December 17 | It All Belongs

Recording is unavailable.


Speaker: Mark Rupp

Text: Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13

Sermon Title: It All Belongs


The third Sunday of Advent is sometimes known as Gaudete Sunday. It comes from the first line of the introit of the traditional Mass setting: Gaudete in Domino semper, iterum dico, gaudete, which translates to “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.” The observance of Advent was once more similar to Lent, with a highly contemplative or somber tone, and Gaudete Sunday was seen as a kind of break in the middle for a bit of unbridled joy. It’s why we light the pink candle.

I don’t think this is the first time I’ve been slated to preach on the third Sunday in Advent, and I’m starting to wonder whether making the gay pastor preach on pink Sunday constitutes workplace harassment…

Just kidding! I probably insisted on preaching this week partly because it gives me a chance to don my gayest apparel and partly because it finally gives me the long overdue opportunity to talk to you all about the most important social and cultural event of 2023. Yes, I do mean the release of the Barbie movie. Now, I’m going to do my best not to spoil this crowning achievement of cinematic excellence, but if you haven’t seen it yet, I urge you: run, don’t walk to go see it. 

At the beginning of the movie, the audience is introduced to Barbieland, a pink plastic utopia where all the various version of Barbie live out their perfectly pastel dream house lives and take on the various roles they embody such as President Barbie, Physicist Barbie, Doctor Barbie, Diplomat Barbie, and even Mermaid Barbie. During this introduction, the narrator quips cheekily, “Thanks to Barbie, all problems of feminism have been solved.”

It’s not long into this introduction that we begin to see the cracks in the foundation of this perfect Barbie Dream House. In the middle of a cloyingly pink and highly choreographed dance number, the main character, simply known as Stereotypical Barbie, causes a momentary break in the neverending party when she asks aloud, “Do you guys ever think about dying?” 

There’s a record scratch. The music stops. All eyes turn toward Stereotypical Barbie, unsure what to do with this question. An awkward pause lingers until Stereotypical Barbie forces a smile and attempts to recover by saying, “I’m just dying to dance.” The music kicks back on. The party continues. Though Stereotypical Barbie finds that, at least for her, everything has changed.

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.  Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice. Again I say rejoice. 

We light the pink candle on this Gaudete Sunday, this Sunday where we admonish one another to cry out in joy, yet it is important that we not present the Church as some plastic utopia where the only cries that are welcome are those that speak of joy, hope, peace, and love. We lift up these Advent values, and this season of waiting helps us understand the gifts they offer. Yet we bring many things with us into the sacred spaces we build together on a Sunday morning. We carry any number of emotions, questions, sorrows, and other deep longings with us through these weeks leading up to Christmas and beyond.

And the reality is that for many of us, Advent and Christmas are especially hard because the weight of the things we are carrying can make us feel like we don’t belong in these spaces of joy, hope, peace, and love.

But I believe that the Christmas story and, in many ways, the entire Biblical story teach us that it all belongs, that WE all belong with all our human complexity and the beautiful chaos that is our lives. We embarked on this journey with the Narrative Lectionary NOT to show that there is one acceptable story of faith but to show that woven throughout these diverse–and sometimes confounding–stories of humans wrestling with what it means to be human, there is a constant thread of divine presence. From the Garden through the desert, in the mountains and the rough places, from exile to return, in temples grand to stables meek, God is there.

From what I can tell, the Revised Common Lectionary doesn’t ever include a reading from the book of Ezra, so I’m grateful for the Narrative Lectionary calling us to our passages for this morning. They paint a rich picture of the complexity of the human experience, but before we get there, we need to understand where we’ve been. 

By the time we get to Ezra, the period of kings has been supplanted in the Biblical narrative by the prophets. The Northern Kingdom of Israel has fallen to the Assyrian empire despite the warnings of Hosea. In the South, the Kingdom of Judah was eventually conquered by the Babylons, forcing many of the population into Exile, with the Temple of Solomon eventually being destroyed. 

In Exile, the people waited and pondered where their God was in all of this. There were different responses to these hard questions. Some spoke words of comfort like those found in the middle sections of Isaiah. Some spoke words of hope in a righteous branch coming forth from the stump like those in Jeremiah. Some lamented and wondered with those who wrote the psalms how they could sing songs of their homeland while in a foreign land. 

In Exile, the Judeans were forever changed as they wrestled with these questions.

Yet in this period of waiting and watching for God, the world continued to turn and empires continued to rise and fall. The Persian Empire conquered the Babylonians, and it is within this grand transition that we pick up with our passages today, a particular story of this time told in a particular way. 

The Scroll of Ezra begins: “In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, to fulfill the word of the Lord from the mouth of Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he made a proclamation…”

Cyrus sends the Exiles back to Jerusalem with the charge to build a house for their God in Jerusalem. The thing the people have been waiting and watching for seems to finally be happening. What joy there must have been as the proclamation slowly reached the ears of the Judeans. I’m not sure geographically how far it is from Babylon to Jerusalem, but as the old Peter, Paul, and Mary song 500 Miles says, “I can’t go a-home this a-way.” 

The people were returning from Exile, but so many things had changed. They, too, had changed, as we all do when we undertake a journey, regardless of whether that journey is full of joy or hardship or a mysterious mixture of both. 

