Written by Joshua Brockway
Lectionary (Year C): Haggai 1:15b-2:9 or Job 19:23-27a; Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21 or Psalm 98 or Psalm 17:1-9; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” There is little doubt that these are anxious times. Even Dicken’s infamous opening phrase to The Tale of Two Cities does not seem to grasp the energy driving our current culture of anxiety. In the wake of the midterm elections in the United States this unbalanced view of the world is highlighted in the dismay of some and the celebration of others. In essence the heightened rhetoric of misused power, failing economies and hope leveraged on the casting of a vote have shaken the foundation of even the most stable of minds. Yet, our society is also a narcissistic one. Once compared to the plight of the exiled Hebrews who heard Haggai’s prophetic utterances our time is more like the Dickensian utopia.
As with several other of the Minor Prophets, we as readers are set in the midst of the rebuilding efforts of returned exiles (520 BC). Having been allowed to return to Jerusalem by Cyrus the Persian (see Ezra 1:1-4 and 6:3-5), the worship center of the Hebrews soon began to take shape. It is not hard to imagine, however, the state of the land and economy as these sojourners returned. The once bustling center of trade and commerce was now a mere shadow of itself. The two pillar of stability, religious practice and economic viability, would take some time to rebuild. Where then should an anxious people look for the resolve to restore their sense of peace? For Haggai, though the project before them is clear, the source of confidence is not the bricks and mortar of a new temple but the very presence of God. “My spirit abides among you, do not fear” (1:5). Confidence and resolve are not the products of the temple, but in the assurance of God’s faithfulness.
Psalm 145 carries the same assurance of God’s might and faith, albeit in first person praise. “On the glorious splendor of your majesty and on your wondrous works, I will meditate” (145:5). It is easy to imagine a tired and anxious Hebrew carpenter, having heard Haggai’s words of assurance, recalling these lyrical words as his own prayer. Moreover, the song would soon be sung by those gathered at the unfinished temple, thus proclaiming a trust in a God above even Cyrus who granted them safe return. “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (145:18). The proclamation of trust in God by one quickly becomes the communal confession of God’s own covenant of faith.
In the Gospel text this confession of God’s continued presence and faithfulness is not clear until the close of the reading. In the face of rhetorically contrived questions, Jesus offers the simplest and most profound confession of all: “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living” (Luke 20:38). Such a clear statement is also the one we invite our listeners to make each Sunday. Regardless of tenure in the Christian life, whether neophyte or wise elder, the fundamental statement of Jesus to the Saducees is our own. In any time, anxious or stable, violent or peaceful this is our vantage point: Our firm foundation is not in economics, temple worship, political leaders, or theological exactitude. Rather it is assurance in the confession of faith that God is the ruler and keeper of all life.
While the politicians and pundits construct the most appealing narratives and vie for our attention, few people recognize that the starting point makes all the difference. Each of our scripture texts point to the fundamental starting point of confessing God as the Lord of all creation, the beginning and end of every narrative. Our invitation as preachers of the Good News is the same as it was for Haggai, as it was for the Psalmist, and as it was for Christ: Our trust is in the Lord.
Systems theory helps us to understand the roll of anxiety in destabilizing even the most peaceful of communities. Yet, there are few ways to explain anxiety to the non-theorist. Richard Richardson helps us get at least a foothold on the idea in his book Creating a Healthier Church (Fortress Press, 1996). There he notes that “whenever people feel threatened or under attack … the emotional system begins to get out of control” (42).
The physics of boiling water help us here. As more energy is imparted into the water, the molecules begin to move more quickly. As the energy increases, the molecules run into one another, often without abandon. The result is the growing turbulence we witness just as the water boils.
Anxiety is much like the heat energy added to the water. It works up and motivates people to move and react quickly, from emotion. The effect is a turbulent community or system where individuals crash into one another without regard for the wellbeing of each other or the community.
These same theorists press leaders to ask how they are a non-anxious presence in the midst of an anxiety rich system. It is that person who lessens the directionless momentum of anxious energy and allows the community to function out of its natural calm. Might this be the same for the Church among the world? Can the non-anxious confession of faith be the calm for which our society longs?
“Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O Lord.” St. Augustine, The Confessions, Book I
“I know that the fact that I am always searching for God, always struggling to discover the fullness of Love, always yearning for the complete truth, tells me that I have already been given a taste of God, of Love, and of Truth.” Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved (Crossroad, 1992)
“Our goal as a church is not perfection. Such a goal only breeds greater hypocrisy and broadens our blind spots. Instead we might seek by God’s grace, to become communities of humility, repentance, and authentic hope.” Shane Hipps, Flickering Pixels (Zondervan, 2009)
“As the rain hides the stars, as the autumn mist hides the hills, as the clouds veil the blue of the sky, so the dark happenings of my lot hide the shining of thy face from me. Yet, if I may hold thy hand in the darkness, it is enough. Since I know that, though I may stumble in my going, thou dost not fall.” Gaelic Prayer, translated by Alistair MacLean. Printed in The Oxford Book of Prayer edited by George Appleton
“When Peace Like a River (It is well with my soul)” Horatio G. Spafford, 1876
“Great is Thy Faithfulness” Thomas Chisholm, 1923
My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” Edward Mote, 1834
This week’s Evangelectionary is provided by Joshua Brockway. Joshua is director for Spiritual Life and Discipleship for the Church of the Brethren. He has served as a pastor, campus minister, and seminary instructor. He is a graduate of Manchester College, Bethany Theological Seminary and Candler School of Theology and presently is working on his Doctor of Philosophy degree at Catholic University of America.