Preparing a sermon for peers and other preachers has been a nerve-wracking experience. I couldn’t help remembering the advice we gave each other in seminary: “Keep it short, make it good, and watch your pronouns.” Choosing the text, however, wasn’t particularly difficult. I ran across this text several years ago and it hooked me. Since then it’s been a favorite and I preach it whenever I get the chance.
I doubt any reader needs a refresher, but just in case, the setting is the return of the exiles. This is a homecoming text. We are somewhere around the mid-530s BC and the world power scene has shifted as the Babylonians, with their practice of carting off anyone who might be a threat, have faded, and the Persians, who let exiles return home in order to make friends, have taken over. And so it is that a tired, weary but hope-filled band of exiles returns to Jerusalem to discover the unthinkable, Jerusalem without a temple. They must have been devastated. The crowning mark of their faith, heritage and history — gone.
In the summer of 2002 I took a group of high school students to New York City to serve inner city ministries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters. We also took an afternoon to see the World Trade Center site. By that time, most of the clean up was finished and what remained was basically a giant, ragged hole in the ground. We stared into that hole trying to imagine that it really was the place that once served as the foundation for those buildings. I remember that it was very quiet on the platform, there simply wasn’t much to be said, but I heard a woman behind me sobbing softly as she said out loud but to herself, “I just can’t imagine New York City without the towers.”
That’s the sense of what is happening as the Israelites return to Jerusalem. Our text is part of the two-volume set of Ezra/Nehemiah that details the rebuilding efforts and the struggles of post-exile living. We listen in as the people dedicate a new temple. It’s a wonderful moment of worship, with priests decked out in their garments, instruments, music, liturgy, and the promise of a new day. In this moment of celebration, the people proclaim aloud that God is at work, and join their voices together as a spontaneous shout of praise erupts from the crowd.
Then, as the Bible sometimes does, the text gives us a wonderful detail that seems almost random and out of place, a fascinating glimpse of the edge of the story. It says that some present, older ones, heads of households and Levites, those who had seen the former temple wept. Exile lasted 50-70 years, so “older” here is simply a reality and not a criticism. For them, this dedication is a reminder of what’s been lost. As others shout for joy, these worshipers can’t hold back the tears, and they weep aloud. The text tells us that the sound of weeping blended into the shouts and that the combined sound was heard far off.
It needs to be said that if the church is to be the church, there must be room for both shouting and weeping. That’s what it means to be community, and any real community has a place for both. But let me suggest to you that as this congregation gathers together at a crossroads to worship and live out this holy moment, they do so as two distinct groups; those looking forward, focusing on the new temple, and those looking backward, focusing on the old.
What attracts me to this text, this rebuilding, crossroads, exile text is exactly that reality. It seems amazingly relevant to the place in which we live, particularly in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Do you know the last time there were more Presbyterians at the end of a year than at the beginning? 19651. My mom was a sophomore in high school. Since that time we have been losing about 40,000 people a year. Four decades — that definitely qualifies as a trend. Not that long ago we were building colleges, naming hospitals, and planting churches. Our campus ministries were doing well, Christianity was doing well. And then the exile started. Not everyone agrees on when and why, but we definitely changed landscapes. Nativity sets came off courthouse lawns, prayer came out of schools and locker rooms, young adults came out of churches. In our new landscape, Mormonism, Islam, and Buddhism are all growing faster than Christianity. In our new landscape, only India and China have more non-Christians than the U.S.A.2
Where has the PC(USA) been in this shift? That’s a good question. In the post-exile church, about 85% of church memberships are transfers with about another 10% being reactivations. The reality is, though we live in a time of unprecedented numbers of non-Christians, the church is basically moving people around rather than bringing people in. Whatever it was that used to work, it doesn’t seem to anymore. And sometimes I think that because we don’t know what else to do, we try to convince ourselves that the temple isn’t really gone, or that if we just wait long enough our old temple patterns will start working again. Our old temple thinking is killing us.
I have a friend who serves a Presbyterian church in the Midwest. His church has been growing a little, and that means there have been some changes. The new folks are bringing new ideas and questions and opportunities, but that makes some other people kind of nervous. This came out at a session meeting a while ago when one elder said, “I’m not sure we want to get much bigger. Have we ever considered a membership cap?” Another elder responded that it might be a good idea. Old temple thinking.
