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The Treasure Will Come

Rev. Karen McArthur
Sun, Nov 10

Text: Haggai 2:1-9 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

The very first religion class I took, in my sophomore year of college, began with Thessalonians.  Our professor had organized the introductory class by arranging the books of the New Testament in the order they were written.  That way, we could see the early Christian community unfolding over its early decades.  So we read Thessalonians and Galatians first, written by Paul in the early 50s, about 20 years after Jesus’ death, but before the gospels had been written down.  Paul wrote to the churches he had established as he and his group travelled from city to city.  Paul was also in his 50s, well aware that he was working to pass on the good news of Jesus Christ to the next generations.  I don’t know about you, but I can relate.  What are we doing to pass along the good news to the next generations of our day?

With both of our children now graduated from high school, this is the first year since 2011 that we have not spent this weekend in New Jersey and New York City, at the national marching band championships, cheering for Dartmouth High School (who, by the way, won their fourth consecutive national title last night!).  That family commitment made it a bit difficult for me professionally as a stewardship specialist, coming right at the height of the November stewardship season.  But that also probably explains why I haven’t had the chance to preach on this text from Haggai, a very short two-chapter book, sandwiched between Zephaniah and Zechariah, at the very end of the Hebrew Scriptures, and a lectionary text for this third-to-last week before Advent begins. Next week, it’s the more familiar 65th chapter of Isaiah, which I’ve preached on several times: God is about to create new heavens and a new earth, so that the former things shall not be remembered or even come to mind.

This week, Haggai appears to say just the opposite: Do you remember the way it used to be?  Don’t forget!  Isaiah says we won’t remember the former things, but Haggai is concerned that we’re forgetting the past splendor, before the exile sixty years earlier.  Why is the Temple in ruins?  Once again, God says, I will shake the nations, so that the treasure will come and the splendor of the Temple will be even greater than it was.  So what is it to be for us?  Ruin or splendor?

In 521 BCE, King Darius was 29 years old and in the second year of his reign.  During his 36 years on the throne, the Persian Empire would reach its peak.  But they weren’t there yet.  In year two, King Darius was just establishing his priorities.  Given that the prophecy of Haggai made it into the Biblical canon, could it be that Haggai’s advice to invest in the Temple was pivotal for Darius’ success?

The text includes many names that are long and unfamiliar to us.  But it distills down to this: God tells Haggai to speak to the son of the governor and the son of the high priest, (the next generation) as well as to the remnant of the exiled people, and ask them if any of them remember what the Temple was like before the exile, before the destruction.  Do they remember the Temple in its former glory?  God sounds upset, because “My house lies in ruins, while of the people hurry off to their own paneled houses.”

So it’s not that there are not enough resources to go around, but that those resources aren’t invested in the visible glory of a well-maintained Temple.  The first step, according to God, via Haggai, is to remember what it was like.  Then step two is to imagine that it could be like that again.

In my observation of churches over these past 35 years, we struggle to allocate our resources three ways: between mission, and ministry, and property.  Haggai is talking about property, but in order for us to translate to our day, we can’t just talk about buildings, because in our culture, in our day, our church is about our ministry and about what we do; about the programs and mission that we have.  So the command to rebuild the Temple is a call to rebuild our ministry.  How do we allocate our resources?  How do we decide?  There is a lot of ministry to do in a world where hunger, homelessness, and injustice seem so prominent.  In all of my work with dozens of churches, I only know of one church that has more money than it needs.  Most of us are working to allocate our resources, and to ensure that our financial resources are sustainable in an uncertain future.

One way to allocate limited resources is to save money where we can.  Or, as one of my colleagues once put it, “Why do we always give our old stuff to the church, our old computers, our old kitchen pans, our old nursery toys, while we buy new stuff for our personal use?”  Perhaps we think that we’re modelling frugality, or that we’re not buying into the cult of consumerism.  Shouldn’t the church get by with something used?  We shouldn’t spend money on ourselves; we should give it to the poor – to our missions programs.  With this logic, so many churches lie in ruins, while their members live in the paneled houses of our day.

Consider the opposite approach: what if we gave the best to the church?  Shouldn’t God have the latest in computer technology?  Shouldn’t we have the latest and best theological resources?  The spiffiest website and social media presence?  In fact, church experts have pointed out that investing in a few important things can make a big difference – a well-placed sign can bring in curious people.  Landscaping can bear witness to new life and a vibrant congregation.  A bright clean nursery makes a strong first impression for young families to stay.  Do we get by with the old?  Or do we buy the new?

I can’t think about this question without remembering the stove incident.  My first pastorate came with a 4-bedroom, 9-room parsonage that had been built in 1770.  Just before I moved in, members of the congregation had pitched in and cleaned, painted, and refinished the wood floors.  In the kitchen, they had replaced the dingy worn faux red brick vinyl with a nice white and light blue pattern, and had painted the cabinets white to go with the walls and appliances.

