Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost 9-27-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At the beginning of the pandemic, six months ago now, we had a reading from the prophet Ezekiel. I remember ruminating on it because it is such a sad, heartbreaking book. It’s a book, of faith and hope though, nevertheless. It is a book for 2020. It rarely appears in our readings so I was surprised this week to see it again. It must be worth paying attention to.

Ezekiel lived in very tense times. God’s chosen people for a century stood between three world powers: Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt. In order to survive, the political leaders constantly made treaties and compromises with their more powerful neighbors. They sought above all to protect that beautiful temple built by King Solomon in Jerusalem. Deep inside the temple, was a room called the “Holy of Holies.” It housed the ark of the covenant containing the 10 commandments given to Moses and his brother Aaron’s rod. To come to the temple courtyard was to come to sacred ground because it was close to the Holy of Holies.

The political leaders, nonetheless, would eventually make a mistake and cut the wrong deal with the wrong people. When they did, the Babylonian army came and burned down the temple and took the Jews they did not kill to Babylon in exile. Families were driven from their homes. The marble walls surrounding the “Holy of Holies” were broken down. There was no longer a temple, the ark of the covenant would never be seen again, and the religion of God’s chosen people was being mocked. After all, the “Holy of Holies” was crushed, and holiness spilled out on the profane ground as the flames burned ever higher. Ezekiel was there as a priest and dragged in exile.

No one even knew if God speaks without a temple in the foreign land of Babylon. In exile, Ezekiel looked up at a foreign sky with different stars; the stench of the burning temple was still in his nose. The opening words of the book of Ezekiel are momentous, they are, “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” (Ezekiel 1:1). Nothing was the same in Babylon, except one thing: the voice of God. Even there God spoke and says, “you say, ‘The way of the Lord is unfair.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair?” I can hear the Israelites saying, Hey, we are God’s chosen people, how can this happen to us? Do God’s people live in exile? That’s just not right.

God says to them, “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?’ (That is, the children keep paying for the sins of their parents. The Israelite children were taken captive as well at no fault of their own). “As I live,” says the Lord God, “this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.” “It is only the person who sins that shall die…. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn to me, then, and live” (Ezekiel 18:3-4, 30-32).

Isn’t it true that when bad things happen, like what happened in Ezekiel’s day, we can say something like “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?” 2020 continues to be an epic year of upheaval and disasters. It’s easiest to be absorbed by the despair and cynicism of it all. Someone is the blame for the temple burning down, who is it? God says to Ezekiel, “enough of that!” “Why do you have to die, O house of Israel?” There is, instead, new life even in exile for God’s people. God tells Ezekiel, “get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!”

A profound lesson of Ezekiel is that while good people worked to make everything appear so outwardly perfect and beautiful, God was just fine with a far messier chain of events to get to that “new heart and new spirit” he spoke about. We can spend our lives building a beautiful marble temple with our own hands on the highest hill of Jerusalem, and do it all for God, and God may just let it burn down. God is not nearly as afraid of brokenness as we are. Broken things are in fact something God can work with, sometimes more effectively than when all our efforts are solely focussed on preventing anything from falling apart. There is just a lot more flexibility and resilience to how God works in the world than we believe.

Jesus speaks a message very much like Ezekiel’s in the Gospel reading today. He says to a group of devout observant Jewish leaders, “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ The son answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second son and said the same thing, and that son answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” Those listening said, “The first,” because he eventually went. Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:28-32). What a shocking statement! What could it mean?

Be certain Jesus is not saying that living a life as a prostitute or a dishonest tax collector that extorts money from needy people is something to imitate. Elsewhere he has plenty to say about why sin is bad for us. So what is he saying? It seems to me that he is likening that group of devote Jews to their ancestors who built this beautiful temple for God to live in among them. They could not imagine that God could speak in other circumstances. Could God speak to a conquered, broken, people in exile?

Jesus says to them, “You have never been broken, how can you enter the kingdom of God? Your religion is so much about your success in holding your life together. You have never been undone by God’s holiness. At least when a prostitute really repents, she knows what it is like to be broken. She knows the God that still speaks in Babylon, the God who promises new life to those who watched the temple burn down. She knows there is no use pretending it never happened.

She knows how hard it is to reject the proverb that God says should never be spoken: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Her parents likely did eat sour grapes, and her teeth were set on edge, but she does not keep saying, “The Lord’s ways are unfair.” Instead, she finds God in her brokenness, and it is there that she gains “a new heart and a new spirit.” Although committing her life to God may not have repaired everything, or given her continual happiness, or taken away every regret, in repenting and turning to God she gained that worthy quality of really knowing the truth about herself, a new heart and a new spirit.

So when Jesus compares her to the people who thought they knew what holiness was, but had never been broken, had never been undone, he says, “See, that prostitute, she will enter the kingdom of God before you do.” Jesus questions us, and says, “What is better? Is it that son, that keeps saying yes to his Father, but never goes. Or is it the son, that said no, but went anyway and did his father’s will?”

It can’t be a coincidence that the one speaking this parable would eventually be that Son, in the garden of Gethsemane, facing the cross, praying in the garden to his Father, saying I don’t want to do it, “Let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). Yet the next day he put his body on that cross to be broken, and it was in this brokenness that new life came to us all. It is his broken body on the cross that is the holiest symbol of our Christianity and the source of life-giving power. As St. Paul reminds us today, Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:7-11). 

If you feel your life beginning to crack in this really hard year that is not done with us yet–and I know a lot you are facing really hard things right now–if, like Ezekiel you see the fires burning what matters to you, let Ezekiel remind you that ashes and broken things are exactly what God can work with. If like Ezekiel, you have doubted that God can speak by the waters of Babylon, repent of that lack of faith, and get yourself a new heart and new spirit.

Holy God, whose presence is never confined to even our best projects, help us to hear your voice even in Babylon, forgive us when we have responded to things breaking with despair, and help us to repent of that if need be, and through your Holy Spirit give us “a new heart and a new spirit” to believe in the new life that awaits those who place their hope in you. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet