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10.25.20 Investing in Ambivalence Haggai 1.2-10, 12-13 Sermon Summary

by on October 28, 2020

Dualism was rejected in early Christianity as heretical, but it still finds expression in the faith today. For example, people sometimes say that our bodies die but our spirits live on. Instead, Christianity teaches that while our bodies die, they are later resurrected.

Some people make a lot of the “war” between flesh and spirit. Early Christians acknowledged the conflict between our disordered material appetites and our non-material virtues. But they understood the Spirit in baptism to strengthens us to overcome. Some people say the earth is expendable and that only heaven is eternal. But Christianity understands God created the earth good and remember that that Jesus taught the meek will inherit it.

Another example of dualism in Christianity has to do with our buildings. The roots of this dualism stretch back into Judaism. Early Jewish history is identified by its buildings. While in the Wilderness the Israelites worshiped in a tabernacle. Later in their own land they built and restored the Temple. But this was destroyed and a Second Temple period eventually dawned. It, too, was destroyed and today some Jews are awaiting the construction of yet another Temple.

Jewish worship was also evaluated by place. Remember the Samaritan Woman debates with Jesus whether God should be worshiped on Mount Gerizim or in Jerusalem. Prior to that the Prophets lamented the existence of “high places” where some Jews gathered on yet other mountains to observed rituals dedicated to other gods.

Today people take pilgrimages to the Holy Land or to the beaches of Normandy or Stonycreek Township or Arlington (or any) Cemetery. We do this because places and buildings are sacred. That’s one perspective.

Yet, the Garden of Eden had no building, Moses met God in a bush, and Jesus taught on the seashore. Acts 7:47-49 says, “Solomon built a house for God.Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands;as the prophet says,‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me?, says the Lord.’” (Isaiah 66:1)

Luke 21:5-6 reports, “Some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’”

The author of Hebrews 9:24 writes, “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.”

If not exactly pure dualism, we still have an ambivalent relationship with bodies, buildings, locations, and rituals. We see this confusion in the sacraments. Some Christians say the bread and wine “really are” the body and blood of Christ. They are said to “contain” the body and blood. Others say these are merely reminders and as such we may not even need them. Some churches teach that water baptism is necessary for salvation; others that baptism in the Spirit is enough.

“Ambivalence” is a word combining references to “both” and “strength or worth.” It suggests there is value in both of two positions. It creates a both/and scenario instead of an either/or.

Christianity is perpetually dealing with ambivalence. When people come to me and say, “I am having a spiritual experience,” they imply an understanding that “I, a human who is mere body, am having an extraordinary, spiritual experience.” I am reminded of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who said, “We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a physical experience.”

De Chardin doesn’t mean to reverse the relative values placed on the body and the spirit, but wants to remind us that in truth both are valuable. It is ambivalent: There is value in thinking of us as spiritual and as physical.

And how do we know this? Because of Jesus who we understand to be the Incarnation of the Word of God. Jesus is the Spirit-conceived, Spirit-filled human for whom after his human body died was Spirit-resurrected.

We know that worship doesn’t depend on a building. We experience worship wherever we turn our attention to God’s presence. And yet buildings are valuable for our experience of worship. To deny this is to deny ourselves, for God uses buildings to minister to us.

Finally we understand the issue raised by the prophet Haggai. In his time the restoration of the Temple had started but the project stalled. The people were satisfied, saying, “It’s good enough.” But God was not satisfied, saying, “No, it is not good enough.”

The people responded, “Look, we worship. We hear the Word, sing, and pray.” God said, “That worship may satisfy you. It may take care of your needs. But I deserve more.” At stake for God according to Haggai is God’s “pleasure and honor.” What brings God pleasure? The care of the neighbor in need. And how is God honored? In part by beautiful places for worship.

