Dedication Service - Sharon United Church
| Ezra 3
||Sun, February 27, 2005
Rev. Doug Goodwin
Sharon United Church
February 27, 2005
It should have been easy to preach this evening. I mean, everyone knows what to say at a dedication service, something about all the hard work, the coming through adversity, the bright future, how all this is somehow good for you and me, our neighbours, the world… it’s even good for God. Throw in some reminiscing, a couple of jokes, poke fun at your present minister, praise everybody and wish them God’s blessing, and that’s about it. Amen.
Easy to do that… so I said “sure, I will be glad to preach!” Foolish me…
because then you – or your organizers; blame them – did something that took a lot of courage… or maybe it was gospel foolishness, I don’t know… and you asked me to preach on this scripture text, Ezra 3. And you asked someone to preach who knows that, really, he does not have anything important to say, especially in the name of God, unless he is taking the scripture with utmost seriousness. I mean, it is nice to be asked to preach but I know that you don’t – or shouldn’t – care two hoots about what I think. You want to know what God thinks.
And somehow, we believe, God speaks through Ezra. Not very often, apparently – I don’t know how many sermons you have heard from Ezra. I don’t know if I have preached any before today. Ezra is a troubling book and has a troubling message, one that rubs up and chafes us United Church folk. We don’t see things the way this book does.
Ezra believes in purity. To be the people of God, you need to be pure. You need to do things right. All that language in this passage about getting the ceremonies right: in accordance with the written law, the required number of burnt offerings, the appointed sacred feasts, following the written Law, the first day of the first month.
And in order to be pure – and this is where we have the most trouble – you have to exclude people. How many people here know that the church is to be inclusive? Put up your hands. Ezra looks at us with disgust. To be pure, you need to be exclusive. You need to be clear what is in and what is out. Before the end of the book of Ezra mixed marriages are being broken apart – religious purity is more important than marriage covenants. In this strange testimony of Ezra, being faithful to God means being exclusive.
You get hints of this attitude in the passage we just read, although they are not as strong. What you do get, though, is an idea of why being exclusive was so important – it was because these faithful followers of God were outnumbered and threatened. Bluntly, they were scared. They had returned from two generations of exile to their homeland to find their magnificent temple totally destroyed, their former lives almost forgotten, and surrounded by people who did not speak the same, practice the same beliefs, do the same things. It is easy for those of us in the dominant culture to just say, “hey! don’t be afraid, just join in, let’s all get along, be inclusive …” but I wonder if immigrant people or First Nations people – people in a threatened cultural minority – would think it is that easy and obvious. People under threat, people who can see their culture, their faith, being lost, tend to be more exclusive. Inclusively is for the powerful… because they know they will not lose anything.
And so in the midst of a people who threaten them, who seduce their children with unhealthy values, who seduce them with temptations they know would pull them away from a godly life, these folk under Ezra begin to build a place of worship, just the foundations here, but enough to declare to their neighbours but probably much more importantly to themselves, that we know who we are; we are the people of God; we are the people of Moses, of the Law. We are people who have distinct practices, strange ways of being, beliefs that others do not share. We are people who are not free to do whatever we want with whomever we want but are captured by a jealous God, bound and covenanted to do God’s work and not whatever everyone else wants us to do.
Minorities are naturally exclusive because being inclusive means losing your identify, your sense of peoplehood, your language, your culture, your belief and convictions. You run the huge risk of losing touch with your God.
Laying the foundations of a new temple was a very public – and therefore very political – act of saying “here we are. This is how we worship. This is whom we worship. This is who we are. We know we are different from the rest of you neighbours and we don’t want to pretend that you are just like us. But maybe our difference just may be a blessing for the world.”
Ezra’s isn’t the only testimony in the Bible, thank goodness. There are others which sound more inclusive, more open to the ways of the world, not driven quite as hard to be perfectly pure.
And you in this congregation will have to navigate between these diverse voices, how to include people and provide hospitality while also being vigilant to be true to this rich inheritance of faith that is ours. Simply making the equation inclusion = good, exclusion = bad is not adequate for the richness of our faith. Today we remember that laying foundations of temples or putting on additions to church buildings, while they may at first seem like completely natural and wonderful things for us to do, are actually acts of defiant faith that in some measure separate us from our neighbour. They are outposts in a world that doesn’t really know, and doesn’t really care, what goes on in these walls – what we believe, what we know, who we are, or whose we are.
I told you this was a troubling passage.
It is not wonder the passage ends with that amazing piece of communal memory – that when the foundations were laid the shouts of joy mingled with and could not be distinguished from the loud weeping of the old folk. For they remembered the glory days, when everyone believed the same, when you didn’t have to be different to be one of the faithful, when the temple was the centre of town and everyone came.
Now, they knew, it would be different. Faith is costly; faith divides and separates. To be at peace with God is to be in conflict with the world.
It sounds a little bit like the Lenten message.
But what greater gift can the church offer the world right now than a people who know it is their call in life not to fit in but to keep their eyes firmly fixed on God and the promised life God offers.
May that people be you. May this building and all that goes on in this place and in the name of this place point to the One whom the world does not know and will not know unless you and others like you point the way.
May the joy you have in Christ, may the tears you weep for the hurt of the world, mingle together and be heard even from far away, a daring testimony to the God whom we know by the tears of the cross and the jubilant joy of the resurrection.
Thanks be to God.