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June 2021

Take Courage

Take Courage

Haggai 2:1-5

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

13 June 2021

            In her latest best-selling memoir Untamed, Glennon Doyle writes about “the cost of living a brave, openhearted life.”

            She writes,

            I am a human being, meant to be in perpetual becoming.  If I am living bravely, my entire life will become a million deaths and rebirths.  My goal is not to remain the same but to live in such a way that each day, year, moment, relationship, conversation, and crisis is the material I use to become a truer, more beautiful version of myself.  The goal is to surrender, constantly, who I just was in order to become who this next moment calls me to be.  I will not hold on to a single existing idea, opinion, identity, story, or relationship that keeps me from emerging new.  I cannot hold too tightly to any riverbank.  I must let go of the shore in order to travel deeper and see farther.  Again and again and then again.  Until the final death and rebirth.  Right up until then.

            Glennon Doyle rose to fame first as an evangelical mommy blogger and memoirist who developed a large following of readers, primarily other evangelical moms.  Over time she organized her audience into a massive philanthropy.  And she kept evolving.  Four years ago, I was surprised that she was one of the keynote speakers of our United Church of Christ General Synod.  At the time I’d never heard of her, not falling into the evangelical mommy demographic myself.

            But by then Glennon had radically altered her life.  She had divorced her husband, fallen in love with and married the soccer great Aby Wambaugh, left evangelicalism and joined Naples UCC (which is pastored by my friend Dawson Taylor), and awoken to social justice activism.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed her talk at General Synod and then heard her again at the Iowa Conference meeting in 2018. 

            This latest memoir recounts how she so radically transformed her life and the spiritual and emotional resources she drew upon to live a brave, openhearted, untamed life. 

            She claims that transformation is always on-going and that we must develop the ability to courageously let go of the past in order to move openly into the future.  This work is not easy either spiritually or emotionally.  But wholehearted living is the result of overcoming our fears and living courageously.

            The prophet Haggai proclaims in his oracle that the people are to take courage and not fear.  They are to be strong, but it is an emotional and not a physical strength that is called for.  What they need is spiritual courage to complete the task of rebuilding the Temple.  And the prophet is the one encouraging them with vision, hope, and inspiration.  [A note: my interpretation of this passage relies heavily upon the commentary by Carol and Eric Meyers.]

            Last week we read the proclamation of the Persian emperor Cyrus allowing the Jewish people to return to Judea and to rebuild Jerusalem.  But now a number of years have passed and the restoration has not yet been accomplished.  Now under a new Persian emperor, Darius, and a new Jewish governor, Zerubbabel, the work is renewed, largely at the instigation of Haggai and his oracles of encouragement.

            When the people returned to Jerusalem they faced many challenges—rebuilding a society, providing for themselves, acquiring resources, fending off opponents, and more.  The rebuilding of the Temple had started but not been completed.  And so Haggai, much like the old prophets before him, receives a word from God that he then proclaims to the people.  And this is a call to take up the work again, to rebuild the temple, and to see it to completion.

            And it seems that Haggai was successful.  Because of his preaching, the rebuilding began anew and it was completed in a short time and the new Temple was dedicated.  Some scholars believe that the written book of Haggai which we have today was prepared for the dedication ceremony and was read aloud as a reminder to the people of who and what had inspired them to do the work.

            Part of the task of the prophets was to help people comprehend their experiences, including the suffering and trauma they had encountered.  And then to help them to face the challenging tasks of restoration.  In order to do that, Haggai had to ease their uncertainty, help to clarify their world, and then provide hope.  From this the people would develop the emotional strength to carry on this work. 

            The passage I read a moment ago from the Book of Haggai most scholars believe came a few months into the work on the Temple, when people began to see what they were building and began to have doubts and to lose their energy and focus.  The purpose of this oracle was to inspire them to keep at the task, to renew their energy.

