Lectionary Year C, Proper 27
OT Reading: Haggai 1:15b-2:9
Sermon at First Presbyterian Church, Petersburg, Alaska on November 6, 2016.
When we look around and observe the world around us, it’s difficult not to see the many problems, troubles, conflicts, divisions, and plain ugliness that seem omnipresent. There seem to be no easy solutions; and sometimes we wonder if there are any solutions at all. In the more pessimistic recesses of our minds, we think that maybe the world has gone so off track that it is on an irreversible downward trend into utter chaos and wreckage.
Many, faced with such a dark and uncertain future, understandably look to the past — when things seemed to be better, when things seemed more certain, when things and people seemed to be in their proper places, when there seemed to be order and predictability. And the temptation to try to recreate the past grows strong.
There is a term for this which you’ve probably guessed; it is nostalgia. Alan R. Hirsch describes nostalgia as a yearning for an idealized past — “a longing for a sanitized impression of the past, what in psychoanalysis is referred to as a screen memory — not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, and in the process all negative emotions filtered out.” (http://elitedaily.com/life/science-behind-nostalgia-love-much/673184/)
That sounds negative, but studies have found that nostalgia can help people cope with negative life events, depression, and even eases facing death.
Here are a few paragraphs in a New York Times article from 2013:
Nostalgia does have its painful side — it’s a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future.
“Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function,” Dr. Routledge says. “It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives. Some of our research shows that people who regularly engage in nostalgia are better at coping with concerns about death.”
“Nostalgia helps us deal with transitions,” Dr. Hepper says. “The young adults are just moving away from home and or starting their first jobs, so they fall back on memories of family Christmases, pets and friends in school.”
Scientific American reports “situations that trigger negative emotions, feelings of loneliness, and perceptions of meaninglessness cause people to become nostalgic.” (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/mind-guest-blog/the-rehabilitation-of-an-old-emotion-a-new-science-of-nostalgia/)
Dr. Hal McDonald, in Psychology Today (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/time-travelling-apollo/201606/the-two-faces-nostalgia) describes two kinds of nostalgia. The first is restorative nostalgia, in which the person tries to recreate (or restore) the past into the present. The second is reflective nostalgia, in which the person savors the experience without trying to recreate it.
These two types of nostalgia represent fundamentally different attitudes toward the past, and it is this difference that largely determines whether our memories of those happy days of yore will evoke feelings of joy or of sadness…
Restorative nostalgia is really a kind of homesickness—a homesickness for the past—more akin to the original pathological definition of nostalgia than to our current view of the term…
Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, accepts the fact that the past is, in fact, past, and rather than trying to recreate a special past experience, savors the emotions evoked by its recollection. This acknowledgment of the irretrievability of our autobiographical past provides an aesthetic distance that allows us to enjoy a memory in the same way that we enjoy a movie or a good book.
As you might guess, the latter, reflective nostalgia, is a more healthy response than the former, which tries to recreate (in vain) an idealized past.
Back from Exile
This brings us to the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon. Or at least a few of them. The prophet Jeremiah, early in the exile, had written and told them:
5 “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. 6 Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! 7 And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:5-7 NLT)
Many had settled in Babylon and felt no need to return to their ancestral lands and face inevitable hardships there.
Cyrus had decreed that the Jews could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple there. But the work had not really begun. The people went and worked on their individual homes and fields. The prophets had prophesied that their return would result in blessings (c.f. Ezekiel), but the people only saw reminders of destruction, desolation, and daily experienced difficulties.
Nearly twenty years had passed. And now the prophet Haggai rose to declare to the people that the current sad state of affairs was due to their neglect in rebuilding the Temple.
Not the Prosperity Gospel
At this point it should be said that Haggai could be used to support a prosperity gospel: i.e., that God blesses those who contribute toward his demands, and curses those who neglect him.
But it is important to note that the ancient temple is not equivalent to the present day churches or denominations. Neither should the temple be limited to spiritual and religious facets of individual and societal life.
The ancient temple was the center of religious, spiritual, social, and economic life. It was the hub of community and connections. A healthy temple meant healthy society and community. It was the place of celebrations. It was where relationships between human and deity, and between humans were restored and strengthened.
I think it can be difficult for Westerners, particularly Americans, to understand how the temple could be the center of so much of community. We value individualism, we tend to strictly segregate different spheres of our lives, and religion is certainly in a decline. But at least from anecdotal, personal experience that I’ve had in Japan large temples and shrines still form a major part of the economy through tourism and festivals; they are still focus of major celebrations and places where families and community come together; where life’s petitions, dreams, and goals are offered up.
When Haggai claims that the peoples’ neglect of the temple was the cause of their life problems, we can see how that can be reasonable logic. Haggai’s accusation is that the people were so concerned about their individual survival and comfort that they had neglected the well-being of the community. It is not the prosperity gospel, at least not in the present-day sense of the phrase in which God blesses individuals in a quid pro quo fashion. Rather it is a declaration that when the community looks after everyone in the community, God can multiple the sum of their efforts for the good of the entire community.
What is Wealth?
