Here we are! Back home in our sanctuary. Some of us can see each other in person. We have our communion packets and will be able to share the holy meal together. We can hear the music live. And–now that we aren’t editing–we can watch Kim mess things up in real time! Here we are! Home again.
Right? I mean, this is what we’ve been waiting for! To be gathered in our sanctuary for worship! To see each other, to be together in this beloved space, which is deep with meaning for so many of us. This is the space where our children were baptized and confirmed, or where we were married. This is the space where we have said goodbye to loved ones who have died. This is the space where we heard for the very first time in our lives that God loves us just as we are. This space is central to who we are as a church. It is another member of our community.
So, I was surprised when the slots for our first in-person worship service didn’t fill up quickly. I’ve been wondering why. I’ve heard such eagerness to return to in-person worship… not from everyone, of course, but from many. Some aren’t ready to be here in person…which is why I’m grateful we’re live streaming. (Hi, online First Congregational community!) Why aren’t more people here today?
Maybe it’s that we’ve gotten out of the habit of going anywhere, including to church. Or maybe we haven’t been fully vaccinated. Or maybe, after so many months of isolation, togetherness is something we’re having to ease into. Maybe we LIKE participating in worship at home in our jammies.
Or maybe it’s the long list of things we can’t do yet because the pandemic isn’t over. In the US, we’ve made a lot of progress, but we’re still only one third fully-vaccinated. And as long as other countries don’t have the resources to vaccinate their people, the pandemic will not be over. We do want to remember people in India and South America.
Because the pandemic isn’t over yet, though we do feel comfortable having folks in the sanctuary for worship, we still have to wear masks, we still have to social distance, we still can’t hug, we still can’t sing. We won’t be taking up the offering by passing the plates. We won’t come forward to have communion. We won’t be able to share Joys and Concerns in the usual way. We won’t have Friendship Time after the service.
So, we’re coming home…sort of. Maybe we don’t have more people today because people recognize that, yes, we’re back in the sanctuary for worship, but it’s not the same. Because of the need to follow Covid protocols to keep everyone safe, it’s just not the same.
When the Reopen Team started talking about returning to in-person worship a couple of months ago, I knew which Scripture story would help us navigate this new reality.
Several hundred years before today’s story, King Solomon had built a magnificent temple for God and for the people. The people believed that God lived in the innermost part of the Temple complex called the Holy of Holies. For the people, coming to the Temple meant, literally, coming to meet God.
So, when the Babylonians came and leveled the Temple, the people were devastated. They’d lost their temple, they’d lost the Holy of Holies, they’d lost their sovereignty as a country, they’d lost their land, they’d lost their God…and now, they lived in exile in Babylon.
I know. It’s not the same. Our building hasn’t been razed. In fact, our sanctuary got a facelift while we were away! But it still feels like we’ve been exiled, doesn’t it? Our sanctuary has been taken away from us. In our heads, we know God doesn’t only dwell in our church building, but our hearts? Our hearts have ached to be back in this place. And here we are!
Today’s story comes after the people have returned from exile. (The Persians had defeated the Babylonians. Cyrus, the Persian leader, gave the Judahites permission to return to Jerusalem. He even provided for building projects.)
The people’s first task upon returning from exile was to build a wall around Jerusalem. Completely different context than for us today. 2400 years ago, walls were needed for security for towns and cities. The book of Nehemiah tells the story of the rebuilding of the wall.
The book of Ezra recounts the story of the rebuilding of the temple. Today’s passage relates what happened when the foundation was laid for the new Temple.
The day begins with a celebration. The priests in their vestments praised God with trumpets. The Levites did the same with cymbals. They sang responsively: “God is good! God’s steadfast love endures forever!” All the people responded with a great shout when they praised God, because the foundation of the house of God was laid.
Yay! Big celebration. We’re home! Thanks be to God! But everyone that day wasn’t celebrating. Many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house. Yes. They were home. They were laying the foundation for the new Temple. But looking at the footprint of the new Temple, the elders knew–this Temple was going to be a mere shadow of the first one.
And so, they weep. They cry out. They pour out their grief. In fact, though many shouted aloud for joy, the sounds of the joyful shouts couldn’t be distinguished from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.
Take a minute to imagine the scene. The exiles have returned. Finally! They’re back home. They’ve built the wall. Now it’s time to rebuild the Temple. Plans are drawn up, the foundation is laid. People born in exile in Babylon who’d never seen the first Temple erupt into joyful praise. While off to the side, the elders sit, quietly weeping. Visions of how things used to be, of the time when they had their own country, when they met regularly in the Temple Solomon had built, visions of how things used to be dance across their minds…and their hearts. Then the flood gates open. Quiet tears become heaving sobs.
Imagine now you live in a village outside Jerusalem. You notice a loud crowd sound. You ask your spouse, “Do you think those people are happy or sad?” The two of you debate it for a minute. Then your young child says, “Maybe they’re both.”
Maybe we’re both happy and sad today, too. Some of us are over the moon to be here today. Others of us are missing the way things used to be. People joining us online might be thinking, What’s the big deal? We’re loving online church! If we could be together all in one place, I suspect the shouts of joy, sounds of sobbing, and chorus of “meh” also would mingle together into an indistinguishable roar.
One message of this story for us is the recognition that, as a community, we’re in a lot of different places today. And, guess what? Every single place, every single feeling, all of it is exactly right. It makes sense that we’re all over the place right now. It’s important that–as a community–we create space for all the places, all the feelings. It’s important that we give each other space to do what we need to do. That’s how community works.
This story also reminds us of the critical importance of grieving. While it’s great to be back in the sanctuary for in-person worship. But it’s not the same; it’s so not the same.
Here’s the thing about active–even loud–grieving. Sometimes, loud grieving is the only way we have of accepting our new reality. I suspect on the far side of their lamenting what they’d lost in the exile, the elders felt differently. Perhaps after their tears dried, they were able to accept the new reality, despite the fact that it was so inferior to the reality they remembered.
The documentary Fierce Grace tells the story of Ram Dass after suffering a stroke. As his assistant helps him into the passenger seat of a car, Ram is asked, “Does it frustrate you that can no longer drive?” Ram says, “If I enter the car as a driver, yes. I am frustrated that I can no longer drive. But if I enter the car as a passenger, I enjoy the ride and am peaceful.” Ram had done his grief work. He had accepted his new–diminished–reality. And he was at peace.
I think we all know that, to quote Thomas Wolfe, we can’t go home again…not after all that’s happened in the last 13 months. If we come back to this place expecting things to be like they were before the pandemic, we are going to be frustrated. If, however, we come back to this place fully accepting our new reality, our frustration will ease and we will be at peace.
It could be that on the far side of grieving all we’ve lost, on the far side of accepting our new reality, …it could be that when we settle in and fully accept where we are, we’ll discover that this new reality we’re inhabiting isn’t diminished at all. We might even see it as good, exciting. Perhaps, when we have grieved the way things were, we’ll see all kinds of possibilities for the way things might be. When the pandemic has ended, perhaps we will, as T. S. Eliot wrote, “Arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2021