"Some Wept, Some Shouted for Joy" June 9, 2024 Sermon

    06.09.24 | by Jennifer Parks-Snyder by Dr. Lewis Parks

    Some Wept, Some Shouted for Joy (Ezra 3:8-13)

    Pastor Jenn: Finally, we got to go home. For fifty years we’ve been captive exiles in Babylonia, about 900 miles from our homeland. We gave vent to our sadness in a song: Psalm 137:

    By the rivers of Babylon—  there we sat down, and there we wept

    when we remembered Zion.On the willows there  we hung up our harps.

    For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

    How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

    But now we were going home. The change in our fate seemed unreal. We couldn’t believe it. The old song of grief gave way to a new song of joy: Psalm 126:

    When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

    Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy;
    then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them. The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”

    A great “power from the North” (Persia) swept down on our captors, the Babylonians, and a new instrument of God’s overriding providence, King Cyrus, instituted a new foreign policy. He encouraged us to go back to our homeland and to rebuild. And so we did. … When we reached Jerusalem. It was hard to know where to start. Squatters occupied our houses; the market square had been destroyed, the protective wall around the city was in ruins. But we are God’s chosen people, so it was clear to us, first comes the restart of worship. We gathered the scattered priests and organized them; we built a makeshift altar of rough stones and reinstituted sacrifices; we began to celebrate the great festivals: Passover, Harvest, Tabernacles. And about two years later it was time to start rebuilding the House of Lord, the Temple. Under the leadership of Zerubbabel, we laid the foundation. When the last stone of that foundation was in place, we gathered the people for a great celebration, to see and imagine the finished product. Many who saw that foundation shouted for joy. Brilliant! Wonderful! Huzzah!

    Pastor Lew: Well not all the people shouted for joy! Speaking for the older generation in attendance, we were sorely disappointed in that foundation: so small! So plain! So much missing!   (1) The footprint wasn’t that different, but it was downhill from thereThe word “cheap replica” comes to mind.  (2) The building materials would be so much cheaper. King Solomon built the first Temple with large stones cut and carried from distant quarries; planks cut from the cedars of Lebanon and transported in rafts across the sea; and a conscripted labor force of 30,000 men. [1 Kgs 5] Zerubbabel had to repurpose the stones that survived the Babylonian fires; beg and borrow local materials, and work in a hostile environment. The workers would have to carry their weapons to the job site: lunch pail, sword, trowel, spear. [Nehemiah 4]. (3) The new building would lack many of the treasures housed in the Solomon’s Temple: tablets of stone (10 commandments), Aaron’s rod, holy oil, sacred fire, and loudest absence of all, the Ark of the Covenant… We the older generation could only see lost glory. We wept. And some of us (sorry to admit) got into a shouting contest with those who were happy, our laments v. their cheers.

    Pastor Lew: Speaking for many of the older generation today: it’s clear that we are not the church we used to be. Most churches have suffered a steady decline in attendance in recent decades. It began in the 1960s, leveled off in the 1990s, but picked up again in 2001. So far in the 21st century, the decline in attendance has accelerated fueled by three factors: the pandemic, the rise of those who claim no religious affiliation, and conflict in denominations. (FN: a little over a week ago, the Cote d’Ivoire Conference of the UMC voted to leave the denomination over action taken at General Conference. In one vote we lost 1.1 million members). Other types of decline follow decline in attendance: the loss of financial support for ministry, loss of public influence, failure to pass the faith to the coming generations; and neglect of our buildings… Nostalgia has become our default setting: we pine over empty pews, empty classrooms, empty bank accounts. If someone suggests a new project we object: that’s not the Temple I remember!  

    Pastor Jenn: Speaking for the younger generation today: maybe memories, especially idealized memories are a handicap when it comes to hearing God and doing God’s will in the present moment. We want to murmur for what we had in Egypt; God wants us to press on toward the promised land. We want to wallow in the loss of old things; God wants us to notice the “new thing” “springing forth” (Isa 49:19). We want to gaze at the Second Temple foundation, shake our heads in disappointment, and settle down in regret; God wants us to gaze upon that same foundation and imagine completed projects that bring about a new season of vitality in the congregation.

    Imagine completed projects that bring about a new season of vitality in the congregation, some of them only possible because of our loss of scale and self-sufficiency. (1) New projects of partnership with other congregations in the denomination and across denominations… I know of a cluster of churches who during the summertime only use one building for their worship services. It’s the only one with air conditioning within a 20-mile radius, and so the churches have their different worship times, but all use the same building, the one that offers the most comfort. And once a month all the congregations gather for a potluck luncheon.

     (2) New projects of partnership with community groups: schools, non-profits, local governments. I know of a church who transformed their empty children’s Sunday school rooms into an extension of the local library for children, run by library and church volunteers alike. The church is located closer to families than the local library, so it works out well for children to go there easily. 

    (3) New experiments in worship, fellowship, learning, and witness… I know of a pastor who offers nature church. He takes people hiking on local trails, and when they get halfway, they have a time of devotion and worship. While it started out for members of the congregation, word spread, including on social media, and others began to join the group. Because of that group, the church received 3 new members, including one that became that pastor’s wife.

    (4) And new experiments in the use of our primary tool for ministry our buildings: renovating, sharing, creatively adapting to meet present needs. Imagine a church who began to offer a free hot meal once a week to children in the summertime. After the meal the church volunteers teach a lesson and have an activity with the children and then send them home with backpacks full of food that they can get from the Central PA food bank. The following week, the children can bring those backpacks back for the next meal and supplemental foods, and imagine how relationships could be built, as well as meeting a need in the community for working parents and latchkey kids.

    These churches and their projects were born in the ashes of the loss of scale and self-sufficiency. Imagine new projects of partnership with congregations and partnership with community groups. Imagine new experiments in our congregation’s life together and in our stewardship of our buildings.  Imagine casting off the sense of fadedness to decline and enjoying a new season of action and hope.

    Pastor Lew: There was a third group there the day they dedicated the foundation of the Second Temple; did you catch it? The young people were there to cheer the new foundation. “[M]any of the old people who had seen the first house on its foundation” wept as loud as the others cheered. But “many” is not “all”. And Ezra reports there were some older people who shouted for joy too. It’s not that they were being disloyal to the way it used to be with God (“the good old days”). It’s that they wanted to be present and participant in the new work of God in their time. So, it was for them. So may it be for us.    

    “God of change and glory, God of time and space,
    When we fear the future, give to us your grace.
    In the midst of changing ways give us still the grace to praise.” [UMH 114]