Do y’all remember Ezekiel? Ezekiel, of ‘Dry Bones’ fame? The hip bone connected to the leg bone connected to the thigh bone? Yup? That’s Ezekiel.
In our Old Testament lesson this morning, God is talking to Ezekiel, and God tells Ezekiel that God will send our hero to a stubborn, rebellious people; that these people may or may not listen to Ezekiel; that these are people who come from a long line of not listening. They’re good at it by now; they’re seasoned; they’ve practiced. And God will send Ezekiel to the people who come from people who are good at not listening with the job of speaking. “Oh boy,” Ezekiel must have thought. Like selling veggie burgers to Texas cattle ranchers, on commission, or peddling life insurance to adolescents who are sure they will never die. An impossible call. An uphill challenge that God gives Ezekiel this morning.
A friend of mine, a priest, celebrated her last Sunday at a congregation and this was the reading assigned to the day. The irony of Ezekiel’s call to speak to a people trained not to listen on her last day as the congregation’s priest wasn’t lost on my friend. Ezekiel, my friend quietly thought to herself, the patron-saint of preachers.
But of course the temptation toward self-righteousness in the face of this lesson from Ezekiel does not belong exclusively to preachers. All of us can think of people in our lives for whom we’ve screwed up the courage to share the Good News of the Gospel or issued the invitation to join us at the children’s Christmas pageant and meet for drinks after the show (you know, so they won’t think we are extremists) - to no avail.
Far more commonly, though, when we’re talking about those who do not listen, we’re not talking about friends and acquaintances so much, but rather loved ones with whom we share our homes and all we have. The preacher is not unique in this respect. That is to say that even though we Christians talk about wanting our churches to feel like family, very few of our families actually make it to church together: witness the wife or husband who comes alone to the assembly and does so faithfully for years. Witness the children who have reached the age of defiance and the parents who, in exasperation, have quietly grown weary of coercing their children’s faith.
As a twenty-something Christian in the process of discerning a call to the priesthood, maybe ten years ago, I was invited on a family’s camping vacation to Lake Eerie: a few nights in tents that mercifully turned into hotel stays on account of the weather. Only after I had accepted the family’s invitation did the mother reveal the secret purpose in her bringing me along: I was to hang out with her two boys, fish with them periodically, and, as the opportunity presented itself, fix her oldest son’s faith.
Now, I was new to ministry at this point but not so green that I couldn’t see the futility of this charge. “Hey there,” I imagined myself saying to the boy whom I’d only met once before in passing, “Let’s talk about Jesus.” The boy, rolling his eyes, “Ugh. Did my mom put you up to this?”
Everybody knows not to step between a momma bear and her cub; why do we ever think human moms and their babes should be different?
I didn’t lead the son back to Christ that weekend. We played a lot of games, fished some (meaning I bludgeoned more than my share of the bait minnows against the rocks in my failed attempts to cast), and by the time I had to leave, we had begun to build some trust. No super-conversion for me or the boy, but I did a lot of talking to Mom and Dad that weekend, and I learned and listened to the broken hearts of two dear parents whose living faith and beloved son had come to live on different cliffs of a seemingly impossible canyon.
Ezekiel is told to speak to the people, with no promise that they will hear him. A difficult call, to get up and speak.
And yet, God’s candor with Ezekiel - when he names the stubbornness of the hearers, that some will refuse to hear - equally opens a startling possibility for Ezekiel that might also open hope and/or life for the parent, the spouse or, God help him, the preacher on a morning like this one. The startling possibility is that God has released us from the burden of changing the others. It’s not your job. I wonder if you are among those who need to be startled by this possibility: that God has released you from the burden of changing the others.
So comes the good question: if God does not call us to speak to the others in order to change the others, why in God’s Name does God call us to speak?
The beginning of an answer can be found in the chapter just before God’s call to Ezekiel, chapter one, sometimes called Ezekiel’s Inaugural Vision. “I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north - an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures.” This is the setting for God’s calling Ezekiel to speak.
And if all this sounds familiar, it’s for good reason. From the book of Revelation: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!’ The four living creatures said, ‘Amen,’ and the elders fell down in worship.”
The picture of the heavenly realm, the four living creatures, and the new earth, the New Jerusalem, is the picture of what creation speaks when there is no one left to change. Every tribe, every nation, every people brought together, collected, gathered at the center, still called to speak. And the word for what we will speak when there is no one else to change is praise: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”
With the author of Revelation, Ezekiel understands that the call of God for the People of God, the word that must be spoken, is praise.
I think this is why, just after our lesson this morning, God instructs Ezekiel not to rebel like the rebellious house, but to open his mouth and eat what God gives him. So God gives Ezekiel a scroll, the words God will give Ezekiel to speak. Before they are words for the others, they are first words for Ezekiel, his own food to chew, digest and live by; literally to embody; in time they will be God’s words for the People but just now they are God’s call to Ezekiel; first God at work in Ezekiel. And the call for Ezekiel is to live and embody the worship and praise of the God of Israel.
This, then, is God’s call for you: not to change them (pointing outside) or them (pointing to the epistle side) or them (to the choir) or them (to the gospel side) but love them; to love and praise him; stay close to him. Not hawking veggie burgers to cattle rangers, but becoming God’s beautiful People.
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas likes to say that Christians are called to be peaceful in a violent world, not because this will change the violent world, make it peaceful. Rather, he says, in a world of violence, Christians who worship the God who raised Jesus from the dead can do no other than be peaceful. Thus living peacefully is an announcement to a violent world and a pointer to the God whose triumph through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus has made it possible to be people of peace.
I think Ezekiel would want to say the same about praise, that God’s People are called to live lives of praise, but not because our praise will change either the world or our loved ones down the hall. Rather, in a world that has forgotten who and Whose it is, Christians who follow the God who raised Jesus from the dead can do no other than praise him.
So our message, then, is never “for them,” if by “for them” we imagine things they ought to be doing - attending, giving, participating; like my wife might have a list of things “for me” to do, chores to perform on my off day. Rather, the words we speak are the only things we can speak after coming here and receiving the Word and the Body and the Blood that find their place on our tongues. Our praises extend beyond this place into the world because we cannot unlearn the selves we are becoming at God’s loving, forgiving, generous hand.
And yet we do live “for them” in one important way: exactly to the extent that our lives become pictures of praise - the praises we paint across the canvas of our days by our words, songs, and actions - in and through our lives, we gently show others the beauty of the God who has made such lives possible, lives made alive by the Word that we eat.
Sermon preached at St Christopher's, July 8, 2012.