Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Michelangelo's Ezekiel
<emGo and speak to the exiles, whether they listen or choose not to listen.

[A sermon on the Uniform Series text, Ezekiel 3:1-11, delivered at a small church in southern Indiana.]

There is a famous story from ancient Greece – actually, supposedly from about the 4th century – about Alexander the Great and the Gordion knot. Many maybe already know that story – how a prophetic oracle predicted that the next king of Phrygia would come riding into town on an ox-cart, and sure enough, this happened, so the farmer driving the cart was crowned king and the ox-cart was tied to a post with a really complicated knot, the Gordion knot, where it stayed for a long time; eventually, there was supposed to be a new ruler of Phrygia, who would be the person who could undo that elaborate knot. So Alexander the Great shows up in Phrygia, hears this story, and being Alexander and the kind of person who liked to be in charge, wanted to succeed at this task very much – but after taking a couple of tries at untying the knot, it was obvious he wasn’t going to manage that, so he reasoned it wouldn’t matter how he undid the knot, as long as he did, at which point he pulled out his sword and sliced it in half – presto! The knot was undone, Alexander was the next ruler, and … well, I don’t know whether everyone was happy about it, but that might not have been the point. So that’s the story of the Gordion knot.

But suppose it did matter how the knot was undone? What if it had needed to be untied, what if short-cutting the process of untying that knot would have wrecked something? What if, for instance, the Phrygians were going to need the rope that made up that knot for something else later on?

I bring this up, because sometimes the Alexanders of the world are correct, … but sometimes they’re not; sometimes the simple quick fix to a problem can’t be the correct solution, because the long way around is the only way to get the results needed. Sometimes, for one reason or another, struggle is the only way to the really happy ending.

It’s not that I like to hear that kind of thing. I like to hear about happy endings, and I like them to happen pretty quick. I really like those less-than-two-hour romantic comedies. I like stories where heroes fix things, where people make things better, I like the story where Moses touches the Red Sea with his staff and it parts and the Israelites get away, or the woman touches the hem of Jesus’ garment and her disease is cured instantly – that’s what good is all about, isn’t it? And isn’t doing good … well, for lack of a better term, God’s job description? Isn’t God supposed to be on our side, looking out for us, keeping bad things from happening, or at least things that are too bad, and arranging for good things to happen, at least things that are reasonably good, so that when that is all happening, then it seems like God is doing God’s job well, and when that is not happening, it starts to look like God is not taking the consumer satisfaction ratings seriously enough. I am pretty sure I am not the only person who has ever thought this way.

I’m particularly aware of my thinking here because of reading Ezekiel this week. Because this is one of those stories in the Bible that, try as I might to get them to support my preferred way of thinking, it’s one of those stories that are stubborn, that resist all those efforts to make them tell the story I like to tell, that keep coming back around to their story, that have a different point to make. So after working against this text for a few days, I finally realized I was not listening; and then, when I tried to listen, I realized: sometimes God does exactly the opposite of Alexander the Great with the Gordion Knot. Sometimes God knows that whatever needs to happen next is going to be a long, involved, maybe messy, maybe unpleasant process, that from a human perspective will take a good deal of time, and that there are going to be a lot of complaints along the way, and that there is no way around that, if the result is going to be what the result needs to be. And in a situation like that, God is going to persist, and is going to stick with God’s people through that process. Because God is stubborn when it comes to being with God’s people; God is stubborn about togetherness.

This is one of the things the story of Ezekiel tells us. It shows us a God who is determined to be present with God’s people, even though God’s people won’t recognize or appreciate God’s loyalty for a long time, in a situation that can’t be fixed right away, but is going to have to be unknotted the long way.

God doesn’t set Ezekiel up to be any kind of “savior;” God doesn’t pretend that Ezekiel will be fixing anything – there isn’t going to be any “fixing” the Babylonian exile. Ezekiel will act, in a way, as a priest – someone who communicates God’s presence to the people, and the people’s concerns to God. Ezekiel will definitely be a prophet, someone who will have a word from God, that is, God’s presence in message form; and while that’s presumably a good thing – after all, that word tastes sweet to Ezekiel – it’s not a happy word. The scroll Ezekiel is given to eat is covered with words of lament, mourning, and woe.

