Mariah and I had a pulpit exchange this week, with her preaching at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, and me preaching at Church of Peace United Church of Christ in Rock Island, Illinois. That means that I don’t have a recording this week. And that the sermon is a little more directly about Church of Peace.
There used to be a building over on 9th street. It had a stone foundation and a wooden exterior and stone stairs leading up to its doors. And on top of the building was a… I don’t know the right term… a cupola, maybe?
It wasn’t a big building. It wasn’t an impressive building. But people made memories there. There were births and deaths, baptisms and confirmations, weddings and meetings. There were good mornings over handshakes, and conversations over coffee, and community dinners and casseroles.
And on Sunday mornings, some folks from an immigrant community gathered together. And they worshipped in their native language. And they called themselves the Deutsche Evangelische Friedens Gemeinde.
There’s this song where a man walks around his neighborhood and remembers how things used to be. He remembers an ex-lover, and he sees the ways that the buildings have changed, and he thinks: I’ve ascribed these monuments / A false sense of permanence / I’ve placed faith in geography / To hold you in my memory.
Buildings aren’t just places where we meet; they aren’t just places where we keep our stuff. They’re places where we store our memories.
And our reading from Ezra, in its full context, really should begin with these words: once upon a time.
Once upon a time, God travelled with the Israelites, alongside the Ark of the Covenant. And then the Israelites settled down. And they conquered a city called Jerusalem. And Solomon built a temple. And it was an amazing temple.
There were great outer courts, with an altar for burnt offerings and baths where the priests could be purified.
There was a Holy Place: a long room with cedar walls and fir-wood floors and olive wood doors. And all around that room were carvings of cherubim and palm trees and flowers. And they were overlaid with gold.
And beyond the Holy Place was the Holy of Holies. It was a cubic room, about 30 feet by 30 feet by 30 feet, with cedar floors and wainscoting, overlaid with gold. And there were two huge cherubim stretching across the room. And in the middle was the Ark of the Covenant.
And people made memories there. There were dedications and sacrifices and festivals. Surely God lived in this temple!
And then the Babylonians came. There were arrows and swords and slings. There was fire and blood. They razed Jerusalem to the ground. They destroyed a temple that had stood for centuries. They carted the people off into exile.
In today’s reading, we are 70 years after Solomon’s temple was destroyed. Persia has defeated Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their homes, and to Jerusalem, and to rebuild. And a couple of years later, they laid the foundation for a new temple.
And when they laid the foundation, the priests blew their trumpets and the Levites clanged their cymbals, and there was a great cry. Many people shouted with joy. But there were others. There were people who had seen the old temple in all its glory, and some of them wept with a loud voice. And no one could tell the cries of joy from the cries of sorrow.
Yeah… I know that feeling.
Most of you know that Mariah and I went to seminary together. We met in the courtyard. We lived in the same apartment building. We had classes in the same rooms. Our first jobs after seminary were in the development office and the admissions office. We were married in the chapel.
And today… today the seminary building where Mariah and I made our memories is the Gary Becker-Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics. The chapel where we said our vows is a lounge.
That seminary is in a new building. I’ve been there. It’s cool. It’s LEED certified. It’s fully accessible. It has a beautiful chapel with lots of natural light. It has smart classrooms. And I am happy for the students who get to learn there.
But it’s not where I was married. It isn’t where I took classes. The steps don’t have the little worn out bits where students climbed them before me. It isn’t a home. At least, it isn’t a home for me. Buildings are where we store our memories, and mine are carefully packed away in the Gary Becker-Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics.
I know what it is for the shouts of joy and cries of mourning to rise up inside me. I know how it feels when they get so intermingled that you can’t tell the difference.
There used to be a building over on 9th street. It was a small building. The kitchen was in the coal room. And it was too small for the Deutsche Evangelische Friedens Gemeinde to grow. So they sold it to the B’nai B’rith and they built a building here at the corner of 12th and 12th. The architect chose a Byzantine revival style, with rounded arches and a dome. And, over the years, the church grew: a parsonage, an education wing, a little chapel off the sanctuary, new organs.
And I know that there were should of joy when the new buildings went up. But I can’t help but wonder if there weren’t some people in the crowd thinking, “This isn’t where we celebrated my wedding,” or, “This isn’t where my son was baptized,” or, “This isn’t where we held my mother’s funeral.”
Buildings are where we store our memories, and there must have been people whose memories were carefully packed up in a little building over on 9th street. There must have been people who cried… just a little.
Buildings are where we store our memories… and losing a building is hard, even when it’s replaced by something new and shiny and amazing. And we don’t even have to lose a building all at once. I don’t think that any of you are old enough to remember when this building was new, but some of you might remember the educational wing. Or you might remember when something was a little newer than it was now.
And that has its own kind of sadness. The carpet gets worn down. The wood of the pews changes character. The cushions get torn and stained. You open a hymnal to find a doodle on the same page as “Joy to the World.”
It’s easy to wish for the day when the old was new, and for all of our memories to be neatly packed away in a nice shiny place.
But here’s the thing. Our memories aren’t packed in boxes. They are encoded in the marks that we leave on a place.
The carpet is worn down because we walked on it… whether we were processing in for a wedding, or an ordination, or a funeral, or with the choir, or even if we were just walking on it on the day-to-day.
The wood of the pews changes its character because we touched it and the oils from our hands got rubbed in.
The cushions are torn and stained by moving bodies, and wax from Christmas Eve candles, and a thousand other things.
The doodles are on hymnal pages because… there are children.
Each of us leaves our mark—usually in ways that we can’t even see—and the community of the faithful keeps changing.
Sometimes, we change because we have to leave a building behind. The ancient Israelites were forced from their home; and when they came back, they had to build again.
Sometimes, we change because we choose to leave a building behind. We were once the faithful who met over on 9th street, in a building with a stone foundation and a wooden exterior and stone stairs leading up to the doors and a cupola maybe. And our ancestors in the faith moved here so that there would be space for new memories.
And now we are the faithful who meet on the corner of 12th and 12th, in a building where we have made memories; in a building where we have left our marks alongside the marks of people who have left us.
And who knows? Maybe we will stay here and those who come after us will leave their marks alongside ours. Or maybe we will go somewhere else and make room for new memories. Or maybe someone will come along after us and clean some of our marks away only to add new ones.
But no matter what, I know this. Change—maybe not all change, but a lot of change—brings shouts of joy and cries of sorrow. Among all of us and in each of us. As we mourn who we were and wait for who we will be.
And I also know this. In all that joy and all that mourning—in all that bravery and all that fear—God is leading us into new worlds that we could not imagine. The people who saw Solomon’s temple fall didn’t know what exile would bring. And the people who returned home with Ezra didn’t know what that would mean. The people who travelled across an ocean to what was then the middle-of-nowhere-Illinois didn’t know what that would mean. The people who left a little building over on 9th street didn’t know what that would mean.
And we do not know what is to come. But we can have the same faith as those people who saw the foundation for the second temple be laid: God is good, and his steadfast love endures forever. Hallelujah. Amen.