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Prophets without Honor: Ezekiel

Ezekiel 2.1-7

How many of you have ever been in a really long tunnel?  I’m not talking a tunnel where you can see the light coming in from the other side as soon as you go in.  I’m talking about a tunnel where you are in there long enough that your eyes start to adjust to the darkness.  Long enough that it starts to feel like night to your brain.  Long enough that when you finally come out the other side, you are surprised that it is the middle of the day and the brightness burns your eyes.

That’s the image that comes to mind when I read today’s passage.  The book of Ezekiel, and specifically today’ passage, talks about generation after generation of darkness of God’s people.  Psychologist Murray Bowen writes about what he calls a “multigenerational family process.”  He suggests that sometimes we get caught up in these patterns that go on generation after generation, to the point that even unhealthy behaviors seem pretty normal.  If you were taught to be a certain way, because your parents were taught to be a certain way, because their parents were taught to be a certain way, then after a while, it seems like that is what’s normal.  Or even morally right.

Think about some of the most insidious examples of this phenomenon:

  • Multi-generational patterns of racism. People in the Civil War used the Bible to defend the practice of slavery.  This institution was so ingrained in their minds and their way of life that they defended it as a moral right.  Even today, while we don’t defend slavery, we defend ideas that have their base in the assumption that the color of our skin determines our worth.  We ignore systemic racism and think that people of color are just lazier than whites, or somehow they just don’t want to work as hard.
  • Or what about multi-generational patterns of sexism? For most of the history of the Church, we have ignored or suppressed the leadership of women and raised up the privilege of men.  In ways that we have simply gotten used to, we even use the Bible to say that women are somehow inferior to men.  We ignore in Genesis where it says God created male and female in his image.  We ignore Paul’s words when he says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And we create superiorities and inferiorities that seem normal, only because we have lived by them for so long.
  • Or what about multi-generational patterns of greed? What’s the line from the 80’s movie Wall Street?  “Greed is good.”  Gordon Gecko delivers this line and his reasoning and it makes sense to us, because we are caught up in this multigenerational pattern of greed.  The more we have, the better we are perceived to be.  The way we treat people doesn’t matter, as long as we get more money or possessions.  If we don’t have enough money, then there is something morally wrong with us.  We ignore the words that the prophets said about the poor – that Jesus said about the poor – and instead we pay attention to the Gospel according to Gordon Gecko and his like.

Generation after generation after generation, we get used to the darkness.  It becomes normal to us.  It feels right because it has always been that way for us.  So we defend it, tooth and nail.  We even use the Bible to defend our darkness.

Which is not unlike the people of Ezekiel’s day.  Today I have invited an Ezekiel scholar – in the flesh!  Welcome Bryan Miller, who wrote his Masters thesis on the book of Ezekiel, and shares now a summary of what the book is all about!

When Pastor Matt asked me to give a quick summary of Ezekiel’s message and purpose, I was excited. I absolutely love Ezekiel’s weirdness. He uses crazy images and language throughout – so much so that some biblical scholars have seriously questioned whether the author might have been using some form of ancient psychedelic drugs when he wrote it.

But, his request also presented a significant conundrum – the Book of Ezekiel loses much of its punch when you have to be age appropriate. If Biblical books received ratings similar to movies, Ezekiel would easily be rated R.

While I will not dig into the details, here are a few examples of what makes this book so shocking – Chapter 5 discusses parents eating their children and children eating their parents (perfect for a baby dedication). Chapters 16 and 23 graphically portray Israel as an adulterous wife and an adulterous sister. Chapters 22 and 24 portray Jerusalem as a blood-drenched city. The text is also inundated with altered views of reality, using particularly strange descriptions of the Lord and cherubim throughout and features really weird, creeping creatures crawling all over the Temple in chapter 8. Not really a book that pastors easily reach for when preparing sermons.

