It feels like we’ve spent the past few weeks watching and reading news of hurricanes, first Harvey, now Irma, and then Jose. I do, again, recommend giving to Episcopal Relief and Development, either directly or by letting Emmanuel pass your donation on; they work with churches and agencies on the ground in the dioceses that are affected. But we’ve all seen the photos of houses turned to splinters, of trees whipping around, of cars lined up on the highway trying to evacuate. How interesting, then, that this morning our lectionary gives us a reading written by an evacuee. The prophet Ezekiel was also forced to leave his homeland in the wake of destruction, after the Babylonians invaded.
You can tell how traumatic evacuating was for Ezekiel from the fact that he dates everything from it. As you read along in his book, you find, “in the 7th year of our exile and the 5th month,” “in the 9th year and the 10th month…” Forget the normal calendar, what counts is how long it’s been since this awful thing happened. But you don’t have to be a victim of a hurricane or a Babylonian invasion to have that sense of exile. Some of you may know what it is to go through your days with a date in your head: it’s been 2 months since the accident, it’s been a year since we lost Dad. Well, Ezekiel’s call is not just to live with that kind of trauma himself, but to proclaim God’s message in the midst of it.
This passage, the first reading on your insert, describes that call. God talks a fair amount in this book, as he does in many of the books of the prophets. “Mortal,” God says to Ezekiel today, “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.”
ounds straightforward. But it’s not quite that easy, because not everyone listens to warnings. So there’s an odd legalese section where God clarifies the terms of who’s responsible for what. If Ezekiel knows what God is saying and doesn’t speak it out, the people can’t be blamed for not following it. That’s Ezekiel’s fault. But if Ezekiel knows what God is saying and does speak it out, his responsibility stops there; it’s up to the people whether or not they choose to obey. I’m going to say that again: God tells Ezekiel that if Ezekiel delivers God’s message and the people ignore it, the responsibility for the consequences lies with the people. But if Ezekiel doesn’t deliver the message in the first place, then the responsibility for the consequences lies with Ezekiel.
I don’t know if God had to make this point because Ezekiel had strong control needs and tried to take too much responsibility for how people responded to him, or because Ezekiel sometimes didn’t have the nerve to publicize what he knew God thought. But either way, his situation is one we’re all in regularly if we’re part of a Christian community. When God has given us his truth, as he does every time we open the Bible or come to Mass, we are to relay it and live by it faithfully, but let people make their own choices as to how to respond. Some of us will be more tempted to leave what God says here in the church building, to gloss over demonstrating the way of life he shows us in his Word and his Sacrament. Others will be more tempted to try and control how others respond to us, to meddle. So you might stop for a second and think – which, as a Christian, am I more prone to? Not living differently than those around me, or trying to control the response of those around me? That’ll help you figure out your best takeaway from this morning.
So God is initially telling Ezekiel to say his piece straightforwardly, but not invest in the outcome. Say your piece and let it go. It’s on them. But then there’s a shift in the middle of the reading. Take a look. What seems to happen is that the people Ezekiel has told the truth do begin to respond to it. That’s when, after first asking Ezekiel to tell the people “O wicked ones, you shall surely die,” God then gives him what sounds like a follow up message. Look at it: Now, mortal, say to the house of Israel, thus you have said,“our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them, how then can we live?” Doesn’t that seem as if the people have begun to break out of their denial and see how what God is saying applies to them too? To see how living out of sync with God is hurting them? – because ignoring God doesn’t hurt just other people or just God, it always hurts you too. Here’s what they say: “We waste away because of this junk we’ve been focusing on! It’s like an emotional weight! Is there any hope for us?”
What will God say? From the previous 32 chapters you might think he’d answer no. If you don’t know the God of the Bible well, you might even imagine a deity who’d relish giving that answer. People have only been disobeying him since day one. He tried Moses, he tried the law, he tried prophets, he tried political crises, he tried more prophets, he tried all kinds of things for 100s of years, and now? Now the experiment has failed, they’ve evacuated, their city is in ruins, and now they’re going to make nice? Wouldn’t the natural answer be: No! You had your chance! Some of you may know the classic skit with Steve Martin from SNL, where he’s sitting in an armchair and making his Christmas list, which starts out If I had one wish that I could wish this holiday season, it would be for all the children of the world to join hands and sing together in the spirit of harmony. Steve names a few more wishes for Christmas, and then abruptly he bangs the chair and says, “Oh, wait! I forgot about revenge against my enemies! Okay… revenge against all my enemies, they should die like pigs in Hell!”
Ezekiel has just told the people basically that – they’ve been living as God’s enemies, and it’s killing them. But the second they ask God if there’s any alternative to letting the way they live kill them, God is right there with a whole different answer: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that they turn from their ways and live. Turn back! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” At their first sign of recognizing they need to change, God avows, “Of course! I didn’t ever want you to die! You’re the ones who kept making choices that threw your lives off kilter. I never wanted that for you.” God never wills evil for us. God never wills to harm us. Other so-called deities may, but not the God of the Bible.
So if we want to summarize the assignment God gives us as his witnesses, it’s actually not only say your piece and let it go. It’s say your piece and let it go, until the moment when the people around you show any sign of insight into what’s gone wrong for them, and then tell them about mercy. Tell them what our God is like. See when it comes down to it, the God of the Bible is not a “Wait! I forgot revenge against my enemies!” God, he’s a “Wait, I forgot mercy for my enemies” God. So many people haven’t really spent enough time with the Bible to know what the God it shows us is like. The one we make up is far inferior.
So from the early part of Ezekiel, full of complete honesty about the mess people make of themselves and the world when they’re out of sync with God, full of realistic words of consequences and judgment, from here on out in the book we begin to move to promises of renewal, of new life. Mercy for God’s enemies.
Don’t get me wrong, the judgment was very real: the business people were lining their pockets on the backs of the poor, the religious were hedging their bets by adding bits and pieces of other spiritual traditions onto what Scripture commands, the politicians were making policy that ignored God’s priorities. Just like today. Fallen behavior by fallen people in a fallen world, exactly the stuff that Jesus came to do battle with in his Cross and Resurrection. God doesn’t look the other way when we break ourselves and break his world; he’s not a God of denial, he deals with evil head on. But he deals with it for the sake of reconciliation and healing. If people don’t want to be reconciled and don’t want to be healed, it’s on them. But the second people even hint that they might be open, God is right there, ready to forgive and heal. His desire was never to hurt them, it was always to draw them back.
“As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that they turn from their ways and live.” It seems to me that if we were really gazing on and drinking in the God of the Bible, we Christians, we might come off a bit more like that. Whether it’s fair or not, when the world asks, “Who are the Christians?”, so often the answer is: oh, they’re the ones who are against stuff. They’re opposed to things. In the era of the church fathers, what people said was “See how they love each other. See how those Christians love.” I’d rather have that. I’d rather us be known for saying over and over, “Oh, wait, I forgot mercy for my enemies.” I’m not saying known for denial. Not known for glossing over evil. Not known for blending in. Just known for mercy.
The WWII-era pastor Martin Niemoeller, who protested Hitler's anti-semitic measures and was eventually imprisoned, once confessed, "It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of His enemies." I’d love us Christians to be known for that. I’d love for us to be so in touch with God’s mercy for us sinners that we couldn’t be the enemy even of our enemies. But the way to get there isn’t by avoiding honestly naming evil in ourselves and in the world; it’s by naming it, and then casting ourselves and our parish and our society and our universe on the infinite mercy of God, the only thing that can and will ultimately set all things right.
So what's our takeaway? We speak the truth. We demonstrate God’s way of life over against the world’s. We make it obvious, verbally and non-verbally, where our trust is and why we do what we do. And then we hand it all over to God, whose ultimate motivation is always mercy. Who is not even the enemy of his enemies. And who already did on the Cross everything that was necessary to make even his enemies, even us, his friends.