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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. It’s 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. "That’s okay," you console yourself, "I am busy; I’ll get to that tomorrow." So with good intentions and a touch of guilt, you roll the item off the day’s 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 week’s end, Monday’s priority sits on Friday’s doorstep staring back at you like an abandoned child. Lesson learned: "never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow."

That’s 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 LORD’s house."

We might understand this community’s tendency to procrastinate. Seems endemic to the human race. After all, it’s 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?" They’ve 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, "What’s 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 couldn’t get enough of it. Being a member of the President’s cabinet was better than any other job I’d ever had. In the morning, I couldn’t 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 wouldn’t make it back in time to say good night. I’d 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 I’d 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 can’t 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 what’s 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. "We’ve got our own jobs to do. Got our own houses to build, our own tasks to do; we can’t take time for right now, God; we’ll get back to you on Monday."

"Okay," God says, "but have considered where your lives are headed? Tell me," God continues, "how’s 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 aren’t 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 didn’t 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 you’ll 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 you’d 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 they’re 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 present.

"Oh, for heaven’s 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 60’s!"

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 they’ve 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 everybody’s 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 afraid!"

It’s one thing for a little committee huddled in some damp corner in the church basement to feel that they can’t 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. I’ve 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 wasn’t 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 church."

The real issue was in what went unsaid. We had just hired a children’s pastor in a church that had no children-hadn’t 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 member’s 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 don’t look back-I am with you! Take courage, youth worker, I’m right here beside you; we’re going to do great! Yes, I see you, buried under that stack of administration - I am with you, pastor; together we’re going to lead a great congregation into places of ministry they-and you-have never dreamed of. Take courage! Amen.