Our Gospel reading is perfect for All Saints Day. On All Saints, we commemorate the saints who have gone before us, the big names of our tradition, as well as the saints from our own lives.
Responding to Sadducees, who denied any resurrection, Jesus assures us that the dead are children of God, that the saints are like angels, that they are alive to God.
On All Saints Sunday, we rejoice that they are alive to us too. They are the cloud of witnesses who surround us (Hebrews 12:1), part of the company of heaven who join us around the altar when we share Holy Eucharist. That is the “communion of saints” we affirm in the Nicene Creed.
It is an honor to name a few of the saints today. But whether or not we name them, they are, still and always, members of the body of Christ, as we are and always will be.
We can take comfort in knowing that we will one day be reunited with people we love. We can take comfort in knowing that when we die, we will continue, in some mysterious way, to be with people we leave behind.
All the saints, including us(!), are part of God’s story. We are part of the grand sweep of salvation history beginning thousands of years ago and continuing until time itself ends.
That faith, that hope, can help us as we grapple with our problems.
But it helps to anchor that big hope, that vision of salvation history as a whole, in a particular moment. To make that big hope concrete and visible. So, we turn to our Old Testament reading.
I start with a sentence that you will probably never hear from anybody but me. I love the prophet Haggai. As far as I am concerned, everybody should love Haggai. But sadly, Haggai is NOT well-known. Haggai shows up in the lectionary, our three-year cycle of readings, one time, today. This is it. Anybody who misses Haggai today won’t hear from him again for another three years. But you re not missing him!
As is true for many of the prophets, the power of Haggai’s message depends to some degree on knowing his historical context.
In Haggai’s day, there was no kingdom of Israel. There was no temple. The Jewish leadership lived in exile. Jerusalem was a little nothing town.
Sometime before Haggai began prophesying, the people he addresses in our reading, Zerubbabel and Joshua son of Jehozadak, received permission from their Persian overlord to lead a band of exiles back to Jerusalem. The returning exiles must have set out with high hopes. They were going to the Promised Land. They planned to rebuild the temple of God. They wanted follow God’s law without fear of interference.
But life turned out to be harder than they could have expected. The local people were not enthusiastic about a large group of strangers claiming their land. Zerubbabel and the rest started building the temple, but local opposition quickly brought their work to a halt. The newly-arrived people necessarily focused on basic issues of survival.
Think Pilgrims in 1620. They came to the new world hoping to establish a “city set on a hill,” a model community founded on godly principles that would be the envy and inspiration of the world. Instead, at least in those first years, they found themselves battling starvation and relying on indigenous people for survival. Think about the contrast between their glorious hopes and the reality on the ground during those first years.
The returned exiles in Jerusalem struggled with that same contrast between what they had expected and what life in Jerusalem was actually like when they arrived. They were discouraged. I get that. Who wouldn’t be?
Haggai himself was focused on the question of the uncompleted temple. Haggai asked them, “who is left among you that saw this house [the temple] in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?”
Pause here. We are not refugees surrounded by a hostile population and with our most important institutions in ruins. But it is easy to get discouraged about the state of the Church, and the state of the nation, and the state of the world. Haggai is talking to a discouraged people 2500 years ago. And Haggai has a message for us today.
What was Haggai’s message to them, and to us? “Take courage.” “Take courage, O Zerubbabel,” the political leader. “Take courage, O Joshua,” the religious leader. “Take courage all you people of the land, says the Lord.” Take courage.
And God gives them a simple command, coupled a promise, the promise at the very heart of our faith.
The command is, “work.” Rebuild the institutions in ruins all around you. Most immediately for them, rebuild the temple. And then rebuild the nation. That’s the command, for them and for us.
Rebuild the Church wherever and whenever it is failing, because we are called to be the light of the world. If the Church lets the light of Christ go dim, who else will shine on God’s behalf? Who else will proclaim God’s mission of mercy, compassion, and hope?
And rebuild the nation. Our institutions are more or less intact, but many of our people are disillusioned and discouraged and more or less hopeless about the future. Many of us may feel that way too. But God calls us to work in the world.
That’s the command. And it may well sound impossible. It would be impossible, but for the promise that comes with it. “Work,” God says, “for I am with you….My spirit abides among you.”
God was with them in 520 BCE, and they rebuilt the temple and, eventually, the kingdom. God is with us now, and God promises that the very gates of hell can never prevail (Matt 16:18) as we work, in God’s name, to rebuild the Church and to rebuild our nation.
There is a last point in Haggai, too, and it bring us back to All Saints Day.
God promises to be with the people as they rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, and it happened. It happened within a few years of Haggai’s prophecies.
But completing the temple didn’t suddenly make everything right or everything easy for them. The temple they were able to complete thanks to Haggai’s prophecies was inevitably small. Struggles continued. The political reality remained complicated.
They couldn’t solve all the problems of the world, and we can’t either. So, after encouraging the people to work because God was with them, Haggai reminded them that God’s kingdom would come someday in all its power and glory. “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…and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts.”
That was their hope, and that is our hope, too. We work today, and with God’s help we hope to make things better even now. But we rely ultimately not on our own power, but on the God we know in Jesus Christ, the God who holds all the saints who have gone before us in a loving embrace, the God who will hold us in that same embrace when we die, the God who promises someday to bring about a kingdom of righteousness and justice and abundance.
God is our hope. And with that hope, we can accomplish great things. May God help us to do the work God gives us to do. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan