At every wedding I’ve had the joy of officiating, one thing always happens. I lead the groom and his groomsmen into the sanctuary. A hush falls over the congregation, and the processional begins. The bridesmaids enter one by one, sometimes teetering a little on unfamiliar high heels, carefully timing their progress as we practiced the night before. Then the music for the bride’s entrance begins. The congregation stands, and all eyes turn toward the back of the church. All eyes, that is, except mine. I keep my eyes are on the groom.
I love to watch the groom’s reaction when he sees his bride. His face breaks into a beaming smile, and then his eyes begin to glisten. Sometimes a tear or two slowly rolls down his cheek, which he tries to brush away without anyone noticing. At the rehearsal, I always tell the groom and the best man to have a handkerchief ready, and the groom always tells me he won’t cry. He never cries. He’ll be too happy to cry. He always cries. Smiles and tears can happen at the same time.
At every funeral I’ve had the privilege of presiding at, one thing always happens. The family takes their place in the front of the congregation. Throughout the service, there are moments of quiet weeping. As I share stories of their loved one’s life, some chuckles may be heard. As the service nears the end, there are more tears—quiet sniffles and sometimes audible sobbing. But, later, when the family gathers with friends, the tears recede and the chuckles grow into smiles and laughter. Grief and joy can happen at the same time.
God has created us with the wonderful ability to walk and chew gum at the same time, emotionally speaking. In the midst of joy, there are tears. In the midst of grief, there is laughter. Sometimes the feelings occur side-by-side in a single heart. Sometimes the feelings occur side-by-side within different members of a family or a congregation, a community or a nation.
This is the case in our story for today. Ezra picks up the history of the Jewish people where 2 Chronicles leaves off. Isaiah’s prophecy of better days have come to pass. Babylon had fallen, and the Persian Empire has taken over. King Cyrus is the new sheriff in town, and he has announced some good news: he wants the temple in Jerusalem rebuilt, and any Jew who wants to return is free to go back to Jerusalem. Not only that, but the returning Jews were to be assisted with gold and silver and animals and other goods. King Cyrus returned all the vessels that had been stolen from the temple when it was destroyed.
According to Ezra, more than 42,000 of the exiles took King Cyrus up on his offer. Their servants and singers made up another 7500. These thousands made their way to Jerusalem, where the priests, the Levites, and some families took up residence in the city while the rest settled into the surrounding towns. Seven months passed, and then the priests and the governor appointed by Cyrus got to work rebuilding the altar so that they could resume their burnt offerings, as Moses had prescribed.
The next project was to begin work on the temple itself. More than a year later, that work began. When the day to begin laying the foundation arrived, the priests donned their vestments, picked up their trumpets, and stationed themselves in readiness. The Levites took up their drums, and the two groups began to sing responsively, their voices calling and answering each other as they praised and gave thanks to the Lord, singing “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”
A stone was taken from the ruined foundations of Solomon’s temple—a symbol of what had been. It was purified during this special ceremony, and then it was laid in the foundation of the new temple—a symbol of what would be. The old was joined with the new. The past formed the foundation of the future. As the stone was laid, the people added their voices to those of the priests and Levites. Ezra says that “all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.” They shouted so loudly, Ezra says, that they could be heard far away.
But, then the story-teller amends his report. It wasn’t actually “all” the people who were shouting. Among the priests and Levites and heads of families were older people who actually remembered the temple from which the stone had been taken. They began to weep—not with quiet, unobtrusive sniffles, but with loud sobs—so loud that their sobbing couldn’t be distinguished from the praise-filled shouting. This is some serious crying—audible and visible to all around them.
That’s where the story of laying that first stone ends, which leaves me with two questions: First, why were the elders weeping? And, second, how did the people around them respond to this outpouring of emotion?
The ones who could remember the former temple in all its glory would likely have been few in number. the Jews had been exiles in Babylon for some fifty years. Most of the original exiles would have died or, if they had been taken away as young children, wouldn’t have been able to remember the temple.
Their tears could have been tears of joy. These were people who had believed in God’s promise to restore Israel, but maybe didn’t believe they would live long enough to see that promise fulfilled. Yet, here they are! Their long exile has ended. They stand as witnesses to God’s faithfulness. They stand, surrounded by a new generation of God’s people, preparing to rebuild what had been destroyed—a temple, a city, a community. These are people who would have understood the feelings Simeon expressed upon seeing the promised Messiah: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word…” Reason enough for tears of joy.
