A sermon delivered at Camp Allen, inspired by Zechariah 4:1-14
“Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit,” says the Lord of Hosts.
In June 2006, Billy Tweedie, Ed Ziegler and I loaded up a van with high schoolers and our gear and drove to Ocean Springs, MS, a coastal town hard hit by Katrina in August of 2005. This was the first of many trips to Mississippi for the Cathedral youth group, and I will always remember it as being the most difficult – not because of the vibrant personalities in our van and not because we had just the day prior wrapped up a middle school mission trip, but because of the nature of the work. We arrived in the late afternoon, and we followed our contact Tim out to see our worksite for the week.
When Tim’s truck stopped along the side of the road, Ben asked, “Why are we stopping here? There’s nothing here.”
We got out of the van and gazed out over a field of debris that seemed to extend out into the bay. It was an inlet where several homes had been chewed up and spit out by the storm upon the marshy ground. All that was left was a pile of debris, several feet deep, extending out to the bay. The might of heavy machinery could not clean up this mess, Tim explained to us, because the ground was not stable enough, so our task was to bring it in to the road and pile it up for the machines to pick up and haul away. Over 200 people had been there before us, and they had made paths by laying plywood over the most compacted areas of the debris. We were to watch for nails, snakes, and gators. And we would have some considerable experience with all of those things over the coming week. Thank you, Jesus, for tetanus shots.
Before we loaded back into the van, totally overwhelmed by the scope of the work before us, Tim led us to a spot alongside the road marked with a stake. At the foot of the stake was a little pile of trinkets – small things that had been removed from the debris field – a clock, a locket, a box with earrings inside, a child’s toy – small things carefully rescued from the ruins of three houses just in case there should be a day when their owners would come looking for them.
As I was reading our passage from Zechariah today, it brought to mind the image of that great debris field extending out to the bay and the small things gathered around a stake by the road awaiting those who might never return. I think that image came to mind for a couple reasons. First, Zechariah as a text is a jumbled mess of layers from different periods, and exegeting this particular passage with its strange imagery and the multiple places where the ecstasy of the utterance causes things to fall apart – exegeting this passage was a little like trying to construct a path through a field of debris. But this image also came to mind because Zechariah is speaking to a people who have returned from exile in Babylon to ruin and destruction. Those marvelous images of joyous return from Isaiah have not quite matched up with the reality on the ground. The great day of return has been transformed into a day of small things, pieces of a life their fathers and mothers had once known, and they now gaze upon the ruins of their community and the temple at its center.
For four days straight, our group ventured out into the debris field and hauled it back to the road, and I remember each day having this experience of throwing something on the growing pile and wondering at how high our little mountain had grown – how much progress we had made – and then looking back out upon the field and seeing absolutely no visible difference. It was hard to keep the group’s spirits up because this was physically difficult, dangerous, and unsatisfying work.
Tim, our taskmaster, knew this. So, at the end of our first full workday, he took us “to the beach”. We drove out to where the highway ended at the water. On the other side, we could see the lights of Biloxi, and in between were two bridges. One was a railroad bridge spanning the bay there. It was unharmed because as the waters rose they had been able to pour through the slats in the tracks. The second bridge was a different story, and it gave the beach at sunset a post-apocalyptic feel. The large spans of concrete were broken apart and thrown over into the water on their side, and so they lay there angular and disconnected. You could carefully walk out on the slabs close to the shore. And in the breezy sunset time, this image of destruction was juxtaposed with the laughter and chatter of the fishermen who would climb out as far as they could and throw their nets and lines into the water. This strange shoreline was the place where the community gathered in the midst of chaos to share what they had. Every evening, that was where the group wanted to go – because it was “refreshing” they said. It gave them what they needed to go out into the debris field again. As laughter floated over the evening breeze over the wreckage of a bridge, they felt the spirit moving there. And it was doing what the spirit does – bringing people together, rebuilding community by using broken pieces configured in new and strange ways, bringing life out of death.
This was the word of the lord to Zerubbabel, heir of David’s line and co-rebuilder of Jerusalem, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.”
As Christians, we have the strange privilege of being invited into the debris fields of people’s lives – those places that heavy machinery can’t quite reach – that no amount of brute force can fix or heal. It is easy to wear ourselves out trying to do the heavy lifting ourselves. Sometimes the best we can do is fish the small things out of that mess and place them in plain sight, in case there should come a day when their owners come looking for them.
But Zechariah reminds us that there is something else at work here – God’s spirit is at work among the rubble, bringing life where we see only ruin, bringing laughter in the midst of loss, bringing joy to those who had despised the day of small things because they could only see the debris. May God’s spirit enliven our hearts and our communities this season after Pentecost, as we make our path forward through the breaking world together.