Our first instinct may be to think this means God is telling people that lament, mourning and woe are in their future. Which they are, actually … we know this from history. We know that even after the beginning of the exile, the kingdom of Judah is going to keep making disastrous religious and political decisions, is going to stick to its self-centered thinking, and is going to provoke the Babylonians to destroy the city of Jerusalem and burn down the Temple. All that is still on the horizon, and all of that will come as an incomprehensible shock to the upper-middle-class types who have been deported to Babylonia, who are so convinced that God has guaranteed their monarchy and their Temple unconditionally … they are going to be dumbfounded, it is going to feel like God has abandoned them. So yes, lament, mourning, and woe are still in their future.

But we also need to notice that this is the scroll of God’s words. The words of lament, mourning, and woe are not only the people’s, they’re God’s. God laments, mourns, and registers woe, as much as the members of the House of Israel do. God laments the destruction, God mourns the loss of the people’s life in the holy land that had been set apart for them, God sees the end of Jerusalem as a source of grief – God, after all, initiated the covenant relationship with Israel, has a passionate involvement in it – it’s not as if God doesn’t love Israel.

In fact, it’s precisely because God does love Israel that this reversal is happening in the first place. Israel has gotten itself into stuff that is so self-destructive that God can’t continue to support it, because if it continued, it would damage Israel beyond repair.

As we know, some of us all too well, this sometimes happens in our own families, to our heartbreak: our beautiful child gets caught up in substance abuse, and we finally realize that our money isn’t helping but is hurting them; our sister or brother gets involved in a relationship that we realize is emotionally damaging, and anything we try to say becomes evidence to them that we don’t understand or care, so is worse than saying nothing. In situations like that, loving that person means walking a tightrope: maintaining contact to the extent they can, trying to support whatever their loved one does that’s healthy, without supporting or enabling what’s unhealthy. There is no formula for this kind of response, it’s anguishing, and the process always seems to involve some stepping back and allowing the person to experience the consequences of their choices, to recognize the connection between their behavior and their circumstances. But “being there” is part of the process, too. This seems to be God’s approach with the House of Israel: on one hand, there are real consequences for the way of life the Israelites have cultivated over the past centuries; on the other hand, God wants to emphasize the “I’m with you,” even though the House of Israel doesn’t seem to be listening to that at the moment.

In Israel’s case, people have to see that the religious life they had come to take for granted in the time before the exile was part of the problem that led up to that exile, was part of the source of their misery. People had gotten so used to mixing the worship of the local gods, and their images, with the worship of the God of Israel, had gotten so used to idolatry, that they couldn’t see it for what it was. In particular, they couldn’t see that it was all wrapped up with injustice, which was the even deeper problem. Because the local Canaanite gods the Israelites had started to prefer were gods of feretility – that is, of personal prosperity, of doing well, gods that were supposed to give worshippers what they wanted. Those deities always lead people to embrace injustice; they represent the idea that I can prosper while my neighbor suffers, maybe even prosper from my neighbor’s suffering, the idea that my neighbor’s suffering is compatible with my prosperity. That idea is fundamentally unbiblical. It is the antithesis of Biblical justice, and it’s anathema to the God of Israel. That was the idolatry and injustice the prophets had been speaking out against for generations by this time – and people hadn’t been listening.

We know this, of course – it probably sounds commonplace to us; the idea that idolatry is unacceptable and justice is necessary is central to what we think of as the religious tradition of ancient Israel, the tradition in which Jesus grew up, the tradition in which we ourselves participate. But honestly, we probably know it better than those early exiles did, and we know it because of the massive re-education project those early exiles had to undertake, because of how they came to re-think what they had been doing and what it had done to them, because of their struggle to re-discover what God was asking of them, which the tragedy of the exile motivated them to undertake. It was a process, an uncomfortable process of unlearning what they thought they knew, and relearning  things they had forgotten, and learning new things they hadn’t understood before. The fruits of that process, which took place over the next forty, fifty, sixty years in Babylonia, were the insights that ultimately got recorded in the Bible we have in our hands today, the insight that loyalty to the God of Israel is where people’s real best interest lies.

