November 10, 2013

The Problem of Prosperity


The lessons for this Sunday may be found at this link.

Text: Haggai 2:5: “The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts.”

Without even asking the permission of the Stewardship Committee, or for that matter of its long-serving and long-suffering chair, Dr. Strayer, I am up to something like a stewardship sermon today. I know we haven’t yet formally launched our annual canvass of the parish, but you have to know that it’s coming soon, right? It’s November, it’s harvest season, the leaves are falling and the frost is on the pumpkin, so our conversation about the responsibility we all share toward the maintenance of our Christian community can’t be far off.

Besides the which, I rarely get to preach a stewardship sermon here, and believe it or not I actually miss doing so. It’s one of those things I not only don’t mind doing; I feel a little bit as though I’m shirking my responsibilities whenever a member of the Sermon Group pulls the short straw for that November message.

That said, it’s a pretty good bet that we might be the only church following the Revised Common Lectionary in which the preacher of the day is going to try to weave together a stewardship message out of these readings. We have from Saint Paul a gentle warning about a coming apocalypse—not exactly an encouragement to open your wallet, perhaps. And we have in Luke’s gospel the story of Jesus and the Sadducees and the slightly bizarre story about a poor, long-suffering woman who seems to be incredibly bad luck to any fellow she marries.

I’m going to leave those lessons safely over to one side and instead pick up the first reading we heard this morning, from the very short book of the Prophet Haggai. There is one and only one Sunday in the three-year calendar of the lectionary readings in which we ever are favored with a reading from this little book, and today is that day; so I can’t quite resist the opportunity, not to say the challenge, of a short reflection on this text.


A little background might be helpful. Haggai is a prophet who flourished at a particularly stressful moment in the long and difficult history of Israel. The Temple of Solomon has been destroyed, and Jerusalem all but abandoned. Many of the Jewish people remained in the region known as Judah, but their political and religious leaders had been taken to Babylon by the victorious King Nebuchadnezzar.

But the wheel of history turns, and Babylon’s fortunes decline, and about sixty years after the fall of Jerusalem Babylon itself falls to the rising power of the Persian Empire—from what we know today as Iran. The king of the Persians, Cyrus, encourages the exiles to return to their homes. And now the leaders of the Jewish people have a different problem. Now the problem isn’t how to be Jewish away from home and without the focal point of the Temple. Now the problem is to get the people to get up, pack up, and go back to rebuild Jerusalem.

That’s where Haggai comes in. When he comes on the scene, the move back to Jerusalem has happened, but things aren’t going well with rebuilding the Temple. People are tired, they’re poor, and after all they’re still part of someone else’s empire, this time the Persian empire. Granted, it seems that this outfit is a little nicer than the previous one, but they are still not their own rulers.

Haggai’s whole purpose is to get the people motivated out of their inertia to rebuild the temple. It’s a matter of urgency to him. The Temple is not just a building. In fact, it’s not just a Temple, a place for worship to take place and sacrifices to be made.

For the Jewish people, the Temple is the place where God lives among the people. The Temple is the necessary link between the living presence of God and the people whom God has chosen. Without the Temple, that relationship is broken. Communication is impossible, or at least extremely difficult.

Said in other words, in this moment of Jewish history—about five hundred years before the coming of Christ—without the Temple it is impossible for the Jewish people to be the Jewish people.


Just to quickly skip ahead in the story a bit—this is why the idea of the coming of the Messiah gains such immense significance among the Jewish people in the years between this point in their history and the coming of Christ. The idea of God coming to live among God’s people, not as a spectral presence in a lantern-lit temple but as an actual, incarnate human, Emmanuel, god-with-us, was for the Jewish people the only thing that could finally help them throw off whatever empire it was that was controlling them. A temple, however splendid, could not do that.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s a story for Advent.


The problem Haggai faces is that the people just plain aren’t that interested in the Temple. They’re interested in rebuilding their lives and their houses and their businesses and their communities. They are poor, they’ve left the homes they had in Babylon to come back to Jerusalem, and they just don’t want to spend a lot of what they have on rebuilding a Temple.

And some of them are complaining. It will never be as nice as Solomon’s temple, they say. We used to be a great nation, but now no one thinks twice about us; a Temple isn’t going to change that. And besides, I don’t have that much to live on. I need what I have.

Haggai has an answer to each of these. You think the old Temple was nicer? How can you even know what it looked like? Practically no one alive had ever even seen the old Temple, and certainly not anyone who had come back from Babylon to Jerusalem. The Temple we build will be even better, even more glorious, Haggai tells them—and most of all because as we build it we will be rebuilding ourselves, rebuilding our purpose and our hope.

And all those other nations? Remember that what it means to be God’s people is that in the end everyone will be looking to us for hope, everyone will be looking to us as the people among whom God dwells. We may be down now, we may feel powerless now, but we can do this, and doing it is essential to who we are.

And then—here it comes, friends—Haggai turns to the matter of money. No, the Temple will not be rebuilt for free. Yes, it will take something from all of us to rebuild. But all that gold and silver you say this is going to take—who do you think it really belongs to?

You say you don’t have enough in what you have to give anything to this Temple. But nothing that you have belongs to you anyway. This is Haggai’s message to his people. We are just a custodians, just stewards, for what belongs to God. All of it, everything you have, everything you have made, everything you feel you’ve earned and you deserved—all of it belongs to God.

Because, after all, God gave you the gifts and the talents and the strengths and the opportunities and the teachers and the breaks, all of it, to make it possible for you to have what you have.

This is hard for us to hear. We are hard-wired to feel deserving of what we have. Pretty much every successful person is likely to feel that their success is based on merit. It’s human nature to feel that way.

But of course human nature itself has some pretty fundamental flaws. It is a general truth that self-made men and women tend to worship their creator. That is the problem of prosperity. Prosperity changes our sense of our own deserving, our own possessing, in ways that are understandable and that even helped us survive and prosper as a species. It just turns out that the change in our perception that comes from prosperity is, in a word, a lie we tell ourselves.

As I say, this hard for us to grasp. But if we can manage to get it—even if we can manage to try it on, just for a moment or two—the world is suddenly a very different place. Because it’s very hard to give away things that you feel belong to you, things you’ve worked hard to earn, things you’ve carefully gathered and built and saved and stashed away.

But if none of it belongs to us in the first place—if we can’t really own any of it, if we’re just caretakers of what ultimately belongs to God—well, then, our place in the whole picture changes.

Because if we give things away, we’re really giving someone else’s things away—not ours. If we make our gift to the Temple, if we make our gift to the church, all we are really doing is giving away what doesn’t belong to us anyway.

Nothing is likely to make you feel richer, nothing is likely to make you feel more empowered, nothing is likely to make you feel happier—seriously, happier—than giving away what you have to some other cause. It makes you realize the power you actually have, the change you can actually make, the help you can actually make possible.

If nothing we have is ours anyway, we should not be slow in giving what we can when we can to build the kingdom we have been called to build—which will, after all, finally help us to become all that God has called us to become. Amen.