This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 7 November 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Haggai 1: 15 – 2: 9; 2 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; Luke 20: 27 – 38.
When I began thinking about this sermon last week I wasn’t sure where it was leading. But as I came home from the Church Conference a thought came to me and it allowed me to begin writing the sermon. I left the Conference with a feeling of hope, that things would begin turning around. And for some reason, I thought of a scene from the movie, "Hoosiers".
For those that need their memory refreshed, this movie, starring Gene Hackman, is about a small town high school in Indiana that, in 1952 (I believe), won the state basketball championship. Indiana is probably the only state that does not classify high schools by size for the end of the season basketball tournament. Thus, all the high schools in the state participate in the one tournament. This puts the smaller schools, with their limited enrollment, at a disadvantage when it comes to finding players. With the exception of 1952, no small school in Indiana has ever won the state championship.
Now you might think that the small schools would prefer a different type of tournament setup. Yet, year after year, as people seek equity among the high schools, the small schools say that they want the single chance of proving that their schools belong with the big schools in the premier state basketball tournament.
In the movie, Gene Hackman is hired as the coach and seeks to instill a new type of offense. It is an offense whose philosophy is counter to ones the kids have played before and it is not the type of game that the alumni and townspeople want. But it is an offense that is best suited for the school to play. So there is a struggle there.
Early in the season, there is a situation where one of the players fouls out of the game and Hackman, as the coach, decides not to replace him on the floor. This means that Hickory (the high school in the movie) will finish the game with only four players on the floor.
Naturally, the townspeople go crazy, screaming that the coach is breaking the rules by only playing four players. But, then as now, there is no rule that says you must have five players on the floor. The coach knows the rules better than the townspeople. This episode, coupled with the different style of play that the Coach is trying to teach, are the catalysts for the townspeople to meet at the local Methodist Church and call for his firing. It seems likely that this will be the case until other events cause a change in the situation. From that moment, the team slowly comes together and ultimately win the state championship.
Now, the episode with the four players is, to me, similar to what is transpiring in the Gospel reading today. Instead of focusing on the resurrection and life everlasting, the Sadducees are focusing on the law that requires a brother to marry his dead brother’s wife in order to keep the family line going. It seems to me that we worry more about the legality of things than we do the spirit of things.
The Sadducees and the Pharisees are seeking ways to trap Jesus. As the ones with political power, they saw Jesus as a direct threat to their power and well being. But they had to remove Him in such a way that would not turn the crowds following Him against them. In the passage prior to today’s Gospel reading, the Pharisees question Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. They wanted to get Jesus to say something that would make Him look like a political revolutionary so that they could then hand him over to Pilate. But Jesus responds that one should render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God. Jesus is exalted and the Pharisees sulk as their attempt to trap Jesus fails.
In today’s Gospel reading, it is the Sadducees who seek to trap Jesus. The Sadducees reject the oral traditions that the Pharisees stringently obey. They base their teaching and thoughts on the first five books of the Old Testament, the books of Moses. Since these are the books that Jewish law is based on, the Sadducees are the lawyers of their day. To them, there cannot be a resurrection and they contrive this ludicrous example to suggest that the resurrection that Jesus is speaking of is impossible. In his summation of this issue, Jesus uses the law itself to make an impact on the Sadducees.
It has to be emphasized, since it seems to have been forgotten, that Jesus Himself said that He was the fulfillment of the law. Jesus constantly fought with those who used the law to further their own ambitions, instead of protecting those persecuted and abused by others. Jesus points in the passages following today’s Gospel how the scribes sought the best for themselves while allowing others to drive the poor and unfortunate from their homes.
I think that, if we are not careful, we are going to see this same legalistic view of the Gospel in the coming days. We saw evidence in the election that "moral values" were a dominant factor in the election of President Bush. What seems to have come from this election is a view of a legalistic view of the Gospel, one that allows others to tell you what to say, what to do, and what to think.
I don’t think that is what the Gospel is about. Yes, the Gospel tells me what to think and what to say and what to do. But it does not give me the power to tell you how to behave. As an evangelistic Christian, both in name and thought, I have the duty to present the Gospel to you but only you can decide what you will do. In presenting the Gospel, I will also point out the rewards that one can gain and what is likely to happen should you choose not to follow. But I cannot make you follow the Gospel nor should I try.
