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Reliable Source

November 11, 2013

“Reliable Source” Haggai 1:15b-2:9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38 © 11.10.13 Ordinary 32C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

From time immemorial, human beings have sought and depended on reliable sources of sustenance. We needed warmth and light, so we designated one member of the tribe to be “keeper of the flame,” nurturing a glowing ember gotten from a tree struck by lightning. Then we learned to make fire ourselves and carried with us the necessary supplies so we could have it on a cold night. We needed water for our families, our animals, our crops, so we built towns near rivers and lakes and dug wells. We wanted to make sure there was an abundant supply of meat, so we became nomads, following the herds of buffalo that used to darken the plains. Others of us raised our own cattle and pigs and chickens. We want to drive our cars, heat and cool our homes, power our machines and digital devices, so we find oil and gas and generate electricity. And in these days more and more, we seek new energy sources that are clean, plentiful, and powerful, like sun, wind, and water, even used cooking oil to be turned into bio-diesel.

Without a consistent, reliable energy source, physical life as we know it is impossible. So it is, too, with the spiritual life. We need a reliable source of energy and sustenance to keep the flame of our zeal lit and bright, daily renew our resolve to live with justice and mercy, and strengthen us against temptation.

For some the source will be a place. When I was a campus minister at MSU, a professor and Presbyterian elder named Don Jackson was the chair of my board for a time. Don spent a great deal of time outdoors, whether on his farm or on a ship halfway across the world with his work for MSU or at a Scout campground. His sense of the sustaining power of place was captured in an invocation he wrote and prayed for the Mississippi Wildlife Federation banquet around the turn of this century. In it, he said that we meet God “most powerfully in the cathedrals of the wild and lonely places: the forests, the fields, the wetlands, the rivers, the seas.” For him, “days spent outdoors [were] … sacraments.” He left the “cathedrals energized, focused, renewed, and committed to stand firm, with solid resolve and vision.”

Don was energized by creation, but others may find that their sustaining place is their home, where they can come after a long, frustrating day at work and enjoy quiet time with a spouse over dinner or laugh and play with their children and pets. As the famous movie line says, “there’s no place like home.” Still others will be kept strong by worship in the sanctuary where they or their children were baptized, those same children were married, they took vows of ordination or their loved ones were commended to the company of saints in the Church Triumphant. For someone else, a particular city or region of the nation can be counted on to renew their strength and energy.

So, given the power of place, it’s understandable how the Jews who returned from exile in Babylon would feel about their new temple. It was so poor compared to the splendid building King Solomon had erected, the edifice that had stood for centuries only to be destroyed when the Babylonians took Jerusalem in 587 BC. It was even more disheartening to realize that the ugly concrete layer cake before them was the best they could do, so meager were their resources. They would have to worship there. How could they show their faces before God in such a place; why couldn’t they do better for him than this?

The prophet Haggai had his hands full trying to help such sad people. His strategy was to remind everyone from the leaders on down that, yes, this temple might be “as nothing.” But neither their sustenance nor the presence of God depended upon how a worship space looked or indeed whether they had one at all. Instead, God was their reliable source of strength, of hope for a better tomorrow, for such prosperity that they could build the temple they wanted.

It’s not that a place is unimportant or that’s it’s foolish to mourn the passing of a great symbol of days gone by. The promise the people received was for restoration of a house in even greater splendor. But we can’t let our focus ultimately be on a place. The forest Don Jackson loved could be cut down or burned. A house or a church building or even a great city can be lost in a disaster or war. Suppose you and I didn’t have this great place to gather, would that make us any less a community of faith? What makes a church? Isn’t it this: that God’s Spirit abides among us? Any place, no matter how wonderful, is finite and temporary. God is our infinite, eternal, unchangeable, reliable source.

