by Kathleen D. Billman
John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry: Pastoral Theology, Director of the Master of Divinity Program
Homily for the Sending of Nick Spehar, Linda Johnson Seyenkulo, Audrey West, Mark Bangert, & Ralph Klein.
When the old chapel auditorium was decommissioned to build this beautiful chapel, Emeritus Professor of Church History Bob Fischer quoted from the Book of Ezra, the third chapter. The quote is taken from a poignant moment in the story about how returning exiles, released at last from captivity, came home to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by those who had forced them to leave their beloved home. As the foundations of the new temple were laid, there were loud shouts of joy. But there was also weeping, as people who had loved and worshiped in the old temple wept for all they had loved and remembered and missed—“the first house on its foundations.” In verse 13, the writer reports that “the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping.” It all flowed together—shouts of joy and gratitude interspersed with sounds of grieving. Life will go on and it will be full of promise because God is there. But it won’t be the same life, with all the same stones in place, with the daily visibility of all the dear, familiar faces. Change brings new possibilities. Change brings loss.
This is the life we live in the body of Christ: a life where it all flows together, the shouting and singing for joy, the flowing of tears; the cross and the empty grave; the disorientation of change and the reorientation brought about by a hope so bold that it can only be the hope that the risen Christ makes possible. We come to milestones, turning points in the lives of individuals and in our life together, and we need to pause, we must pause, and not let the moment go by unrecognized for what it is—for all that it is. We need to say thank you, to offer tributes, to laugh and cry, to remember, for in remembering, we re-member—we put together again—the story we have lived and are living…our life together… that was begun long before we arrived on the scene and that will go on after all of us have gone. Change brings new possibilities. Change brings loss.
The marvelous scriptures we have inherited are replete with these turning point moments, leaving us with vivid scenes: Moses on Mt. Nebo knowing that his community will go on into the Promised Land and he will remain behind; Orpah weeping as Naomi and Ruth venture off together while she stays behind; Elisha trudging on behind Elijah, clutching at him even after Elijah says, in effect: “Enough already; let your servant go in peace!” And only a few days ago we heard the story of Jesus’ dazed disciples, disoriented and gazing into heaven, until a voice calls them from their reverie and tells them to put one foot in front of the other in the direction Jesus has called them to go.
Change brings new possibilities. Change brings loss. What do we need to help us embrace the possibilities and honor the loss? Mark and Ralph have chosen texts that point the way: Remember who the center of our lives is and was and ever shall be: the God who began the story and is present with all the generations even to the close of the age. Remember God’s promises and covenant of life with us, the God revealed by Jesus Christ, our Lord, our guide, our traveling companion. Remember what we have learned from the lives of the faithful, because it is their wish that, more than anything else, we see in these moments together an opportunity to affirm our trust in the faithful God of this sweeping story and these amazing promises.
Linda responded to the tribute from the international students last Friday by leading us in the song, “I have so much, so much, so much, to thank God for.” In the letter resigning from her position, Audrey gave thanks for glimpses of the gospel at work in this community, a gospel that binds us past any bounds of geography or title. These verbal testimonies, and Nick’s ready twinkling smile, say clearly, “Yes—thank you for every tribute. But remember the one who holds community together, whose faithfulness is for all generations and whose promises are trustworthy and true.” As our teachers, colleagues, and friends wade through the baptismal waters, where gratitude and grief, joy and sorrow, death and resurrection flow together, may we have a double portion of their wisdom, and participate, through laughter and tears, in their hope in the One who goes into the future with them—and with us. Amen.
Ezra, Chapter 3