“I am with you in the work.”

The other day during prayer, I asked God to lead me toward a part of the Bible that I needed to hear, and I opened up to the book of Haggai.

Have you ever read anything from the book of Haggai? I’m not even sure I’d ever heard of it. A mere two chapters stuck between Zephaniah and Zechariah, Haggai is considered the beginning of postexilic prophecy (or so says the Bible I was reading from). It tells the story of God calling the remnant of the Israelites who had returned from exile to rebuild the temple. “Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” (Haggai 1:4). According to the footnote, the reference to paneled houses is a reference to luxury. The wealthy Israelites are living in luxury while neglecting the house of God.

Then again, on Sunday, I picked up the Bible to re-read this story. I was immediately transported to mass that morning, which I attended at a local parish run by the Conventual Franciscan Friars. Because today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the presider told the story many of us know about God’s call to Francis: Francis was praying in a run down Church of San Damiano when he heard Christ speak to him from the cross. “Francis, rebuild my church.” Francis heard these words literally and obeyed, rebuilding the physical Church of San Damiano and then two others.

In Haggai, we hear “Consider your ways! … Because my house lies in ruins while each of you hurries to his own house.”

Though our understanding of Francis’s story now leads us to believe that he misunderstood God, who actually meant “church” as the people and community of God rather than the physical structure, Nathan Schneider posits in America Magazine that the physical rebuilding of the churches was intended as Francis’s first call. He says, “Fixing them and tending to them trained him for a revolutionary ministry. These were the places where he heard God’s voice.”

San Damiano
The Church of San Damiano: Small and simple, it required simply a desire to do the work and an attention to detail.

Francis came from a wealthy family, and his efforts to repair the church of San Damiano resulted in his father disowning and disinheriting him. It took him out of Assisi, his place of comfort, to a countryside that wouldn’t have been a part of his daily experience. The repair work taught him stewardship and attention to detail. It took him out into the world and onto a path that would change the world.

Between the call of the Israelites through Haggai and the call of Francis, it’s clear that God is calling on those who have wealth or live in extravagance to put that wealth to use for God’s glory. (This includes little extravagances. You don’t have to be a millionaire to answer God’s call to simple service.) What isn’t clear in either of these stories is whether God’s house or church refers to the physical building, the people of God, or both.

The temple of Solomon had been glorious. As the people set to work repairing it, God says through Haggai:

Who is left among you
that saw this house in its former glory?
And how do you see it now?
Does it not seem like nothing in your eyes?
But now take courage … all you people of the land,
says the LORD, and work!
For I am with you, says the LORD of hosts.
This is the pact that I made with you
when you came out of Egypt,
And my spirit continues in your midst;
do not fear!
(Haggai 2: 3-5)

In the work, do not fear. In the detail, do not fear. For I am with you, says God, in the work and the detail, in the process. Whether the process be building up the physical structures of worship or the community of God’s people – or the physical structures that will house or otherwise nurture the community of God’s people (that is, the community of all of humanity).

So, ‘Work!’ says our God. ‘I am there with you in the work.’ Where will you find God?