I am cognizant that there is a lot going on today. We have the Healing service, Vicki’s stewardship talk, the potluck, an Outreach Committee meeting, and all the normal Sunday morning events. I acknowledge this by way of saying that I will be intentionally brief this morning, allowing more time for healing prayers and Vicki; I will, however, try to be a little more intentional writing out a better sermon than what I say today. Put differently, you may way to wrestle a bit more with me by grabbing a copy later this week or reading it online, assuming I get to that part of my work in a timely fashion.
Our reading from Ezekiel begins with a note that the word of the Lord came to the prophet. In one sense the writing is formulaic; in another, of course, the writing reminds us that the words that the prophet is about to share comes directly from God. This is not Ezekiel’s thoughts and ruminations on the condition of Israel, but rather God’s thoughts about Israel. As such, we should take notice, as we are the new Israel, part of the Church.
God begins His instruction by noting a famous proverb, or a proverb that is repeated often in the life of Israel. “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” If we think about it, it makes sense why this was a proverb. Karen and I learned the lesson of this proverb with Sarah. As you all know, I am not much for using my family as sermon illustrations, but this one is just too easy to ignore. Karen was meticulous with how she ate and drank when pregnant with Sarah. As with many first time parents, we wanted to make sure we did everything just right. As part of her incubating routine, Karen gave up caffeine. I see the nods and elbows. Many moms-to-be give up caffeine and alcohol while the babies are developing within. Anyway, for our first night out after Sarah’s birth, we went to a restaurant called Bennigan’s with our best couple friends, Sean and Shannon.
It is at this point that I should mention that Karen was nursing Sarah. We were only three or four weeks out from Sarah’s birth. The doctor had said it was ok for us to take Sarah into the public, but we waited for a week or two before “risking” the great wide world. Without thinking, Karen ordered a diet coke to go with her meal. I see the nodding laughter of those who nursed their own babies, or watched their wives nurse their own babies. I sure did not think anything of it. Sean and Shannon, newly married at that time, sure did not think anything of it. If our waitress did, she sure did not say anything. It wasn’t until Karen was on her second diet coke of the meal that the thought crossed her mind. It was then, of course, that it crossed mine, as well as Sean’s and Shannon’s minds, too!
Karen can speak better to the consequences. This was a Friday or Saturday night, I think, and Sarah did not sleep until Wednesday or Thursday of the next week! Since Karen had scrupulously avoided caffeine during her pregnancy, you all know how Sarah likely responded. I think it really was a full day before Sarah went to sleep. She was not upset or whiny, quite the contrary! She was like a little energizer bunny that just kept going and going and going and going. To modernize the proverb, Karen had consumed caffeine and the child needed no sleep.
We have since learned, of course, that caffeine is not the only food that affects a nursing child’s behavior. You may recall that we have seven children. That means Karen has nursed a lot of babies, relative to many women here. You know how individualistic my children are, so it may not surprise you to learn that their behavior was affected by momma’s diet. Some liked mother’s milk with a hint of Mexican food; others got a bit fussy or colicky from it. Some loved mother’s milk with pizza flavor; others could not stand it. Part of Karen’s challenge, of course, was trying to figure out which foods she could eat with which child. Thankfully, none reacted badly to chocolate!
Now, you all have been laughing and elbowing and sharing your similar stories in whispers even as I describe this in a bit more detail. You know the truth of what I am saying. Heck, even if you did not live it yourselves, we have Rosemary to remind us of its truth! That means you understand the proverb that Israel is reciting. The children’s teeth can certainly be set on edge by what the parent is eating. Of course, the proverb is not about nursing mothers and their children. In this case, the proverb refers more to the fact that the parents’ actions and inactions have an impact on the child. What gets passed along is not limited to food passed in milk.
Again, this should come as no surprise. We are all raised in family systems. Heck, most of us here have created our own family systems. We may like to think we avoid the same mistakes as our parents, but it’s a safe bet we make our own mistakes with the next generation. If you do not believe me, ask the next generation that you raised. If they tell you that you did everything perfectly, they are lying. We are human beings; we make mistakes. There are few places other than in families where we are able to fail more.
