Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Solomon's Temple, Terabithia, and the WTC

A Sermon on Haggai

Haggai is a tiny little book near the back of the Old Testament that is read in church only once every three years in our lectionary cycle – and that’s if you don’t choose the alternate reading from Job. If you’ve never heard of Haggai, frankly I’m not surprised. It is the record of the prophecies of Haggai, who spoke to the Israelites twenty years after they have returned from exile, encouraging them to rebuild the temple, which had been destroyed when Jerusalem was sacked. But today, as we move forward after Sunday’s remembrance of September 11, 2001, I think Haggai might have something to say to us. Haggai writes:

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 Lord of 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. (Haggai 2:3-9)

There is something breathtaking in opening the Bible and finding that they, no less than we, know the anguish of living with a hole in the ground where a building used to be. Ancient Israel and contemporary America are two very, very different contexts. But as we struggle to find our way forward after Sunday's remembrance of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, maybe this text has something to say to us.

From our point of view, the Jerusalem temple might seem like a strange and archaic institution. My friends in rabbinical school tell me that it sometimes seems that way to contemporary Jews as well. But the temple was at the very heart of the formation of Judaism. This was where Israel’s most sacred objects were kept; it was the place where God was literally believed to live; it symbolized God’s deliverance of the Israelites out of Egypt, God’s covenant with the Israelite people. In 586 BCE, the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, burned the temple to the ground, and took some of the Israelites into exile for over forty years. Eventually they returned, but even then, things were not easy: they cleared away the charred debris of the old temple, placed the altar, and laid the foundation for the new temple. But there were controversies over who would be in charge of the building, and tensions between the Israelites and the Persian empire. The project stalled. Twenty years later, Haggai stepped in.

In the early part of the book, Haggai rebukes the people for building fine houses for themselves while the temple still lies in ruins. But soon, he becomes warmer toward the people, acknowledging their despair, discouragement, and uncertainty. “Who is left among you,” he asks, “who saw this house in its former glory?” Probably very few people are left who knew the temple before its destruction sixty-six years before. This is a generation that knows the lack of the temple, that knows what its destruction meant for their community, but which has never directly experienced the temple itself – like the children who have been raised in the midst of the “War on Terror,” who never knew a time before color-coded security alerts and “random” TSA screenings and news of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then Haggai goes on to ask, “How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” I can imagine how meager the temple would look to this community. After decades in exile, remembering the glory days before the Babylonians, after a jubilant return full of hopes and dreams and plans, after losing energy and letting the temple mount lie empty, the site of the temple is a reminder not only of national tragedy, but now also of failure.

My spouse and I live pretty close to the site of the World Trade Center, and I walk past the construction there pretty frequently. Actually, though, I’ve always avoided it whenever I could. It’s crowded, and noisy, and you never know which sidewalks are going to be closed. And I’ve always found it depressing – both because of what happened there ten years ago, and because ten years later, it was still a construction site. Even now, with the new tower going up and the memorial open, I’ve continued to avoid it. I want to imagine that it’s not so bad anymore, and I’m afraid to find out I’m wrong. That might be how the Israelites might have felt about the site of the temple.

This is a people mired in frustration and despair, guilt and exhaustion, staring helplessly at this place which has become a symbol of failure and grief. This is a people trapped by the weight of unrealized dreams. Their vision of the good old days has become so heavy that they don’t know how to move forward. Their nostalgia is blurring their vision. They cannot see possibilities for the future because their focus is firmly in the past. They are stuck. Sometimes we too get stuck as people, as families, as a nation.

We get stuck when we move to a new apartment and don’t know where to even begin turning the pile of boxes into a place of our own. We get stuck when we face the prospect of a job search, and we can’t dream dreams because we are so afraid that we will never find anything. We get stuck when we confront the reality that mainline Christianity as we know it is dying, and we don’t know what the church will look like twenty or fifty or a hundred years from now. We get stuck when we look at a political system that is so broken that we don’t even know where change would start.

“Take courage, all you people of the land,” God says through Haggai, “work, for I am with you, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.” Haggai invokes the Exodus, the story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, not because the past was better, but to remind them that this is a community which has experienced change, which has been through hardship, and that God has been present with them through it all. God was with them before the temple was built, and God was with them when the temple was standing, and God is with them now. They do not need to rebuild God’s house so that God can abide among them. Haggai reminds them that God’s spirit is with them already, present with them, moving and consoling and inspiring them. Being assured that God is present with them, that God’s spirit is abiding among them in the here and now, frees the people to look toward the future. The temple mount can be a place for visions and plans again, not just a symbol of loss and tragedy.

On Sunday, I watched the coverage of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. As I wept with people who remembered their loved ones – investment bankers and custodial workers, firefighters and police officers, men and women, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others – lost in that tragedy, I wondered what it would look like for us to move forward? What would it mean for us to have real healing? What dreams would we dream? What would we build?

The film A Bridge to Terabithia tells the story of a ten-year-old boy named Jess with a gift for art. His family doesn’t encourage his talent, but he makes friends with a new neighbor, Leslie, who not only encourages his artwork, but helps him to develop his imagination. They like to swing on a rope across a creek and play on the other side, in the imaginary land of Terabithia. Through their friendship, Jess is transformed; he gains self-confidence, grows as an artist, starts to envision new possibilities for himself. But one day, while Jess is at an art museum, Leslie tries to go play in Terabithia, falls into the creek, and dies. For some time, Jess is withdrawn. He doesn’t want to play, or do artwork, or talk to his family or his friends or his teachers. He spends all his time on the other side of the creek, guilt-sick, grief-stricken, and inconsolable. His family tries to reach out to him to no avail. Finally, when his sister nearly dies trying to cross the creek herself to reach out again, he realizes that he needs to find a different way to deal with his grief. He starts to collect materials – wood, rope, nails. He works hard, although we don’t know quite what he is up to. In the final scene, we see what he has done: in memory of Leslie, he has constructed a bridge across the creek, a bridge to Terabithia.

Abiding God, present with us in grief and in healing, make your presence known to us today. Give us courage to dream dreams and build bridges. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment