In the summer of 2005 – right before Ella Brooks was born – Carrie and I went with some colleagues to Scotland, ending up at the abbey on Iona, where our youth will go next summer. Beforehand we spend a couple of days in Edinburgh, touring the castle, soaking in the history on the royal mile. Down, at the bottom of the hill on the outskirts of town, stands Holyrood castle, the queen’s Scottish residence, where she spends a couple of frantic weeks in June and July welcoming Scottish nobility. Its origins lie in an Augustinian abbey built in 1128 that by 1500 or so became a magnificent palace. Lawns and gardens, rooms to stay or entertain, dining rooms the size of this sanctuary, a series of apartments where Mary Queen of Scots stayed when she returned from France in 1561. But my favorite part of the complex was the remainder of the abbey. In the midst of centuries of construction and change, of this enormous beautiful place, they left the shell of the abbey intact. You walk down a hallway and out a door, steeping into this open space, like a smaller version of Duke Chapel, complete with columns and ornate stonework, but with the roof gone. Attached to the palace are most of the abbey walls; some of the floor is solid, pieces the weather hasn’t worn away. At the front of the church remains the remnants of a massive altar and the outlines of a circular frame for what must have been an amazing stained glass window. They haven’t torn it down, haven’t rebuilt the abbey, they have just left it there, filled with 900 years of memories.1
Today’s text begins in the ruins of the temple. After the Babylonians came crashing into Jerusalem, after the destruction of the city and the outlying areas, and in 587 BCE carting much of the leadership off into exile, then came the temple. The Babylonians knew the temple was, quite literally, at the heart of the life of the people. And so they burned it down. Decades of hopelessness, of trying to figure out how to worship God in a foreign land. In 538 the Persians – who had just defeated the Babylonians – told the exiles they could go home. Once they got there, the book of Ezra records, work on the temple began immediately.2 But, then construction stalled. The reasons are many and not entirely clear – money was short, momentum declined, larger conflicts beyond consumed thoughts, energy waned. Even though initial enthusiasm was high, things never really got going, for almost 20 years.
In 520 BCE, King Darius ascends the throne. In some folks’ mind he was the solution to a handful of prior rebellions, a savior, but to others he was a corrupt strongman without popular support.3 As chaos expanded throughout the Persian Empire, Haggai begins to prophecy. He begins, with more detail than we are used to getting in scripture, on August 29, 520 BCE. God calls to the people, asking them why they live in fine, ‘paneled’ houses while the Lord’s house lies in ruins. Who are they about? The prophet asks.
A month later he tries again, standing in the ruins of the temple. Who is left among you, he asks, that saw this house in its former glory? Who remembers? It has been 67 years since the exile began. If we got together 67 years from now, who would be able to tell of worship today? I’ll be 103, so you can wheel me in. Haggai stands, dramatically, in those ruins. Some of you remember what it was like then. How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? I wonder about the pain they felt as they stood in a building once full of life, now not much more than rubble. Many a mainline church feels something similar these days, I think, longing for a simpler time, a past that felt stable and sure, when churches were full and, rightly or wrongly, folks remember knowing what they were about. "You all know the statistics and the situation we are facing. One-third of the U.S. population under 30 now consider themselves unaffiliated with any religious body, and one-fifth overall. Mainline denominations like the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) struggle with the lack of interest among these unaffiliated NONES, declining membership numbers, and the seemingly intractable debates over polarizing issues like ordination standards."4
And church fights are the things that get us on the news… over ordination over music over our political witness over leadership styles over money. Recently the Barna Group did a wide-ranging survey in which folks between the ages of 16 and 29 who were not presently members of churches came back a damning set of assumptions about who WE are. 87% of those surveyed thought "A lot or some" of present day Christianity could be described as ‘judgmental.’ ‘Hypocritical’ – 85%. ‘Out of touch with reality’ – 72%. ‘Insensitive to others,’ – 70%.5 The more you read, the worse it gets. Statistics tells us it is more likely than not that the young people we confirm won’t be around this or any other church a handful of years from now. And we will look at each other and say, who remembers this house in its former glory? What is it to you now?
But Haggai, standing in the ruins, has a word from the Lord. Take courage, all you people of the land. Work. I am the same God that brought you up out of Egypt those years ago, and I am with you. Then that great biblical theme: DO NOT FEAR. It is interesting, my friend Dan in my preaching group notes, that "unlike all the others who’ve been graced with a do not fear (Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Jeremiah, Mary, Joseph, and so on) these people in Jerusalem find themselves threatened neither with mortal danger nor with impossible tasks but simply with apathy, malaise, perhaps a lack of commitment. They live in paneled houses, remember," he writes. "The economy is improving. The empire finds them useful. What’s to fear, then?"6 In healthy churches like this one we are in a similar circumstance. I am not worried about things falling apart or us being embroiled in conflict. I am not worried about new folks not coming – we have 23 people in the Inquirer’s Class right now who are already enriching our fellowship. I am not worried about a mass exodus for a place with a band or a different attitude on guns or our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters or anything happening in Raleigh or Washington. I AM worried that friends, some of us, people we know and love, are slowly slipping away. Not to another church, but to another soccer tournament or to the beach or, on the days your schedule would allow worship attendance, that you’ll be perfectly satisfied to have an extra cup of coffee and read the entire New York Times Magazine, or something like that. I am worried that life will be just good enough that we’ll think we’re fine, that we don’t need each other so much or, perhaps, that we don’t even need God so much. Our paneled, redone houses work just fine.
But in the short term I don’t worry about that for the sake of the church, for this particular institution. Westminster will continue to have the capacity to thrive. But I do worry about it for the people, for YOU, for those who aren’t here, who are missing the ways God is, as Haggai says, shaking the heavens and the earth. Because if you’ve gone and served a shelter meal you’ve felt it. If you’ve been a part of a small group bible study, you’ve felt it. At Montreat or Massanetta, at Way or Doorways on Thursday mornings, the feeling when the organ cranks up as the first hymn begins. God is in the business, as Haggai reminds us, of shaking the nations. Of transforming our hearts and the world. And no matter what, God says, I will fill this house with splendor. The silver and gold, all the stuff we have and hoard and are terrified about sharing sometimes, all of it belongs to me, God says. All of it. I could do it without you, God says. But, wouldn’t it be better, the prophet asks, if we could do all it together? What could we do – as we bring our pledge packs up in a bit, as we approach the end of another church year, as we glimpse the beauty of Advent. What could we do if we did it together? Every single one of us. Together.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Most of this history comes from the castles’ website: About; Abbey Tour
2. An especially helpful and concise version of this history is found in the introduction to Haggai by Bill Brown in The Discipleship Study Bible, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008), p 1295.
3. From Brown, and additional history from Rev. Dan Lewis’ paper on this text for The Well, 2013, Balitmore.
4. This note comes from Samuel Adam’s Baccalaureate sermon, "The Friendship Imperative," preached at Union Presbyterian Seminary on May 24, 2013. Courtesy Rev. Joe Harvard.
5. David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, "UnChristian: What New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…And Why It Matters." (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2007), p 28.
6. From Dan’s great paper.