Astrologers are having a field day with the state of our country and world these days. Those who make charts of planetary alignment at our birth and follow the progression of dominant astrological patterns are talking about Mars, the war god, ascending, and Gemini, the twin gods, either bringing us together as brothers and sisters or engaging in deadly sibling rivalry. I learned this week that there’s even a star chart for the Declaration of Independence–I suppose focused on July 4, 1776–and some observers see it now standing in opposition to President Trump’s chart, whatever that means. I know precious little about any of this, other than that the observation of the movement of the stars and planets has been one of humankind’s oldest guides in understanding events in the world. Astrologers–the Magi– noted the star at Jesus’ birth, for example. Some people still find it to be extremely helpful. I find it at least fascinating.
It does seem, though, that nature is mirroring the chaos and conflict in our nation and world. This morning Hurricane Irma is plowing up the state of Florida, having left destruction in its wake in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and various other Caribbean islands. Last week it was Hurricane Harvey, and Hurricane Jose is fast approaching. A powerful earthquake with almost as powerful aftershocks has rocked southern Mexico this week, and vast, potent wildfires are raging out west. One writer said it looks like nature is reflecting the destructive energies in our collective psyche. Hurricanes in the northern hemisphere rotate counter-clockwise, which is the direction in many indigenous cultures for the undoing of things, the dissolving of what has been built, the destruction of order. [Lynn Bell, FB] Another word that’s been used to describe these storms and events is “biblical”– a storm and devastation of “Biblical proportions.”
What is certain is that it’s not the first time humanity, including those who call themselves “the people of God,” have faced crisis and deep dislocation. The stories of Noah and the ark, of the Israelites fleeing Egypt and coming up to the shore of the Red Sea with Egyptian armies in hot pursuit, the stories from the wilderness of running out of food and water, the massive deportation and exile of the people of Israel into Babylon, all were told to tell the generations far removed from the time what the cost of coming to this time and place was, what resources of faith and strength were available to them, and, most importantly, who and Whose they were. It is all too easy, when we are not immediately and directly threatened, to fall into false confidence and complacency. Nothing like an impending crisis to focus our attention.
The prophets of Israel used all sorts of metaphors and language and performance art to catch the attention of a nation that had grown complacent and lax in its faithfulness to God’s ways. Some of these prophets would be quickly dismissed as “nutcases,” extremists, wackos if they were to appear today. Ezekiel especially, Walter Brueggemann says, has been the subject of numerous psychoanalytic studies because of his visions, methods, and language, but his images are also some of the most memorable and evocative. The valley of the dry bones, for example, bones laying scattered and then when Ezekiel preaches to them, they come rattling together, sinew upon sinew, skin, and finally breath. And “Ezekiel saw the wheel”–remember that? “Ezekiel saw the wheel way up in the middle of the air.” The wheel was undergirding the cherubim who lifted the presence of God out of and away from the Temple, in an unforgettable image that said, “God has left the building.” God has withdrawn the divine presence from your midst because you have forgotten and profaned your God. And Ezekiel spoke to Israel in much less singable images, essentially telling her she had become a whore.
“All of the harsh language and shocking metaphors,” one scholar says, “constitute God’s strategies to awaken the people to their estrangement from God and their own true identity.” [Charles Arron, workingpreacher.org, 9/19/17] The metaphor God tells Ezekiel to use in today’s passage is that of an invading army coming, although God pushes the metaphor by appointing Ezekiel as the warning sentinel of the invading army. “Look out, we’re coming! There’s still time to be saved, still time to change your ways….Don’t make me do this.” God is coming in judgment not just to destroy but to restore and renew.
I love the image on the cover of our bulletins today–”Remember, Restore, Renew,” with that tree standing between calm and ruffled waters, partially enveloped by the cloud. Remember, o my people, how I saved you, delivered you, out of Egypt? Remember how I cared for you in the wilderness? The story of the final plague–the Passover of the angel of death–is actually the alternative Hebrew scripture reading for today.
“So you, mortal,” God says to Ezekiel,[in today’s reading] “I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life….As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live…”
God comes in judgment not just to destroy but to restore and renew. “For God did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to save it,” as the Gospel of John tells us. So, Ezekiel sees the presence of God leaving the Temple on a chariot of cherubim as an indictment of the priests and princes, the officials, the prophets, and the people. “You want to do this without me? You want to make up your own rules? Go for it. See how that works for you.”
But God doesn’t simply abandon the people. Even in exile, God sends sentinels to wake the people up to their wicked ways, to give them a chance to escape destruction and be born anew. God longs to restore the people to their true identity as God’s people, to their life-giving relationship with each other and God. “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live…..”
“Owe no one anything,” the apostle Paul writes, “except to love one another….Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” Now is the time, before it’s too late, to wake up to what we’re doing to each other and to the earth. If we in the church do not speak this truth and warning, the blood is on our hands. Now is the time to stop thinking exclusively in transactional terms–what we can buy and sell, what we can acquire, what kind of deal we can strike, how we can use and sell each other, use and sell the earth–and owe no one anything, except to love one another.
This was as radical in Paul’s day as it is in ours. People knew only too well their obligations to the emperor, the debts they owed, the obligations of slaves to their masters, of wives to their husbands. “Owe no one anything but love” was a whole new ballgame. It was rearranging the furniture in the structures of their life, eliminating the structures of standing authority, as one commentator put it. [Kyle Fever, workingpreacher.org, 9/1017]
“The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light….put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Be transformed.
“For God did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world.” There are competing preachers who say these hurricanes are God’s punishment against gays, or against President Trump for giving in to the Democrats, or any number of other ridiculous claims. God does not “use” tragedies or natural disasters to “punish” us. There is quite a bit of evidence though that we, in fact, have contributed to the immensity and intensity of these storms and wildfires. Our use and misuse of land for economic gain, with no regard to the earth’s own wisdom; our pumping into air and sea, soil and water toxins and temperatures that override creation’s built-in regulating systems; our ignoring of the best wisdom and research of scientists and their God-given intelligence – all these contain consequences and, if you will, punishments in themselves.
“Remember. Restore. Renew.” That is our call today in these tumultuous times–as a church, as a community and nation, as individuals. “Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep. .. The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day…” May these words be truth, and hope, and courage for us for the living of these days.”
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark