Sunday, September 4, 2011
Ezekiel's Call & Ours
Twenty-seven years ago I preached on these same Scriptures at the missions of Good Shepherd, Susanville, and Holy Spirit, Lake Almanor, CA. Just before that I had been off sick, and I told the parishioners that during that time I had read all of the prophet Ezekiel. Interesting reading if you’re sick, with all the weird images and visions occurring throughout Ezekiel’s book: burning coals of fire; creatures’ faces; wings moving in unison; lightning, to name but a few! It’s a fascinating account, in symbolic language, of a caring but demanding God, calling a young 30-year-old priest to take on an impossible challenge and to prepare God’s people for a future and restoration beyond anything they could imagine.
Ezekiel spoke his prophecies in the historical context of the 6th cent. B. C. exile of the Jewish people to Babylon. Nebuchadrezzar II had captured the city of Jerusalem in 597 and sent the king, Jehoiakim, most of the ruling class, and many others, including Ezekiel, to Babylon. Ezekiel lived for five years in a town along the Chebar River, called Til Abubi (Tel Aviv--not the modern city). Four years after being exiled, on July 31, 593, as Ezekiel pinpoints it, “the heavens opened, and I saw visions of God...and the hand of the Lord was on him there...” This would go on until Ezekiel’s death around 571 -- almost 27 years since he’d been exiled.
The book of Ezekiel is divided into three parts: Chapters 1-24: before Jerusalem’s fall, consisting of Ezekiel’s prophecies of doom against the city and Judah; Chapters 25-32: with prophecies against foreign nations, and serving as a bridge between Ezekiel’s initial message of doom and his eventual message of hope; and Chapters 33-48: dating from the time after Jerusalem’s fall, the section where our reading today occurs. God’s commissioning of Ezekiel is recounted both in Chapters 1-3 as well as in Chapter 33, today’s reading.
Ezekiel, a younger contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah, was the son of Buzi and was a priest. He was married, and the recounting of his wife’s death just as Jerusalem was being destroyed, is very touching: “The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Mortal, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead...’ So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did as I was commanded...” (24:15-18)
God’s commission to Ezekiel is very clear (Ezekiel 33:7-11): “Mortal, I have made you a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.” He’s to be God’s watchman, pushing an unwilling people to take personal responsibility for their actions by communicating to them what God expects of them. But Ezekiel is a bridge-prophet. Like prophets before the Exile he insists that religion must be a true inner commitment to God, lived out in daily life. He’s clear about the reality of sin, and about the certainty of the people’s accountability before God’s judgment. But like the later prophets Ezekiel is also deeply aware of the people’s need to faithfully honor God in their worship, based on his deep sense of God’s utter holiness and otherness. He struggles with the issue of Israel’s repeated infidelity and guilt, with the reality that they’ve constantly met God’s acts of mercy with rebelliousness and disregard, to the point that now the logical consequence of their irresponsibility is the destruction of Jerusalem, the very center of their life and worship. Israel’s sin lies in questioning the reality of God’s nearness and openness to them, of asserting that God is, in effect, different from God’s revelation of Godself, that God is something other than what God really is. And Ezekiel’s call is to be God’s sentinel, God’s watchman: informing the people of the deserved punishment which is not only coming, but is already upon them, as well as teaching them about God’s unrelenting forgiveness despite all this, and preparing them for God’s coming restoration of the nation and God’s inner renewal of each of their hearts.
In the Epistle (Romans 13:8-14), St. Paul reminds us that “...we owe no one anything except to love one another...”, and that each is to “Love your neighbor as yourself...” for “love is the fulfilling of the law.” In the life of the every community of faith, where two or three are gathered together, there’s bound to be disagreements, arguments, conflicts! By our baptism God commissions you and me to be sentinels, watchpersons, over our lives: individually and as a community, the Church. God asks for a true inner commitment on our part to live holy and loving lives every day, to recognize the reality of selfish sinful actions, and to hold both ourselves and others, as is appropriate, accountable. The guiding principle in all this is love: love of God and love of each other, even as Jesus, the Father’s Word to us, teaches us. One of the early 4th century desert fathers, John Colobos, used to say to his followers: “A house is not built by beginning at the top and working down. You must begin with the foundation in order to reach the top. The foundation is our neighbor, whom we must win and this is the place to begin. For all the commandments of Christ depend on this one.”
Inevitably, in every community of faith there will arise differences of opinion and conviction, in varying degrees of intensity. In many, and probably, most cases such differences are worked out amicably because most folks tend to be generous and mutually understanding. In the Gospel (Matthew 18:15-20) Matthew depicts Jesus offering one way, though certainly not the only way, of dealing with these situations. 1) Going to the person alone to be reconciled. 2) If there’s no immediate reconciliation, taking one or two others along. 3) If, again, there’s no resolution, taking the matter before the whole community of sisters and brothers. The Gospel’s advice, in case no solution can be reached, to “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector...” seems harsh, and presents an obvious problem. Perhaps we need to look at this with new eyes.
Another example from the early desert fathers may give us a clue. A story is told of Abba Bitimius who goes to Abba Poemen with this dilemma: “If someone has a grievance against me and I ask his pardon but cannot convince him, what is to be done?” Abba Poemen answered: “Take two other brothers with you and ask his pardon. If he is not satisfied, take five others. If he is still not satisfied by them, take a priest. If even so he is not satisfied, then pray to God without anxiety, that God may satisfy him, and do not worry about it.”
You see Poemen’s unique strategy: transforming the situation from one in which I have an issue with my sister or brother into one in which my sister or brother has an issue with me that I must find a way to satisfy. Should the question arise, “If my sister or brother sins against me...”, he suggests, we should rather ask, “How does this work if I’m the sinner against my sister or brother?” In other words, if in our conflicts with others we simply shun them, there’s likely no further possibility of resolution. Abba Poemen believes that if I’ve done all that I can do and still reconciliation has failed, then the work should still continue, but in a diffferent way. One should pray to God without anxiety that God who alone knows what’s in each of us may help the other person work it out.
God speaks some sobering words to Ezekiel, and to us, at the end of Chapter 33: “As for you, mortal, your people who talk together about you by the walls, and at the doors of the houses, say to one another, each to a neighbor, ‘Come and hear what the word is that comes from the Lord.’ They come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear your words, but they will not obey them. For flattery is on their lips, but their heart is set on their gain. To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it. When this comes -- and come it will! -- then they shall know that a prophet has been among them...”
Perhaps that can give us, as God’s sentinels and watchpersons, a new slant on the Collect which the Book of Common Prayer assigns to this Sunday: “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy...”