            And so Haggai raises a question.  It seems that as the people have watched the new Temple arise from the ruins of the old one that they’ve begun to question its glory.  Surely the new Temple does not match the glory of the old Temple built by Solomon.

            Now, at first glance this seems to be about a physical comparison.  That some in the crowd believe that this new building isn’t as grand and beautiful as the old one.  But we would misunderstand this proclamation if we understood the question this way. 

            The fact is, it is very unlikely that anyone physically present at this rebuilding of the Temple would have seen and remembered the old one.  It had been almost 70 years since the old Temple was burned.  And life expectancies in this era, especially of a traumatized, exiled people, were not that long.  Almost two full generations, according to the ancient reckoning, had passed.  So maybe the workers’ grandparents had seen the Temple?

            What’s more, almost none of those grandparents would have seen anything but the exterior.  Only the priests could enter the Temple building and only the High Priest into the Holy of Holies.  Even the old Temple of Solomon was rather plain on the outside.  The ornamentation and the gold, silver, and bronze embellishments were mostly on the inside.  So, any physical comparison is highly unlikely, except that maybe the people have read about the original Temple and what they see rising around them doesn’t fit the description?

            It’s also the case that by the time the Babylonians burned the Temple, much of its treasures were long gone, stolen by various other invading armies over the centuries.  So even before the conquest of Jerusalem, the Temple had long not been as glorious as what the ancient historians recorded at the time of Solomon.

            So, what might the people have in mind if they were grumbling about it not matching a former glory?  Carol and Eric Meyers, in their commentary, point out that the people would remember that the old Temple had been a part of the royal complex of Jerusalem.  It had been imagined by King David and built by his son Solomon.  Their royal descendants maintained the Temple.  And stories of kings are often connected with the Temple, like the restoration of the Temple in the reign of the boy king Josiah.

            What is different this time is that Judea has no king.  No king is building this Temple, the people are.  No king has conquered other territories and is bringing back their riches to adorn the Temple.  There aren’t the great trade alliances of the past, by which goods and artisans arrive in the city to help with construction.  The new Temple, then doesn’t reflect the royal and national glory that the people once had.  They are not independent, they are ruled by a vast empire headquartered far away, and they are but a small and lowly piece of a much larger puzzle. 

            And, so, the challenge for the prophet Haggai is to inspire the people to find glory in a new way.  Not in the old ways of the kingdom.  In fact, Haggai has already engaged in a bold act of people-making.  He has already inspired and organized the people to do something that they once relied upon a monarch to do.  They are building the Temple. 

            Haggai is forming a new national identity, centered not on a monarch or a political structure, but around religious faith and moral demands.  A new Jewish identity focused on God.  And as such, Haggai is vital to the develop of Judaism throughout the millennia, helping to turn it from only the faith of a small ethnic group, into a global faith focused on religious practice and moral living.

            Haggai had a universal vision.  He basically tells the people—“If you build it, they will come.”  He believes that once the Temple is built, God will use it as an instrument to bring the world together in peace and abundance.  The Temple will become the center not of a new, small nation, but of an international community of peace.

            And God will bring this about.  Because God is not only the sovereign of the Jewish people but is the divine ruler of all.  No matter how good, wise, and benevolent the Persian emperors Cyrus and Darius are, God’s rule is even better.  Here is how the Meyerses describe this idea in their commentary on the passage:

The well-being for which the [Jews] yearn will become available to them, but not only to them.  In the future time, when other nations recognize [God’s] universal rule, those nations too will achieve well-being.  The power of [God] as universal ruler will not be exploitative.  In contrast to human emperors, [God] will establish universal plenty.

            It is this vision that Haggai says the Temple represents, not a restoration of what had once been, but a transformation into something new, bold, and wonderful.  So, take courage,  people, for God is doing something new here and you get to be a part.

            To help us take courage against our fears, Glennon Doyle shares one of her mantras, that she finds particularly helpful in parenting her children.  She tells them, “This is a hard thing to do.  We can do hard things.” 

