Saturday, August 25, 2018

“Haggai and the Origins of Ebenezer Scrooge” - August 26, 2018

Haggai 1:1-6

            The fear of poverty can be as harmful to some people as poverty itself. 

            Some people think that Ebenezer Scrooge was modeled on a man named John Elwes.  He was a Member of Parliament who had inherited money from his uncle and eventually had built up an impressive list of real estate in the West End of London, but he continued to live as frugally as he could, to the point of stinginess.  He would live in whatever rooms of his properties were not rented out at the time, to avoid maintaining a house.  He went to bed at sundown every day so he would not have to buy candles.  There are stories about how he put off buying new clothes so long that people on the street would walk up to him and hand him a couple of coins because they thought he must be a beggar.[1] 

            There was more to his story, though.  His father had died when he was four and his mother, apparently, was so scared of running out of money (even though her husband had left enough for them to live comfortably) that she eventually died of starvation because she wouldn’t spend the money to buy enough food for herself, although she made sure her son lacked for nothing.  In the same way, Elwes believed he was doing all this to save his fortune for his heirs.  So he went along walking in rainstorms when he could afford a cab buy wouldn’t pay for one, nor for an umbrella, getting home soaked and sitting there wet because he would not pay for firewood to dry himself out.

            The fear of poverty and the experience of loss may have underlain what was going on in Jerusalem at the time of the prophet Haggai.  He lived at a time when Judah had been reduced to a province of foreign empires that kept trading it around every few decades.  In his day, the people of Jerusalem had returned from exile in Babylon and had rebuilt much of the city from ruins into a liveable place, but there they stopped.  They saw to their own immediate need and comfort, and kept all that they could beyond that.

            Part of what Haggai, and other prophets like Malachi, would preach about was how the people withheld funds needed to rebuild the Temple. 

“Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house. Then the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” [Haggai 1:2-4]

But Haggai knew it went deeper than that.  

“Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.”
[Haggai 1:5-6]

The people’s withholding was a symptom of the fears that they had inherited, the troubles that they, as a nation, had undergone.  There was some healing left to take place and the people needed their confidence rebuilt no less than the walls of Jerusalem.  To use a cliché, they needed to learn how to move from fear to faith.

            When there has been some sort of trauma, it leaves its mark.  On the one hand, it can leave someone weakened.  On the other hand, it can call forth a greater strength than was previously known.  In between there is a stage of caution where the desire to move forward and the fear of repeated tragedy live side-by-side.  That was where the people of Judah were stuck.  That’s where a lot of people get stuck.  It can help to set clear steps or definite challenges, and that was what the Lord was doing through Haggai’s words.

            Rebuilding the Temple would be a sign of renewed faith, but it would also be a means for renewal to happen.  You know how someone learns to swim, right?  They get into the water.  You know how you get over the fear of flying?  You sit down on an airplane and close your eyes and grip the arms of the seat as tight as you need to grip them, and when you open your eyes you tell yourself that you are riding on a very tall bus. 

            A friend of mine became a widower a couple of years back, and something that he did the first six months of being on his own was intentionally to go out to places they had liked to go as a couple.  He said that the first couple of spots were painful, the next run were awkward, then came the sad ones, and on and on.  When he went back to any of those a second time, it was a little better, and eventually he realized that no matter what, at least he wasn’t just sitting at home, staring at the TV.  Then one evening, he said, he went to the movies and had a good time and didn’t realize what had happened until the next day.

            The problem isn’t so much that the Lord’s blessings aren’t there.  The problem is that we see ourselves as needing more all the time or let our fears or sorrows get in the way of enjoying what we are already blessed with:

“Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.”

How different that is from the awareness expressed in as familiar a way as the twenty-third Psalm:

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil,
my cup runs over.”    

How different that is from the promise that Jesus offers us:

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?”  [Matthew 6:28-30]

            There is no denying that the world is full of trouble, and people get hurt, and all sorts of things go wrong.  Nobody knows that better than Jesus.  No one ever felt the weight of the world the way he did.  Nobody ever could.  We feel our own burdens and our own sins and our own griefs.  He feels them with us and for us, and for all people, every last one.  And it is exactly Jesus who said to his disciples, and who says to us,

“I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”  [John 16:33]

“Take courage”: have you ever thought about that expression?  Maybe sometimes we can find courage inside ourselves, but that isn’t always the case.  What we can do, though, is take courage from Jesus’ hand, because it is one of the many gifts that he holds out for us, and it calms us down enough to see how very many other blessings are already ours, thanks to him.


