It started early Monday. I sat down with the paper, and was met with a glaring headline about a review done of the state’s prisons. The most mentally ill inmates, the review writes, were often locked away, ignored by staff, stuck in fetid cells, alone. The reporter wrote: "Inmates inside the Raleigh prison were left isolated for weeks of ‘therapeutic seclusion,’ sometimes without clothing or a mattress, in cells described as roach-infested and with human waste puddled on the floor." Therapeutic Seclusion, they called it.1 When the news gets too tough sometimes I switch over to SportsCenter, hoping for relief. But even the news about sports hasn’t been about sports these tragic weeks, but about helpless victims at Penn State, about bureaucracies and their leaders too blind to do the right thing, about the power the money these sports have over institutions that are supposed to be about teaching young men and women to build a better world.2 And all this, as the Christmas tree stands go out, as we make plans to travel this week, or welcome others here, and all of the complications that come with family. And we are told that this week is the time we are supposed to be grateful and joyful, when it’s hard to feel that way when so much in our world feels so unstable.
Because even worse that the way it felt in exile were the questions. A priest like his father, gifted and connected, he is part of the first group of leaders and intellectuals exiled to Babylon around 597. He had seen the collapse, as they were captured and rushed out of town, neighbors killed as siege was laid to Jerusalem. And the slow and painful journey, wondering what was happening in their beloved city, all they once had gone. To rub it in – I didn’t know this and read about it this week – King Nebuchadnezzar organized a ‘hero’s welcome’ for the exiles into in Babylon. This band of once influential families, exhausted from the journey, was met with a mocking, humiliating parade.3
It transformed Ezekiel, and his writings reflect that transformation. He changes from a seminary professor to a street preacher, and his fiery language and bizarre antics have led many commentators to question his mental stability. One scholar wrote: "The concentration of so many bizarre features in one individual is without precedent."4 But beneath his rantings and terrifying, apocalyptic language, he knew everything was coming undone. His faith, their faith rested on God’s promises to them, blessings forged back in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, God’s commitment to the Davidic Monarchy, God’s promise of a particular place and a particular land, of a Temple in Jerusalem that would last forever. But when the land God has promised you burns, it is hard to know what is left. I think this happens anytime in our lives we encounter a crisis, our own exile of job loss or addiction or divorce, when the parents that have seemed invincible forget things, when we see people on these cold and wet nights bagging up their belongings and walking into the woods. The presence of the God we think we know is thrown into question. The Israelites, no matter what swirled around them, thought they could be sure of just a few things that would last forever. And now even those were gone, and the fear crept in, and they began to wonder if they were alone.
In Chapter 24 the King of Babylon lays siege to Jerusalem. The warnings that follow quickly turn to laments for lost life, lost assumptions, lost hope. Finally, in chapter 33, just before today’s text, word finally gets to the prophet in Babylon. An exile who had escaped Jerusalem come to Ezekiel, breathless, with four words: The city has fallen. And while there are still harsh words to be spoken, still clear critiques of the ways they are living, Ezekiel’s tone changes.5 The seminary professor turned street preacher – who had much earlier made clear to the people that their greed and idolatry had caused this catastrophe – now becomes a pastor, bringing a reminder of those promises beneath: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…I will feed them with justice.
Ezekiel knows that in the heart of the crisis we MUST remember the promise. We must remember to whom we belong, the God that created us and loves us and claims us. That regardless of the exile we are in, not matter what might be going on in your life or the lives of those you love, the promises hold you fast. As we wade through continued economic instability and seemingly endless war and deep anxiety in our schools and our neighborhoods, as the future in so many ways seems so uncertain. And exile comes to our homes, to the halls of our dysfunctional government, to college locker rooms. And the lists mount as the holidays are upon us and we have to coordinate plans and deal with family members we don’t like sometimes and manage everyone’s expectations. On this Christ the King Sunday when we remember that great Shepherd who was born among us, who walked and healing and lived and died so that we can know that God’s promises are true, I can think of nothing better to say to you than the Word of the Lord through Ezekiel. God says to us God will seek us out and find us, no matter where we are. God will bring us back, binding up our wounds, strengthening the weak. Images of the 23rd Psalm fill this text, of verdant hillsides and flowing streams, of safe places to rest. Finally. A place to rest.
Yet Ezekiel’s word does not stop there. As we remember the grace that comes, he moves from the pastoral back to the prophetic, but subtly, carefully.6 This Thursday many of us will sit around a heaping table with more food than we can eat. And we should enjoy it and give thanks. But, as Ezekiel reminds us, and I love this phrase, God feeds us with justice. Just as the strayed are brought back and the injured have their wounds bound, so will God also destroy the strong and the fat, those who ignore the struggles of others, who are so blinded by their own busyness that we don’t consider that our gifts are needed, your gifts are needed, to help out at MP2, or serve a meal, or sit a chair at your table for someone who might not be able to travel, might not have anyone else. We are told that God will judge even among those that God loves and shepherds, between those that use their gifts for others and those who hoard these blessings for themselves. The weak will be kept safe, the strong will learn that God’s power and truth and might are real.
On Wednesday I will head up to Salem, Virginia for about 24 hours. My paternal grandmother, whose physical health has lasted much longer than her mental capacity, lives in a retirement community there. I will meet my parents and my aunt, and we’ll spend some time with her. We’ll do the same the next morning, then head to her church, Salem Presbyterian. For 15 years they have put on a community meal, and folks in the church who have family in, and those who don’t, and those like us who wouldn’t really know what to do otherwise, will sit around tables. We will go through buffet lines that dozens of members of the church have prepared. And we will sit next to homeless people, and firefighters and police who get a break to come over. And after the meal, almost as much food, hundreds of meals, will go out, to the shelter, to the firehouse, I will take one back to grandmama in her room, and see what she’ll have of it. And it won’t just be a holiday those of us with the privilege to enjoy it. It will be a holiday for all.
So, friends, it hope you have a wonderful week. Pile that plate up high, with turkey and ham and stuffing, with sweet potatoes and green bean casserole and salad and corn, with something cranberry. Then have a piece of pie, pumpkin first, then pecan. But remember, as you eat and the tryptophan for the turkey kicks in and you slide towards a nap, remember that God feeds us, God’s own people, with justice that is seen in transformed living, in acts of kindness and generosity that contribute to the remaking of all of our communities. Make sure you fill your plate, and your lives, with that.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. "State Review Finds Mentally Ill Neglected in Prison," in the November 14, 2011 Raleigh News and Observer. http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/11/14/1642506/prison-neglects-the-ill.html
2. A colleague from seminary wrote a really thoughtful response that is worth your time.
3. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VI, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), p 1081. by Katheryn Pfisterer Darr.
4. D.I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 1-24, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 10. In NIB, 1086.
5. Joseph Blenkinsopp, Interpretation: Ezekiel, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 149. "We have seen that the fall of Jerusalem marks the great divide in Ezekiel’s career, bringing to an end six and a half years of sentry duty -warning, threatening, condemning – and inaugurating a period of at least fifteen years of reconstruction."
6. This insight comes from MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s reflections on this text in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011), Pastoral Perspective, p 318.