It’s just as possible that their tears were tears of grief. They had watched as their temple was destroyed, their city reduced to rubble, their people murdered before they were led away to a foreign land. Perhaps the scar tissue that had formed over their searing memories was ripped apart, allowing all the fear and pain to surface once again. They remember the time and place that once existed, and they can’t imagine any replacement that can live up to their remembered past. Perhaps they weep from a sense of loss for all that the fifty years of exile has stolen from them. Perhaps they weep from a sense of anticipated loss, knowing that they aren’t likely to see the completion of what has just begun.
We just don’t know why the elders were weeping so loudly. Maybe they were tears of joy. maybe they were tears of grief. Maybe they were a combination of the two. Weeping and shouting can happen at the same time.
We also don’t know how the people around them reacted. What I hope they didn’t do was mock and snicker at those who were sobbing for making such a fuss, dismissing them as a bunch of crybabies or attention seekers. I’d like to think that they didn’t roll their eyes and look away. I hope they didn’t simply make an assumption that these were just a bunch of people who were stuck in the past and who wouldn’t accept that the world had changed and needed to change. I hope they didn’t say, “Look, it’s been fifty years. It’s time to move on.”
Instead, I’d like to think that they reached out and put their arm around their neighbor. I’d like to think that, as the ceremony drew to a close and the voices began to quiet, they asked the weeping man or woman next to them to explain what had moved them. What made them so joyful about this milestone? Or, what deep loss were they still mourning? What hopes and fears had been stirred in them? I’d like to think that this event became the impetus to listen carefully to what someone else was feeling, whether the listener felt the same way or not.
When I read this passage back in October of 2019, I made this note in my Scripture journal: “This passage would be especially good for a time of major change.” We are living in, and have been living in, a time of great change. Of course, we have the change of administration with President Biden’s inauguration this past week. But events of the past year have made us see that the world we knew was not as permanent or even as golden as it once seemed. The demand for racial justice has become more insistent. The pandemic has shown us that the gulf between the “have’s” and the “have nots” is much closer to home than we like to think. Political divisions have widened and hardened until they threatened our very democracy itself.
During this turbulent time, it seems like a common theme has been that people don’t feel their voices are being heard. Whether it’s the Midwestern farmer or the Appalachian coal miner, the black parent in an urban center or the business owner in a small town, the immigrant at the border or the worker on an assembly line, the teacher, the waitress, the truck driver, the nurse, the retiree: they all feel that their needs aren’t being considered and their wounds aren’t being tended. They are sobbing out loud while others around them are shouting for joy, and no one has bothered to find out why they are weeping. When the sobbing is ignored or dismissed as unworthy of attention, hurt and anger and grievance grow.
Imagine how different things would be if we all paid attention to what others around us are feeling and thinking. Imagine the bridges that could be built if those who are shouting for joy would pay attention to those who are weeping, asking questions about the cause of their tears, listening—carefully, respectfully, and with empathy—to their answers, and acknowledging that there may be very real reasons for the grief which co-exists with joy. Imagine how things would be different if those who are weeping could ask the same questions of those who are joyful, perhaps finding in their answers some reason for hope.
Listening to each other or, rather, really hearing each other, builds bridges of understanding. It’s hard to hate someone when you’ve spent time listening to their story and they’ve listened to yours. It’s hard to write someone off when you’ve made the effort to hear what is at the heart of their actions or reactions. It’s more difficult to simply slap a label on someone—liberal or conservative, in or out, one of us or one of them—when we acknowledge the dual feelings (or dueling feelings) that co-exist within individuals and within communities.
St. Paul describes how we, as Christians, are all members of one body—the hands and feet, ears and eyes of the Body of Christ. He reminds us in his first letter to the Corinthians that “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” Paul was speaking specifically of the Church, but I think we can say the same of the other communities of which we’re a part, whether they’re as small as our families or as large as our nation. Within each of these bodies, there are likely to be members that are suffering and members who are rejoicing. Someone may be shouting for joy while someone else is weeping with grief. The challenge for us is to turn to each other and ask “Why?”
The challenge for us is to listen to each other as Jesus listens to us. We have a Savior who is both fully divine and fully human—a God who understands our joy and our pain because he lived it. That’s why he could issue his beautiful invitation, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” That’s why he could invite us to listen to each other as he listens to us: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” When we gently and humbly work to understand one another as Jesus knows us, we find the peace and rest Jesus desires for us, within our own spirits and in community with one another.
Ezra doesn’t tell us how the shouting members among the former exiles responded to the weeping members, or vice versa. But, it encourages us to think about how we can respond to those whose feelings and reactions to a changing world are different from ours. It encourages us to listen carefully to expressions of both grief and hopeful joy from within our families, our church, our community, and our nation. When we do, we become stronger as we build on the foundation stones of the past for our future together. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young