            Haggai is saying something similar to his people.  And I think it’s a powerful message for us.  In the midst of fear and uncertainty, when we too face the crises of life, we can keep our vision focused on restoration and transformation and take the courageous action necessary to rebuild and renew. 

            Because God is with us.  God’s Spirit fills us with divine power and divine glory.  This presence is the source of our courage.

            So, we too can do hard things.


Go Up

Go Up

2 Chronicles 36:22-23

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

6 June 2021

Let’s back up.

A generation before this moment we just read about, the armies of the Babylonian Empire, under the infamous King Nebuchadnezzar, invaded the Kingdom of Judah, conquered it’s people, and took control of Jerusalem.  The Babylonians took the Jewish King Jeconiah hostage and along with a significant portion of the nation’s elite, carried them away into exile. into the Babylonian heartland of Mesopotamia, or modern-day Iraq. 

Nebuchadnezzar appointed a puppet government over Judea.  Eventually the puppet king Zedekiah rebelled and the Babylonian armies returned.  After a long siege of the city of Jerusalem, the Babylonians defeated the Jews.  Then they tore down the city walls, burned the Temple, executed the king’s family, blinded him and carried him off to prison where he died.  More people were taken to Babylon, and only a small, poor remnant of people remained in the land, which was reduced to a province of the great empire.

Meanwhile, in exile in Babylon, Jewish culture seized the moment of trauma and in a bold act of resilience their culture thrived.  Ezekiel had visions of the bones of the defeated Jews being brought back to life by God’s Spirit.  He imagined a new temple, restored and glorious.  The poet Second Isaiah dreamed of a day when all the nations of the world would stream to a new Jerusalem, a city of peace. 

Poets, songwriters, historians, religious scholars, prophets all began to dream and to tell stories and to write.  They looked back on the ancient stories of Abraham’s journeys, of the Exodus from Egypt, of David’s establishment of the kingdom.  And in those stories they found hope and tools to survive and ideas for the future. 

And they waited for the day when they might return again to the land and rebuild their society and worship God in freedom.

In rather shocking, quick order that day came.  Babylon, the once great empire that had commanded most of the near east, collapsed quickly before the armies of the Persian emperor Cyrus.  Nabonidus, the last of the Babylonian kings, was so disliked by his own people, that they did welcome the Persians.

And Cyrus was something of a messianic figure, honored as such even by the Book of Isaiah.  For Cyrus took a different approach than the empire builders before him.  The old Assyrian Empire had built itself through ethnic cleansing and genocide.  When they conquered a nation, they removed most of its people and spread them through the empire and moved new people into the homes and cities of the defeated nations.  In doing so they wiped from history many of the ancient peoples, including the northern kingdom of Israel and its lost ten tribes.  The Babylonians were not quite as fierce, but kept something of the same idea in their kidnapping of a country’s elites.

But Cyrus, he and the Persians took a different approach.  They respected the diversity of their empire’s peoples, their cultures and faiths.  They left people groups intact and allowed them to continue their religious practices and granted some autonomy in how they organized themselves.  And, so, one way Cyrus gained favor over his new subjects was to allow those who were in exile to return to their homelands and re-establish themselves.  And, thus, the Hebrew Scriptures honor Cyrus as an agent of God, creating the opportunity for the people to return home.

And so, after a generation, they were able to Go up to Jerusalem once again.  But the Jews of Babylon didn’t all rush to return.  In fact, they never all left.  The Jewish community of Babylon and eventually Baghdad was one of the centers of Jewish intellectual life well into the Middle Ages and a remnant of that community remained well into the modern age. 

The first group to return to Judea was led by Shesh-bazzar and probably included the bravest, the most daring, and those with little to lose.  It took many years and multiple waves of return under Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah before the new Jerusalem and the new Judea began to take shape.  It is this story of restoration which we explore this summer in our worship.