Friday, August 17, 2018

“Practical Agnosticism” - August 19, 2018

Zephaniah 1:1-12

            In the late nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche declared, “God is dead.”  In the 1960’s a group of American theologians pointed out that as far as a large segment of the American public was concerned (and it’s become a much larger group since then), Nietzsche might as well have been right, because even if they use the word “God”, it means nothing to them.  As far as they are concerned, “God” is a quaint concept left over from the Middle Ages.  To answer the situation, the “Death of God” theologians tried to formulate a theology without God at its center.

            A writer for Time magazine heard about this project and wrote an article for the April 8, 1966 issue.   The cover that week made quite an impression. 

            Of course, there was a backlash.  One of my favorite responses was printed in a Methodist student magazine called Motive.  It was written in the format of a newspaper column and under that headline was the subheading, “Eminent Deity Succumbs During Surgery; Succession in Doubt As All Creation Groans; LBJ Orders Flags At Half Staff”.  I won’t read the whole thing, but I’ll quote some of it to give you the idea.

“…God, creator of the universe, principal deity of the world’s Jews, ultimate reality of Christians, and most eminent of all divinities died late yesterday during major surgery undertaken to correct a massive diminishing influence.  His exact age is not known, but close friends estimate that it greatly exceeded that of all other extant beings.  While he did not, in recent years, maintain any fixed abode, his house was said to consist of many mansions. …
Plans for the deity’s funeral are incomplete.  Reliable sources suggested that massive negotiations may be necessary in order to select a church for the services and an appropriate liturgy.  Dr. Wilhelm Pauck, theologian of Union Seminary in New York City, proposed this morning that it would be fitting and seemly to inter the remains in the ultimate ground of being. …
Public reaction in this country was summed up by an elderly retired streetcar conductor in Passaic, New Jersey, who said, ‘I never met him, of course, never saw him.  But from what I hear I guess he was a real nice fellow.  Tops. …”[1]
That’s satire, using humor to teach truth.  However, you really do meet that kind of condescending attitude in real life, and it is insulting to a living God, who is not just “a real nice fellow.”  Do not trivialize God.  One contemporary politician speaks of his own self-described spiritual practice,

“When we go in church, and I drink my little wine, which is about the only wine I drink, and eat my little cracker, I guess that’s a way of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as I can because I feel cleansed.”[2]
That demonstrates – at best – a magical view of the sacrament, treating communion like swallowing a handful of Flintstones vitamins.  At its worst it is outright blasphemy.  It totally ignores the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross; it laughs at the real death of the real God incarnate; it discounts the true cost of our pardon and ignores the source of real spiritual cleansing.

            And yet, such attitudes, decry them as we might as the result of modern skepticism or secularism, were known even to the prophet Zephaniah, around seven centuries before Christ.  To push God out of the picture or to treat him as a disinterested, ineffectual, distant figure of song and story who has nothing to do with the here-and-now, Zephaniah [1:12] warns, is to stir the Lord up in a way that you do not want to do.

“At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
and I will punish the people who rest complacently
on their dregs,
those who say in their hearts,
‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’”

Do not presume to treat the Lord of heaven and earth as expendable or beside-the-point.

            Our relationship with God is exactly that: a relationship.  It is not a tool to pull out of the box when you need it and put back when you’re done.  Exactly because God’s love never ends or grows less, God can be hurt.  There is not an exact correlation between human and divine ways – far from it – but we can say, in a way, that God has feelings and feelings that are far, far, more intense than our own.  Think what it means to be disrespected or trivialized by your own family, and then multiply that by whatever degree to imagine what it does to God’s heart.

            How often, though, do we do exactly that?  How often do we set one side of life over here and God over there?  How often do we act as if there is no place for God on the ballfield or in the courtroom or balancing the books?  How often do we make decisions in terms that are, for all practical purposes, those of an agnostic?  (That’s somebody who says, “I don’t know whether or not God exists, so I guess I’m on my own.”)  So we don’t spend any time asking what God wants us to do or how God wants us to live.  Maybe we operate on a vague sense that we should be good or do the right thing, but it never makes its way into specifics like choices about when to speak and when to remain silent or how to use our money or what medical treatments we go with or pass up. 

            The whole “God is dead” movement was right in some ways; modern people, even people of faith, do not ascribe every last detail of what happens in the natural world to specific divine commands.  Of those who do, only a handful of people like Pat Robertson have the hubris to claim that God is directing wildfires to burn California or hurricanes to hit Texas, and they can tell you why. 