So, within limits, places can energize us. But so can leaders. Did you notice? It was to the leaders of the community that Haggai spoke first. Zerubbabel was the governor and Joshua, the high priest. The prophet knew where to start if there was to be renewal among the people. It’s the leaders of any community, civic or religious, from local to national level, that set its tone, provide examples of conduct, steer a course toward the future. As someone has said, an organization will not rise above the examples of the leaders. If they are demoralized, it is more than likely that the people will be, too. If the leaders fight among themselves as we see so much of today or put partisan and personal concerns above service, that will send a message of the wrong sort to citizens or to the world. But if those in charge truly lead, then the community will discover a new vision for tomorrow. There will be a clear sense of mission or at least an effort toward seeking one. And folk will be encouraged because important things are happening, and there’s fresh vigor in the church, the town or the nation.

The late Stephen Covey, among others, contrasted leadership and management. The latter has a bottom line focus, namely, how can I accomplish certain things? The former is top line: What are the things I want to accomplish? In one of his works, Covey cites business gurus Drucker and Bennis who observed: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Covey concludes: “Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.”

Every community needs managers who can get things done. But all the manuals and procedures and budgets in the world will do no good or will be used for wrong purposes, if the vision is not there, if the mission is not consistent with positive values. In the church, that means that leadership has to focus first on the great commission of our Lord: to make disciples. And leaders need to be disciples of Jesus themselves, as writer Adam Copeland has pointed out. A huge part of leadership in the church is in fact following. Says Copeland: “We need leaders with a passion for the gospel, with Bibles that are worn, with ears to hear and communities to support them. We need leaders drawn to the work of building God’s kingdom instead of building their resumes. We need leaders with admirable ethics and deep faith foundations. We need leaders who follow” (“Why Lead?” The Christian Century 11/13/13: 12). Leaders are key sources of spiritual energy for the community of faith.

But of course leaders, like places, are not and cannot be ultimately reliable sources. They can make mistakes, sometimes big and costly ones for themselves and the community. They can and do have limited knowledge of the facts, even in their own field of claimed expertise. They are capable of using their positions for their own selfish gain, even to commit heinous crimes. And, as in Thessalonica, they may exploit the fear and gullibility of people by spreading rumors and intentional disinformation. Or, as with the Sadducees, focus on trivialities and arguments that don’t relate to the lives and experiences of real people. So once again, only God is our fully reliable source. We know him in Jesus, the Head of the Church, the High Priest of God’s people, the King of Kings, the One True Leader. It is he that strengthens us, gives us good hope, comforts us eternally, and encourages us in every good deed and word.

So, then, like places, leaders can be sources of strength and help, even as we recognize their limitations. But finally, tradition is a source of spiritual energy. By “tradition,” I mean several things. It might be a body of teachings handed down through the years, like catechisms, creeds, and of course, the scriptures. It could be a way of acting, a set of rituals or simply “the way we do things around here.” And it could be described as an approach to living, how we think and believe. So we speak about the “Reformed tradition,” which is the theological inheritance of Presbyterians from John Calvin and John Knox. Or families, churches, businesses, and nations have their tradition and traditions, like how to celebrate Christmas or who makes decisions about this or that or how we treat the flag or other national symbols.

These various kinds of tradition are essential resources. For instance, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel when we rely on tradition to guide us. Remember how Tevye depended on it in Fiddler on the Roof? He could look to the collective wisdom of the ages, applied to his particular situation. So his limited energy could be spent elsewhere.

Tradition was the antidote to the fear and anxiety felt by the people in Thessalonica as they heard disturbing rumors about the “day of the Lord” having already come. They could find the strength to overcome their worry and plant their feet on solid ground if they would simply remember the traditions the author had taught them in person and in writing. Compare those themes and the character of their teacher with the motives and ideas of the so-called prophets, and they would see they need not worry.

