together with God

A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on December 15, 2019

•Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4,10-13•

What is a significant place for you? What place holds great and deep meaning for you and your life? What special place has particular attributes that make it clearly distinguishable from all other places in your life? I suspect most people have at least one and perhaps more. Maybe it is Grandma’s kitchen table — perhaps a family cabin — it might be a river or lake you visited as a child.

One of my places is the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in Montana. One moment you are experiencing the big sky and vast landscape and in the next experiencing the simple pleasure of listening to a tiny babbling brook. In addition, so much of who I am was shaped in those mountains and all that combined make the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness a sacred place for me.

Of course one doesn’t need the expanse of sky to find sacred. I know plenty of ordinary places that can create a sense of the holy as well. Simple, everyday places: a sidewalk, coffee shop or living room that have been transformed into sacred places by an occurrence or event one experiences. A place where we would go back to in a heartbeat.

And the exiled people are no different. The promise and relationship between God and God’s people didn’t end as they were marched away from their homeland and neither did their love for Jerusalem and the temple. That was the place where they and their ancestors before had worshipped God. It was a place of great significance that was held within their hearts no matter where they were.

As we have journeyed with the people of Israel throughout the fall, you may have noticed they have been caught up in the world around them. We have heard story after story of the struggle they have had with everyone else in their neighborhood. In our most recent bout, the Assyrians conquered them. Then the Babylonians came and mopped up the Assyrians and marched off a bunch of them into exile. But then just prior to our reading the Persians defeated the Babylonians.

I am not sure if it is because The Rise of Skywalker opens this Friday, but a scene from one of the worst of the Star Wars films, The Phantom Menace, keeps running through my mind as I think about the people of Israel. The scene has two Jedi and the infamous Jar-Jar Binks moving through the center of the planet in a sort of submarine when they begin to be chased by a very large fish that wants to eat them. They move around corners trying to outrun the fish. The chase reaches its climax just as another, much larger fish races out to eat the large fish that had been chasing them and one of the Jedi’s comments, in that dry Jedi humor, “there’s always a bigger fish.”

Indeed, there always is a bigger fish. Assyria ran into the bigger fish called Babylon. Babylon ran into the bigger fish called Cyrus and the Persian empire. At the time Cyrus was the most powerful man in the world, but not only was he strong, he was intelligent. So with one of his first acts after his empire was in power he allowed the many exiled people in Babylon to return to their homelands.

And while that sounds awesome, to be able to go home, their homelands weren’t what they once were. Their homeland had been decimated and as the exiles returned they found Jerusalem in ruins. The temple was in shambles. It was a psychological blow to God’s people — to come back to the city and to find nothing as it was in their memory. They had to start all over again with rebuilding the house of God. The place where they believed God lived. It was heartbreaking — gut wrenching — and a significant moment to say the least.

I imagine most of us have experienced going back to a sacred and special place only to find that it wasn’t the same. That everything had changed. I’ve even been privileged to hear some of your stories about this kind of experience. These experiences change us, or at least they have the power to.  And in some ways, that is the kind of moment we are experiencing in the church right now.

Think about what the church looked like 50 or so years ago. Is it the same as it is today? Of course not. Much has been lost in the past several years. The church’s place in society no longer holds the same cultural significance or influence. Things have changed so much that we can begin to wonder what does it mean to be the church in 2019? Or in a few short weeks 2020? How does the church function when it has been removed from its previous place of influence within culture?

This was the question facing the people as they looked at the ruins of the temple. And their answer — we go back to our foundation. We do what we do. We don’t worry about whether the altar is a nice altar or the building is a nice building — we just do what we can with what we have.

The people set up a new altar upon the foundation of the old and began the rebuilding process. Now the way our reading is set up it can seem like right after they set up the altar the concrete trucks rolled in and began pouring the foundation for the new temple, when in fact that’s not how it happened. There was a bit of space and time between the two. In reality the people spent something close to a year simply doing what they could with what they had around that ramshackle altar.

Now eventually they began the larger building process and it kicks off in celebration. They played trumpets. They gonged cymbals. They sang, “God is good, and God’s steadfast love endures forever.” People sang. People played. People cried. People shouted. It was a grand celebration filled with a whole host of powerful emotions that one could not tell apart. All we know is that the noise was heard for miles.

I was in my car earlier this week when I flipped on the radio and caught the sound of a whole other kind of noise being heard all across the land. It was the House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearings. I have to tell you what I was struck by was not the conversation or even the argument, but rather the Democrats and Republican lawmakers inability to speak to one another in a civil manner. The fact is I never heard a single voice speaking in the short time I listened. There were always at least two people trying to speak over one another and sometimes three and four. I quickly became disillusioned and couldn’t listen anymore.

I find it deeply challenging that our elected representatives can’t find a way to sit in a room with one another and have a civil conversation. Their behavior was not indicative of the joyful and sorrowful together at the end of the reading. There was no sense that our leaders were listening to one another. There was no appearance that they were together in any way. Rather, they were hunkered down into unwavering positions.

And this is why I suspect I am so drawn to the end of our reading when there is this intermingling of joy and sorrow. The writer describes a scene in which those who are excited and celebrating are alongside those who are weeping and mourning. There appears to be no attacking one another — they are not trying to change the other’s mind — rather they are simply together — joy and sorrow walking alongside one another. And it is in this scene that I find hope.

For I am one who believes some good things have come and will come out of this decentralized and decentered time of the church. In this time of upheaval and transition the church is learning new things. I, along with others believe it is leading to an exciting future that many want to celebrate. And yet there are others who remember what once was and are sad that it is no longer. And unfortunately in the church, sometimes there is a fight between these two different groups of people. One group will say to the other you shouldn’t be sad you should be excited for our future, while the other group says in return you shouldn’t be excited, you should long for what once was. But within this story we find another way — a way that does not pit the two groups against one another, but says both experiences are true — both experiences are real — and both experiences are authentic. The intermingling of joy and sorrow doesn’t have to create a break — we don’t have to be on opposite sides. Rather, let those who are joyful be joyful and let those who feel sorrow be sorrowful — and maybe those people are the same people sometimes.

For the real thing is for the community to be together. The future isn’t the past. The past isn’t the future. Rather we do what we do with what we have in the moment we find ourselves in. Water, word, bread, wine — these are foundational and they will be there, but perhaps in a new way.

And that feels particularly poignant for us in this season of Advent — a season when we prepare to welcome the Christ child. For with our welcome comes the belief that the world cannot be the same on December 26th as it was on December 24th. The birth of Jesus changes things. And in our reenacting and celebrating this scene every year we remind ourselves that the world isn’t the same today as it was yesterday. Rather we live into the promise that God is doing a new thing by doing what we can with what we have — whether it garners feelings of joy or sorrow — we do what we can together with God. Amen.

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