Saturday, December 15, 2018

What can we say November 10? 22nd after Pentecost

   Haggai 1:15b-2:9 is appealing to me for two reasons. It’s just fun to say the names (and the weighty impact of them piling up must have been part of Haggai’s intent!): “Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak.” God’s engagement with the people, in history, where political powers reside but can’t get done what’s required.

   The demise of the church is worth reflecting upon (Haggai 2:3). Care is required if we get nostalgic about “this house in its former glory.” He is speaking of the meager temple the Israelites rebuilt after the exile, a pale, puny successor to Solomon’s. Could it be that the real “former glory” of the church wasn’t in the 50’s or some sunny season we pretend was cool. Maybe it was during the Roman persecution, or as Luther was hounded at the beginning of the Reformation?
   To ancient Judeans, and to today’s church, the Word through Haggai summons us to “Take courage” – 3 times! And why? “The Lord is with you.” As Sam Wells rightly named in his A Nazareth Manifesto, “with” is the most important theological word in the Bible. God is with us: this is the Old Testament’s constant story, the very nickname Jesus was given (Emmanuel!), and his parting words at his Ascension. God doesn’t fix everything, or shelter us from unpleasantness. God is with us. Somehow, ultimately, that is enough.

   The promise, “The latter splendor will be greater than the former,” is ostensibly about a cooler, more magnificent temple yet to be built. Justinian’s wry remark, when the Hagia Sophia was finished? “O Solomon, I have surpassed you.” We might read Haggai’s promise eschatologically – or we might wonder if our church, with its crumbling denominations and ever lessening profile in society, will enter a new era of glory, not defined by size or institutions, but by holiness and a radical embodiment of what church was supposed to be about all along.

   Frederick Buechner’s old quote might pertain: “Maybe the best thing that could happen to the church would be if the buildings were lost, the bulletins blown away by the wind, the institutions all gone – and then all we’d have left would be Jesus and each other, which was all we had in the first place.” Of course, in the meantime, especially if you're in the thick of your annual pledge campaign just now, you need some interim money to keep the Jesus and each other functioning!

   2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17. With its apocalyptic trappings is unpreachable to me; to much “splainin’” would be required. It’s possible to reflect on “holding fast to tradition,” although we have to own that traditions can be evil and should be let go. And so now we turn to the Gospel:

   Luke 20:27-38. I saw a colleague dare to title his sermon on this “7 Brides for 7 Brothers.” Not quite… A common enough pastoral question is Will I be with my wife in heaven? Or if married twice, Which will be my wife in heaven? Or children decide where to bury dad: With wife 1 or wife 2? Some of my more intense pastoral moments have actually been sitting with people asking such agonizing, mystifying questions. Best for the preacher just to own the agony, the heartfelt depth of love and fear being exxpressed. For Jesus, unmarried and not exactly a matchmaker or glorifier of marriage, would explain theat marriage is an earthly institution, not necessary, or even heavenly. St. Augustine: “Where there is no death, there are no marriage.”

   I never enjoy deflating people’s vapid visions of what heaven will be like (golf every day! or as Tammy Faye Bakker put it as she was nearing death, “I think of heaven as a giant shopping mall where I have a credit card with no limit!”). Heaven will be about God – whose glory will so mesmerizing, we will never in a zillion years tire of gazing on his face, and singing our praises. We will even then find the true union in relationships: not looking at one another, but together looking to Jesus. If that’s our destiny in heaven, perhaps the more we might approximate that here in friendships and families, the greater our joy might be? At the same time, you have to love C.S. Lewis's wisdom - that however we might in our wildest imagination envision heaven's wonder and goodness to be, the reality will be exponentially greater. So if I adore being with my spouse now, heaven will not be identical to or any less than the best life now has to offer.

   David Lyle Jeffrey, wisely reflecting on Jesus’ interaction with the Sadducees interrogating and trying to trap Jesus, asked “Was Jesus wearied by them? Did he laugh out loud? The absurdity of their question is a function of their rationalism taken to an extreme.” Their goal wasn’t to establish to whom you’re married in heaven – and so Jesus doesn’t answer that! They aim to expose the absurdity of belief in the resurrection – a belief that we might as well own isn’t without its lunacy and unanswerable questions. The preacher might chart why she or he believes in eternal life, and trusts in it, even if with the inevitable mystery.

   I love what Amy-Jill Levine reported when commenting on this passage. At her mother’s deathbed, her mom asked, “‘What will happen to me when I die?’ I immediately answered, ‘You’ll see Daddy.’ My father had died decades earlier. She replied, ‘I look like hell.’ ‘Well, Mom, you’ve looked better, but when you see Daddy, you’ll look as beautiful as you looked the day you got married.’ ‘How do you know this?’ ‘Mom, I‘ve got a Ph.D. in religion; I know these things.’”

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