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What Happens When the Walls are Gone? We Transform

Haggai 1.15b-2.9

Let me begin by saying that this is not the first sermon I wrote this week. I wrote one sermon on Haggai – and parts of it survived and you will hear – but then I walked away from that and heard deeper echoes of a sermon I needed to write and preach even more.

But we begin with Haggai. A prophet of two chapters, words spoken over the course of a few short months.

When the Babylonians captured the Israelites, the Temple was also destroyed – the Temple erected under the rule of King Solomon, which stood for more than 4 centuries.

The people had been in exile – some since about 597 BCE, and in about 536 the Hebrew people were released from captivity. Though not take courage banner2politically independent, they returned to Jerusalem, and were permitted to reestablish their homes and begin rebuilding the Temple. However, under Samaritan governance, the Temple project was put on hold. Although, some 16 years later, the Hebrews were permitted to resume building the Temple, something is still amiss.

Their work is slow and stalled. Haggai looks around and sees folks distracted, decidedly not prioritizing rebuilding and restoring God’s holy altar. He looks around and sees people in survival mode – far more focused on their survival needs to find time or energy to focus on the Temple.

He also sees some of the better-off members of the community with homes that are farther advanced and in better condition than the work on the Temple. Haggai observes a marked distinction between the riches spent on their homes and the relative state of ruin of the Temple.

Haggai also takes to task those who are dwelling decades in the past. The exile lasted some sixty years – it is certainly possible, even probable – that there were men and women among those now re-settled in Jerusalem who remembered the splendor and glory of Solomon’s Temple.  Their memory of the past and nostalgia for the beauty and prominence of the First Temple had them so despondent it effectively paralyzed their efforts.

We understand all of these things don’t we?

Certainly we know the power of nostalgia on our lives. Heck, think about the book of Exodus – the power of nostalgia was so great that the Hebrew people longed to return to slavery. Think too about the power of nostalgia in our own church. We love to tell stories. And celebrating our history – our rich history in this town – is a wonderful and powerful thing. We need to remember our story to remember who we are – and to know who we are becoming. The danger, of course, is when this turns to paralyzing nostalgia, rendering us unable to pick up the pieces and move forward – rebuilding a future with God.

And certainly, we know about the paralyzing effect of living in survival mode. Particularly in the last few years, in our economic context, we know the fears and anxieties of both real and perceived scarcity – we wonder if there really is enough to go around. How can we possibly spare time or finances when we are already over-worked and over-budget?

And certainly, we know the judgmental posture of seeing how others are spending their time and money and wondering why we still don’t seem to have enough, why we still can’t seem to rebuild in ways that honor God. If only others – the really well-off – would give, we’d be okay, right?

Haggai’s words perhaps ring a little too close to home, even now, more than 2,500 years later. (Even now, knowing that that Temple was, in fact, rebuilt, and then destroyed again.) The sermon I could preach might continue to focus on our building. But let me stop here and be candid.

I’m struggling a little bit with this sermon series. We have titled it “What happens when the walls are gone?” And throughout the remediation, repair and reconstruction (that continues to generate dust under our feet) we have claimed that we can be church outside our walls.

And yet we are asking you to recommit yourselves and your money to the building project of the church.  We are asking the question, “what happens when the walls are gone,” and yet the last thing we want is for the walls to be gone.  We recognize the importance of a building, and yet reject the centrality of our building.  It’s tough work not to get wrapped up in the judgment, nostalgia or survival mode.

Haggai faces the same thing. The people had figured out how to worship God without walls for decades in exile. They returned to their homeland and yet now face dire economic and agricultural conditions causing them to wonder if they are able at all to rebuild their Temple. They worry and fret over the past, grieving over the loss of Solomon’s Temple. They wrestle with despair, wondering why they should bother to rebuild if the Second Temple will never measure up to the masterpiece of the first.  They worry about the future integrity of their faith if the Temple does not look like their visions of the past or future.

We get it.

But here’s the thing: The principal message of this book comes before our reading for the morning begins – “Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house that I may take pleasure in it and be honored, says the Lord.” (1.8)

The prophecy of Haggai is not a prosperity Gospel.

Haggai has to remind the people that the building is not about the building. It’s about God. It’s about honoring God, worshiping God, serving God.

Rebuilding the Temple – is a way of restoring the centrality of worship in the life of the community. It is a way to restore the people to their own covenantal relationship with God.

