Looking for God in all the Wrong Places

A sermon preached at First Church, UCC Middletown, Connecticut, on November 6, 2022

Haggai 2:1-9  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 Lordof 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.

Luke 20:27—38 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” 

Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Last week, the national offices of the United Church of Christ announced that our every-other-year all church meeting, called General Synod, would now be held every three years.

For most of us, that’s not very important news.  

For those of us who’ve been a few times, that’s interesting news… 

And for some of us, those folks called “Synod junkies”, people who went faithfully, every other year, it’s a major disappointment.

But still, that’s not – in the wider scheme of things, all that important, right?

Except that – this.  It is important… and here’s why:  It’s the reason for the cut-back.  For it seems that the denomination says it can no longer take so much time away from the important day-to-day work of national staff, to put the Synod on.  They no longer can afford to spend so much of their budget on Synod costs.  

For the national offices, General Synod is an interruption, something that distracts them from what’s really important.

Maybe they’re right.  Maybe the central work of the national staff is all about what they do.

But what if they’re wrong?  What if the central work of the national staff is encouraging, strengthening and building close connections between UCC people all over the world?  If that’s their work, then moving Synods from every 2 years to every 3 years is a major error.  What if the most important work is making it possible for Howard Thody to sit down with a delegate from Washington State and discover what they have in common?  What if it is all about making me sit down with someone from a Committee on Ministry in South Dakota and hear, first-hand, how they struggle to prepare people for ministry?

The most challenging thing about the impending change is that it doesn’t look to me as though anyone drilled down far enough to ask just exactly what it is that our national offices are there for.  I don’t think anyone spent much time thinking about what the purpose of our denominational offices really is.

Now, you may have wondered if you inadvertently wandered into the wrong discussion this morning, since you had never heard of the General Synod until maybe five minutes ago, and weren’t planning to trek off to Indianapolis next Summer to see what it is…. but I’m not telling you this story because I want to start a “change Synod” movement.

I’m telling you this story because it tells us all something important.  And that’s this:  it’s darned hard to make a good decision when you’re not clear on why you exist.

Think of those Sadducees in the story from Luke, wasting everyone’s time asking Jesus a ridiculous hypothetical question about marriage in the hereafter.  They’d rather argue about the fine points of theology than worry about the social problems of their community.  Anything to avoid asking real questions about meaning and purpose and fulfillment, right?

I follow the writings of an English sheepfarmer, James Rebanks, although to call him “just a sheepfarmer” is a gross disservice to a very thoughtful man.  Rebanks farms in the Lakes District of England – think Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter – on land that has been farmed for more than a thousand years.  For the last hundred years or so, the goal has been to make a living by maximizing the produce of the land, even to the detriment of the land.  Moving streams to create more arable fields led to fields which could no longer handle flooding.  Close cropping everything destroyed habitat for small mammals, birds and insects.  Gradually, the ground was no longer able to support his flocks without supplemental feeding; he was no longer able to produce enough hay for the winter on his own land.  Maybe five years ago, he gradually began to change his farm.  First they re-wilded some of the streams.  Then they created set aside spots for brush to grow, to create better habitat for all the flora and fauna on the land.  Then he purchased a small herd of cattle – and while some become food for the family, and some are sold as a cash crop to other farmers – mostly their purpose is to fertilize the soil.  Today his land is producing better quality grass for the sheep, and more of it; there’s more diversity of plants, insects, birds and animals on the land, and he can handle occasional flooding better.  

That’s because he sat down and re-thought why he was farming.  

Two thousand five hundred years ago, give or take a decade, the prophet Haggai spoke to the people.  They were discouraged, they’d worked so hard and seen so little.  In 539 BCE the Jewish people had been allowed to return from exile to their homes in Jerusalem, and  nothing was right there.  Their temple was destroyed, the former glory was passed away.   They were discouraged.

Haggai told them that better days were coming.  Now, in his picture, those better days would lead to an even more beautiful temple, decorated with gold and silver and jewels.  

When we read this story today, however, we read it from our own context.  We’ve not lost the external beauty of our church.  We have moved beyond the world for which this building was planned.  In fact, we probably moved beyond that world more than fifty years ago, when you consider that this room, and the Memorial Room and the Upper Room were the original space  — think about where they had Sunday school — they lived in a world where  you could cram 100 fourth-graders into a class and expect them to behave.  I’ve seen other buildings put up in the late nineteenth-century and they rarely have anything we’d recognize as a Sunday school space.

It’s not about the literal meaning of the words of Haggai.  As so often, we cheat ourselves if we stop at the surface.  Haggai’s meaning for us is not about gold leaf paint or jewels in the stained glass.  It’s about our future.  Our glory has never been the beauty of our building; it has been, is, and will be how we live out our faith in the world.

This room is beautiful, but its real beauty is its inner life, the amazing generosity of its people, our willingness to stand up for the poor, the dismissed, the hurt, those who hunger and thirst.

And the question for us is where will we go in the future?    Do we want to be a place known for our hospitality?  How will we do that?  Do we want to be a community known for its support for racial justice?  What does our community need?  How are we called to respond?

The Gospel lesson is a warning to watch out for irrelevant arguments.  The Sadducees were playing “gotcha” with Jesus, and it didn’t go well for them.  And, you know, that’s the sort of thing we do when we’re really disturbed by the options before us.  

We don’t like how the (baseball/basketball/whatever) game is going, so we criticize the way the players are wearing their uniforms, right?  You show up for Thanksgiving Dinner and your parents announce they’re getting a divorce, and this will be the last time you ever gather as a family… and the next thing you know, there’s an argument starting down at the far end of the table:  Which is the better comic book character – Daffy Duck or Donald Duck? Because missing the point is one of the ways we avoid or delay dealing with really difficult stuff.  So in our conversations, let’s take care that we don’t miss the point.

This is not about the things we think a church ought to do, but the things we’re ready and willing to do.  

What is our purpose today?  

It wasn’t until James Rebanks saw that farming was more than breeding better sheep, that it was also about caring for the land, investing in the future, that he was able to see clearly how he could, should care for his land.  With a new, clearer understanding of his purpose, he was able to marshal his resources to make a difference.  

Getting a clear sense of our purpose is the first step to understanding what we are now being called to do.  Like Rebanks, we are being called to look at what we’ve always done and decide together whether that’s the right way to continue, or whether we are being called to make some changes.  

We’re in a new world.  And we’re not the same church we were fifty years ago.  How will those changes change us?

Let’s talk.  Let’s talk together.  Next week, after church, with or without coffee, let’s begin a conversation.  We won’t come to conclusions next week; don’t worry if you’re not going to be here that day.  But let’s begin the conversation.  Just who are we these days?  And what are the gifts we have to share with Middletown, in God’s name?

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child