Haggai 1: 15b - 2:9

Pentecost 22, Ordinary 32 C

November 10, 2019

Lincoln Street UMC, Portland, Oregon

Elizabeth Winslea

In 1998 Tim and I moved to Portland from Buffalo, New York, so that I could begin as campus minister at Portland State University. We were new to the city and began a course of visiting churches - Presbyterian Churches, given our background. And so it wasn’t long into our tenure in Portland that we found ourselves one morning at Westminster Presbyterian in Northeast Portland.

I remember that I appreciated both the excellent preaching and the fine music of the service. But what really struck me was the announcement page. OK, that is not typically what grabs the average church visitor - the announcement page? Then again as a pastor perhaps I am not an average church visitor.  And lest I carry on too much, I should clarify that it was really just one announcement that caught my curiosity.

There in the back pages of the bulletin was a reference to the needlepoint project underway - to stitch all new pew cushions for the sanctuary. Westminster is one of the largest Presbyterian churches in the area with transepts and balcony. It easily seats 500. And every one of those seats was going to be covered by needlepoint.  We are talking, literally, millions of stitches.  Each one a prayer and an act of devotion.

I had never done needlepoint, before but I knew from grandmother how time-consuming such fine stitch work can be.  I had done plenty of cross stitch previously, the cousin to needlepoint, and decided that maybe now was the time to up my game.

First I had to track down the leadership, then I had a phone conversation, then I had to come in to meet with the leader of the program who handed me my trial piece.

I had to complete the sampler to show that

  1. I could successfully stitch in the careful traditional way they had designed
  2. b. follow the design as laid out on the canvas, and
  3. c. finish a project in a timely fashion.  They took this venture extremely seriously and frankly, I was impressed.

Eager to prove my worth, I went home and got underway. Well, it was good fun! But it was slow going.

This 5 by 5 inch canvas was clearly going to take a lot longer than I had thought! In order to avoid warping, they used a particular kind of stitch that would pull on the fabric in both diagonals - but essentially doubled the number of stitches otherwise required.

I’m happy to report that I did indeed pass the test. And next I was given a real cushion cover - or as I lovingly referred to it, my butt portion. Slowly and steadily I made my way through the project, enjoying each color and how the design began to emerge as millimeter by millimeter I filled in stitches. Finally my cushion cover was finished and I was able to return it to the church so that it could get carefully attached to it’s side partners and of course to the backing.

So somewhere in that large sanctuary is the cushion that I helped create.

In all honesty, I have never been able to locate it among the mile of tapestry. We were allowed to add three initials to our work if we chose, I have never found mine. But I trust it is there.

And that really isn’t the point, is it? To go and celebrate my little cushion. But rather it is the amazing artistry and common vision and common work that overwhelms the visitor.

I will never be a part of building a cathedral, as so many were in Medieval Europe. I will never create and build a pyramid. So that little pew cushion is my only experience of what it means to physically create something small, that is part of a larger expression - all for the glory of God.

As we heard read earlier, Haggai has his pom-poms out. He is cheering on a lagging people. They are to rebuild the temple, restore it to its former glory.

But they are a people who have returned home after exile, finding themselves displaced in their own homeland. And disruptions spark here and there among those who had remained and those who had returned.

And it seems like perhaps they all are having trouble feeling the reason to go on. Some scholars estimate that these folks had spent at least fifteen years clearing and building the foundation alone. And while the temple was and eventually would become again an impressive structure, nothing about it would suggest that the foundation would require such efforts. Not unless there was trouble afoot.

Trouble in the form of infighting, in the form of disinterest, and in the form of hubris.

And Haggai, there on the sidelines, waving his arms around says, “Take heart! Take heart! Have courage! Build it up! Build it up! Waaay up!”

“Take courage all you people of the land,” says God; “work, for I am with you, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.  . . . I will fill this house with splendor.”

And the amazing thing is that they did.  They overcame the obstacles and somehow came under the sway of Haggai’s rallying and cheering.  This minor prophet spurred them back into action and it took them only several years more to complete the temple.

In many ways each of us is nothing more, or actually, nothing less, then a tiny stitch in the great cloud of witnesses which is the church.  

Each one of us a prayer and an act of devotion.

We wind our way through our life, adding a little color to the world in the form of children or successful work ventures or maybe an adventure over seas, and then we tie the whole thing off with a graceful exit into the great beyond.

We are also not immune to periods of ennui or even infighting.  But fortunately the church is full of minor prophets urging us on when the work seems more than we want to take on. Indeed, I have known the message of Haggai coming through many of you when my own energies were lagging.

Together we weave a mighty tapestry and build a lasting temple and all, strange as it may sound, all for the simply joy of expressing the glory of God. Each one of us a prayer and an act of devotion for the glory of God. And that is good work, my friends.

So consider - where will you spread color, image, vision. How will your life be one stitch in the mighty garment of God’s works?

Amen.

This sermon was written by Elizabeth Winslea and delivered on November 10, 2019 at Lincoln Street United Methodist Church. It is published here with the permission of the author. Please link back to this post and credit the author if you reprint or use any portion of it.