In our world, people who talk about hearing voices and seeing visions are liable to be thought to be eccentric, odd or perhaps seriously mentally ill. All of these options – and more – have been proposed by biblical scholars who study Ezekiel to characterize the prophet whose physical prophecies included dramatic performances: lying in the dirt for months at a time, first on one side and then on the other, shaving his head and beard with a sword and sharing visions of flying back and forth from his refugee camp in Babylon to Jerusalem held aloft only by the hairs of his head and that one about the walking dead who weren’t quite zombies, just to name a few. And then there was the conversation he had with God about excrement in which one might argue that he proved that he was holier than God, at least the way he wrote it.
And then there was Ezekiel’s theology. That was really crazy. He believed that the God of Israel was not confined to Israel, that his God had not been defeated when Judah was defeated and their temple was destroyed. And everyone knew that that was how it worked. Wars were won by the people with the strongest God. And Israel and Judah lost. And Ezekiel swore that he saw God, in exile, in captivity, in Babylon – and everyone knew that the holy land was in Israel and Judah.
Ezekiel even claimed that he saw God and lived despite what the stories about Moses said. But because God is invisible, Ezekiel said he saw the “appearance of the likeness of the glory” of the God who is enthroned above the cherubim – and he saw them too, not their sculpted images on the now-missing Ark of the Covenant, but the living, flying originals. Ezekiel claimed that God followed God’s people into exile and was even now accompanying them in their sorrow.
And as if that wasn’t enough, Ezekiel turned centuries of theology – including the sacred stories that had been passed down for generations and were now being written down as scripture on their head. Ezekiel taught that people did not suffer because of their parents’ or ancestors’ sins but only because of their own. And Ezekiel taught that God prefers forgiveness to punishment. Ezekiel’s “Old Testament God” was more tender, loving parent than fire and brimstone thunderbolt hurler in this regard – in spite of everything around them suggesting the contrary.
And on one level, everything around them denied the existence, power and presence of God. The dirt under their feet was the foreign soil of Babylon where they had been force-marched in defeat. The rivers by which they sat down, by which their psalmists chanted that they hung their harps on willow trees and refused to sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land did not empty into the River Jordan, Reed Sea or even the Salt Sea. These were strange waters, danger waters. The very air was full of the scent of incense burning to strange gods. Their ears heard cursing and mocking of them, their army, their king, their God and the multitude of laments from other conquered peoples added to their own. And their hearts were full of grief, when they were not frozen with numbness and post-traumatic shock.
The Judean Israelites had lost more than a war; the only world that they knew crumbled before them under the hatchets and hammers of their enemies, and then everything that they knew and loved was put to the fire or looted. They were the survivors of Assyria’s decimation of their once twelve-tribe nation one hundred and thirty-six years ago. And now they too had been destroyed as a nation. They had lost their king. They had lost their queen-mother. They had lost their army. They had even lost their bureaucrats. [I don’t know that any one missed them much.] They had lost their land. They had lost their homes. They had lost the house of God.
What if anything did they have left? God. While Ezekiel lacked the poetry of his predecessor Isaiah, Ezekiel preached his own version of Immanu-El, God is with us. Ezekiel’s visions were proof that God was with God’s people in exile while the voices he heard taught that God had not been defeated. And God’s word to God’s people in the disaster they could never have imagined, was one of comfort:
As I live, says the Sovereign God, I do not delight in the death of the wicked, rather that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn, turn from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?
Swearing by God’s own eternal life, God swears that God’s desire is for repentance, not punishment and, that no matter what their eyes see and ears hear, they, their people and even their nation are not doomed to destruction. The God of Life will preserve their lives as surely as God lives forever and ever.
All they have to do is repent. Turn, turn away from everything that separates them from God and turn, turn back to God. God doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about sin here. God simply acknowledges that everyone in the community bears some guilt. There is no one who does not need to repent. There is no one whom God wants to lose; no one from whom God wants to be separated. And it is not too late to seek God’s forgiveness and restoration. Even in the hell of their captivity, it was not too late for their redemption, release and restoration.
