02 October 2011

Last week's sermon

I keep forgetting to post last week's sermon. The main text is Ezekiel 18. All in all, the experience of preaching for the first time at St. Paul's, K Street, was a good one.

Like so many readings from scripture, our lesson from the Book of Ezekiel this morning can be summed up like this: the people are grumbling, and God has had just about enough of it. Now, to be fair, Ezekiel's contemporaries did have plenty to complain about. They lived in a time of “never-ending crisis,”1 resulting in year after year of “generalized anxiety”2 about the events taking place in the world around them and about what this news meant for their personal and national security. Perhaps this is a familiar feeling to us as we struggle to make sense of an increasingly volatile world. In any event, the people's exhausted complaint, as described by Ezekiel and also his fellow prophet Jeremiah (13:29), was that their ancestors had gotten them into this mess. “The parents have eaten sour grapes,” went the proverb, “and the children's teeth are set on edge” (2). “It's not fair that we've been taken into exile in Babylon,” they seem to say. “And it's unconscionable that God would abandon the temple city of Jerusalem. This can't be because of something we did. We must be getting stuck with someone else's punishment.”

And so the the word of the LORD that comes to Ezekiel contains a series of responses to the people's pessimism, responses that have some bearing, I think, on our own occasional feelings of self-righteous despair during trying times. What we first hear from Ezekiel is a reality check about the relationship between God's power and divine justice: “Know that all lives are mine,” says the LORD. “The life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die” (4). In other words, we hear God say through Ezekiel, “Let's be perfectly clear. I am Lord and Sovereign over all creation and each generation of my children. If my beef was only with your parents, or only with one particular person or group, then I'd have taken it up only with them. Don't be so quick to assume that you yourselves are without blemish.”3

But notice that, in this particular discourse, the prophet leaves aside the question of how exactly the people's current problems are a part of God's judgment. In the verses that the lectionary omits from this reading, Ezekiel speaks in only general terms about righteous living and personal responsibility. He says that a person who is “righteous and does what is lawful and right … shall surely live” (5, 9) and that an unrighteous person “shall not” (13). He gives some examples of righteous and unrighteous behavior, but he doesn't directly connect them here to what the people of Israel have done. For Ezekiel, all the people need to do going forward is take note of God's ways. The rest is fruitless speculation and fingerpointing. “Don't dwell on how we came to be in this situation,” he says. “Rather, turn from your ways in the present and live.” It's not the last time he will say it.

In the next part of this prophetic discourse, God makes a second point through Ezekiel. “[Y]ou say, 'The way of the Lord is unfair.' Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?” In this second section, it's as if God is saying, “But as long as you brought up the subject of fairness and justice, let me say that you have fallen terribly short, O my people.”

As I said, Ezekiel does not get specific in this passage about how Israel has failed, though we can of course piece together the story based on his principles of justice and the transgressions he names in other chapters. But one of Ezekiel's general admonitions seems particularly poignant in our situation today. In verses 12 and 16, he recites that God's people are not to “oppress[] the poor and needy” but instead are to “give[] [their] food to the hungry and provide[] clothing for the naked” (12, 16 [NIV]). Over the past several months, we've watched with a sense of déjà vu the horrifying consequences of drought and famine in Somalia and throughout the Horn of Africa. On the ground in Somalia, unchallenged militants are engaged in just the kind of oppression Ezekiel names, blocking desperately needed aid from international agencies within the territory they control. Domestic medical officials say the lack of assistance has made things worse than in 1992, when 240,000 people died, with another 110,000 saved by the American-led intervention.4 Meanwhile, on the ground in America today, a weary and cash-strapped nation is reluctant to intervene again. After almost ten years of war, it's not hard to understand why. But this time the death toll could be even worse, the UN warns perhaps as many as 750,000 Somalis. “Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?” How can the global community live into and up to the commandments Ezekiel confronts us with, not just the imperative to feed the hungry but all the demands of God justice? How can we face such immense problems? Such intractable problems. Such heartbreaking problems. God only knows.

Actually, I think “God only knows” is precisely the mantra we might take away from Ezekiel's advice for living a resurrection life. Let's review: Ezekiel first assured the people of God's sovereignty and justice. He then called them out on the basis of their own individual unrighteousness. Finally, in today's last verses, he extends to them God's word of hope: “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live” (31-32). The hopelessness that set in for the Israelites in captivity in Babylon and that threatens each one of us in difficult times, this hopelessness ought to be a sign for us. Sometimes God's commandments are too difficult, and the world's problems so painful that we change the channel whenever they are talked about—if they are talked about at all. It is in those moments that we most need the word that Ezekiel uses 53 times in 48 chapters: (in Hebrew) שׁוּב, turn. From the depths of despair comes a voice that calls us to turn ourselves in the direction of God. To align our wills to the Lord's own. To wade deep in the waters of God's justice and get caught up in the current. To “look not to [our] own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).

Now, it has been widely observed throughout the course of Christian history that turning is no simple thing to do. Sometimes it seems impossible, this taking on of God's will and mission as our own, this getting ourselves “a new heart and a new spirit.” Yet I think if it's true what God says elsewhere, that this life is “not too hard for [us], nor is it too far away” (Deuteronomy 30:11), then it must be that this ability comes to us as St. Paul described in today's Epistle: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” he says. “[F]or it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12b-13). I believe Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill summarized this idea more succinctly still in a line puzzlingly inserted into one of her journals. It's a line that carries with it the benefit of two thousand years of Christian argument over exactly what Paul meant, and it never ceases to help me when some ancient or modern-day prophet is calling me to something I feel powerless to undertake. Here's the expression: “Not grace alone, nor us alone, but [God's] grace in us.”

We encounter despair in this life when there seems to be no good options available to us, when we seem, like the exiles in Babylon, to have “nowhere to turn to.” But Ezekiel reminds us today that little if any good comes from desperate searches for how we got ourselves into a particular mess or especially how our ways can get us out of it. More importantly, he reminds us, as St. Paul does, that we always have someone to turn to, someone who is already mysteriously at work inside us and will lead us where we could never have imagined, someone whose ways are not our ways. Thanks be to God.

1Von Rad, Gerhard, The Message of the Prophets (San Francisco: Harper, 1968): 229.

2The Rev. Dr. Roger Ferlo used this term to describe our post-September 11 world in a sermon at Virginia Theological Seminary on Holy Cross Day, 2011 (Sept. 14).

3To be fair, Ezekiel's view here makes him a somewhat unusual biblical prophet, especially when compared with earlier prophets. See Von Rad, 229-232.

4See “Somalis Waste Away as Insurgents Block Escape From Famine,” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/02/world/africa/02somalia.html

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