July 23, 2017
Wartime and a question. Does war alter our “grammar of assent”? In times of peace, do we see ourselves as Christians (a solid, sure noun) who happen to be American (adjective, of secondary import)? Which is to suggest: we could be Christians who “happen to be” Afghan or Iraqi. An alteration in our self-understanding, to be sure; but the center and pivot, “Christian,” would stand firm, the task and blessing accorded to peacemakers. And this, whether we live amid victims or victimizers: small matter, same vocation.
Wartime. And we are subtly or overtly urged: Alter the sense of who you are in the world. Lines are drawn; the culture of war exerts a huge, central claim. The cultural enlistment is a curse; we are urged to ignore the central teaching and example of Christ. “For the duration,” we are to be Americans first and foremost—Americans who happen to be Christians.
He said, “Feed my sheep.”
There were no conditions:
Least of all,
Feed my sheep if they deserve it.
Feed my sheep if you feel like it.
Feed my sheep if you have any leftovers.
Feed my sheep if the mood strikes you,
if the economy’s OK…
if you’re not too busy…
No conditions…just, “Feed my sheep.”
Could it be that God’s Kingdom will come
when each lamb is fed?
We who have agreed to keep covenant
are called to feed sheep
even when it means the grazing will be done
on our front lawns.
Ezekiel 1:1 – 3:14
I am Ezekiel—a priest and the son of Buzi.
Five years after King Jehoiachin of Judah had been led away as a prisoner to Babylonia, I was living near the Chebar River among those who had been taken there with him. Then on the fifth day of the fourth month of the thirtieth year, the heavens suddenly opened. Yahweh placed his hand upon me and showed me some visions.
I saw a windstorm blowing in from the north. Lightning flashed from a huge cloud and lit up the whole sky with a dazzling brightness. The fiery center of the cloud was as shiny as polished metal, and in that center I saw what looked like four living creatures. They were somewhat like humans, except that each one had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight, but their feet looked like the hoofs of calves and sparkled like bronze. Under each of their wings, these creatures had a human hand. The four creatures were standing back to back with the tips of their wings touching. They moved together in every direction, without turning their bodies.
Each creature had the face of a human in front, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of a bull on the left, and the face of an eagle in back. Two wings of each creature were spread out and touched the wings of the creatures on either side. The other two wings of each creature were folded against its body.
Wherever the four living creatures went, they moved together without turning their bodies, because each creature faced straight ahead. The creatures were glowing like hot coals, and I saw something like a flaming torch moving back and forth among them. Lightning flashed from the torch every time its flame blazed up. The creatures themselves moved as quickly as sparks jumping from a fire.
I then noticed that on the ground beside each of the four living creatures was a wheel, shining like chrysolite. Each wheel was exactly the same and had a second wheel that cut through the middle of it, so that they could move in any direction without turning. The rims of the wheels were large and had eyes all the way around them. The creatures controlled when and where the wheels moved—the wheels went wherever the four creatures went and stopped whenever they stopped. Even when the creatures flew in the air, the wheels were beside them.
Above the living creatures, I saw something that was sparkling like ice, and it reminded me of a dome. Each creature had two of its wings stretched out toward the creatures on either side, with the other two wings folded against its body. Whenever the creatures flew, their wings roared like an ocean or a large army or even the voice of God All-Powerful. And whenever the creatures stopped, they folded their wings against their bodies.
When the creatures stopped flapping their wings, I heard a sound coming from above the dome. I then saw what looked like a throne made of sapphire, and sitting on the throne was a figure in the shape of a human. From the waist up, it was glowing like metal in a hot furnace, and from the waist down it looked like the flames of a fire. The figure was surrounded by a bright light, as colorful as a rainbow that appears after a storm.
I realized I was seeing the brightness of the Lord’s glory! So I bowed with my face to the ground, and just then I heard a voice speaking to me.
