealings. She slogs through her days, and her life force just seems spent. You may remember the character played by Billy Crystal in the long-ago movie City Slickers. He’s a corporate executive who, at the urging of his spouse, goes on a cattle drive in the southwest so he can find his spark again. This, too, is someone who knows what it is to be in exile.
A man with a spouse and small children slowly realizes that he is angry all the time. The kids annoy him. His spouse irritates him. He is constantly snippy and grumpy and critical. Yes, from one angle, the people he lives with all fall short of the ideal housemate. They’re messy and late and ungrateful. From another angle, though, the problem isn’t really with these others. It lies within him. He, too, is in exile.
We could multiply these scenes forever. What is undoubtedly true, though, is that many of us live our lives in a kind of exile, banished from home, in a sense, and wandering in our own wildernesses. Take a moment now to imagine or remember what you think of as the happiest day or time of your life. Maybe it was a childbirth (or maybe it was every day that was not childbirth!). Maybe it was your wedding day. For me, I have a vivid memory of a day when I was about ten years old, and I was playing baseball with friends, and we were laughing and talking and feeling as connected as human beings ever feel. I didn’t have a care in the world, and felt as though life couldn’t possibly be any better.
Whatever a great day has been for you, and whatever made it great, to the extent that you don’t feel that satisfaction and fulfillment in this moment, that’s a kind of exile. When we’re separated from whatever it is that makes us feel most alive, then we’re in a sort of exile. When life falls short of our deepest hopes and dreams, then we walk through our days in exile—exiled from the heart and purpose and joy of life.
Strangely, in today’s biblical story, after the Israelite people return home from their long exile, they’re still not happy. The temple that was the center of their life had been destroyed years ago, and when they come back home, the rebuilding of the temple is not going at all well. And it’s clear, from what they can see of the little that’s been done, that this is going to be nowhere near the magnificent sanctuary that the earlier temple was. They’re mired in a half-remembered past, entrapped by a likely false memory of good old days that were almost certainly not that good. So they’re in a snit, a foul mood, physically home from exile, yes, but still exiled in spirit.
And it’s into this scene that the prophet Haggai speaks. To Zerubbabel, the governor of the land of Judah, he says, speaking the word from God, “Take courage.” To Joshua, the high priest, he says, “Take courage.” And finally, to all the people of the land, he says, “Take courage.” Yes, you may feel off. Yes, you may feel totally out of sorts. Yes, you may feel far removed from the life for which you pine. And the word of God to Zerubbabel and Joshua and indeed to us, three times, is “Take courage.”
Strikingly, Haggai doesn’t say everything is suddenly, magically, going to be alright. He doesn’t wave a magic wand or scatter some pixie dust over the people to suddenly put everything in perfect order. Instead he says, “Take courage.” Courage, of course, comes from the word for “heart.” Haggai is telling the people, not that all will supernaturally be made right, but that, even in their struggles, their hearts will be filled.
To have courage is to have our hearts engulfed by the sense that we are living the life God gave us to live, even if everything is not perfect. To have courage is to trust that, as we live our lives authentically, as we live them devoted to the path God has given us to walk, all shall be well. To have courage is to stand for what is right, trusting that God holds us up in whatever challenges come our way. To have courage is to have a God-heart, a heart that is strong and full even when so much is not going the way we hoped it would. And this courage is possible because God walks with us on the journey. God empowers us to live true to ourselves and the mission we have been given. God strengthens us to resist the powers of evil and to stand for what is right and good and beautiful.
And then Haggai says one more thing. After he implores people to have courage, he says to them, “Work, for I am with you.” In other words, God’s attention and love don’t cocoon us off from the rest of the world. God’s attention and love, when we really take them in, move us to live as a blessing to our truest selves and to the people and earth around us. The courage we receive from God enables us, in other words, to work to make a difference.
Years ago, when I was in seminary, the Ku Klux Klan announced they were going to have a rally in a neighboring town. Their rally was to be on a farm up on a hill in the town of Scotland, Connecticut. A group of us seminarians went to the farm that day to witness for a different way. We were absolutely silent as the white-gowned, hooded Klansmen marched through the farm’s gates—our promise of silence, our pledge to be non-confrontational, was the only reason the police let us anywhere near the farm. And as we stood there mutely with signs lauding the way of Jesus, one of the Klansmen, as he marched into the farm, spit on a seminarian standing near me. It was a grotesque thing to do, and my classmate, shocked by this degrading act, hardly surprisingly began to cry. What I will never forget, though, is her utter determination to remain there and to witness to a better way. She was not going to be swayed by the evil that had aimed itself at her. She was going to take courage and to work for the world God has ordained for us all. Courage and work joined forces in her to call for our better angels, and in this case to confirm the sainthood that God had conferred on her.
The little girl whose father mocked and taunted her just for being who she was? She found it within her to say to him, “Dad, I am who I am. And your only choice is whether you’re going to love me as I am.” That simple and bold truth-telling was her courage and her work. And it was, as well, her sainthood.
The woman who trudged off every day to labor in soul-strangling work? She decided it wasn’t worth the pain and the stifling sacrifice, and she took another job, one that exercised her gifts and connected her to people who shared her passion. That decision was her courage and her work. And it was, as well, her sainthood.
The man who was angry all the time? He realized the problem wasn’t really his spouse and his children, but that something else was going on. He did some careful self-examination and took responsibility for his seething and determined to find a new and better way. That was his courage and his work. And it was, as well, his sainthood.
As we gather here on All Saints Sunday, we are mindful of those who have gone before us who have shown their courage and done their work. Maybe it was the parent who followed the idiosyncratic path. Maybe it was the child who stayed true to who they were in the face of gargantuan peer pressure. Maybe it was the colleague who demonstrated uncommon integrity in the face of an overwhelming push to compromise.
And those saints didn’t just live in an earlier time. They are among us still. My brother Tim is running this Tuesday for a seat in the state of Maine House of Representatives. He’s running in a district in which 80% of the voters are not of his party. And he has gone virtually door to door throughout the district over the last six months, campaigning in a way that is conciliatory and respectful and positive. He doesn’t badmouth his opponent, he listens carefully and attentively to the concerns of the voters, and he honors the people of his district with his work and his energy and his constructive spirit. He shows courage, and he is fully invested in his work. And there’s a saintly quality to what he does that, in a small way, transforms the tenor and feel of his district.
As we celebrate the sacrament of holy communion this morning, we are strengthened to just such courage and work. We are made new for the renewing of the earth. May we exhibit such courage and be devoted to our work as followers of Christ. In just such courage and work lies the richness of the saints of God.