But the use of shocking images and altered views of reality is not simply for kicks or to gain more readers. These distinct characteristics have led scholars to approach Ezekiel as a trauma text, a work that reflects the extreme experiences of its author and his community.

This community has just been through a devastating war and is living in exile in Babylon. As we heard last week in the sermon about Jeremiah, this exiled community was composed of the elites of Judah – the politicians and the religious leaders – pretty much anyone who had money and power.[1] And now in exile, they are powerless. Not only have they just seen their friends and family slaughtered by the Babylonians, they have lost everything that gave their lives meaning – money, power, and more importantly for Ezekiel, they seem to have also lost their God.

The theology of the Israelites at this time was strongly influenced by a theology of place. Jerusalem was not only the promised land, it was where God lived. I have heard one scholar describe the temple in Jerusalem as the world’s belly button – it is the one place on earth where the outside, heaven, connected with the inside, the earth.

So with the Israelites exiled from Jerusalem, they were asking hard questions about their relationship with their god. Did the Lord abandon them? Could they still have access to the Lord without being in Jerusalem? Why did the Lord allow this to happen? Are the Lord’s actions fair? Chapter 18 presents a mock-conversation about these very questions. In it the Lord says, “You say, ‘The way of the Lord is unfair.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?” (Ezek 18:25 NRSV)

These questions put powerful psychological and social stress on the Israelites. Not only are the exiles trying to find their place in a new environment, they are trying to work through the trauma of war and exile.

In her work on trauma and trauma victims, Ronnie Janoff-Bulman claims that trauma disrupts the victim’s narrative about herself and her world. She suggests that a catastrophic event, such as war, shatters the victim’s assumptions about her invulnerability, the world as a meaningful place, and the self as worthy and decent.[2] Most modern people live with the assumptions that bad things happen to other people, that the world is understandable and well-ordered and that their existence is meaningful. These assumptions allow us to function in a world plagued by accidents, crimes, and natural disasters. For the trauma victim, the catastrophic event “shatters” these protective assumptions so that the victim experiences feelings of helplessness, vulnerability, and confusion. After the catastrophic event, the narratives that the victim previously had told herself about her identity and her world no longer work. The trauma victim will try to reconstruct this narrative through answering a few fundamental questions about the traumatic event: what happened and why did it happen.[3]

 

Ezekiel is the attempt of a community to work through their traumatic experiences.[4] The drama that the prophet enacts and describes in his book is a “drama of survival” – it focuses on reconstructing the narrative about the catastrophic event, the people and their place within this new world. One scholar uses the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle to illustrate the need of trauma victims to reconstruct a coherent narrative. A traumatic event takes the victim’s narrative and shatters it like a jigsaw puzzle that has been thrown on the floor. The victim will keep tripping over the pieces of the puzzle until she picks up each piece, examines it carefully and finds

where it connects to the other puzzle pieces. Yet, the victim will not necessarily return to the previously held narrative; instead, she will try to construct a new narrative that makes sense of the world in light of the event. This new narrative is able to absorb the shock of the catastrophic event and restore meaning to the world and the victim.[5]

Understood as a work that is trying to put a narrative of the self and the community back together, Ezekiel is a working out of the community’s traumatic experience.

It is an attempt to pick up the pieces of their shattered narrative that they are God’s chosen people, to examine those pieces and to put them back together in a new way that makes sense in light of the fact that they are a defeated people living in a foreign land.[6]

A brilliant analysis from Bryan!  But not the end of the story.

It is hard to tell from the passage this morning, so we have to back up a little.  We read from Chapter Two, but look what happens at Chapter One.  In the very first words of the book.  Here is Ezekiel, standing in the midst of exile, in the loneliness and the forsakenness of Babylonian captivity.  And look at what happens:

“In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.”

God, the very God who the Israelites believed was tied to the land and the Temple and the location that they had been taken from, shows up.  God shows up on the banks of the river Chebar.

