Rebuilding with Ezra
Reflecting on the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Two Days after Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 120
Old Testament: Ezra 1:1-11
Epistle: 2 Corinthians 1:12-19
God of every land and nation, you have created all people and you dwell among us in Jesus Christ. Listen to the cries of those who pray to you, and grant that, as we proclaim the greatness of your name, all people will know the power of love at work in the world. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
by Lindsey Funtik, Coordinator of Volunteer Ministries, Ashland First United Methodist Church, Ashland, Ohio and Pastor at Polk United Methodist Church, Polk, Ohio
“Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:2-5).
For many of us who live in the United States, a typical day no longer includes masks and social distancing. If a person has received the COVID-19 vaccine, they are now safe to move through the world in a fairly “normal” manner, whatever that means anymore. It is important to acknowledge that we must be wise about variants and sensitive to the fact that other areas of the world are still really mightily struggling with the pandemic, but for the most part, folks in my little towns of Shreve, Ashland, and Polk, Ohio are no longer feeling the day-to-day effects.
In a lot of ways, this is an incredible blessing. Because of the God-given gifts of brave scientists and frontline workers, I can write these reflections in a favorite coffee shop that I have not visited in months and months and months. My husband can join me for ultrasound appointments that give us a glimpse at our child. I can finally browse the library’s actual shelves rather than just the virtual catalog. There are a lot of gifts to count at this point in time.
By the same token, however, I have found this return to “normalcy” a bit challenging. I know I am not alone in being quick to jump right back into my pre-COVID routine without much thought about easing or taking baby steps. It feels like the shift from shut down to wide open happened overnight and, all of a sudden, my calendar is a lot more full and my body is a lot more exhausted. I believe that we underestimate the cataclysmic nature of going from one extreme to the other. Rebuilding what once was can be really, really difficult.
I have recently started reading the book of Ezra. I have spent a lot of time in its sister book, Nehemiah, but Ezra has had a tendency of slipping under my radar. So, armed with a desire to know Scripture better, I found myself entering into another story of rebuilding. Four chapters in, I am beginning to notice some parallels to our present time.
What, exactly, is the nature of rebuilding?
Ezra and Nehemiah were once considered a single book and both recount Israel’s return from exile. After decades of living away from their homeland and not having access to a temple because the original had been razed, King Cyrus of Persia issues a decree that the Lord had appointed Cyrus to build a temple to Him in Jerusalem in Judah, so any willing survivors were invited to return and partake in the efforts. The people had experienced a season of banishment and now, all of a sudden, they were to head back and try to restore some of the former glory they used to know.
Does this sound familiar?
Though the parallels are not perfect (after all, being asked to follow healthy directions and remain in our homes is not the same as being exiled to a foreign country), and I have yet to finish my study of Ezra, I have spied some bits and pieces that resonate with me as I have been walking through the labor of love that is coming out of the pandemic and seeking to rebuild.
God moved their hearts.
When Cyrus issues this decree, it says that the people who took up the cause were “everyone whose heart God had moved” (Ez. 1:5) It seems that, in order for a person to reenter and rebuild what once was, the Lord had to do a work in them to inspire them to the endeavor. In short, I see in this the truth that we cannot rebuild on our own. We need God’s inspiration and help; otherwise, we are met with that strange sort of post-pandemic, post-exile heaviness that wants so badly to be carried around like stones. God must move our hearts and empower us in order to do this well. Our own strength isn’t enough; we need His help to move forward.
There was provision.
Another piece of King Cyrus’ announcement was the command that the neighbors of those who returned should assist them with silver, gold, goods, livestock, gifts, and freewill offerings (Ez. 1:4;6). In this I spy a reminder that, when we enter into a season of rebuilding, there will be provisions for the journey. Not only do we see God inspiring the people to go and do the brave work of healing, we also see them receiving all that they could need for the process. I believe that this is true for us, as well. Additionally, the people who were giving these items were loving their neighbors in their efforts to rebuild. This pandemic was a crucible which challenged us to love our neighbors wisely and well, and so it is no surprise that rebuilding requires that sort of love, too.
There may be weeping.
When the foundation for a new temple is laid in Ezra chapter 3, there are many shouts of praise and exclamations of joy. A new temple was being built! This was incredible news! But we also see that those joyful songs were mingled with weeping that rose from the throats of the older community members who had seen the other temple before it was destroyed. “No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise,” Ezra 3:13 reads, “And the sound was heard far away.” Even as something new and beautiful was happening, there was mourning for what once was. And the sounds commingled. As we continue to rebuild with hope and great anticipation for the post-COVID world, we must also remember that there may be weeping. There will be hard days. There are thousands of people who have lost those they love. We all carry scars from this season. New possibilities do not erase heartache, and we must make space for both. May all of our voices, sorrowful or exclaiming, have a place in the noise that we raise.
There may be opposition.
A large portion of Ezra chapter 4 consists of people raising a stink about the exiled people coming back to try and rebuild. They use crafty rhetoric and fear mongering as a way to get the project to come to a standstill. As I read it, I found myself so incredibly frustrated–just let the people heal, for goodness’ sake! Now, as we go about our own process of rebuilding today, there might be voices of dissonance around us, but I think that so much of the discouragement can come from the voices which worm their way into our minds. They tell us we won’t recover, that we cannot be in a healthy place again, that this heaviness is permanent. These lies are simply that–lies. Opposition may come, but the mission still proceeds.
It gets rebuilt.
In the end, despite all of the challenges that were faced, the temple got rebuilt. The people come out of exile. The story continued. This, I believe, holds the most poignancy for us today. Rebuilding is hard but, by the grace of God, the rebuilding happens.
May we enter back into the world with patience and kindness for ourselves and others. May we have eyes and hearts wide open. May we courageously rebuild.
Originally published on July 22, 2021 at “Reflections on Faith, Words, and The Holiness of Today.”