Tradition, oddly enough, can be and is a source of renewal when things have gone awry. Around the turn of this century, the men’s clothing firm Brooks Brothers had lost its way, both in terms of service to customers and the quality of its merchandise. The Italian businessman Claudio Del Vecchio bought the company, and very soon after, went to the warehouse where its archives are kept. No Brooks executive had looked at the old catalogs and swatches in years. But, as Barbara Kiviat wrote for Time magazine about five years ago, Del Vecchio found in the “repository of the old and classic…a clear vision of his new company’s future.” “‘It was a revelation,’” he said, “‘a real inspiration’” (Style and Design: Fall 2007). The ideas kept coming as staff in the renewed company went back to the beginning and got energy from the past.

As hip Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber said recently, when you are deeply rooted in tradition, you can innovate with integrity (“Seeing the Underside and Seeing God: Nadia Bolz-Weber with Krista Tippett at the Wild Goose Festival” 18:17-18:22). But tradition, too, is where a number of young adults gain their strength. That’s rather surprising, since we expect people in their twenties and thirties to love the trendy and the new. But it is precisely because things move so fast and are so often confusing that they need a reliable source of spiritual help. The young Catholic writer Lisa Cullen complained in a magazine article about her priest using a contemporary movie as the centerpiece of his sermon and his argument. Listen to her: “It almost goes without saying that as a young, progressive-minded American Catholic, I’m at odds with many of the church’s rules and with much of its poli­tics. You might thus infer that my genera­tion instinctively rejects the age-old traditions of the church. That would be wrong. In a world unmoored by violence and uncertainty, there is something deeply soothing about participating in ancient rituals practiced by so many. Whatever our issues with the tenets of Catholicism the religion, we still cling to what unites us in Catholicism the faith: our devotion to the celebration of the Eucharist. I confess I adore the rich minu­tiae of the Mass: the frankincense, the Kyrie, the droning of creeds in a sacred space. It comforts me to know that my family around the globe takes part in the same weekly rites. The common purpose of shared ceremony helps me reflect on the Holy Spirit. With apologies, Father, homi­lies based on your Netflix queue do not” (“I Confess, I Want Latin,” Time, July 30, 2007: 60).

Naturally, since tradition is a human creation, it shares the flaws of humanity. It can exclude people and define a circle of insiders, like the family or church tradition that is known by and meant to benefit only the old timers and the initiated. A new in-law or a member comes in and only finds out about the tradition when they break with it. Or a tradition can become stale, rehearsing the same old concepts over and over. For example, the Sadducees, the conservatives of their day, had a tradition about scripture that was closed to anything new, any continuing revelation of God. For them, everything had been said in the first five books of what we call “the Old Testament.” However, for Jesus and the Pharisees, whom we would call “progressives,” God continued to speak through the prophets, the psalmists, the sages, the historians, even in the accumulated oral commentary on the scriptures. So they could affirm concepts like the resurrection, for which there is no explicit reference until the book of Daniel from around 200 BC. And, as Jesus did, they could interpret the old books creatively in light of what God continued to do.

Tradition is at its best when it’s open—to people, to ideas, and especially to what God yet may do among God’s people and in the world. Fortunately, our tradition has as its motto “Reformed, always to be Reformed.” The very essence of being Christian the Presbyterian way is to be open to the future, to God’s continuing work among us, to shed light on the problems that we haven’t yet encountered.

Still, for all its benefits, even when open, tradition is only a secondary source. Only the Holy One to whom the scriptures and all our tradition witness is the Sure Foundation, the Ancient of Days, the Past, the Present, and the Future. Only in Jesus are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge; he alone is Author and Finisher, Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End. From the Spirit alone comes insight into the truth, unerring guidance, and lasting renewal.

From time immemorial human beings have sought a reliable source of water, food, and energy. Some of us will be able to contribute whatever expertise we may have to that ongoing quest. But all of us can offer to our neighbors the one reliable source of spiritual energy. His name is Jesus, in whom God is fully and finally revealed. His strength is limitless. His comfort is enduring. His encouragement is eternal. His hope never ends. His love is boundless. And best of all, everything he offers is free to everyone. How can we not share such good news?


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