Take Courage--I'm Right Beside You
a homily based on Haggai 1:15b-2:9
by Rev. Thomas Hall
The book of Haggai opens with people practicing what many of us have raised
to an art form: procrastination. Israel is apparently the among the first in civilization
to discover the maxim: "Never do today what you can put off til tomorrow."
Fast forward past a hundred thousand Monday mornings to your post-modern Monday
morning. Its a wild one. You discover that because you have so many tasks on your
DTIGDT list, you have to bump something important over into the next day.
"Thats okay," you console yourself, "I am busy; Ill get to that
tomorrow." So with good intentions and a touch of guilt, you roll the item off the
days agenda. But then a strange happens. Day two comes with less urgency to attend
to that priority "A." In fact, before your eyes that "A" item seems to
morph into the shape of a "B." So goes the day, so goes the week. By weeks
end, Mondays priority sits on Fridays doorstep staring back at you like an
abandoned child. Lesson learned: "never put off until tomorrow what you can do the
day after tomorrow."
Thats how the book of Haggai begins-with one of those Mondays. Something of
high value, of high priority is getting bumped from one day to the next, from one decade
to the next. God says: "These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the
We might understand this communitys tendency to procrastinate. Seems endemic
to the human race. After all, its a busy Monday-something has to get bumped. So the
rebuilding of the worship space-the Temple-had gotten bumped from one day to the next for
eighteen years! "Not yet time?" Theyve got to be kidding! They had started
the project almost two decades earlier, but had never moved beyond groundbreaking
ceremonies. The inbetween time had been filled with driving the kids to appointments,
farming, making clothes for the family, bringing home the paycheck. Just like us, rushing
through life, going about our own personal, self-contained lives.
Yet, somewhere in the midst of our rushing through life we wake up one morning and
ask ourselves, "Whats important? Am I doing what is truly important?"
Sometimes it takes an outside voice, an interruption, to get our attention and to help us
look objectively down the path toward which our lives are pointed.
That interruption about priorities sometimes comes from a prophet like Haggai. For
Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, however, it
came from someone within his own family. He says . . .
I had a job that consumed me . . . My problem was that I loved my job and
couldnt get enough of it. Being a member of the Presidents cabinet was better
than any other job Id ever had. In the morning, I couldnt wait to get to the
office At night, I left it reluctantly. Even when I was at home, part of my mind remained
at work . . .
Then one evening I phoned home to tell the boys I wouldnt make it back in
time to say good night. Id already missed five bedtimes in a row. Sam, the younger
of the two, said that was O.K., but asked me to wake him up whenever I got home. I
explained that Id be back so late that he would have gone to sleep long before; it
was probably better if I saw him the next morning. But he insisted. I asked him why. He
said he just wanted to know I was there, at home. To this day, I cant explain
precisely what happened to me at that moment. Yet I suddenly knew I had to leave my job.
Reich writes that he had been rushing through life so fast that it took an
interruption-a prophetic word from his youngest-to get his attention about whats
really important. Not long after that conversation, Robert Reich called a press conference
and announced that the Secretary of Labor was stepping down from labor. For Reich, making
a life and making a living had pulled him in opposite directions; he needed some time away
from the office to spend with his family.
Word on the street was that rebuilding the Temple was a low priority.
"Weve got our own jobs to do. Got our own houses to build, our own tasks to do;
we cant take time for right now, God; well get back to you on Monday."
"Okay," God says, "but have considered where your lives are headed?
Tell me," God continues, "hows the quality of your puny lives?"
Next morning some of them got to thinking about that-how they were doing.
"Come to think of it, things arent really going all that well," they
responded. Whether crops, clothing, or paychecks, there seemed to be a lack, a life-famine
that plagued their soul, robbing them of the good life. The paychecks didnt stretch
quite far enough to make ends meet, and now that they thought about it, there never was
enough for second helpings, and someone was forever a sweater short.
"Honor me by making Me first and keep Me at the center and youll find
that life will become more balanced-I personally will work right beside you."
Well that was enough to shake the inertia and procrastination off. From the least
to the greatest, they "obeyed the message from the LORD their God." So they
stopped that very day from bumping God from Priority A to the bottom of their list of
things to do. That very day they rolled up their sleeves and grabbed brushes, saws, paint
cans and began to work together to rebuild the Temple. To see the people working and all
the sweat equity being poured into the work youd think they were a work team from
Habitat for Humanity-only in this case it was more, Habitat for Divinity.
