23rd Sunday After Pentecost (7th November) 2004
2 Thessalonians 2.1-5, 13-17
Back at the beginnings of the dawning of consciousness of the people Israel, as they began to see the remarkable intervention of God that had delivered them from Egyptian tyranny, their memories gave birth to a powerful strand of challenging thinkers and speakers. These are those we call the prophets, men, perhaps women too, who dared to speak out whenever the people of God forgot their origins.
Only two aspects of those origins really mattered to them. First, they were a people who God had chosen to rescue. Second, they had been rescued from slavery, that most brutal form of oppression. As a result of those two historical observations God had given them a powerful challenge; re-member.
When we come to the part of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving that says “You have gathered us together to feed on Christ and to remember all he does for us” I make two slight changes. Firstly, I add the words “and make known”: “You have gathered us together to feed on Christ and to remember and make known all he does for us.” Secondly I pronounce the word “remember” in an unusual way. This is not a kiwi aberration, but an attempt to emphasize that, especially in Hebrew thought, to re-member is not merely to make a vague observation that something happened long ago, but rather to re-collect and make present (to re-present or “present again”!) once again moments that God has enabled in human history. Those sacred moments are knit back together again and made present once more in the sacred acts of ritual. They are “membered together” once again.
The job of the prophets was to challenge the people of God to re-membrance of simply those two aspects of their story: they were a people who God had chosen to rescue. They were a people who had been rescued from slavery – the most brutal form of oppression. But if “re-membrance” is not mere acknowledgement that something happened long ago, if re-membrance is a making present of past events, then there are powerful implications of the prophets’ call. Haggai’s call to his shattered people, (he was speaking to a broken people in exile, a people who had lost their story) was not merely “chin up old son,” but far closer to the famous carpe diem, “seize the day.” Seize the day not because of some wishy-washy sense that this is a nice thing to do, or a feel good thing to do, but because, in the words of the psalmist, “This is the day that the Lord has made,” a day in which to rejoice and be glad precisely because it is a day planned in the purposes of God.
These words of Haggai, “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” were spoken in a time of terrible turmoil and brokenness. God’s people were shattered; their temple was in ruins, their children were no longer practicing the liturgies and faith of their ancestors, and those that continued to believe in God were mocked and persecuted for their troubles. Strangely, the response of the people to Haggai was on the whole not “Oh that’s okay then” but “Shut up and leave us alone.” Nevertheless in the end the purposes of God prevailed, and the hope of the People of God was restored once more.
The lesson they had to learn was a brutal one. They had neglected the compassion and justice of God. When things were going well and they were living in a land of plenty they had forgotten to show compassion on those who had nothing, or on those who had fled to them for help. They had forgotten that God had heard the cries of their ancestors when they were in trouble, and that they in turn needed to listen to the cries of those in trouble now. Haggai and the prophets dared to say that the doom that befell the people of Israel was the will, even the punishment, of God.
The implications of this for contemporary western Christianity are inescapable. Where we as the people of God have forgotten our baptismal promises to live out the justice seeking, compassion proclaiming Way of the Cross, then we like the ancient people of God have lost our way. It may be that we as a western world need to see the decay of our much vaunted civilization. It may be that our vast infrastructures need to crumble or be destroyed around our ears. That may include the structures of our Anglican Church. It may be that our children leave the traditions and faith of our forebears in droves. At least since the 1960s that has clearly been the case. It may be that our churches close.
It may be that we, the remnant so often mentioned and addressed by Paul in his writings, need to be a people who seek God in sorrow. We need to read our sacred scriptures and to meet in prayer and study, for the future of our faith is at least in part in the hands God has given us. Yet even in our sackcloth and our ashes (and there must be plenty of those) we are called to re-member: “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.” Take courage and seize the day, for this is God’s day, and in all its bewilderment it is a part of the unquestionable purpose of the one who created us and those we love.