This weekend my journeys have taken me to St. Andrews Church in North Grafton where the Rev. Laura Goodwin serves as rector. My text for the day comes from the Old Testament prophet, Haggai, 1:15b-2:9.
In L. Frank Baum’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (the book, not the film) the cowardly lion finally walks into the throne room of the great and terrible Oz. Do you remember why he has come?
"I have come for my courage," announced the Lion, entering the room.
"Very well," answered the little man; "I will get it for you."
He went to a cupboard and reaching up to a high shelf took down a square green bottle, the contents of which he poured into a green-gold dish, beautifully carved. Placing this before the Cowardly Lion, who sniffed at it as if he did not like it, the Wizard said: "Drink."
"What is it?" asked the Lion.
"Well," answered Oz, "if it were inside of you, it would be courage. You know, of course, that courage is always inside one; so that this really cannot be called courage until you have swallowed it. Therefore I advise you to drink it as soon as possible."
The Lion hesitated no longer, but drank till the dish was empty.
"How do you feel now?" asked Oz.
"Full of courage," replied the Lion, who went joyfully back to his friends to tell them of his good fortune.
Three times in today’s reading from the prophet Haggai, God’s people are given counsel to be strong and to show courage. Did you hear that?
Take courage, O Zerubbabel…
take courage, Joshua…
take courage, all you people of the land.
Interestingly, the date is quite precise. The Bible may well convey abiding truths, but those truths are conveyed through real people in particular places and at particular moments in human history. It’s the second year of the reign of King Darius, the 21st of Tishri, the last day of the Feast of Sukkot. Ponder that for just a moment. We are used to the prophets situating their word from the Lord into an historical context—in the year that King Uzziah died or in the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah. But this is even more precise than that. And even if you don’t know who Darius was or have memorized the months of the Hebrew calendar or when the Feast of Sukkot is, you still hear it in those words which are as precise as November 22, 1963 or September 11, 2001 or the weekend of the twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost at St. Andrew’s Church.
In the prophet’s case, it had been eighteen years since the Israelites had returned home after the exile. That must have been an incredibly dis-couraging time for God’s people after all that lofty language from the exilic prophet we call Second Isaiah, the one who promised that there would be a highway in the desert and the crooked places would be made straight. God delivered on that promise; the people did come back home. But almost two decades later, the temple has still not been rebuilt.
It seems that this DNA runs deep for God’s people. First you need an idea. Then you need a dozen or so vestry meetings until you have consensus and then you announce a capital campaign that you’ve been building towards and then people say “how come you never consulted us?” Almost two decades have passed, and the deal was that after coming home God’s people would rebuild the temple. Well, they’ve been too busy rebuilding their own homes and finishing their basements and setting up soccer leagues…and they forgot. It’s on the next vestry agenda for sure. It seems that they’ve gotten stuck. They’ve got no time or talent or treasure left for God at the end of the week. They are discovering that you have to be careful what you pray for because coming home doesn’t mean life is a bowl of cherries. There is work to be done but that work has been deferred.
Now the great thing about the Word of God is that it is multivalent, by which I mean that you can take a text and preach a gazillion sermons from it. There are so many directions one might go. And to be honest, if I was still a rector in the month of November, preaching on Haggai, I’d probably go from here to that great line in this text where God says “Hey—all the gold and silver is mine! So you’ve got to give some back! All things come of me, and of mine own have you given me…”
But I know you are in very capable hands when it comes to stewardship and you all get this, I’m sure. In my new ministry, what I find clergy and wardens and vestries most needing to hear is a different sermon and it is the word I hear today from Haggai: this word of en-couragement. Take courage! Be strong; God is with you, so don’t be afraid! Now get to work! Courage, it seems, unleashes energy for mission—for action—for doing what the Lord requires. And obviously that is integrally connected with faithful stewardship.
Three weeks ago I was doing this gig at Christ Church, Fitchburg. Now what on earth do they have to do with all of you? Well, for one, your rector was raised up by that congregation and sent off to seminary because of the love of God that was made known to her there. Two weeks ago I was not too far from here, at St. Stephen’s in Westborough. I know that like all of you they are doing good work with the Community Harvest Project. I know this because I heard about it at Diocesan Convention two weeks ago from Laura and the rector of St. Stephen’s, among others. My point is simply this: we all are one in mission, we all are one in call; our varied gifts united by Christ the Lord of all. That is what we just remembered again on All Saints Sunday and that is what we give thanks for at the end of this month when we gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing on Thanksgiving.
I knew this of course as a parish priest and I know you all know it too. But I’ve been living it in a new way this fall in my new ministry, shifting away from a focus on a single congregation in a suburb of Worcester to this larger entity we call a diocese, that stretches from Westborough to Williamstown. What I’m learning as I drive the Mass Pike is that the links that hold us together in mission and ministry as a diocese is an insight into what it means to be the Body of Christ.
Faith isn’t something static; a creed to be memorized (or worse still) a slogan or cliché that can fit on a bumper sticker. Faith is above all else trust: deep and abiding trust that God knows what God is doing and that God really does love us. From that place of trust, it seems to me, comes an awareness that we need to trust each other if we are to accomplish great things together. We need to trust in our own giftedness and in the giftedness of others. We won’t get it right all of the time to be sure. That’s why we need patience and kindness and gentleness and forgiveness. But faith still requires action—just like in Haggai’s day it required getting that Temple rebuilt. To take action we need courage.
The “courage to be”—Paul Tillich once wrote—is itself a sign of God’s presence in our midst. Tillich wrote those words at a time that he called “an age of anxiety”—in 1952. Now if we could go back sixty-one years and talk with good old Tillich wouldn’t you want to say something like, “Paul, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” But of course it really was a time of great anxiety. We tend to filter our memories through some old episode of “Father Knows Best” or “I Love Lucy.” But in hindsight it’s pretty obvious that the certitudes of that era were coming unglued pretty quickly—the role of women at home and in the workplace was being challenged, the Civil Rights movement was just over the horizon and the Cold War was in high gear, with school children practicing hiding under their desks. Sadly the more the world changes the more it stays the same. “Shelter in place” is not a new concept.
This is why we need the courage to be and the courage to stand and the courage to act and the courage to persevere: because all of these are signs of God’s presence in our midst. The courage to be alive in the face of death and the courage to love in the face of hate—these are outward and visible signs of God’s eternal presence in our midst and sure and certain signs of God’s Kingdom breaking in for those who have eyes to see. I have come to believe, therefore, that one of the most important things we can do for one another in Christian community is to en-courage one another. And conversely, one of the things that destroys community is when we sow the seeds of dis-couragement.
So back to that “cowardly lion.” The truth is that he was never really as cowardly as he thought he was. He mistakenly believed that courage was about not being afraid. But the fact of the matter is that true courage is about acting in spite of our fears. True courage is about facing our fears and still being strong. His friends saw bravery in him that he couldn’t see in himself—at least not until he had an outward and visible sign of it by drinking that strange elixir. In the film, as you probably remember, it’s a medal. But I prefer Baum’s original metaphor. Maybe it’s not even a stretch to think of it as sharing the cup of salvation, the wine we will pour again in a few moments—the elixir of Christ’s body and blood that gives us courage to continue the journey.
We are already Christ’s own. We have been claimed and sealed and marked and loved from before our births. We are already the Body and Blood of Christ as we come together: two or three, or a thirty or sixty or a hundred at a time. We are already the Body of Christ but we need reminders—we need signs. We need to get that “elixir” inside of our bodies so that it can become courage for us to do the work that God has given us to do.
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.