But the “God is dead” movement was wrong in saying that God has no hand in anything that happens anytime or anywhere.  God is very much involved in human life and human history.  God is so intimately involved that he became part of it.  He lived the life of a Middle Eastern peasant whose protest of the world’s ways was crushed by the unjust rule of a local theocracy and a multinational empire.  God is so intimately involved that he undid the wrongs perpetrated at the cross, going against all that is natural and normal and raising Jesus from the dead.

            And God still goes against all that is expected, working wonders in the lives of people who live in a world that pushes him aside.  God blesses the poor in heart and the pure and the merciful and those who mourn.  God fills those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  God brings new life to those dead in sin, including the sin of pride that so troubled the prophets – and rightly so. 

By the way, Time published another cover story, the day after Christmas, 1968.  I think that Zephaniah might have felt better about this:

[1] Anthony Towne, “God Is Dead in Georgia” in The Best of Motive (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1990), 127-128.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

“Reality Check” - August 5, 2018

Obadiah 1:1-4

            I once knew somebody named Obadiah.  He was a teenager that was working with a summer daycamp that we ran in Philadelphia.  He had been sent to us as part of a program called PhilaJobs that was supposed to teach kids work-related skills on the job.  I fired Obadiah.

            It was a hot, August afternoon and the PhilaJob kids were on their half-hour break.  I walked downstairs into the church basement where they were hanging out (which was fine) and there I found some of them sitting at a table with a pile of coins in the middle, playing poker (which was not fine).  I walked over to the table, scooped the money into a saucer or something, and told them the game was over and so was their break.  They demanded the money back.  I told them it would be going into the campers’ water ice fund.  Obadiah protested.  He was going to complain to Mr. Roper, who ran the PhilaJobs program.  I said, “Good idea.  I’ll hold the money aside while you call him and explain how I confiscated the poker money.  Meanwhile, your break is over.”  They all went away grumbling.  Later that day, I asked Obadiah to sweep the floor.  He refused.  I told him he didn’t need to do it, but he didn’t need to come back in the morning, either.

            The next day he did come back, but he brought his grandmother with him.  She wanted to know if I had fired her grandson.  I said, “Yes.”  She asked why, and I suggested she ask him first.  He said I was making him sweep the floor.  She just stared at him. 

“Anything else you want to add to that?”  I asked him.

“No,” he said.

His grandmother never took her eyes off him.  “You’re going to tell me whatever you left out, and you are going to be doing a lot of sweeping when we get home.”  She looked at me and said, “Thank you.”

I never saw him again.

Obadiah the prophet had a message for the nation of Edom, just south of Judah and east of Egypt, that had taken part in attacks on Jerusalem.  It was very much like what I imagine Obadiah the teenager’s grandmother had to say to him, but even more serious and frightening. 

“Your proud heart has deceived you,
   you that live in the clefts of the rock,
   whose dwelling is in the heights.
You say in your heart,
   ‘Who will bring me down to the ground?’
Though you soar aloft like the eagle,
   though your nest is set among the stars,
   from there I will bring you down,
says the Lord.” [Obadiah 1:3-4]

Great or small, nation or individual, there comes a time when there is a reality check on what we think of ourselves, and it may be unpleasant.  We do need to know, though, and it’s for our own good to learn early on, that the world is bigger than we are, and God is bigger than the world. 

Some people learn that lesson way too late, and some never quite get it at all.  There’s a poem by Shelley that goes:

“I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Have you ever wondered what happened to all those statues of Karl Marx and Lenin that used to be all over Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union?  No?  Me, neither. 

            If we pay attention, we don’t fool ourselves about our own importance quite as much.  Corrections have a way of finding us and providing those reality checks.  For instance, as I wrote this sermon I realized that the name of the PhilaJob kid was “Hezekiah”, not “Obadiah”.  Reality check: I might not always remember details as well as I think I do.  Reality check: someday people will forget my name, too.  Reality check: very few people know my name now.  Reality check: that’s no big deal.

            The only one with a permanent memory is God, so in the long run, the only one really worth trying to impress is also God, who sees through us and our pretense.  We may try to show off our power or wealth or wit or learning or looks, but they do nothing.  We may try to look like we have everything together in our lives, or even like we are “ultra-spiritual”.  The prophet Micah asked himself about that.

“‘With what [he said] shall I come before the Lord,
            and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
            with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
            with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
            the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
            and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
            and to walk humbly [hear that? - “humbly”] with your God.”
                        [Micah 6:6-8]

            I’m not saying not to do amazing things for the kingdom.  I’m not saying not to take satisfaction in great accomplishments.  Only, don’t get so far ahead of yourself that you think any achievement overmatches the importance of simply being in relationship with the Lord.  In fact, it is being in a living relationship with him that matters more than anything else, because it’s the only thing that lasts.

            The good news is that it lasts forever.