It’s no wonder, then, that the leaders in their wisdom begin almost immediately to try to return to some sense of normalcy, to reassert the traditions that had been lost, to build altars on the remnants of what once was. The text tells us that they did these things at least in large part because “they were in dread of the people of the lands.” The thought may have been that if we do as God commanded, God will protect us.

Now certainly there may have been neighboring political powers that would have been openly aggressive toward these returning Exiles, but if we read on beyond our passage for today, we find some of their neighbors offering to help with the rebuilding. These neighbors say, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to this God ever since the days of King Esar-haddon of Assyria, who brought us here.” These neighboring peoples may have been the remnants of the Northern Kingdom of Israel who had been conquered by the Assyrians and assimilated into their society. This assimilation likely included a syncretization of worship between the God of the Israelites alongside the gods of the Assyrians. This is related to the later animosity we find in the New Testament toward the Samaritans. It’s an old story that keeps getting retold in new ways.

The leaders shun these offers of aid saying, “You shall have no part with us in building a house for our God, but we alone will build for the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus of Persia has commanded us.” This rebuttal turns the neighbors fully against them, and this text tells us they began to try to find ways to disrupt and discourage the rebuilding. Much later on in Ezra after the temple has been finished and as the people begin to find their footing, we find Ezra the priest finally entering the scene, making a decree that anyone who took a foreign wife must send them and their children away. And the people do this. And Ezra is lauded as a wise leader who has discerned what it means to follow God’s commands and help build a community of Torah obedience. 

That part isn’t normally included in any lectionary. But I don’t think we need to sanitize these confounding stories, and in fact, perhaps we do them a disservice if we try to. In their Introduction to the Old Testament, theologians Brueggemann and Linafelt write about the book of Ezra, “It is not to be denied that communities under threat must practice discipline…The question posed by this literature is how to maintain disciplines and boundaries without sacrificing core commitments in the process.” (405) A worthwhile question, indeed.

These theologians go on to note that the Torah scrolls that Ezra and others have been reading and using to discern the will of God contain other readings, other interpretations and other stories that point in different directions. And those who find themselves at the margins of the dominant readings wait, alongside the God of the Torah, for these alternative readings to trouble the power of sameness.

With that in mind, let’s step back a bit, before Ezra has made his decree, before the second Temple is finished, before the neighbor’s offer of aid has been refused, back to our reading for today. The preparations have been made and a great ritual of praise has begun to celebrate the laying of the new foundation for the rebuilding of the Temple.

And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord because the foundation of the house of the Lord had been 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.

The cries of sorrow mingled so deeply with the shouts of joy that the people could not distinguish one from the other. The wails of grief from the older generations brought forth by a reminder of all that had been lost, harmonizing with the cheers of elation from those who saw their long-awaited hopes unfolding in front of them. Some of their tears probably contained both of these emotions together.

It all belongs in that sacred space the people were creating together because both joy and sorrow are a part of what it means to be human, what it means to live fully engaged with the world around us. And God meets us in and through the breadth and depth of our human experiences. This is a foundation worth celebrating, even if we do so through tears of joy or tears of sadness.

At the heart of the Christmas story and, indeed, at the heart of Christian theology lies the paradox that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine. Emmanuel, God with us, is not just a fancy title but an insistence that the human and the divine are not nearly as far apart as we sometimes make them out to be, that in Jesus, we learn to recognize God not just as some magnanimous other but as the divinity within our own being, within our own humanity come fully alive.  

There is a growing trend in congregations to hold special worship services within the Advent season called Blue Christmas services. They are often symbolically held on the longest night of the year, which will be coming up later this week. They are a chance for those who are carrying sadness or sorrows through the Advent season to name those openly and find community within their grief. There is certainly a place for these kinds of services, and holding spaces specifically for lament offers a grace that many need.  This week I came across a short poem by Mary Oliver titled “The Uses of Sorrow” that names this well:

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

We don’t hold a Blue Christmas service here at CMC, but even this morning on our cheerful pink candle Sunday, my hope is that we can be a community where all may find the courage to name whatever they are carrying with them through this season, where both joys and sorrows are recognized for the gifts they bring. A place where we listen deeply for the alternative stories and readings of our sacred tradition that call us to help create a world where all belong.

And as we consider our own reading of the stories in Ezra’s scroll, it is worth remembering that the Jerusalem of this text is very different from the Jerusalem of our time, the people of Exile and Return are not the same people who live in the Israel-Palestine of today. Both these scriptures and the events unfolding in Gaza and the West Bank perhaps force us to confront similar questions about security, identity, and boundaries, but the way the stories seem to have answered these questions does not have to be the way we continue to tell the stories today.

I am sure that many of us are carrying deep sorrow for the brutal attacks of Israeli citizens by Hamas as well as horror over the continued attacks against Palestinian civilians by Israel. Many of us likely feel frustration with elected officials unwillingness to use the power they have to help bring an end to violence. Many of us are likely experiencing despair as we struggle to figure out what it means to be peacemakers in the face of such devastating violence. 

If this is you, I encourage you to check the announcements for opportunities to join others this week in doing what we can to advocate for peace.

All the ways we wrestle with what it means to be human belong in our sacred spaces of worship. And when we have the courage to name these things, to mingle our joys and our sorrows together in community, we can trust that God is here with us. Emmanuel is born again and again as we work together to help one another become more human and more divine.