All of these things came to Ezekiel in visions no one else could see and voices no one else could hear. It would have been easy to write him off as a crazy person, or even a dreamer. Dreamers and visionaries often seem like impractical people in the harsh, cold light of reality with practical needs, real contexts and deep skepticism of the non-rational, improbable, improvable and particularly the supernatural.
But God calls dreamers, daydreamers and visionaries, people who see the world beyond the world, the world as it is and the world as it could be. God calls to people who believe in the supernatural, and sometimes those who don’t. And God speaks to hearts and minds and even ears. Perhaps not everyone who hears voices hears from God, but that does not mean that God is not speaking. I don’t hear from God the way Ezekiel did, but I do hear from God. I’m a thoroughly modern woman, yet I believe in what I can’t see and in what perhaps only I can see. And I listen, with my heart and head and hands.
I pray with the psalmist:
Teach me Holy One, the way of thy statutes and I shall keep them unto the end. Let me ask you All Saints, are you letting God teach you even if God chooses to do so through dreams and visions and voices?
What about the voices and visions, like those of Ezekiel that have been preserved for us? Do you read and study the scriptures? Do you teach the scriptures to your children? Do you read the lessons of the week? Do you know where and how to find them? Do you read the lessons of the day? Do you know where and how to find them?
Teach us Holy One, the way of thy statutes and we shall keep them unto the end. We need to be taught, all of us, clergy and lay. There is so much we don’t know about the scriptures and yet we claim as our redeemer, a rabbi, a teacher. Teach us Holy One, the way of thy statutes and we shall keep them unto the end.
God spoke to Ezekiel, not for his own sake, but for the sake of his community. God came to God’s people when they were in desperate need, at the point many would have said that it was already too late. In our own times of desperation, are you listening to and looking for God? Are you the visionary dreamer through whom God will call us once again to faithfulness, to repentance and ultimately to restoration? In the words we teach our children: Stop! Look! And listen!
If we were serious when we prayed the psalm earlier, we asked God to reveal Godself to us, to teach us and guide us. The psalm does not place any conditions on God: “I’d appreciate it if you’d remember that this is the twenty-first century, and we are modern professional people who scoff and sneer at the supernatural. So please don’t send us any wild-eyed preachers hearing voices. We are Episcopalian after all.”
Rather, we prayed:
Psalm 119:33 Teach me, Holy One,
the way of your statutes,
and I will observe it to the end.
34 Give me understanding, that I may keep your teaching
and observe it with my whole heart.
35 Lead me in the path of your commandments,
for I delight in it.
36 Turn my heart to your decrees,
and not to selfish gain.
37 Turn my eyes from looking at vanities;
give me life in your ways.
38 Confirm to your servant your promise,
which is for those who fear you.
39 Turn away the disgrace that I dread,
for your ordinances are good.
40 See, I have longed for your precepts;
in your righteousness give me life.
Ezekiel invites, and perhaps compels us to embrace the mystery of a God who transcends all that we see, hear, think and feel. Teach us Holy One, the way of thy statutes and we shall keep them unto the end.
In the Name of the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen.
The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.
All Saints Episcopal Church
Today’s sermon is Beyond Zombie Theology and More than a Mummy. In the Name of the Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver. Amen.
Act I: Scene One
The setting is what would on another day be a lovely, lush valley. But today it is full of human carnage. It is a scene out of a horror movie. It is a horror movie. There are bodies and body parts everywhere, decayed down to the bone. It is as though someone uncovered a mass grave. The bones are jumbled together in an apocalyptic, post-modern, nightmarish sculpture. This is holy ground and accursed ground. This place was a killing field, plague site or the site of some other unfathomable catastrophe. Every once in a while a lonely bird of prey disturbs a ragged cluster of bones looking for some long dissolved morsel of flesh. There is the stench of death. Not the wet, rotting smell of decaying flesh, but the deeply permeating scent of death in the air, in the grass, in the trees. The smell of death is everywhere.