Why does God, then, hate this proverb? Why does He ban its use among His people? That, too, is easily understood. Don’t raise your hands; just give it some thought. How many of us are disappointed or worried about our country? I see lots of nodding. Good. I am not alone. Sometimes I wrestle with whether I am getting old. As a youth, I would have never imagined another Civil War. Nowadays? I’m not so sure. How many of us are disappointed or worried about our church? I see the nodding. I know some of the fears associated with that as a number of you have spoken about it with me this year. How many of us are disappointed or worried about our families? See? Aren’t you glad now I did not ask you to raise your hands? The truth is that most of us are worried about big things and little things and things in between. We look at the country and feel a bit impotent, like we can’t really do anything to help correct things. The President and members of Congress are not our Facebook friends; we don’t have their numbers in our phones. The church seems a bit closer to home, but the work is incredibly hard. We look around and see there are too few of us in the early family stage of life and middle age. There’s a big gap. Each of us probably feels we can do something about that—invite younger people, support programs that attract younger people, and things like that—in reality, though, the work is hard and seems a bit tough for many of us. Families, of course, hit closest to home—pun intended. We like to think we can impact our families. The truth is, though, they are made up of other free-willed individuals. We can law down the law or make a change, but there is never any guarantee others will listen to us.
I’ve used only three examples. No doubt you have thought of others at work or social or athletic clubs. Perhaps, with the upcoming Primates Meeting, you are even worried about the wider church. Aside from the desire to do something about those systems about which we care deeply, we share another characteristic with those of Israel on the receiving end of Ezekiel’s prophesy: we don’t like the blame. Whose fault is it that country is not working the way we think it should? Our leaders’. But who elects our leaders? You and me and those around us. The same is true in the church. Who do we blame for that donut of 20-50yo’s in our midst? Some like to blame the clergy. Others like to blame the Vestry. Some like to blame those in that age group for not being committed. The truth, of course, is that we all have a hand in their absence. Churches are formed by relationships. When the younger set has appeared amongst us, how many of us have done the hard work of forging relationships with them, of getting to know them, of putting down our guard and letting them get to know us? And families are too obvious, right? If we are the mothers or fathers, we have designed and shaped the system that is in place at home. But we blame our upbringing or the willful kids or the unsupportive spouse. And while those can influence a system, they do not explain everything.
In His prophesy today, Ezekiel is calling out a generation for absolving itself of blame. To root you in the history of this reading, the Northern Kingdom has been defeated and is in the process of being carried off into Exile. Their cities have been destroyed. Their armies have been crushed. Their Promised Land, that outward sign of the fact that they were God’s chosen people, has been taken from them. They are being marched hundreds of miles across the empire to be settled in isolated communities that cannot pose a future threat to Babylon. Those on the trail blame the parents and ancestors for their misfortune. It’s their fault we are disgorged from the Land. Hand our ancestors been faithful to Yahweh, we would not be defeated and humiliated. The parents have eaten the sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are on edge, indeed! Like humans of every generation, no one likes to accept blame for mistakes. We think we are so smart when we stand before judges and claim we are not guilty because our parents abused us or did not love us in the right way or that we had to steal because we were raised in a poor family or that we killed because we were once scared by someone in another encounter. The truth is, we have been making those arguments since the time of the Garden! Does Adam accept his guilt when first confronted by God? No! He tells God, “That woman that YOU gave me, she gave me the apple and I ate.” Adam blames both Eve and God in that argument, and we think we are so advanced.
The other side of that argument, though, is equally invalid. Sometimes, rather than simply cast blame at others, we seek to limit ourselves, we adopt an attitude of fatalism. Sometimes, we like to assert that we are the victims of our circumstances and that nothing can change that. We can’t love properly because we have not been loved properly; we cannot learn correctly because learning was not valued at home or supported in our schools; we cannot eat right because people where we come from don’t eat right—you have heard many more of these excuses, I am sure. And, reading or listening to Ezekiel’s words today, we might be tempted to become fatalistic. What can we do about our situation? Our parents and ancestors have disappointed God, so we will, too, might seem a natural response, but it is a lie whispered by the Enemy and repeated amongst ourselves.