Yahweh said, “Ezekiel, son of man, I want you to stand up and listen.” After he said this, his Spirit took control of me and lifted me to my feet. Then Yahweh said:
“Ezekiel, I am sending you to the people of Israel. They are just like their ancestors who rebelled against me and refused to stop. They are stubborn and hardheaded. But I, the god Yahweh, have chosen you to tell them what I say. Those rebels may not even listen, but at least they will know that a prophet has come to them.
Don’t be afraid of them or of anything they say. You may think you’re in the middle of a thorn patch or a bunch of scorpions. But be brave and preach my message to them, whether they choose to listen or not. Ezekiel, don’t rebel against me, as they have done. Instead, listen to everything I tell you.
And now, Ezekiel, open your mouth and eat what I am going to give you.
Just then, I saw a hand stretched out toward me. And in it was a scroll. The hand opened the scroll, and both sides of it were filled with words of sadness, mourning, and grief.”
Yahweh said, “Ezekiel, son of man, after you eat this scroll, go speak to the people of Israel.”
He handed me the scroll and said, “Eat this and fill up on it.” So I ate the scroll, and it tasted sweet as honey.
“Ezekiel, I am sending you to your own people. They are Israelites, not some strangers who speak a foreign language you can’t understand. If I were to send you to foreign nations, they would listen to you. But the people of Israel will refuse to listen, because they have refused to listen to me. All of them are stubborn and hardheaded, so I will make you as stubborn as they are. You will be so determined to speak my message that nothing will stop you. I will make you hard like a diamond, and you’ll have no reason to be afraid of those arrogant rebels.
Listen carefully to everything I say and then think about it. Then go to the people who were brought here to Babylonia with you and tell them you have a message from me, the god Yahweh. Do this, whether they listen to you or not.”
The Spirit lifted me up, and as the glory of Yahweh started to leave, I heard a loud, thundering noise behind me. It was the sound made by the creatures’ wings as they brushed against each other, and by the rumble of the wheels beside them. Then the Spirit carried me away.
The Prophetic Imagination Walter Brueggemann
The formation of an alternative community with an alternative consciousness is so that the dominant community may be criticized and finally dismantled. But more than dismantling, the purpose of the alternative community is to enable a new human beginning to be made. The primary work of Moses was to make a new human beginning with the religion of God’s freedom and the politics of justice and compassion….
The prophetic witness of the church is not to be identified in some specific functions of ministry and not in others. Prophetic witness is a mind-set. It is a countercultural consciousness of how the community of faith sees all things. Therefore…all functions of the church can and should be prophetic voices that serve to criticize the dominant culture around us while energizing the faithful. Pastoral care can be a prophetic ministry. Preaching can be a prophetic ministry. Sunday school classes can be prophetic ministry (even session meetings can be prophetic ministry!).
Thus the essential question for the church is whether or not its prophetic voice has been co-opted into the culture of the day. The community of God’s people who are striving to remain faithful to the whole counsel of God’s Word will be prophetic voices crying out in the wilderness of the dominant culture of our day.
The great Israelite epic begins at the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. Yahweh summons Abram and Sarai who live in Ur of the Chaldees to leave home and kindred and go to the land of Canaan.
The great Israelite epic ends 700 miles north of Ur along the Tigris in Babylon where the Judeans, who have been conquered by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians, have been exiled.
The Israelite epic begins in Iraq and ends in Iraq.
It is true that the Hebrew Scriptures do contain Ezra and Nehemiah and other writings that recount the return of the Jews from Babylon back to Jerusalem. A second temple is built. It is not the same. Israel is never again independent but always a vassal to a larger empire.
That Ezra returns with a revised Torah that in itself shows that their epic is in one sense complete. The book has been printed. The Davidic Kingdom has ended. The prophets have gone silent. At the time of Ezra and following, this period of the second temple that ends with its destruction in 70 CE there is only a distant hope, a belligerent, apocalyptic dream of a restoration, that a few of the zealous hold.
The time after the exile from 539 BCE with the Edict of Cyrus the Persian that allowed the captives of Babylon to return home to 70 CE and the destruction of the second temple, is the time of texts and priests and rituals and collaboration with the powers that be.