A few years later, the stove died.  Circa 1962, it had been fine and functional, after nearly 30 years, it suddenly failed.  While dreams of a sleek new stove danced in my head, the Trustees’ approach to this semi-emergency was to ask around to find a used stove while I relied on my countertop toaster oven.  They didn’t have to look far.  One of the Trustees offered her stove: a newer 15-year-old 1974 model complete with self-cleaning and timers and a whole lot more.  There was nothing wrong with it, it was just that it was harvest gold (remember 1974?), and didn’t match her kitchen.

“Am I being materialistic?”  I asked my clergy colleague and mentor.  “It’s just a stove.  But if she’s getting rid of it because it doesn’t match her kitchen, why does she think it doesn’t need to match my kitchen?  But I should be glad to have a stove; plenty of people in this world don’t have a stove.”

My mentor, with her depth of wisdom and experience in the church, asked the crucial question: “How many times a day do you see the stove?”  Well, since the church office was in the parsonage, and the phone was in the kitchen (this was before cordless phones!), and I could see the stove from my desk, I’d say about a hundred times a day.  “Then,” she said, “you’ll be frustrated with your church 100 times a day for putting a gold stove in your white kitchen.”

That did it.  I insisted on a white stove – much to the dismay of the Trustee who wanted to get a brand new stove for her kitchen – and I got a white one, circa 1968 – from someone else in town who wanted to get a new stove.  It matched.  And the parsonage kitchen was functioning once again.

We live in our fine paneled houses, while the house of God lies in ruins?  Maybe this doesn’t resonate with us right now.  We have, after all, raised over four million dollars for this church over the past few years.  I am preaching to the Capital Campaign choir here.  We’ve done beautiful work, thoughtful work, to transform our space and make it more accessible and more welcoming to our community, and we are changing because of that.

So our question in this stewardship season is: what’s the next step for us?  Of the three: mission, ministry, and property, how do we now invest in our mission and our ministry?  Our church budget allocates 10% of our annual income to mission beyond our local church – in the community and internationally, through our own church, the United Church of Christ, and of our own initiative.  Our ministry – the remaining 90% -- is our largest investment.  Ten years ago, as we realized that it would be difficult to sustain our financial resources unless we were a bit larger, we realized that we could either reduce our expenses or increase our income.  So we set out to increase our income, to grow.  Then a few years into that, the Finance Team agreed that the best strategy for growth would be to invest in our space and to expanded our programs a bit.  That’s what our annual budget supports.  And so, we’ve had this three-year campaign to draw attention to our annual budget, where we are encouraging each of us to make a larger than usual increase in our giving, or perhaps to think about it differently and to give a newer larger amount.  When we collectively share our resources, our ministry, which is so needed in our changing world, can grow and thrive in a way that brings the gospel to more people. 

It’s not just our church that is crying out for our increased attention and support.  Our communities and our country need us as well.  Tomorrow is 11/11 – Veterans’ Day.  It is a day that we honor those who gave their very best for our country.  If you haven’t yet read Michael Noftzger’s post , please do.  He wrote it Friday afternoon, and it’s been shared more than 2,000 times.  He talks about the oath he took, at the age of 18, when he enlisted in the US Army: “I, Michael Noftzger, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”  After a chaotic adolescence, he enlisted in the US Army and soon realized that it was truly a privilege to serve beyond himself and his family, to serve this nation and its people, despite its many flaws, because in spite of those shortcomings, the promises of freedom and liberty truly were a beacon of hope to those suffering around the world. … “The values I was taught,” he wrote, “formed my view of the world and commitment to confronting inequality wherever I see it.”  If we could just harness a bit of that devotion to the cause of rebuilding our country, our infrastructure, and our communities, our world would be a different place.

And so in this stewardship season, the question distills down to this: How do we decide?  How much is ours and how much do we give beyond ourselves?  When people ask you for your money or your time, how do you decide?  When Paul wrote this second letter to the new church at Thessalonica, it was only a few months or a year after his first letter.  He basically said, “Watch out for fake news.  Don’t think that Christ has come again, for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the one who exalts himself and declares himself to be God.”  Back then, the early Christians expected Jesus to come back right away.  Twenty years later, they were still waiting, and were being led astray by people who claimed to be that Savior.  In this context, Paul encourages them, “Hold fast to traditions, to what you know from the past.  Give beyond your own paneled houses to our common spaces: our churches, our communities and our world.

Actually, as we speak, we are paneling our house of worship.  Nate and Kris and the Buildings & Grounds crew are working on the permits to install no-cost solar panels on the roof of our parish house.  That project is, in itself, our ministry to our environment.  Our ministry requires your support.  So I invite you to read through the stewardship packet you should have received in the mail this week, or can pick up from the table in the back.  Read about our church and pray about what this church means to you.  I invite you to respond with your most generous offer to share from your resources for our mission and our ministry, and for the beautiful space in which we gather each week.  May God bless us in our prayerful consideration, and may God bless us in our ministry in the world, all in Jesus’ name.  Amen.


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