A few years ago we followed the first part of this story—the conquests of Israel and Judah, the people being led into Exile, the formation of a new people through resilience after trauma.  At the time we always intended to tell the second part of the story, and this year seems fitting, as we too have gone through our own collective traumas with the global pandemic, the racial uprising and reckoning, the insurrection.  We are also in a time of restoration, taking our first stumbles out into a new normal, some of us with eager fascination and some with great anxiety and trepidation.  All of this while the dangers are still present, and we aren’t quite sure what the new normal will look like.  Or whether our society will muster the political and cultural will to heal and rebuild and restore, creating something better than what we’ve known before.  So, we turn to these ancient stories looking for tools and ideas and spiritual connection.

Healing from trauma begins with the ability to tell our story and have it listened to by a compassionate person.  And so the stories of ancient Judea are their attempts at this process of healing and resilience. 

According to Serene Jones, healing from trauma involves three stages—first, establishing our safety; secondly, remembering and mourning; and finally, reconnecting with ordinary life.   We will encounter each of these in the ancient stories.  And all of us have been moving through those stages, and we are at different places along the journey.

One of the more popular writers and spiritual guides of our time is Brené Brown.  In her bestselling book Rising Strong she writes about how we go up again.  She says, “Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness in our lives; it’s the process that teaches us the most about who we are.”  She says that it is this process which tests our courage and forges our values.

In her research, Brown has identified a three stage process involved in rising strong from a fall.  It begins with a reckoning, particularly a reckoning with our emotions.  She writes, “Recognize emotion, and get curious about our feelings and how they connect with the way we think and behave.” 

This first step can be a difficult and tricky process, because we have so often been trained to suppress or ignore our emotions.  Which is why often this work requires professional help. 

This stage also involves listening to our bodies, which teach us so much about what we are feeling.  Even when we are trying to ignore an emotion, it will often manifest itself as an ache or a pain within our bodies.  Being aware of our physicality and the ways our bodies keep the score, is an important part of emotional maturity and wholehearted living.

As we read these stories this summer, listen for the ways they deal with emotions.  Today’s brief passage, for instance, exults with joy and celebration.  Let’s also be aware of our own emotions and pay attention to our bodies and what they are telling us, as we begin to move into this new normal.

According to Brown, the second stage of the rising strong process is to rumble with our stories.  Here’s what she says about that fun word “rumble”—“By rumble, I mean they get honest about the stories they’ve made up about their struggles and they are willing to revisit, challenge, and reality-check these narratives as they dig into topics such as boundaries, shame, blame, resentment, heartbreak, generosity, and forgiveness.”

So, step two isn’t easy either!  Learning to rumble well with topics like shame and resentment and forgiveness can take a lifetime of spiritual work.  In another of her books, she writes, “When we have the courage to walk into our story and own it, we get to write the ending.  And when we don’t own our stories of failure, setbacks, and hurts—they own us.”  So, yes, it’s not easy work, but it is vital work.

And remember: we are beloved children of God, with amazing minds and souls, empowered by the Holy Spirit, filled with amazing grace, and radiant with glory.  We are capable of growing into our best selves.

Our ancient forebears had to do the serious spiritual work of rumbling with their stories.  They didn’t always succeed at creating something better, as we will see.  Sometimes they failed and created more trauma.  Let’s learn from that as we rumble with our stories.

The final stage of the rising strong process, according to Brené Brown, is the revolution.  She describes it as writing “a new ending to our story based on the key learnings from our rumble.”  And that we then “use this new, braver story to change how we engage with the world and to ultimately transform the way we live, love, parent, and lead.”

And it is this ability to rise strong from failure that leads to wholehearted lives.

That’s our goal, isn’t it?  How to rise up from our pandemic experience better, whole, joyful, and glorious?

            In ancient Babylon a few, brave, intrepid souls heard the call of God in the proclamation of the emperor Cyrus to “Go up.”  They traveled to a place that required vision and hard work if it was to be transformed and restored. 

            In our own lives, may we too rise strong and hear God’s call to go up, to be restored, to become our best selves.