All through that process, God continues to communicate with these people, stubbornly sending them the messages that help keep it on track, staying with them.

Being part of that “staying with” is Ezekiel’s real job. Ezekiel is not going to “fix” the House of Israel and its problems; Ezekiel’s contemporaries are going to try hard to ignore his often very weird messages, so God can’t promise Ezekiel a deeply satisfying professional prophetic experience. Instead, Ezekiel will be suffering through this process along with his “brothers and sisters” of the House of Israel. Ezekiel, after all, is one of them; God is sending him to people whose community and whose fate he shares intimately, as God does. He really is, in that sense, God’s representative to the House of Israel.

And being God’s messenger, he will let them “know there has been a prophet among them.” That matters more than we might realize. There were ancient rabbis who said that prophecy could not occur outside the land of Israel; the early exiles seem to have thought at the time that God’s presence was specially associated with the Temple in Jerusalem, and that God’s spirit or presence was especially associated with that city – without that Temple, away from that city, God was lost to them. But what we see all through Ezekiel are demonstrations that God transcends space and time; God’s spirit goes wherever it wills, including the land of Babylonia; God’s spirit can move Ezekiel there. God makes Godself present, if not directly, at least through the agency of Ezekiel. God hasn’t left the exiles alone or unaccompanied, God is in this process together with the exiles.

And God’s presence is stubborn. God emphasizes Ezekiel’s stubbornness as a qualification. These are stubborn people says God to Ezekiel, but you’re going to be even more stubborn. You’re going to be even more hard-headed. You will not give way before them, you won’t support their denial, you will be their loyal opposition in exile, one of them, but with a difference, giving them something to think about, communicating my words to them, whether or not they listen to it … in other words, not leaving, not giving up, being together, even when the situation is going to involve a long process of coming to terms with something very negative.

Not abandoning people, not giving up on people, even when people don’t give you credit for it … that is the modus operandi of this God. Presence, even in the midst of real problems, not just in the times of rejoicing, but in the times of lament, mourning and woe, this is God’s modus operandi.

We may not have to live through the Babylonian exile [thank goodness], but honestly, we sometimes have to travel through terrible times, too. Some situations cannot be “fixed” without doing violence to the values we care about in the situation; and apparently “the world” is one of those situations. So there are times and places we are called to live through; sometimes they are in our own lives; sometimes they arise for us in the task of loving our neighbor as ourselves, are situations we are called on to go through together with our neighbors. I think we still have on our prayer list hospice volunteers … people who support the work of sitting with people who are dying  – because family members can’t always do this 24-7, because sometimes they need a hand, because it helps to have others, friends neighbors, who are willing to take on that task together, to be together with people who are going through a process that cannot be short-circuited, cannot be cut through, cannot be evaded.

The Kingdom of God is like that, according to Jesus. The Kingdom of God is the kind of place that, even though the world is not ideal, and even though it can’t just be “fixed” without destroying the very thing God loves, supports life and growth anyway. We support life and growth because God does that, because God is stubbornly determined to support life and growth. If the weeds can’t be taken out of the world, and if people need to be here, whether it’s to grow to maturity, or to learn what we need to learn, or to develop the relationship to God and to one another we need to develop … I don’t pretend to know all the answers here … but if that is where we live, then our task, like the task of the workers in Jesus’ parable, is to do what we can to nurture the life and growth that is going on, to stay together with the people who are going through the process, the way God does: with the kind of stubborn devotion that doesn’t give up, doesn’t give in, and doesn’t despair, because it is rooted and grounded in love, and because it does look forward eventually to that day when the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of God.

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