Sermon for November 26th, 2017
10 On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 11 Thus says the Lord of hosts: Ask the priests for a ruling: 12 If one carries consecrated meat in the fold of one’s garment, and with the fold touches bread, or stew, or wine, or oil, or any kind of food, does it become holy? The priests answered, “No.” 13 Then Haggai said, “If one who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?” The priests answered, “Yes, it becomes unclean.” 14 Haggai then said, So is it with this people, and with this nation before me, says the Lord; and so with every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean. 15 But now, consider what will come to pass from this day on. Before a stone was placed upon a stone in the Lord’s temple, 16 how did you fare? When one came to a heap of twenty measures, there were but ten; when one came to the wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were but twenty. 17 I struck you and all the products of your toil with blight and mildew and hail; yet you did not return to me, says the Lord. 18 Consider from this day on, from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month. Since the day that the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid, consider: 19 Is there any seed left in the barn? Do the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree still yield nothing? From this day on I will bless you.
Stew(ardship) - Haggai's Stew
Vincent Calloway III was, by all accounts, a man blessed with financial prosperity. He also had a reputation for being excessively materialistic; more concerned with his many expensive possessions than with the people or circumstances around him.
One day, as Vincent arrived at the office and got out of his brand new BMW, eager to show it off to his colleagues, an eighteen wheeler came from out of nowhere, and took off the driver's side door with Vincent standing right there beside it. "NOOO!" he screamed, because he knew that no matter how good a repair shop tried to fix it, the car would never be the same again.
At that moment, a police officer came by, and Vincent ran up to him yelling, "My Beamer was just ruined by some idiot truck driver! Can't you do something?" To which the police officer responded, "Sir, it's just a car, and in any case the car should be the least of your worries--it looks like that truck tore your left arm completely off at the shoulder!
In Shock, Vincent looked down at the mangled shoulder where his left arm had once been, and with a horrified yelp, exclaimed, "Oh No! Where's my Rolex?"
We may laugh at this extreme example, but how often are we, too, blinded to the damage caused by our passionate pursuit of possessions? I'm always confounded this time of year by reports of Black Friday shoppers aggressively elbowing, shoving, or otherwise causing harm to each other in order to grab the last great deal off the shelf...something that is presumably intended to be a gift to a friend or family member given in the kind and generous Spirit of Christmas.
By now, we all know (even if our actions don't always reflect it) that the only antidote to greed is generosity. This is a teaching that all major world religions agree upon.
In the Muslim Q'ran, we read that "You cannot attain righteousness until you give to charity from the possessions you love. Whatever you give to charity, GOD is fully aware thereof."
And in the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, we read that "A gift that is given without any expectation of appreciation or reward is beneficial to both giver and recipient," while a "gift that is given reluctantly and with the expectation of some advantage is harmful to both giver and recipient."
In the New Testament, we find the words of Jesus, who says that "it is more blessed to give than to receive."
And even outside of religion, in the realm of science, a recent study of 2,000 individuals by sociologists at the University of Notre Dame discovered that across all income levels, those who give a significant portion of their income to charity are happier, healthier, and more successful in their career goals than those who do not. A similar study from the University of Buffalo discovered that (again, across all income levels) those who give more tend to live longer, and stay healthy for longer as well.
Boy, have we got an opportunity for you today!
We are nearing the end of our annual stewardship campaign, where we remind our members of their commitment to give to support the ministries of the church, and where we remind our long-term visitors and friends that they too, can reap the amazing benefits of generosity by making a pledge of support to First Presbyterian Church in 2018. If you haven't taken the time to fill out a pledge card and put it in the offering plate, please do so today!
As we talk about stewardship this year, we're also talking about stew (the kind you eat) and using this as a metaphor for our giving. The words stew appears two-and-a-half places in the entire Bible. We talked about those first two places the past two weeks, and so today we come to the "half." I say half, because the words stew *barely* appears in today's passage, among a list of other things in an obscure legal question raised by the equally obscure Old Testament prophet, Haggai.
If last week's prophet, Elisha, lived in the shadow of the great prophet Elijah, then Haggai must have lived in the dark. He doesn't feature in very many sermons, songs, hymns, or works of art, and his book is only two chapters long.
But Haggai shows up at a very important time in the story of ancient Israel--the Jewish people have returned from their 40 year exile and captivity in Babylon, and have begun to rebuild the great temple in Jerusalem. Barely begun, that is. Really, all they did was lay the foundation, and then they kind of forgot about it for the next 18 years, as they went about the business of rebuilding their own homes and lives in their ancestral city.
When asked about the progress of the temple, the people say (in chapter 1 of Haggai) "It isn't the right time yet" which is a variation on the age-old excuse, "We don't have time for that right now. Our plates are pretty full." Sound familiar?
Enter the prophet Haggai. God, speaking through Haggai, says, "Wait a minute...what? Is it the 'right time' for you to live in your nice, finished homes while MY home sits in ruins?" God goes on to say (again through Haggai)
"Take a good, hard look at your life. Think it over. You have spent plenty of money, but you don't have much to show for it. You keep filling your plates, but you never get filled up. You keep drinking and drinking, but you're always thirsty. You keep putting on clothes, but you can't stay warm. And those of you who earn wages, you're just putting your wages into a bag full of holes."