In this period, prophets and kings give way to bureaucrats. These bureaucratic priests mumble and stumble and acquiesce and pretend they have a calling to preserve a people and its god. But at best it is a shadow, a faint echo of what once was, or once was thought to be.
The great Israelite epic from Genesis 12, the call of Abram to the fall of Judea and Zedekiah taken in chains to Babylon in 2 Kings 25, is the grand story.
It is a story of epic failure.
Yahweh’s bold experiment of forming a people who would do his will and keep the agreement to be a holy people, praising his name alone, was a huge flop. According to the authors of the Torah and Nebi’im, the people of Israel and Judah were not up to the task of being Yahweh’s people.
That is why the Bible is so depressing. It is a tragedy.
Once we accept that, once we get over the illusion and the deception by the peddlers of get rich religion, of God bless America religion, of get wealthy with the gospel, or that weird prayer of Jabez, “expand my territory” religion that was a fad a few years ago, then the saga can have a deeper meaning.
Once we accept that the Bible is tragedy, then we can find within it the comedy.
I am not talking about just the Old Testament. The gospels tell the same tale. Jesus’s message fell on deaf ears and he died in humiliation. In Kris Kristofferson’s song, Jesus Was A Capricorn, the lyrics tell us:
Jesus was a Capricorn
He ate organic food
He believed in love and peace
And never wore no shoes
Long hair, beard and sandals
And a funky bunch of friends
Reckon we’d just nail him up
If he came down again
But wait, you say, there is resurrection. Jesus lives! Yes, the liturgy tells us Jesus died. Jesus rose. Jesus will come again.
The Christian book ends with the vision of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven in the apocalyptic Revelation to John.
My point is the Bible, both testaments, the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures tell of epic failures, of tragedy, of dashed hopes and unfulfilled dreams. Exile and crucifixion, respectively.
Restoration and resurrection are but glimpses. You can’t glimpse these hopes without absorbing the tragedy first.
The peddlers of feel good religion manipulate the symbols of hope as they have always done to make claims that their story isn’t tragedy at all. They cleverly skim and skip the tragedy and get to the good parts, life forever and ever. God is on your side. God wants to expand your territory. Jesus is in your heart.
That is why actually reading the Bible feels like such a let down. The god of the Bible and the people are not attractive. You will read and likely be bummed when you are done. Really? That’s it? Reading the gospels is no better, nor is slogging through Paul’s letters. Jesus is not warm and fuzzy. He is prickly and demanding.
“You want to be my disciple? Great. Sell everything you own. Give all the money from the sale to the poor. Then follow me to death by torture and execution on the Empire’s cross.”
He didn’t really mean it. Right? Show me a loophole, won’t you?
Jesus preached the kingdom of God. Few could hear. The ones who could hear are the ones no decent, sane, respectable person takes seriously.
“The words of the prophets are
Written on the subway walls
And tenement halls…”
The Israelite saga and the ironically titled gospel (good news) are tragedy.
The prophets speak and demonstrate.
Isaiah wanders the streets for three years in his underwear.
Jeremiah carries an oxen yoke on his shoulders.
Ezekiel cooks his meal over a fire he has made with human dung.
Jesus has a temper tantrum in the temple.
The people respond by shopping. The prophets? The people sneer: they are a bunch of unpatriotic conspiracy theorists.
Where have Americans been since September 11th, 2001?
At the mall, buying carts of crap they don’t need with their credit cards. We have to do it to support the monster. The infinite growth economy needs your support. The president wants you to eat a steak. The price of oil is down. Buy more gasoline, quickly, please.
As the empire puts the crooks and destroyers of Earth in cabinet positions, and the robots in suits steal from the poor to give to the rich, and the maniacs in power can’t seem to find the eight trillion dollars the Pentagon spent on who knows what, but they need more to protect our freedoms…
As the media cheerleads and takes us on frenetic labyrinthine excursions to tell us anything but the truth…
The American people acquiesce.
