"Building God's Temples"
Written and delivered by M. Idella Jones
22nd Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 27C) - November 10, 2019
Pledge Blessing Sunday @ St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, Savannah, GA
In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, 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? Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.
Do any of you have a routine household chore or task that you absolutely hate doing? You know that it has to be done, but why do you have to do it. It’s probably not a difficult task, and may not even by too strenuous, or necessarily tedious. But it is just something that you simply do not like to do. I have such a chore. I absolutely hate putting the clean sheets on the bed. Let me be clear, I regularly change my bed. There are few things I like more than climbing into a bed with fresh linen. I would just rather not have to make up the bed. On the day that I change the sheets I strip the bed as soon as I get up. But remaking the bed is always the last thing I do at night. And then it is only after putting this chore off until just before sleep overtakes me. We put a man on the moon, and you mean to tell me that we cannot invent an automatic bed maker? Something that can do this chore that I absolutely hate having to do. I am going to do it, just not yet.
That would be wonderful. But life does not work like that, does it? It worries me that the human race may be automating itself right out of existence by inventing new gadgets we really do not need. Consider all the things we can control with just the sound of our voice and a simple command. “Alexa turn on the oven to 350”. In this TV ad the lady is standing right next to the stove and only has to turn around and push one, two at the most, buttons. How long does it take to set the oven? The easy way may not be the best way. Are we to become a race of talking heads? I know that I get a bigger sense of accomplishment when I work hard at a task and have it come out right.
The Israelites in today’s reading from the prophet Haggai have a not yet moment. Haggai was a prophet with one mission to accomplish: encourage the Israelites to rebuild the temple.
The Israelites were held captive until Cyrus, King of Persia, overthrew the Babylonians and issued a decree allowing the them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Of course, they readily agreed. At first the people were eager of fulfill their promise and end 70 years of captivity. They may have started work on the temple, but soon the cares of the world got in the way. They started to take care of their personal business. They concentrated on themselves amassing personal wealth. “Planting much but harvesting little”, eating but never being filled, clothing themselves but never able to keep warm, earning money but never having anything, keeping their earnings in purses with holes.
Seventeen years after their return to Jerusalem, God sends Haggai to Zerubbabel the governor and to Joshua the high priest. Together they remind the people of their promise. There had been a devasting drought and famine since their return from exile. Haggai says this was the direct result of the people forgetting their promise to God.
Haggai asks do you remember? Is there anyone here who remembers the temple in the good old days? How can you look at it as if it were nothing?
But, take courage all of you, the prophets, the governor, the priests and all the people, “work for I am with you says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made”.
You know, when I got this far in preparation for today, I thought I had Haggai all figured out. I could talk about rebuilding the Temple and that would be the end. I could tie this to today being the last day of our 2020 Stewardship campaign and that would be enough. Then one day here in Evening Prayer we heard a reading from a commentary on Haggai by Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, who died in the year 444. I am not sure what I was expecting but I know it was not, this first sentence. And I quote, “When our Savior came, he appeared as a divine temple, glorious beyond any comparison, far more splendid and excellent than the older temple.”
St. Cyril comments that through the coming of Jesus the world has been filled with places of worship as opposed to the one temple in Jerusalem. St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church is one such place of worship. Haggai promises that those who work on the temple will receive a gift from heaven, given by the Savior. We in this house of worship also have been given that a promise and a gift. Christ is that gift. Our gift is the “Peace of Christ” who gives access in the one Spirit to the Father. The People are promised peace to all who lay the foundation to rebuild the temple.
Those of us in this room have two places of worship to build. Of course, we must continue to build up St. Matthew’s. But we must also build the spiritual temple, one that lives inside each of us. We can start at the 2020 stewardship campaign, which is not only about making a financial commitment to the church for next year. Stewardship involves our work and pledges on three fronts:
A pledge of our tithe, our funds, to keep the church operating in the black.
A pledge of our time to be involved in the programs and services of the church. A gift of our time can allow us to improve and expand existing programs and to begin new ones in the Parish and even involve the immediate community where we worship.
A pledge our talent, whatever special gift we have (and we all have at least one) to improve the quality of our life and our worship.
Tithe, time and talent go together. One cannot be truly successful with the other two.
We began the 2020 Stewardship Campaign with the ASK dinner celebrating the lives of our elder statesmen and women. It was a time to recall their contributions to St. Matthew’s Parish family. It was also a time for us to commit ourselves to continuing the work they passed on to us. Remember, we are the ones that our youngsters will remember. Our life in St. Matthew’s, how we live now and what we show to them will form the foundation of their life in the church.
How can we do this. What tools do we have in our toolbox?
First, we have the Episcopal tradition. A tradition of teaching and worship that allows us, as Paul says to the church at Thessalonica “not to be shaken or alarmed” by anything that conflicts with the teachings we have had from the beginning. Like the exiles returning from Babylon we have to keep living the vows we made at baptism. It is not easy; it never has been easy. It was not easy for the congregations of St. Stephen’s, St. Augustine’s, or the new St. Matthew’s in 1948, when they moved in together in this building. But it can be done. And we are the only who ones can do it.
We have the same promise that God gave to the Israelites when they began to rebuild the temple. Be encouraged. “Work for I am with you”. If we do, the splendor of St. Matthew’s in 2020 and beyond can be greater than our splendor was in the past. We won’t just look back and wish for the “good old days;” we’ll be making good new days together!
I could close with some phrase like “Just Do It” or with the poem by Edgar Guest called, “Somebody Said It Could Not be Done”. But I decided to use a prayer for an Episcopal saint named Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky. He was born in 1831 in Lithuania of Jewish parents. In 1854 he became convinced that he should become a Christian and was ordained to the priesthood in 1860. Fr. Schereschewsky was elected the Missionary Bishop to Shanghai in 1876 and dedicated his whole life to the Chinese mission, translating Christian writings to Chinese. His life and ministry are commemorated in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints on October 14. Pray with me now the Collect for Bishop Joseph Schereshewsky:
“O God … Lead us, we pray, to commit ourselves and our talents to you, in the confidence that when you give your servants work to do, you will also supply the strength to do it, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.