Stanley Hauerwas, at Duke University, drawing from Millbank and Pabst, theologians and philosophers, to describe wealth in terms of
goods that can be shared together such as intimacy, trust, beauty. The goods that should determine how we live are embedded in the practices of honour and reciprocity which are developed over time through the habits sustained by a tradition. The formation of such traditions depends on the existence of people of wisdom who can provide the judgments necessary for responding to new challenges while remaining faithful to the past.
People who so live do not think their first task in life is to become more wealthy or powerful as individuals. Rather wealth is best thought of as what we share in common, such as parks, or practices to which all have access, such as medicine. In other words, the post-liberal strategy is exactly the opposite of the liberal assumption that assumes that social practices of mutual assistance should be eliminated, while at the same time encouraging our desires for wealth and prestige. The liberal desire for the well-being of the individual not only ignores the goods built on gift relations, but in effect destroys the habits that make such relations possible.
Exhortation Heeded, But Things Don’t Look Good
The people heed Haggai’s words and begin the process of temple reconstruction. About two months later, Haggai offers a new word, the passage that was read this morning.
It appears that the people have been hard at work, but progress is slow. And what they have to show for it isn’t much. It is also possible that among the people are some elderly Jews who remember the first temple. Whether it is they, or the younger generation recalling the stories of old about the first temple, what they see before them is sorely lacking. They are discouraged. If their well-being and future rely upon God accepting the results of their construction, it doesn’t look very good. They have good reason to be concerned.
Suffering from Restorative Nostalgia
The people are suffering from the first, bad kind of nostalgia: restorative nostalgia. They want to recreate the new temple to resemble the first in its physical and religious grandeur. That’s, after all, what Ezekiel appears to have prophesied.
This kind of nostalgia can cause harm in many ways. It can halt progress — because the new can’t possibly be as good as the old, why bother? People can get stuck in the past. It can lead to feelings of depression and discouragement.
Or it can cause people to turn against each other — I know how it’s supposed to look like, so why can’t you just obey my instructions? Or, I know better than you, I’m the expert, so your opinions and ideas are worthless. Or, are you trying to sabotage the project with your less-than-perfect plans? People become divided, one group against another.
God Invites Reflective Nostalgia
Through Haggai, God offers a word of reflective nostalgia — the good kind of nostalgia. Haggai reminds the people of God’s faithfulness in their lives. The past cannot be recreated; but the past offers reminders that can strengthen and encourage the people to move forward.
God says, “I am with you.” He declares, “My spirit remains among you, just as I promised when you came out of Egypt. So do not be afraid.”
It is an invitation to remember how God has been with them, all the way from their beginnings in Egypt. It is an invitation to reflect on the power and strength of God to sustain and deliver.
It is a declaration that God does not dwell in the past but he is always a part of the present. God cannot be summoned by recreating the past. The people must move forward to where God is taking them.
God Is Found Where His People Work
God is already among them. The temple isn’t where God resides. God is where the people are doing the work of restoring God’s glory by their efforts to rebuild, restore, and heal community.
The returned exiles seemed to think God couldn’t come and bless them until the temple was complete and functional; and that the degree of blessing depended on the physical magnificence of the structure. What they heard was that their very efforts were where God could be present and manifest his glory.
Haggai exhorts the people to do the work. As long as they are doing the work of building community to reflect God’s image, God will be with them and bless them. Other nations will hear and wonder. They will be curious and come. And peace will be the result.
Fantasy or Reality?
Does this sound too good to be true? Is Haggai describing a fantasy?
I think the key point to remember is that the work we do for God is not to secure blessings for ourselves, or for our families, or for our church, but to bless the whole world. When Abram was first called by God, the blessings offered to him were so that the entire world would be blessed through him. I believe that is still God’s desire and his purpose for the church.
I think for far too long the church has been preoccupied with her own security and place in the world. Like the returned exiles during their first twenty years, the church is too often concerned about accounting and finances, membership rolls, and her pursuit of temporal influence and power. Too often the church neglects the people and community just outside her, sometimes literal, walls.
I believe the words of Haggai are still relevant for the church today. We need to rebuild the temple — no, not necessarily the physical church or congregations — but the image of God that we who claim to be followers of Christ represent to the world. The church must rebuild the picture of God that those outside her metaphorical walls see inside.
Is that impossible? Is that too hard? Has the image been so destroyed that it can’t be rebuilt? Is the destruction and desolation too much to bear?
Haggai’s words should still ring true for us today. God is with us. Just as he rescued Israel from Egypt, brought the exiles back from Babylon, helped them rebuild the second temple, gave us his perfect image in Jesus Christ, and sustained the church through two millennia, his Spirit remains to strengthen and lead us today. “Do not be afraid,” God commands.
Rebuild God’s Temple Today
We can rebuild God’s temple in our world today. We can restore the image of Jesus Christ that has been destroyed by religionists. We do it through our love, compassion, and faithfulness to the people of this community. We do it through our efforts to foster harmony and peace among peoples, especially among those with whom we disagree. We do it through our attitudes and actions that value people and relationships first.
We were placed on this earth to bless others. We were saved by Christ so that we would know his purpose and be given the power and strength to do this difficult but rewarding work. We have been given the ministry of reconciliation, of rebuilding people and relationships that have been broken. Let us come together and work together to restore the image and glory of God in his temple, the church, us.