And then comes Haggai’s promise – when the Temple is at last restored. What happens when the people re-focus and re-double their efforts, prioritizing the honor and worship of God at the heart of who they are and what they do?

In chapter two, verses 6-9, we hear God’s promise through the prophet: “Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.”

Restoring the Temple will translate to a shaking – a reversal of the present and a reversal of fortunes. There will be a universal reordering of all things – a reordering that establishes God’s kingdom on earth. God also promises God’s shalom – a Hebrew word, which is inadequately translated pretty much all the time in English. We read today that God will give “prosperity,” perhaps misleading us to believe that God’s shalom is equivalent to economic success. Rather, God promises abundant life – God’s peace – the fullness of life in covenant and communion with God. Prosperity is but one limited understanding of that.

The transformation promised through the prophet is total, eternal, and perfect.

Transformation – it’s in the title of the sermon. What happens when the walls are gone? We transform. We rebuild and we transform.

And here is where the sermon I wrote ends. Well, that’s not true. It continues, but here is where I deviate.

Because while it would be helpful to spend more time focusing on the prophet and the temple building and rebuilding and what his context says to our context – and I believe it says a lot to our context, there’s something that has struck me deeper. As I walked away from my first sermon, I heard only the words: Name Your Pain. We need to name our pain.

Are you in pain? Are you grieving? We are all harboring fears. We are standing on what often feels like uncertain ground and we look over an uncertain horizon. And I’m not talking about the building anymore.

The promise of the biblical narrative is that out of our pain God’s grace and God’s hope breaks in. But first we must be willing to acknowledge, name, describe our pain. We must be willing to allow ourselves and others to grieve. Without our pain and our grief we will miss the opportunities for God’s profound shalom to break through.  We will miss the opportunity for holy transformation.

Without naming our pain, without naming our darkness we cannot – we cannot – fully embrace the hope and grace and light of Christ.

And this is where – sick as we are of talking about it – we come back to all this building crap. It seems to me that the open wounds of our building – the exposed underbelly beneath the carpet and behind the dry wall, the bleeding, oozing dirt and grime of the foundation, the groaning, hollow pipes and tunnels and joints of the HVAC system – it has opened up a lot of our own wounds. It has exposed perhaps the bleeding, oozing wounds we thought had turned to scars.

We need to name those things.

We need to allow ourselves to grieve.

Maybe we understand in a way that makes us squirm the Hebrews who returned to Jerusalem from Babylon, saw the ruins of a Temple, rendered down to its mere foundation, and could only remember. They only saw the past and could not bear to rebuild because they knew to their very nervous system it would never be the same. The splendor of yesteryear became a memory more and more distant as the days passed.

We understand that grief. It is okay to name that. It is okay to grieve the walls that once stood, the architecture we believed to be safe, secure, permanent.

It seems to me that this building and all of its pain have become symbols for many of us in the previous weeks – or maybe even longer than that. That the unfinished floors, the gaping ceilings, the encroaching mold, the sanctuary and barely-existent narthex are all embodiments for something else that we are grieving. The reality that we have – is not the reality that we dream. And it is hard.  It breaks our hearts.

And that is okay. It really is okay to grieve. It is okay to embrace that our changes, our growing pains, our un-finished-ness, the unmet expectations of capital campaigns and designs for renovation – that all of it makes us anxious, fearful, sad.

We’ve done a lot of work and yet we’re still hurting. And maybe – like me – you’re trying really hard to pretend you’re not.

It is okay.

It is okay to have emotions about a building. And it’s okay if our emotions about the building are really about other things

There’s a conversation that we are both aching to have and terrified to participate in.

Because maybe the place we once thought secure, safe, and permanent now revealed as insecure and temporary, serves to remind us of our own fragility. We are reminded deep down of our own foundations that need repair – our own moldy walls permeating with a stench that begs for more than bleach and sponges.

I’m not talking about the building anymore.

What happens when the walls are gone? We transform.

At least that’s what the sermon title promises.

Beyond our building’s slow transformation, what kind of transformation might God have waiting – what else might our grieving and aching be hoping for?

And here I rely on women far wise than I.

I’m a little new to the Brené Brown bandwagon, but let me tell you, I’m fully on board. I think I’d like to start driving the wagon actually.  Brown researches vulnerability, shame, courage and authenticity. Her work has become famous after her TED Talk went “viral,” as they say, in 2010. She focuses on the transformative power of vulnerability, and our deep-seated fear of opening ourselves up.