We dutifully remove our shoes and allow ourselves to be virtually stripped naked by security machines. We believe the lies told about the brown people who speak in an incomprehensible language and they look so angry so they must be terrorists. They hate our freedoms, of course. As we purchase our toys made in China, we also buy the myth of exceptionalism that our leaders could never do anything as heinous as we secretly expect they do.
We embrace a new vocabulary to hide the evil. Torture becomes “enhanced interrogation.” Murdered women, men, and children whose bodies are burned and ripped apart by our missiles become “collateral damage.”
Meanwhile, the gap between the super-wealthy and rest of us grows and grows and the end of this, as the prophets of old and of recent times tell us, is not pretty, we call them, ironically, Jeremiads, named for the Judean prophet Jeremiah, who saw the end of Judah. And wept.
And Jesus wept. And they all wept. That is the price for seeing. That is the price for seeking the truth. “Seek and ye shall find,” said Jesus. As if that is a good thing. Saying number two in the Gospel of Thomas completes the thought.
“When you find you will be disturbed.”
The cost of finding, of seeing, is tears. The saga is a tragedy.
Yahweh’s grand plan for a faithful people in a holy land. Failure.
Jesus’s grand plan for the kingdom of God to grow and produce 100 fold. Failure.
It is the seeing, the painful seeing, that leads to weeping, that leads ultimately to the comedy. If tragedy is a sad ending comedy is a happy ending.
The comedy is this:
Life kicks your butt. Life does it in various ways. At some point, you somehow sit up, lick your wounds and decide to go on. You get honest with yourself. You see limits. You see depth. You taste tragedy. That is tragedy’s gift. You learn not to believe any of the empire’s lies.
You learn something about yourself. You discover that you are not a commodity. You are not a bureaucrat. You have “soul value.”
Daina Ramey Berry, University of Texas professor of history wrote a fascinating book: The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation. The book underscores tragedy.
It meticulously recounts the tragedy of the depths of evil our nation descended in the commodifying of black bodies. Human beings were treated literally like livestock. Sold on auction blocks, babies ripped from their mothers’ breasts and sold to the highest bidders. Insurance companies, banks, churches, schools, governments all participated in this economy of enslavement.
The comedy. Comedy is not ha ha comedy. It is the life from death. Hope from despair. Value from devaluation.
Professor Berry discovered soul-value. This is the value the enslaved put on themselves that manifested itself in a variety of ways and enabled survival. When the market valued a teenaged girl at $300 or a ‘prime buck’ at $2000 the soul value was the value within that the human being who happened to be enslaved gave to herself or himself.
The soul-value led some to escape, others to sing, “before I be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave” others to endure, others to encourage, others to hope, others to speak truth, others to resist however they could.
Soul-value is the comedy of the human spirit to the tragedy of commodification.
Soul-value, individually, collectively, spiritually, is the kingdom of God’s response to the empire of murder and lies.
Soul-value is Ezekiel eating a scroll, the word of Yahweh, the truth of the matter. He is told to eat it and then speak it.
“They won’t listen to you,”
Yahweh said to Ezekiel.
“They never listen to me either. But I will make you as stubborn as they are.”
Ezekiel eats the scroll. It tastes sweet as honey.
It is as sweet as the value of one’s own soul. It is as sweet as coming out of whatever closet you had been stuck in and deciding you will never go back. Soul-value is the sweet affirmation that they can do what they can do to my body, to my bank account, to my reputation, but they cannot touch my soul. They cannot define and control the me who is me. My soul with a little s is the Soul of the universe. The Soul with a big S.
Thou art that.
The forces who think they run this world are leading it to destruction. We have been on this path for a long time. We have made the choice. In order to create lifeboats, the wealthy crooks are hoarding up as much as they can before it all collapses and they are murdering and blaming their murders on others. The Titanic is sinking. They didn’t plan ahead. Not enough lifeboats. So they are locking up the poor in steerage and taking the lifeboats for themselves. These are the mobsters running our country.
That is the tragedy. There is no optimistic solution for this.
There is hope. The hope is that some of us might see it for what it is and then discover our soul-value, and like Ezekiel, live it.
And in so doing, perhaps we might be instruments of salvation.