September 20, 2015
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Beginning with a Great Shout: The People and the Place, Second in a Series
In the beginning, the breath of God swept over the face of the waters, and the voice of God spoke up from the dark shattering the quiet with a shout:
“Let there be light…”
“Let there be a dome in the middle separating the waters from the waters…”
“Let the waters under the sky be gathered in one place, and let the dry land appear.” Then God called the dry land Earth.
God called the world into being by raising this voice and being heard far and wide. So it seems. Whether you’re creating the earth, or giving birth, or becoming a people who worship the LORD, it always begins with a great shout. Nothing is ever the same after that.
Today we’re continuing our worship series on Ezra-Nehemiah. Now the people who survived the exile have come back home. They have heard the order issued from the king to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed. So the people went up to Jerusalem, and they set up an altar, and they began worshipping God —offering sacrifices and keeping the sacred feasts. You know they did this for more than a year. Then in the second month of the second year after they had gone up to Jerusalem to worship God, Zerubbabel, and Jeshua, and all their people, made a beginning.
You’ve got to wonder, why now? Not only have they already been worshipping God for over a year, but — spoiler alert— this beginning doesn’t exactly take off. Once they lay the foundation, the whole construction gets put on hold over an authorization dispute. It’s years before the building continues and the temple is finally complete. Here in the middle, in between arriving at Jerusalem and finishing the temple, here on this day, the people took a deep breath and made a beginning.
Now some of the people in this crowd remember the first temple that had been destroyed fifty years earlier. They remembered what the walls looked like and what its presence felt like. I’m sure they remembered how it smelled. The temple held together the majesty of worshipping God with the gruesome work of sacrifice. The temple held a cherubim made of gold, elaborate wood carvings, pillars at the front, and there was all the ash and smoke from the animal offerings. God was in the temple.
When the people who remember see the new foundation for the new temple being laid, it makes them catch their breath with surprise. It makes them weep with sorrow. And I don’t think it’s because the builders were doing it wrong. “That’s not how it used to be!” That’s not the problem. The problem is these people remember the first temple. They remember the day they learned it had been vandalized and burned down (2 Kings 25:9), and what if that happens again… These are not tears of sentimental nostalgia. The people are weeping because they know, and they are afraid.
Of course, not everybody in the crowd can remember back fifty years. There were young people who were born during the exile. While everyone else has a shared sense of coming back home, this place is completely new for them. They stand on the edge and see the foundation of the new temple, and they know it means something more than they know. Laying a new foundation is not just laying a foundation, it means the Babylonians did not win. There is a sharp edge of protest puncturing their holler. Our grandchildren will know God is in this temple. This day is for them!
So out of this crowd with the very old who remember and the very young who protest, out of all the fear, and the hope, the weeping and the hollering, there rose up a great shout that could be heard from far away, like the sound of a victory cry in battle. But the thing about this shout, it’s all wrapped up together. You can’t distinguish the rejoicing from the weeping. You’d have to look at the faces of the shouting people to know. You’d have to see their faces.
Friends, I love the description of this shout because it so perfectly represents the human experience of worshipping God. The whole of book Psalms —all one hundred fifty chapters— could be summed up in this single shout. Listen to it closely, maybe we can hear its individual fragments:
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want”(Psalm 23:1)
“I am poured out like water and all my bones are out of joint” (Psalm 22:14)
“Praise the LORD! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart!” (Psalm 111:1)
“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1)
All rolled into one great shout. It’s what a mosaic sounds like out loud —a single clamor of stunning complexity. If you ask me, we are a people who understand this shout.
We also understand this conviction to make a new beginning. Here we are mid-way through September. Today is not Easter Sunday, or Pentecost, or January first. And yet, as a church, even today, we are in a season of new beginning.
A new confirmation class began a few weeks ago, and a brand new literacy program called Peacepals is gearing up to launch in October. The food pantry is being revitalized. It is serving new families who are hungry, and it is attracting new volunteers to keep it going. We’re exploring options for restructuring staff positions. We’re experiencing a resurgence of generosity; financial giving is up. We’re seeing signs of new growth in our membership. We’ve rearranged the furniture, reorganized our space, introduced a new ministry of welcoming visitors. Next month we will celebrate our one hundred and twentieth anniversary. Watch for the new church directory coming soon.
Here in the middle of the fall, we are a people making a beginning. If you listen for a minute, I’m pretty sure you’ll hear the great shout rising up. There is grief in this shout, and protest, and joy. We don’t all feel the same way. We bring different perspectives and different proposals for solving our common challenges. What matters deeply to you might seem less important to somebody else. This is really difficult.
It is painful to be part of a community that’s having a party when you’re the one who’s grieving. Are you supposed to go along with the crowd and fake being happy? That doesn’t work. Or what if you find yourself called to speak out against an injustice in our world, but it’s an issue that doesn’t matter enough to the rest of us. How do you connect with a community that doesn’t share your passion?
It is not impossible to be part of a community, to be part of a church, and still feel like the only one. I’m pretty sure there isn’t a person in this room who doesn’t know exactly what this feels like. Thank God that holy shout needs every voice —every complaint, every promise, every plea.
The shout was heard far away so you can’t hear the difference between the sorrow and the joy unless you get close enough to see the faces. You’d have to look at the faces of the shouting people to know. What if this is exactly our call as a church? To see the faces of each other and prove we don’t all have to feel the same way in order to be in this together.
Back in two thousand eleven, during the uprising in Egypt in the Arab Spring, several poignant photographs made their way around the world. You might have seen them on the news or on your Facebook feed. One photo shows Christian young people, forming a circle, holding hands, around a group of Muslim worshippers. The Christians are protecting them so they can pray. There is also a photo of Muslims standing side by side, guarding Coptic churches so Christians could worship. There are reports that Christians were guarding mosques so Muslims could worship. It is powerful to see the people in these images and realize, we can do this for each other in our world.
I’m thinking we can even do something like this for each other in our church. If you and I happen to be in the crowd that’s celebrating, we could make it our business to protect our sisters and brothers who are grieving, to protect the sorrow they’re feeling. Or if we’re afraid because we remember what happened before and that better not happen again, we could be the ones who protect our brothers and sisters who are full of hope, who see visions and dream dreams…
Protect the protest even if it’s not your own. Protect the grumbling, and the doubt, and the longing. Protect the whoosh of joy that somebody else is feeling. If we want to do this, we will have to see each other’s faces. And you know what happens when we do that. Look at the face of the person across the shout, you will see Christ. You can’t look at the face of another person and not see Christ.
Here on this September Sunday, a great shout from the people rises up to the LORD, and the world makes a new beginning. Then the LORD our God looks at the faces of the people, and the voice of God speaks through the heavens shattering the quiet with a shout:
“You are my beloved! I love you,” says the LORD.
And we get to say it back. Amen.