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Putting Ourselves Back Together: A Sermon by Bishop Jennifer

Bishop Jennifer preached this sermon at the clergy conference of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas on October 26:

Good evening Saints! I want to begin by bringing greetings from your siblings in the Diocese of Indianapolis—the Episcopal church in central and southern Indiana. I’ve looked forward to this day for a long time and am so grateful for all of your bishops and diocesan staff, and particularly Bishop Doyle for his gracious invitation almost two years ago, to be with you and offer a word.

Every now and then, it helps to have a person like Ezra around. Perhaps it is the part of me that has a penchant for archives, historical record, and minute details of things. Ezra, the priest-scribe, was a man of integrity, detail, and faithfulness. Knowing that histories are always complex, and that the scribe, historian, or keeper of the record yields quiet yet immense power over how a people understands their story—it is fascinating what, in a time of crisis, Ezra chose to preserve. So, a bit of context.

The people of Israel are returning from the Babylonian exile back to Jerusalem. They have a couple of first-order priorities, namely, rebuilding the Temple that had been destroyed. The Temple, the very house of God that was so central to worship, identity, faithfulness, and all aspects of Jewish life. We know so much about the Babylonian exile and the efforts to rebuild the Temple from so many other books of scripture. The stories, psalms, and accounts of the period of exile have long provided pastoral aid in our time as we, in very different ways, experienced hardships, brokenness and tragedies worthy of long, wailing lamentation.

In what may read as a rather obscure bit of scripture for our reflection today, we have in this historical record, the account of the repeated attempts to rebuild the second Temple and an accounting of all who made it back from exile.

And what an accounting it is: we get the numbers of people and the names of each family: 454 from the Family of Adin, 760 from the family of Zacchai, 621 sons of Rahah and Geba, and 1017 from the family of Harim. We get the number of singers from the family of Asaph, we get the lists of temple servants and the servants descended from the sons of Solomon’s servants. We get so many names—all accounted for—though not the names of the women or the names of the male and female servants. We get the numbers of priests, singers and gatekeepers; donkeys, horses, and camels—all accounted for. I’ll admit that as we’ve sought to figure out how to count attendance in our new hybrid worship reality, accounting for numbers like Ezra makes me twitchy—I mean, who can live up to that standard?

But Ezra’s accounting is necessary. It is a nearly impossible task to collect the diaspora after so many generations, so listing, counting and naming those who could be accounted for isn’t just about the details. It is an accounting of trauma and loss. Those who didn’t make it back from exile are counted in their omission.

All of this in preparation for the return to worship. And return to worship required the rebuilding of the Temple. The clear and certain project of returning back to the old place, to rebuild in like fashion a temple worthy of the worship of God, and to resume life in Jerusalem after generations away, after all the losses, after all of the grieving.

We pick up the story that we heard read tonight at the point just after the Samaritans had made accusations causing a halt to construction. It is finally in the second year of King Darius that the construction is resumed and officials demand proof of the authorization to rebuild, and so we hear the text of the correspondence. It would be still four more years until the Temple was completed.

Friends as we inch our way, two steps forward, one step back, out of this pandemic, we may have found much solace in the writings of the prophets and others who knew what it was to mourn the losses, count and grieve the deaths, tire of the isolation and separation. In the Diocese of Indianapolis we’ve been talking a lot about what it means to come back together. We’ve studied and discussed Priya Parker’s work so much—since early 2019, in the before times—that her name has become a verb. We’ve been Priya Parkering our meetings, gatherings, and conferences left and right.

I’ve encouraged our clergy and lay leaders to reimagine our return to our buildings, to regular worship, to whatever the new normal would be, knowing that we have been forever changed. How could we not be changed? Those of us blessed enough to see the other side of this Covid-19 pandemic. I’ve asked that we plan anew for what it will be like to re-enter buildings and rejoin our assemblies with all of the anticipated cautions and awkwardness and hopes for being together after such a time apart. Pre-pandemic, we took so much for granted. Now more than ever, we try to reimagine a welcome that gathers with intention and honors the gift of presence we offer one another. It is the minimum we can do for those are willing, able, and hungry to return.

But it can be hard to dream and reimagine regathering when you’re worried if our folks will be coming back. Not those who are unaffiliated, non-church goers, but those who were counted as steady and steadfast. If the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as all of the preexisting conditions that made for such a difficult 20 months for so many of us—systemic racism and white supremacy, the whittling away of social safety net structures, unlivable wages, and the ongoing threats to democracy—if our economy is being reshaped before our very eyes, if housing patterns, class and social mobility paths are being bulldozed, and public health supports are being deconstructed in front of us, how could we possibly imagine that the church would be unaffected?

Here we are, longing to rebuild upon the foundations of the saints who have gone before, desiring to be faithful in building upon the cornerstone that is Jesus Christ, hoping to do the things we most know how to do: gather our people, pray, sing, break bread, serve those on the margins and eliminate the poverty and hunger in the first place—to rebuild the very body of Christ that has been broken and worn over these months—that’s all we want to do.

And there will be setbacks and delays as we rebuild, renew, reimagine what church will be. There is only one thing we can be sure of, it will take time—perhaps more time than we can allow our hearts to acknowledge.

It may be that we are called to take our own accounting of the losses. Before rushing to rebuild, we ought to contemplate what it has cost us spiritually, psychologically, physically, relationally, to barrel through doing ministry in the midst of a global pandemic. Our efforts to rebuild will surely be thwarted if we fail to understand the trauma that we are building upon.

Richard Swanson reminds us that “We misunderstand the problems of the present when we forget the traumas of the past that have marked us and shaped our lives and our hopes.” We know this. The events of 2020 that thrust us into a global conversation about systemic racial injustice against Black, Brown, Asian, Latino, and Indigenous peoples were about many things including centuries of pent-up trauma, frustration, pain, and genocide. Our histories mark us and the moment we are in is already setting the course of our future—it is worthy of accounting and reflection.

As we regather and as we rebuild, let us remember that we build upon a foundation that has been laid with the blood, sweat, toil, and hopes of the faithful of generations before us.

We build upon a foundation of trauma and loss AND the overcoming of it.

We build upon a foundation of systemic injustice and oppression and brokenness AND the repair of so many breaches.

We build upon a foundation of separation and isolation AND the power of God to reconcile all things.

We build upon a foundation of death and despair AND the victory of Jesus Christ over all that would seem to kill us.

This is a pattern set in our bones for how to tell the story, name the names, acknowledge the pain, and rejoice in God’s presence, action, resurrection, and victory in bringing us through.

In earlier chapters of Ezra, it is written that “When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,
‘For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures for ever towards Israel.’
And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But 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, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.”

Saints, we have been through some things. So let us take account. Let us tell the story and remember. Let us rehearse the salvation narrative of this pandemic that God is surely bringing us through. Allow our weeping at the losses and our shouting for joy of God’s steadfast love to intermingle.

We are learning again how to gather, how to put ourselves back together. We are not all of who we were in the before times—we are something more. And for that, may God ever be praised. Amen.

image: Bishop Jennifer with author Priya Parker at the Diocese of Texas clergy conference.

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