Act I: Scene Two
The setting is a rocky hillside dotted with natural and fabricated caves. Lightly carved and rounded stones secure the entrances to the cave-tombs, keeping some out and others in. The air is thick with the smell of vegetation. The air is full of life. A small group of mourners prays, keens and beats their breasts.
Act II: Scene One
A ragged refugee-prophet escapes his prison camp through a wormhole that sucks him up into the air and spits him out into the valley of dry bones. The wormhole collapses in on itself and transforms into a being made of pure light, without color and all colors at the same time. The special affects are amazing! The God of Light gives the prophet-man a task – conjure life from death, draw the spirit-winds from the four corners of the earth into the valley and animate the bones. The prophet speaks the words he was given:
“So says the Sovereign God to these bones: Look! I will cause spirit-breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will place sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put spirit-breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy.’”
Act II: Scene Two
A road-weary traveling prophet, teacher and healer joins the mourners outside the cave-tombs and, this man speaks his own words of power:
“El‘azar! Come out!”
The camera cuts back and forth between the two scenes: A man transported by the power of his God and a God-in-flesh walking on his own two feet; an open valley full of decayed bodies at the end of their decomposition cycle, a closed tomb with one body just beginning to decompose; the prophet from ancient days being guided by his God, the itinerant teacher needs no guidance.
Act III: Scene One
All of the bones in the valley begin to shake, rattle and roll. It sounds like an earthquake. The ground shakes and the bones rise. They whirl and swirl and connect to each other forming complete skeletons. There are all sorts of skeletons. All of them have broken bones or marks on their bones from swords and clubs and other weapons. They all died violent deaths. Some are tall, some are short, some have the tell-tale pelvic girdles of women, some are children. The bones begin to thicken, their white turns pink and then shades of beige, tan and brown as layers of flesh, muscle, tendons, cartilage, nerves and finally skin covers them. The special effects director is going to win an Oscar for this movie! Finally there is a whole nation of people standing in the valley. Yet there was no spirit-breath in them – they were like an army of zombies: formerly dead, reanimated, moving, standing but without the breath of life – true, authentic, God-given human life. But they became something more than zombies. They had spirit-breath poured into them and returned fully to life, resurrected.
Act III: Scene Two
No one sees what is going on in the tomb: the bloated body contracts, the ripening flesh regains its firmness, the chest begins to rise and fall, the eye lashes flutter. He sits up, swings his legs off the rocky ledge on which he was so recently lain, and struggles to walk towards the light where he hears someone calling his name. He is like a mummy, wrapped in sheets of linen that have loosened as his body swelled in the first stages of decomposition. He shuffles out of the tomb. But he is not a mummy, or a zombie. He has had the breath of life spoken back into him and he has returned fully to life, resurrected.
Act IV: Scene One
God tells the prophet from days gone by that the people he has seen resurrected are the prophet’s people, living in exile. Their nation has been hacked and burned to death and dismembered. And God promised them resurrection, national resurrection:
And I will put my spirit within you all and you all shall live, and I will place you all on your own soil; then you all shall know that I, the Holy One of Old, have spoken and have done this,” says God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy.
The prophet was returned through the wormhole to his captive people. Eventually his people were returned to their ancestral land. But it was a hard life. Foreign nations fell on them like hoards of B-movie zombies. Yet they survived. The resurrected nation would not die.
Act IV: Scene Two
God-in-flesh, Jesus – Yeshua in Hebrew and Aramaic – of Nazareth, tells Miryam who you know as Mary:
I am the resurrection and the life! Whoever believes in me will live, even if they die; and everyone living and believing in me will never die.
As the credits roll we who are in the audience have to come to terms with what we have seen just as we have to come to terms with these lessons from the scriptures. Over and over again God reveals Godself to be the God of life and light, even when God’s people are dwelling and dying in darkness. Ezekiel had lived through the worst horror to plague his people since the days of Egyptian slavery, a horror that traumatized his people for more than four hundred years.
The destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar was theologically incomprehensible. Nebuchadnezzar’s assault was as unimaginable as – not the events that we remember from September 11th, for the towers had been struck previously – but rather as unimaginable as the assault on Pearl Harbor, and, as incomprehensible as the bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and as unfathomable as was Japan’s ultimate surrender to her own citizens.
There was a time when no one could enter the most holy space in the temple except the high priest, and then only once a year. Tradition says that he wore bells so that people would know if he was able to survive in the presence of God and, that he had a rope around him so that if he dropped dead from proximity to the holiness of God, his mortal remains could be pulled out for burial.
And yet, Nebuchadnezzar’s troops not only entered the most holy place, they butchered it with battle axes, hatchets and hammers, chopping it to bits, burning everything that would burn, melting down the gold and silver and bronze for the Babylonian treasury. And they took a few choice vessels, used to worship the God of Israel back to Babylon for the king and his court to toy with.
And there was not even a puff of smoke. There was no strike of holy lightening; no burst of fire from heaven, no hailstones, plagues of Egypt, earthquake or sinkhole; the earth did not swallow them whole. Nothing happened. It was almost as if the temple was empty.
It must have seemed like the stories of Miriam and Moses and the promises God made to their descendents either never happened or were null and void. It may have seemed like the stories of Exodus were irrelevant fairy tales. Imagine, if you can, what it would have been like if the assault on and collapse of the Twin Towers was followed by an assault on and collapse of our government, defeat of our military and forced exile of our citizens: no homes, no jobs, no healthcare, parents separated from children, dead bodies heaped in the streets, everyone subject to robbery, rape – if not murder – on the way to incarceration in an over populated refugee camp with out any social services.
Some will not have to imagine Native persons herded onto reservations, Japanese American citizens interned in camps, South Africans banned to Bantustans, European Jews crowded into European ghettos, American Blacks crowded into inner city ghettos, political dissidents sentenced to gulags and reeducation camps.
We may not be internationally displaced persons struggling for clean drinking water, firewood and food, and while some of us may be fearful of physical or sexual assault or murder, those atrocities do not shape our daily lives in most cases. But many of our sisters and brothers around the world and in our own country are desperately hungry, homeless or facing the loss of their homes, unemployed, underemployed, lacking sufficient or any health care and subject to private and public explosions of violence. To all of these, God offers the vision of a resurrected society in Ezekiel. Not only is the society resurrected but so are all the people who make it what it is. There are all there, restored from the confusing jumble of death. It does not matter how or where their bones were scattered, piled up, decayed, dissolved or even cremated, God sorts them out.
And to those devastated by the loss of a dear one, Jesus comes to us in our grief, walks with us, mourns with us, weeps with us and promises us resurrected life in the community of the redeemed. But unlike the movies in which the main characters seem to escape death at every turn, we may die, we will die, and even if and when we die, not even death has the power to separate us from the life-giving Spirit of God. We go to our deaths knowing that Jesus has gone before us, accompanies us and waits for us to transform our dying into living.
The life that the God of Ezekiel and Jesus grants us is individual and corporate life; no national or personal tragedy can destroy us. Where ever we are, no matter how we got there, God will find us and bring us home. The Judeans in the Babylonian internment camp did not believe that God could or would leave the temple, not even to see about them. Ezekiel’s crazy visions and even crazier antics – he will go so far as to use poop to make a prophetic point in the sequel – all demonstrate that the people claimed by God will never be abandoned by God, no matter what happens to their national structures and monuments.
And even when it seems like it is too late – and Jesus was four days late to the funeral – the universal laws of earth and heaven can be swept away that we might live again. The life that God calls us to is this life and the life beyond this one. Lazarus was raised and restored to his human life, for a while. The same folk who sought to kill Jesus turned their attention to Lazarus and planned to kill him too. The gospel doesn’t tell us if they succeeded because it doesn’t matter. Lazarus’ resurrection in this life was a promise of our resurrection in the next.
Fade to black.
All Saint's Episcopal Church, Kapaa HI