Have you ever seen someone out of context and you didn’t recognize them at first.  You see that teller at your bank but she is not in the bank.  She is eating out on Mass Street and she is wearing jeans and a t-shirt and not bank teller uniform.  And you have this moment where you think you know her, but you don’t really know if you do because your brain is trying to put together how you know her.

That’s what Ezekiel and the people of God are doing.  Their brains say that God would never be in this god-forsaken land of Babylon, but, lo and behold, God shows up.  In the form of a wild and fantastic and awe-inspiring voice and vision, God shows up.  The way that Ezekiel tells the story, in the midst of exile, where God is not supposed to be, God shows up.

There is a quote that I stumbled upon.

“The light at the end of the tunnel is not an illusion. The tunnel is.”  Unknown

At the end of the long tunnel, after our eyes have become used to the darkness, how brilliant does the light seem.  It seems surreal.  An illusion.  But once we are out in the brilliance, our brains catch up and we realize that the light is what is normal.  It is what is right.  The tunnel, even though we have known it for so long, is the illusion.

And isn’t that the good news of this passage, and of the book?  In the midst of our tunnels, when our eyes have become used to the darkness, God shows up and gives us a new way.  God shows up, and wakes us up, and offers a better way of being!  We think that we know the best way, because that has always been our way, the way that we were taught, the way that we believe is best.  But when that way fails us, that’s when God shows up.

That’s what life looked like for Clarence.  Clarence was a white man born and raised in Georgia during the Jim Crow laws.  All around him, he saw the darkness of racism.  His family, his friends, his culture, all suggested this was normal.  This was the way that it was supposed to be.  And, after all, he was white.  What did he care?

But he did.  He read the New Testament and felt like the darkness of racism that surrounded him was not the way to live.  It was not the way that God intended.  A modern-day Ezekiel, he saw a vision from God about how things should be.  So, he acted on that vision.  He created a community for blacks and whites to live together in community and harmony.  They lived together.  They farmed together.  They shared possessions with each other.  His farm was called Koinonia, named for the Greek word for fellowship, and those who came to live with him were forever changed.  Like Ezekiel, he was a prophet without honor.  The governor of Georgia, an avowed segregationist, had Clarence and the farm investigated.  He had no idea why people would want to live like that.  His eyes were used to the dark.  But Clarence saw another vision.

Clarence Jordan wanted to show that people could live a different way.  A better way.  One of the couples that visited him at his farm were Millard and Linda Fuller.  They planned to stay for a few hours, but were so taken by his community and the way that they cared for each other, that they decided then and there to move in!  An amazing story on its own, but made more amazing if you know that the Fullers were the creators of Habitat for Humanity.  Jordan’s vision for caring for one another and helping to create community led to their call to create affordable housing for all those willing to work for it.

Clarence had a vision.  He saw something that others could not see.  Just like Ezekiel, he saw that God had come to him, that God had come to people of color, that God had come to all of God’s creation.

Today, may we see with eyes like Ezekiel.  May we understand that God is near, even when others fail to see what we see.  And may we share that vision of hope, love, and community with all we meet.

 

 

[1] Mein, Ezekiel and the Ethics of Exile, 54-58.

[2] Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, “The Aftermath of Victimization: Rebuilding Shattered Assumptions,” in Trauma and Its Wake, ed. Charles Figley, vol. 1 (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1985), 15.

[3] Janoff-Bulman, “The Aftermath of Victimization,” 15.

[4] For an early study, see David Halperin’s Seeking Ezekiel: Text and Psychology (State College, PA: Penn State University Press, 1993). For a more recent study, see Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, A Biblical Theology of Exile (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2002).

[5] Anke Ehlers and David M. Clark, “A Cognitive Model of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,” Behaviour Research and Therapy 38 (2000): 337.

[6] For a discussion of the vital importance of self-narratives for identity and mental health, see J.M. Adler, “Living Into the Story: Agency and Coherence in a Longitudinal Study of Narrative Identity Development and Mental Health Over the Course of Psychotherapy,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Sept 12, 2011).

 

 

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