For over a month the worked progressed. Then one day the work stopped abruptly.
"This is pathetic! What an eye sore! And you call this a Temple? Why compared
to the original Temple-and I know because I saw it when I was a kid-this is nothing more
than a tool shed!"
Cynicism and the good old days began to contaminate the work teams. Now, to be
honest, our elders represent some of the best of humanity that we could possibly aspire
to; many of them are paragons of hard work and courage. But there are always a few of us
in any crowd who grow bitter and cynical with age. So the words of a few old-timers send
the Gallup poll plunging from 98% enthusiastic support to a 98% disapproval rating.
Sixty years is a long time. Only a handful could still remember what the Temple
looked like before it was destroyed in 587 BCE. But their rendition of the "Good Old
Days" in B-Flat shut down any flicker of enthusiasm. Just tell someone that what
theyre doing is small and insignificant compared to earlier years of service or
earlier giving or earlier attendance and it throws a wet blanket on all enthusiasm for the
"Oh, for heavens sake, what are you painting posters up for? Hardly
anyone ever comes to our Harvest Festival anymore, but you should have seen what we did in
The book of Haggai could have ended just like that. A story about a bunch of
people who finally got their priorities straightened out and then got fired up about an
inspiring project, only to throw in the towel and quit because they could never hope to
approach the successes of the past. Too many ministries never succeed, too many
congregations choose a slow, agonizing death by attrition, too many pastors resign
prematurely because theyve listened to the wrong voices gloating over Christmas
Past, over earlier successes, and glorious trophies sitting in the glass case. We end up
with demoralized, energy-sapped quitters or cynics.
Could have ended like that. But the book of Haggai has a different ending.
Actually, a very surprising ending. God says to these beleaguered folks who have all but
given up on their project what everybody has been hearing, "Who is left among you
that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look now? Pretty bad, huh?"
Heads nod, a low murmur concurs with God. "Well," says God, "have I got
news for you . . .
"Take courage, Zerubbabel!"
"Take courage Joshua, son of Jehozadak, high priest!"
"Take courage, all you people among the land."
Beginning with the leaders and going sequentially down to the people, God utters
the same command: "Take courage and work!" That gets everybodys
attention-including the cynics! God continues, "for I am with you . . . My Spirit
remains among you, just as I promised when you came out of Egypt. So do not be
Its one thing for a little committee huddled in some damp corner in the
church basement to feel that they cant do much. But when any group truly senses that
God is taking ownership of the project on the table, that God is right there with them,
that changes everything. Ive experienced that first hand.
I was in that damp corner of the church basement one night in my first pastorate.
One of the oldest members of the church marched up to me in the presence of the other
committee members and held out her hand. I could tell by the deeply furled scowl that I
was about to be accosted with a grave concern.
She held out her flattened palm. "See that?"
Well, I did see some kind of specks all right.
"Yeah," I said, "what is it?"
"Those are mice turds," she said as proudly as if she were announcing
the winning answer on Jeopardy.
"Oh, now I see them. They sure are mice t_____."
"I found em in the fellowship hall."
I wasnt sure I liked the direction this conversation was headed in. "Oh
really, in the fellowship hall, huh?"
"Yeah, right under the table where the little kids eat their snacks after
The real issue was in what went unsaid. We had just hired a childrens pastor
in a church that had no children-hadnt had any for years. So as children began to
come we needed to adjust to our newcomers, to move over, give space. And now I was looking
at five black little reasons on my committee members hand why bringing children to
this church was not a very good idea at all.
I normally have the deportment of a mouse, but on this occasion I turned rhino and
announced to listening ears that God had commissioned us to open our church to the
neighborhood and that was exactly what we were going to do. In the end, we invited God
open our doors even wider to lots of gooey, chocolate-fingered friends knowing that
somehow God would help us build a safe place for children.
Take Courage. Maybe we need to listen for God to speak those two words to us every
once in awhile. How would those words change the way you looked at your life? At your
ministry? How would you go about your life if you knew you could never fail because God
was right there beside you?
Take courage, Minister of Music and dont look back-I am with you! Take
courage, youth worker, Im right here beside you; were going to do great! Yes,
I see you, buried under that stack of administration - I am with you, pastor; together
were going to lead a great congregation into places of ministry they-and you-have
never dreamed of. Take courage! Amen.