Most of the parents of children in our Child Care Center are tired of the restrictions and quarantines of the pandemic, some of them desperately so. Most of us are, too. We grieve what we’ve lost and yearn just as desperately for a return to normal. We want to gather for worship the way we used to, less distracted by masks and social distancing and fear that passing the peace could be our undoing. We crave a time when our public social and political dialog was less burdened with venom and vitriol, less loaded with violence and the threat of violence. Do you remember when things were better? Do you wish we could get back there?
If you do, then you know something of how Israel felt when they returned from exile in Babylon and began to rebuild their nation. They got home to find their temple in ruins, the city in shambles, and the people – those who had been carried into exile and those who remained behind – divided, at odds with each other over what their history told them and what shape the rebuilt nation should take. Rebuilding their national and religious life would be harder than they imagined.
On top of that, they had another construction project to complete. Ezra and the other priests had been pouring over the scriptures, trying to make sense of them and organize them into what would become what we know as the Torah, the five books of Moses. When they heard the scriptures read that morning at the Water Gate, they bowed their heads in worship and wept (Neh. 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10).
I’m not sure why they wept. Someone suggested it was because in hearing God’s word they recognized their sin and were grieved at how they had been living. Or maybe it had been so long since they heard God’s word, they were overcome with emotion. Or maybe they realized the golden days of David and his kingdom were gone and there would be no return to the normal they had known. They would have to lay a foundation for whatever new would come next.
It’s a good thing God’s people have been here before, in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah during the reconstruction following the exile, during the time of the gospels and the reshaping of faith after the war with Rome, at other times when the foundations of faith were shaken and radical rebuilding was necessary. Our faith has something to teach us in the challenges we face. “The teaching of the Lord is perfect,” the psalmist wrote, “and revives the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the simple” (Ps. 19:7). Here is some of the wisdom I’m finding in our faith during the pandemic.
I’m reminded that our strength is not found in dividing into walled camps, each protected from the other, whatever the reasons for our divisions may be. Our strength and our life is found in recognizing that we need each other; that every other person has an essential role to play in God’s creation, even if we don’t know what that role is; that without those others, our own lives would be essentially diminished; and in acting toward others accordingly. This is especially urgent for us in the church, for it is among people who profess to be Christian that some of our deepest divisions exist and thrive.
When St. Paul writes that the relationship between members of the church is like that between members of the human body, he tells us that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect” (1 Cor. 12:22-23). God has placed us in the church – all of us – so “there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (vv. 25-26).
Many in the church have forgotten that and have chosen to dishonor other members of the body of Christ. We see it in the halls of Congress and in what those halls represent, and especially we saw it on January 6 last year. We see it in the halls of government and religion across the land, in the persistent racial divide that plagues our communities. We see it in the suspicion and animosity some people of our faith hold toward our brothers and sisters of other faiths, forgetting the gospel that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” – the world – and making us ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-19).
“God loves each of us,” St. Augustine wrote, “as if there were only one of us.” We cannot have the good life we seek without including in that good life everyone else, even those we have labeled “enemy.” Loving God isn’t enough for the life we seek if we don’t love our neighbors as well, every one of them. Journalist, social reformer, and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement Dorothy Day said, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”
You and I are not going to change the world by trying to change the world: the job’s too big and we’re too small. But we can do a little bit of good where we are, and, as Desmond Tutu said, “its those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” Where we are, we sow seeds of grace and love, of understanding and tolerance. Many of those seeds will perish and never amount to anything at all. But we must not give in to discouragement or impatience, for some of those seeds will find good soil “and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:20).