At Faith Presbyterian Church our guiding principles for our building and grounds are that they are safe, functional, hospitable, and beautiful. Lately we have been challenged to consider our stewardship of our building and grounds. In other words, Are we maximizing this ministry resource? To outsiders, is the building useful, attractive, and competitive with other buildings?

Here’s why it’s important to consider the stewardship of our building in the eyes of non-church people: John T is our neighbor across the street. Occasionally John will host extended family events in our Fellowship Hall. He has ownership over our building even though he’s never attended worship. One night he noticed a door that had not been completely closed swinging open in the wind. He came and secured the building, shut the door, and told us what had happened.

Many years ago Amy M’s employer used Fellowship Hall for their Christmas parties. When Amy started looking for a church she came to Faith because she was familiar with our building. Amy later married Dan and they had a child. Now this family is an integral part of our faith community and church staff.

What if our building could be not just safe, functional, hospitable, and beautiful for us, but useful and attractive for more outsiders like John and Amy and Dan? God has led us to this question for several years. The pandemic has urged the first question of ourselves: “How can we safely worship God?” But we are also asking, “How can we use this building to serve others?”

In answering this question some of us are dreaming. Some are making plans. Some are raising the question of money. The prophet Haggai had similar concerns. His name refers to religious festivals and pilgrimages. He is concerned about worship after the “plague” of the Babylonian Exile when people were forcibly removed and Temple destroyed. They longed to return home and worship.

After seventy years when they were finally allowed to return they rebuilt their homes and the Temple, but homes got more attention. The Exile had broken their practice and their discipline. We’re told that 30% of worshippers in February no longer worship today. The pandemic has disrupted our practices and disciplines. Ambivalence towards Temple worship tipped towards neglect. Ambivalence towards worship is tipping us away also.

Haggai warned the people. Remember that prophets tell the truth more than the future but that the truth influences the future. The truth Haggai proclaimed is called a “futility curse.” He observed, “Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.”

It is the same observation of the great preacher Ecclesiastes who famously said, “Vanity! Vanity! All is vanity!” Haggai criticizes, “You have built your paneled houses but neglected the house of the LORD. Eventually you will reach dissatisfaction, because building only your own is futile.”

Haggai’s first step is worth noting: It is to “consider.” “Consider how you fare.” This word refers to the “setting of our hearts.” Jesus taught the same thing when he said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Where is your heart set? That’s Haggai’s question.

Can you be at least as concerned about “God’s house” and the guests at “God’s house” as you are about your own? In recent years at Faith we have: Replaced cold hard folding chairs with padded cloth ones; replaced a pew with a prayground; purchased a new organ and new hymnals; installed exterior path lights; and hired staff with specialized gifts for targeted ministries with children and youth.

Presently we are upgrading our abilities to capture and broadcast sound and video and working to make Fellowship Hall more conducive for pandemic worship. We are preparing to make more efficient use of our building for us and envisioning greater use of our building by our community.

We are asking Haggai’s questions. Do we care about God’s house? Can we please and honor God more? Are we setting our hearts on God’s kingdom?

And we also have to ask, What can we afford?

Our denomination and presbytery are helping us to answer this, but mostly the answer depends on our congregation. Mostly the answer depends on you and me.

In Haggai’s case within weeks Zarubabbel the governor and Jehozadak the high priest and the remnant of the people began to respond. Then Haggai spoke again to remind them, saying, “I am with you, says the LORD.” Jesus’ last words were also, “I am with you always to the end of the age.”

God is with us always: Through this pandemic and through this societal upheaval. But “consider” this: Through these circumstances may God be calling us to upgrade our ministry? It’s worth asking, because God will be with us through that also.

May we not experience the “futility curse.” May God bless our homes and our nation because we also consider God’s pleasure and give God honor. I invite you to join Haggai’s audience. In the following weeks and months they “considered,” they thought about how their hearts were set and where their treasure lay. Jesus said, “Seek first God’s Kingdom and all these things will be given to you as well.” Let us hear. Let us consider. Let us respond. Amen.

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