We skip a number of verses today, as you can all see. Often, the skipped verses are important. Ezekiel shares the story of a righteous father, an unrighteous son, and a righteous grandson. Long verses and story short: Is the unrighteous son guaranteed God’s blessing because of the righteousness of the father? No! Is the righteous grandson punished for the unrighteousness of the father? No! Each generation is responsible for his or her relationship to God. God will not accept the proverb any more because Israel is refusing to own its share of the sour grapes, its share of the broken relationship with God.
As we read and study this passage, we learn a lot about God. We learn that God’s patience has a limit, that God keeps His word, that His punishments are painful, that He will use our enemies to chastise us, that God’s justice is often different from our own, that we are responsible for our relationship with Him, that we cannot force someone else into right relationship with Him, and there are probably other lessons we can learn. But the good news of this passage is the heart of God that is revealed. Knowing that we are responsible for our relationship with Him, and knowing that He has made that right relationship possible through the work and person of His Son our Lord Christ, why would we ever choose to claim this proverb for ourselves? Why would we ever lay claim to fatalism? Why would we not claim His Son our Lord and live?
Modern scholars and infrequent attending Christians like to claim that God changes between the Old and New Testament. Something happens to Him where He ceases to be a tribal volcano god of wrath in the Old Testament and becomes a loving, gentle God in the New Testament. The problem, of course, is that we do not pay close attention to stories and prophecies like this. Yes, God has had a strong word to say to Israel. He has shown them what psychologists and others call tough love. You will not use that proverb to explain your circumstances? Israel is free to complain and gripe about their circumstances, but they are going to have to be honest that they had a share in the creation of those circumstances. Still, though, He is a God who seeks no one’s death. He far prefers for us mortals to turn and live.
Our collect today reminds us that God chiefly shows His almighty power by what? Nuking the nations? Hurling lightning bolts at sinners? No! In showing mercy and pity! He is a God who shows His power through forgiveness and mercy, both in the Old Testament and the New. And make no mistake, He is the perfect parent. Sometimes, we best learn the lessons we need to know by learning from our mistakes. He promises only to redeem all our sins and circumstances. There is no promise that we get to avoid them, except in the fact that Jesus took our sins upon Himself and died so that we would not have to die ourselves. More amazingly, He was raised from the dead so that we might live, very much in the way that God speaks to Israel through the words of Ezekiel at the beginning of the Exile some twenty-five centuries ago.
There are three lessons I would wish that we would all hear this day. First, we are responsible for our relationship to God this day. No one else can bring us into right relationship with Him. We must choose to turn to Him, through Christ. Corollary to that, though, is the understanding that we cannot force anyone into right relationship with Him. We can be as loving and winsome and joyful as possible, but the burden of decision falls on the other person. Pray for them, serve them, teach them, love them, ask their forgiveness when we screw up; but remember they must make that decision for themselves, whether to turn to God through Christ or to continue on their own way. Lastly, we serve a God who takes no pleasure in death and destruction. We dishonor our Lord and we grossly misrepresent Him when we claim that “they got what they deserved” for rejecting Him. Be they our friends or our enemies, they and we are all His children. Should He not have pity on ISIS or North Korea or those in our lives who have rejected Him, to remind you of His words in Jonah last week? And just as His heart breaks at the death of one of His children, so does it leap when we choose Him! And you and I are called to be heralds of the almighty God who declares His power chiefly in showing mercy and pity! Rather than accepting that people have received their just desserts in earthquakes or fires or hurricanes or other natural disasters, we should be reminding everyone that He wants us only to turn to Him so that we might live forever! In the end, if we are about His business of loving and serving those around us, there are no sour grapes. Better still, there is no reason for anyone’s teeth to be on edge!
In Christ’s Peace,