Mixed Reactions

Lost in the hoopla surrounding this past weekend’s kick-off to the NFL season is one of America’s great sporting events: the US Open tennis finals.

This year was spectacular. In the men’s final, the two top seeds squared off with a Grand Slam bid on the line for Novak Djokovic, while the women’s final featured two never-heard-of-before teenage underdogs. In each match, there was no clear-cut fan favorite. The famously boisterous crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium was split down the middle. When Daniil Medvedev and Emma Raducanu won their respective matches, there were as many jubilant cheers as there were sighs of disappointment.

With the Old Testament always on my mind (an occupational hazard, I suppose), the mixed reaction of the US Open crowd reminded me of another instance of mixed reactions, this one from the book of Ezra.

It’s the post-exilic period. The Persians have conquered the Babylonians, and under the edict of King Cyrus, hailed as God’s anointed (Heb: meshiakh) in Isa 45:1, those Israelites who had been exiled were permitted to return to the land, restore Jerusalem, and rebuild the temple. When we arrive at Ezra 3, the newly returned exiles have laid the foundations of the new temple and have resumed the sacrificial system. In response to this return to worship as it was once known, we might expect a uniform feeling of relief and celebration. But the reaction of the people is mixed.

“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.  12 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, 13 so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping…” (Ezra 3:11-12)

What’s going on here? Who’s cheering and who’s weeping?

For those returning from exile, re-establishing temple worship was one of the chief things they longed for throughout their nearly 50 years in Babylon. During that time, they were displaced and disconnected from the primary sources of their spiritual identity, namely the temple and the system of sacrifices connected to it. For them, laying the foundations of the temple was the culmination of years of hope and therefore a cause for joyful celebration.

But not everyone in ancient Israel was exiled to Babylon. Only the social elites and the politically and religiously powerful were deported. Around 90% of Israel’s population, most of whom would have been poor or on the margins, remained in the land of Israel during the entirety of the exilic period. For 50 years, these individuals continued to raise kids, plant fields, fall in love, form community, pray, and worship – all without a temple or sacrificial system in place. Because they had found meaningful ways to live their lives and maintain faith apart from the centralized and hierarchical structure of the temple, this moment was not a cause for celebration in the way that it was the for the exiles. Indeed, for the people of the land, the foundations for the new temple signaled a return to a form of religion that they never fully felt at home in and sometimes were excluded from. This situation helps makes sense of the result pictured in v. 13. So mixed was the reaction that one could not distinguish the sound of weeping from the sound of rejoicing. It was a cacophony of divergent experiences.

As many of us return to church buildings and in-person worship after a long hiatus due to COVID, I wonder: Who’s weeping and who’s rejoicing in our communities?

For whom is the return to the sanctuary, coffee hour, recognizable liturgies, and familiar programs a much-awaited lifeline, a way back to meaningful connections with God and one another?

For whom was the COVID-induced break from “business as usual” in the church a gift, a mercy, a type of liberation, a spark of hope, an invitation to a way of being and belonging not fully possible in the old system?

What do we do with the presence of such mixed reactions? For one, let’s hold space for both experiences. It can be easy to assume that everyone else’s view of the return to in-person church is just like ours. It’s probably not. Listen carefully. Discern the difference between the weeping and rejoicing. Be curious about both experiences, wondering what the reaction reveals about our community, their needs, their longings, their experience of the church and its leadership.

Second, when it comes to laying the foundations for what the church will become in the months ahead, let’s slow down the (re)building process. In Ezra, the returnees are determined to get to work on the temple as soon as possible, and the foundations are laid within a year of the end of captivity. What was the cost of moving so quickly? It seems like the people of the land – remember, they were the vast majority of the population – weren’t involved in the decision-making process. Their hopes and plans seem to have never been heard or at least not taken seriously. If they had been, the community may have considered laying a different type of foundation – one that wasn’t designed to replicate the religious structures that were already in place prior to the exile.

Mixed reactions can be a good thing, especially when they prompt us to slow down, pay attention, be curious, and build intentionally. Let us embrace the ambiguity of the moment and of the various reactions in the crowds.

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