Our fear, she says, of being vulnerable is a fear of being exposed, of being broken-hearted, and of feeling not-good-enough. The truth of life, though, is that we will become broken-hearted – and not just by failed romantic relationships – other people, the world, our own failures and disappointments will render us broken in many ways. And we must also acknowledge, she says, our own weaknesses, our own mistakes and failures, because that is the other truth of being human – all of us are imperfect. We will be broken-hearted precisely because we are already broken.

Haven’t we all had our hearts broken – by a love that didn’t last, by future plans that crumbled, by our own failures to live up to expectations, by children who don’t follow the path we would choose? How do we heal? How does God’s grace break through? We move through our grief by confronting it with honesty – we find ways to share our grief with others – not to have it fixed but to have it shared.

Transformation happens when we are willing to show up, be honest in our grief, in our hopes, and to be present for our lives.

Brown writes about what she describes as ‘wholehearted’ people – a phrase derived from a prayer of confession in her tradition: “We have not loved you with our whole hearts”. Wholehearted people are people whose lives are not driven by shame, fear, perfectionism, but rather are people who “believe in their worthiness.” Wholehearted people cultivate things like authenticity, compassion, gratitude, creativity, stillness, and meaningful work. Being wholehearted is a transformation in understanding who we are that begins with vulnerability.

Brown articulates that vulnerability is the true catalyst for transformation and wholehearted living.  She writes that “vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.”[1]

Our call to transformation is a call that begins – that must begin – with great risk.

It’s necessary. And really, transformation is always happening.

We are always shifting, changing, growing, shrinking, adapting, or maybe out of our own nostalgia or survival modes, feeling unable or unwilling to change, grow or adapt.

It is all uncomfortable because, as much as we want transformation, we resist it with every fiber of our being. That’s the human-ness of it all. Vulnerability is the thing we most want from other people and the thing we most resist giving.

This is my challenge for us – for our transformation that we will define ourselves by our risk-taking and our vulnerability, and not let our nostalgia, our grief, and our pain define us.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth about all of this – it will take some space to grieve. Because all of it requires death. We cannot avoid that truth because that is the Gospel.  Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber calls this truth spiritual physics: “something has to die for something new to live.”[2] It’s not just the truth of the Gospel found in the New Testament witness of Christ, but of the whole Biblical narrative – the Hebrew people were lost and found over and over, were destroyed and found resurrection in their rebuilding and restoring over and over.

The thing about resurrection is that it’s painful stuff, because it is predicated on death. And I wonder how prepared we are – to proclaim, let alone comprehend – the gruesomeness of a faith that requires death. Can we – will we – stake our very lives on the reality of death for the sake of the promise of resurrection?

My hope is that we will find ourselves capable of proclaiming, embracing, standing on the terrifying truth of God’s grace – which demands that we walk into tombs – only to emerge to the reality of resurrection – of body, mind and soul.

Like any death, it demands our grief, for what has passed away, for what was, for what will not, cannot be, eternal.

And yet, it demands our hope for and willingness toward transformation – for God will bring new life, has always brought new life, out of our ashes, in ways that we cannot possibly imagine or understand from our posture of grief and nostalgia.

This reality of death and resurrection is downright paradoxical in its insistence – that new life is predicated on death.

Vulnerability is its own paradox. We think that vulnerability will reveal us to be weak –our fears and struggles will expose us. And yet the very act of vulnerability is predicated on courage – it takes courage to acknowledge who we are, and embrace our identity – in its paradoxical and simultaneous beauty and brokenness.

Brown elsewhere says that “our ability for wholeheartedness is only as great as our willingness to be brokenhearted.” It all takes risk – true community takes risk. Opening ourselves up to the transformation of authentic community, requires us to bring our whole selves – broken and hurting and all. If it sounds scary, it’s because it is.

Here’s one more word from Haggai – or a couple of words, repeated. In verses 4 and 5, God promises through the prophet, “Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; 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.”

Take courage. Take courage. God abides with us. God’s promises are true.

Amidst all of life’s transformation here is what does not change: God’s promise and God’s presence.

Likewise, our response ought to be eternal – do not fear, have courage. And it is always, always courageous to face, and name our fears and our grief. God is present in that. We only move forward through that.

What happens when the walls are gone? We transform.

May it be so.


[1] Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, 34.

[2] Nadia Box-Weber, Pastrix, xviii

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