Now, the people of Thessalonika are faced with a quandary. Theirs is a quandary about the meaning of the Gospel. They are hearing many ideas about the Second Coming of Christ but most of them are false, contrary to the original teachings of Paul. They are coming from teachers who are twisting Paul’s own words in order to meet their own plans. As a result, many Thessalonians feel that now is the time of the Second Coming and there is no longer any reason to work for the church.
In this passage, Paul seeks to reinforce the ideas that he presented in his first letter. He encourages the people of the church to hold fast to the ideas that were first presented to them and to which they responded. It is their faith that will prevail, not their listening to the false teachings. And it is their faith that people are hearing about.
There is also a crisis in the Old Testament reading for today. Instead of the end of the society, as the people of Thessalonika fear, it is the rebuilding of the old society that is causing the crisis in Haggai.
When some of the Israelites returned from the Babylonian captivity in 538 BC, they were determined to restore the worship of God to its rightful place at the center of their lives. They planned to build a new temple in Jerusalem. Sadly, however, their resolve to do so vanished shortly after they returned to Jerusalem. They did build a new altar on the original temple site and later laid the foundation for a new temple. But when there was the first sign of trouble, construction halted. After the troubles passed and the people were free to return to their primary task, they did not do so. Though not idol worshippers like their ancestors, these Israelites had lost their passion for the worship of the living God.
When Haggai confronted the people, he addressed the problems of his day: the infertility of the land and the hard economic times. But he did not blame these problems on poor fiscal planning. Rather, he exhorted the people to focus on their spiritual condition. They were focusing on insignificant matters, like the decoration of their homes, while ignoring God’s temple that lay in ruins in front of them.
The temple was more than a building. It was the site of the people’s meeting with the living God, the symbol of the abiding presence of the Creator of the universe. If the people ignored the physical ruin of the temple, they were ignoring the spiritual wreckage in their souls as well.
The response to Haggai’s exhortation was quick and decisive. Three weeks after the message that we read today, they began to work on rebuilding the temple. Haggai noted that the Lord was with them, just as Moses had told the people in Exodus that God would be with them through their journey.
I am hoping that our response will be something similar. Right now, we are sending letters to the inactive members of the church asking them to indicate what they want to do. It is my hope that they will respond favorably to this particular request and challenge. I suppose that it is more than a coincidence that we are reading this passage today. For in three weeks, we began the celebration of Advent and I hope it will be a time of celebration and renewal.
We must focus on the one thing that will overcome all adversity and all trials, the faith that we were raised in and which, through the Holy Spirit, has led us to this day. There are times when life is at its darkest, through the death of a loved one or a setback in life. It is at those times that we are reminded that it is our faith, our belief in things unseen, that carries us through. It was the faith of the people of Thessalonika that went beyond the town limits and told people of the growth of the church.
It was the faith and desire of the people of Israel to rebuild their lives after the captivity that allowed them to rebuild the temple and again celebrate the presence of the living God in their lives. We are in a period of time when the old ways no longer seem to work. There are those who saw the results of last Tuesday’s election and asked, "Now, what?"There were those who left the meeting last Monday and asked, "Now, what?"
What we must do is to seek what we have lost. We must seek that which comes from within us and which has been there from the day we first came to know Jesus Christ as our personal Savior. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, points out that we seem to have lost something as simple as respect — for each other, for the environment in which we live, for the values that can bring us together. He argues that we have lost the common ground upon which we can meet.
But he also argues that we can find common ground but only if it is higher than where we are now. For me, this is found much in the same way that Paul encouraged the Thessalonians – in the faith in which they were raised and the faith by which they were known. There is a need for a vision of transformation and I firmly believe that it is found in the Gospel message. A new framework, a new language, a new vision can emerge from this day if we want it too, if we resurrect our own basic personal values. These are values that Paul speaks of in his words to the Thessalonians. These values bring us together
As we look to renew this church, let us remind ourselves that it will be through the Gospel that this is accomplished. As long as what we are doing is consistent with the Gospel message and United Methodist theology, we know that we will have God’s blessing. We may have been asking "Now, what?" last week but it is clear that today, with the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, the question will be, "Now, how?"