Essentially, the people of Jerusalem are spinning their wheels in pursuit of things that have no power to fulfill them, while the one thing that can offer true fulfilment...is the one thing they have neglected for so long.
Again...this may sound all too familiar to us.
Amazingly however, the people of Jerusalem do something unprecedented in the history of the Old Testament up to this point: They actually listen to their prophet, take his words to heart, and immediately resume building the abandoned temple. Which makes Haggai, for the rest of his life, a much sought-after consultant and guest preacher for church stewardship campaigns.
Just kidding. But what does any of this have to do with STEW?
Three months later, God speaks through Haggai once again (chapter 2, verse 10--today's scripture passage) , this time with an odd request: Consult the temple priests, and ask them for a ruling from Jewish law. If a person takes some consecrated meat (meat that has been given to the temple as an offering, and blessed) and puts it in their pocket, and later it touches some bread, some wine, some oil, or...wait for it...some STEW! Does that make the stew (or the wine, or the bread, or the oil) blessed as well?
I imagine the priests are scratching their heads here at the absurdity of the question--the answer is obvious. There's no such thing as "stealth blessing" or "accidental blessing" in Jewish law. The only way something can become blessed is if it's offered to God as a sacrifice. So the priests answer, "no."
But Haggai (speaking for God) asks a second, follow-up question. What if, this time, that same person touches a dead body (a different kind of meat!) and THEN touches some stew, wine, bread, oil, etc.? Does the same logic apply?
In Jewish law, contact with a dead body made a person unclean, and they had to go through a process of ritual purification. Anything they might touch before that purification would also be considered unclean. This is not so strange of an idea, if you think about it. My five-year-old son comes inside from playing in the dirt, and asks his mother if he can help make the stew. Yes, but first you have to wash your hands. Dirty hands make dirty stew.
This time, the priests answer in the affirmative. If a person touches a dead body, then touches stew...yes. The stew becomes unclean.
So to sum up (for you biologists out there), dirtiness is a communicable condition. Blessedness is not. Or to put it theologically: Dirtiness is conferred by dirty things. But blessedness is conferred by God.
Having established this ruling from the Jewish law, Haggai now makes his main point (to the people of Jerusalem...and to us):
When all you do is look out for yourself, building up your own possessions and your own house, while neglecting God's house and God's people, you're like that person who touched a dead body. Everything that you touch, all that you build and acquire becomes devoid of life. Spiritually dead. Empty. Meaningless. And that sort of mentality spreads like a disease.
On the other hand, everything you give to God, every offering, every sacrifice you make for God's work here on earth--those are the things that God blesses, consecrates, and makes holy. And that kind of blessedness also spreads and permeates every part of your life--not through things coming into contact with each other, but when your life comes into contact with the Divine life of God, who alone has the power to bless and extend blessing.
Haggai makes this point to the people of Jerusalem after they have already heeded God's words and turned their attention back to the building of the temple. In the remaining verses of our passage, he contrasts their lives before and after this re-direction of their resources, and concludes with God's renewed promise to them: From this day on I will bless you.
I want us to be careful that we don't take this story as transactional, that God is somehow like a heavenly vending machine--if I contribute my quarter and push a button, I will be rewarded, I will be blessed. That kind of thinking misses the point. It isn't good stewardship, and is a pretty shallow view of God.
In this passage, Haggai paints a picture of two attitudes, two ways of being. One IS transactional, and material, but those transactions fail to produce the desired results, and end up spreading the wrong thing. The other way of being is relational--we give to God because of our relationship with God and God's people. The blessing comes as a result of and through those relationships, not in exchange for anything we have given.
That's a pretty nuanced point, and the best way I can think of to illustrate it is with a story. It's one you've probably heard before, but I can't resist concluding with this story, since it happens to feature a good pot of stew!
A man was praying one day, and asked the Lord to explain to him the difference between heaven and hell. The Lord said to the man, "Come, and I will show you hell." Together, they entered a room where a group of people sat around a huge, mouth-watering pot of stew. Everyone was famished, desperate and starving. Each held a spoon that reached the pot, but all of the spoons had handles so much longer than their arms that none of the spoons could be used to get the stew into their mouths. The suffering was terrible. After awhile, the Lord said to the man, "Come, now I will show you heaven." Together, they entered another room. It was very similar to the first - the same pot of stew, a different group of people, but the same long-handled spoons. Here, everyone was happy and well-nourished.
"I don't understand," said the man. "Why are they happy here when they were miserable in the other room and everything is pretty much the same?"
The Lord smiled, "Ah, it is simple," he said. "Here they use their spoons to feed each other."
People of First Presbyterian Church: May God bless you this holiday season with a sense of his divine presence; may you always have enough stew to keep you full, and may you always have enough generosity (and spoons) to share it.