We laugh about it now, so I think I can tell you this story. A few years ago, several of our Presbyterian Women came into my office and asked if I could come to the fellowship hall because, “We have a problem.” Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I am a long way from being the smartest person in the PC(USA), but even I’m smart enough to know that when the PW summons you to the fellowship hall to hear about a problem, there’s reason to be nervous. So I went cautiously and asked, “What’s the problem?” “The Catholics want to borrow our roasters,” they explained.
In our church we have an outstanding group of Presbyterian Women who host an annual turkey supper for more than 1,000 people and we serve food from these big plug-in roasters that are sometimes treated as if they are made of gold. I suppose we have about 30 of them, under lock and key, and the local Catholic Church asked to use four of them for something they were doing.
Naive and simple man that I am, I assumed I saw the problem and asked, “Oh, do you need me to take them over in my truck?” One replied, “No, I don’t think we want to do that, do we?” “Why not?” I asked. “Because it took us a long time to get all of these and we had to fight to get enough, what if something happens to them.” “Well,” I asked, “do we have any reason to believe that the Catholics are unreasonably hard on kitchen appliances?” Another replied: “No, but they are not that expensive and they can afford to buy their own.”
The conversation continued and at one point someone said, “I tell you what, I’ll go buy four roasters and donate them to the Catholic Church.” One of the ladies spoke up and said, “But don’t tell them it’s from us, it will make us look bad.”
Old temple thinking.
I promise I’m not picking on the Presbyterian Women, Lord knows where we would be without them. We all carry some old temple thinking with us.
I have no doubt that if we wanted to, we could spend days sharing these kinds of stories from our churches. We could laugh about the great church conflicts of our experience like carpet colors, paint, pipe organs, kitchens, and hymnals. I could confess my own old temple moments when I forget my calling and believe that my job is to “run a church,” while keeping everyone happy. No doubt in my mind we could tell stories, and we would make each other laugh. Except there’s a part, isn’t there, that is not so funny.
We live in this time when more and more people around us don’t know that God loves them, God searches for them. Every community we come from, whether growing or shrinking, has people in it that don’t know the truth of the Gospel, the joy of being loved, or the hope of grace. Every church, growing or shrinking, has an opportunity to share the good news of redemption with someone. And in the midst of that reality, the church is often majoring in minors and caught up in things that have no Kingdom significance.
And the great irony is that Presbyterians are so well suited to post-exile living. You don’t have to have all the answers to be Presbyterian, there’s room for mystery. There’s room to ask questions and search for truth. There’s room for struggles and for living out our discipleship to Jesus in a variety of ways. But if we can’t take our eyes off the old temple we can’t move ahead. Why would Jesus say that if you put your hand on the plow, but look over your shoulder, you’re not ready to serve the Kingdom? Why would Lot’s wife become a pillar of salt for glancing back? It’s overly simplified, but you can’t move ahead while looking backward. We can’t celebrate the new things God is doing in our midst if we are too busy crying over the old temple, or pretending it isn’t gone.
I sometimes hear people say they worry about the church. We shouldn’t. The church will be fine. The church is going to survive. That’s a promise from God. There will always be a community of Jesus Christ doing God’s work in the world. That we can count on. The question is: What role will Presbyterians play in it? Will we be a part of it?
The time has come for Presbyterians to shout, “Enough tears.” It’s time to lift our heads and let people far off know that God is at work. Whatever God is doing, it may not look like what we once had, though the materials will be the same — the Gospel proclaimed and lives changed. The new temple may not be what the old one was but it is God’s, and that makes it good. It’s time to be heard again, in far off places and in close familiar places, so that the world might know God is up to something and people are invited to join in.
The old temple — some of you saw it. I didn’t; I heard it was great. But it’s gone now, and it’s time to build a new one. The same foundation, but for a new age. It’s time for us to shout, and to build, because there’s a lot of work to be done. It’s not really about the temple at all, but about the God who invites us to build. God is with us, that alone is reason for joy. It’s time to be heard, it’s time to rebuild, it’s time to shout.
Clint Loveall is pastor of First Church in Spirit Lake, Iowa.
2 Soul Tsunami, Leonard Sweet, pg. 50