A Reading from the Book of Haggai (1:15b-2:9)
[In the second year of King Darius, in] the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? 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. For thus says the Lord of hosts: 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.
1 Sing to the Lord a new song, *
for he has done marvelous things.
2 With his right hand and his holy arm *
has he won for himself the victory.
3 The Lord has made known his victory; *
his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations.
4 He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel, *
and all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
5 Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands; *
lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.
6 Sing to the Lord with the harp, *
with the harp and the voice of song.
7 With trumpets and the sound of the horn *
shout with joy before the King, the Lord.
8 Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it, *
the lands and those who dwell therein.
9 Let the rivers clap their hands, *
and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord,
when he comes to judge the earth.
10 In righteousness shall he judge the world *
and the peoples with equity.
A Reading from the Second Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians (2:1-5, 13-17)
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke (20:27-38)
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
In the back of church, over the top of those double doors where you come in from the narthex into the main aisle of the nave, there is a small sign. Visitors who notice it tend to stop and stare, trying to figure out what it is supposed to be. I did the same thing when I first came to St. Mark’s. Our eyes seem naturally attracted to the light areas, and we try, without any success, to make some sense of them. But eventually, either on our own or because someone else helps us, we look at it in a totally different way: focusing not on the light areas but on the dark areas; and immediately we see the name “Jesus.” It was obviously there all along, but we just couldn’t see it until we looked at it in a new way.
Life is often like that. There are realities that are right there in front of us, but we just can’t see them. It is only when something or someone helps us to look at them in a completely new way that we recognize them, and they suddenly seem obvious. Today’s first reading and gospel reading offer us examples of that kind of not seeing and then seeing: of the necessity of looking at things in a totally new way in order to recognize what is right in front of us.
The prophet Haggai spoke to the people of Jerusalem shortly after the temple had been rebuilt – well, sort of rebuilt. Sixty-seven years earlier, the armies of Babylon had destroyed the magnificent temple built during the reign of Solomon. Now, after years of exile, the small, struggling, impoverished community that had returned from exile had built a smaller, far less impressive structure to serve as their new temple. The book of Ezra (3:12) reports that, when the old people who had seen Solomon’s temple looked at the new version, it was such a disappointment that they broke into tears. It just wasn’t the same.
But prophets like Haggai called on the people to look, not only at the temple but also at their entire life with God in a new and different way: to see the new relationship that God had established with them, a new way of being God’s people, and to celebrate this new life instead of mourning for the way things used to be. The past was gone, and it was never going to return. But God wasn’t gone, and God was doing a great new thing. But in order to recognize, it, the people had to stop focusing on the way things used to be and instead to open the eyes of their imaginations in order to see the new work and the new possibilities that God was opening up to them.
A similar situation lies behind today’s gospel reading. The Sadducees were the religious and political conservatives of their time. They insisted that the Torah and only the Torah contained the truth. Among the liberal ideas that they rejected and ridiculed was the idea of a resurrection of the dead. To mock Jesus and the others who held to this progressive notion, they created the fictitious scenario and question that they posed to Jesus about the seven brothers. They were so stuck in their old ways of thinking that they were blind to new ways of thinking about God and about God’s relationship with the human race and the rest of creation.
Jesus first turned the tables on them, using their sacred Torah to prove to them the shallowness of their position. Then he went on to lay out before them a new way of thinking about God and about what God is doing in the world. He invited his hearers to open the eyes of their imaginations to new possibilities and to a different way of seeing.
The world has changed greatly during the 2500 years since the time of Haggai and the 2000 years since the time of Jesus, but human nature has stayed remarkably the same. We still tend to look at the world around us in familiar patterns, to frame people and places and ideas the same way that we did many years ago. Like those returned exiles in ancient Jerusalem, we still long for the supposed “good old days” and for our own version of the temple: those ways of life that we remember as being so wonderful and so much better in the past.
There are at least three major problems that that tendency brings. First, we tend to remember the past as being better than it actually was. Memory is kind: it helps us remember, and even idealize, the good things, and to downplay or forget the bad. The supposed “good old days” were probably not nearly as wonderful at the time they took place as they are in retrospect. Second, there is the fact that the past is past. It still impinges on the present and always remains a part of us, but it is gone; and no amount of nostalgia and no efforts on our part are going to bring it back. And third, and maybe most important, dwelling on the way things supposedly used to be can blind us to the wonderful new realities and ways of seeing that God is opening up to us today and in the future.
At the Diocesan Convention that several of us attended the last two days, we heard a report from our diocesan Restructuring / Reimagining Task Force. This group is in the middle of a two-year project to look at the way our diocese is structured and the way that we function and to ask some very basic questions about how we might more effectively reorganize ourselves to accomplish our mission. That effort, in turn, is encouraging people in our parishes to take a fresh look at their life and ministry, just as we here at St. Mark’s have already done over the past few years and continue to do.
The biggest challenge in these initiatives, both to the diocese and to our parishes, is getting ourselves to begin looking at our faith and our church and our mission to the world in new ways. Like some of the people in Jerusalem in Haggai’s time and like the Sadducees in Jesus’ time, we tend to look at the world in old, familiar ways: to get locked into old ways of seeing. To use one of Jesus’ images, we try to put new wine into old wineskins. When we do that, we almost inevitably find ourselves to be disappointed, because the new doesn’t quite fit in with the old. And when we do that, we blind ourselves to seeing the new opportunities, the new ways of being the church, the new ways of living our faith that God is opening up to us.
Not only that but — to return to the small sign over those double doors in the back of our center aisle — we blind ourselves to seeing Jesus, who has been there all along. This is the Jesus who, by his death and resurrection, has become the first-born of God’s new creation. This is the Jesus who challenged both the Sadducees and his own followers with the assertion that ours is the “God not of the dead, but of the living.” And this is the Jesus whose Spirit, working among us today, is always at work: not putting things back the way they used to be, but making all things new.