Ezekiel 33:1-11; Psalm 119; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 18:15-20
This past days, we have been witnesses to almost unfathomable scenes of horror and destruction, of unimaginable conditions for countless thousands of persons, the overwhelming majority of whom have been poor and people of color. We have seen seeming powerlessness and inaction and delay in response to the suffering of our own people by the superpower which can move with decisive action almost anywhere in the world-when sufficiently motivated to do so.
We have seen both natural disaster with the seeming wrath of nature to be sure, but we have also seen human agency involved in making wrong choices and having disastrous priorities: for years all manner of domestic programs including dangerously decaying levees and infrastructure and help for poor people could be cut, while we can spend open-endedly on war, and continue to cut taxes for the wealthy. The perversity of it all is almost unbearable.
As is so often the case, the views and the reactions of both friend and adversary abroad are so very instructive in getting a sense in how we are perceived by others. The portrayal of our nation from abroad in this crisis is not pretty.
I would imagine that nearly everyone present this morning has individual experiences, memories, pictures of our own experiences in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast over the years. Of one of this nation's most uniquely multicultural cities, the birthplace of jazz, the place to celebrate Mardi Gras, Cajun cuisine, and so much more. An outpost of blue surrounded by a sea of red. This week we witnessed the violent uprooting of so very much that so many of us hold dear. This tragedy and its aftermath will be with us for a very long time to come.
Not long ago, a major federal study focused on what was considered the three most likely catastrophic events our nation might face in the coming months and years. They were another major terrorist in New York, an earthquake in San Francisco, and a hurricane and subsequent flooding in New Orleans and vicinity. Urgent repairs and upgrading of levees have been called upon for years. Instead, funds were cut. Contingency plans that can be implemented quickly for large scale disasters? No money. No will. No real plans, therefore. And so such plans are clearly not in place. National Guard troops to deal with disasters and unrest? Sorry, many of them are in Iraq and unavailable. Endless, inhuman delay in deploying those who still are here.
What of another terrorist attack in New York or an earthquake in San Francisco? I shudder, both for what they might represent to so many, but also on what would be their aftermath and how ready we would be to deal with such an emergency. One doesn't have to be entirely cynical to believe, as has been suggested by some, that at least money and power and race might make a more energetic response somewhat more likely, even though San Francisco and New York are decidedly blue areas. What kind of a world, what kind of a nation do we live in, when such calculations as race, and money, and power, not to mention political preferences, can be talked about in such a context? And yet look again at the pictures of suffering in New Orleans. The poor underclass with no means to evacuate the city. A sea of color. The epitome of powerlessness.
The unraveling of lives, of separated loved ones with no means of communication and no means of knowing if they are alive or okay, of jobs and homes and schools and churches, and businesses, of the tissues of relationship and connectedness that gives our lives at least a bit of coherence-all these things are so uprooted for so many. And they will take so long to put back together to the extent that is even possible.
Each of us likely has our own searing moment of the past days. Mine was of seeing the little boy, sick and exhausted after days in that stadium with very little food and water, finally ready to be put on a bus to somewhere, anywhere, but out of the immediate horror. But then he is told no dogs are allowed on the bus, and rules are rules, and so he must give up his dog, his companion who was with him through all of this and who meant so much to him. "Snowflake, Snowflake, Snowflake!" he cried as the little dog was snatched away from him. And he broke into convulsions and vomited-and was forcibly put on the bus without his beloved dog. Snowflake was consigned to fend for himself, and likely to face a gruesome death in the coming hours or days. And a little boy's life is completely shattered.
It is almost beyond imagining.
A whole other reality happened in Iraq this past week which was almost totally eclipsed in the media here by the devastation in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. And that was that nearly one thousand Iraqi civilians, old people, women, children, and men, non-combatants all, on a religious pilgrimage crossing a bridge in Baghdad, died in panic over a rumored suicide bomber being in their midst.
It was, we are told, the largest single loss of life in the war, even though no shots were fired or bombs exploded in at least the moment of greatest panic. And as Iraq seems ever closer to civil war, with a constitutional process bogged down that we cannot fix, with no real vision of how the war might end much less when in might end, with a war entered and maintained for reasons that have been proved to be false, and with no limits on what we might spend in continuing the carnage, I feel as helpless as I do over trying to grasp the magnitude of what has happened and what is required in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
When I am filled with uncertainty and foreboding and despair about our world and our nation-as I admit to being right now about up to here-again and again I find at least some solace in the Hebrew prophets.
The whole of the prophetic movement was in one way or another to help the people see and discern just what they were doing-when they so often would have preferred not to see, not to discern. Like all people everywhere, and certainly the United States of America today, the ancient Israelites had the problem of believing more in their own worthiness, their own goodness, their own authority, their own power-than in God's, but all the whole deluding themselves into actually believing they were doing God's will. That they were on God's side. No, that's not quite right. It is God who is on their side. They were and are, after all, his chosen. How could it be otherwise?
The marriage of religion and politics in ancient Israel is so eerily paralleled by what we see in America today.
But in ancient Israel, again and again, God raised up prophets to speak the word with authority and power, and to offer again and again the possibility of turning back to God before it was too late. Even when it was too late, when Zion and the temple and the monarchy were no more, when God's judgment had been executed, there was still a new word of hope and possibility.
How is it, how can it be that we seem so blind to the prophetic message in our own day, so unable to discern that there might be a message for us, so unwilling to understand the dynamic relationship that exists between "the law" and "the prophets" and sense there is any message of judgment that might even apply to us?
Last week we heard Jeremiah's lament. God's word had been a joy and a delight to Jeremiah, and he ate them, took them inside completely. But his resulting pain and anguish were raw, his wound incurable, refusing to be healed, the scorn and contempt of his friends and countrymen unceasing. And yet God was not done with his servant. He makes him once again to speak the word that is life. He will be a fortified wall of bronze. He will be delivered. And, ultimately, there will be a word of hope for his people.
Today, we have Ezekiel. Ezekiel's prophetic visions are extraordinary in their poetic beauty. He is called upon to perform bizarre deeds so that the people might discern through his actions what they could not hear with mere words. Ezekiel is to be the sentinel, the watchman. He is to be responsible for his message to an amazing degree, as we heard in our lesson for today. He received his prophetic call when Jerusalem was rapidly disintegrating and was about to be totally destroyed, temple and all, and the people who were left were to be driven into exile. Even when it appeared that all was lost, Ezekiel preached that it was not too late to return to God.
When Jerusalem and its temple were finally destroyed and the monarchy was no more, he gave a word of hope to those in exile who had no hope. They said to him, "our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?" Yet God orders Ezekiel to say to those exiles, "As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn back from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?"
Ezekiel can have the vision of the valley of the dry bones-the dry bones of the dead Israel. The question is asked by God of Ezekiel, "Mortal, can these bones live?" Ezekiel's response is simply, "O Lord, you know."
Ezekiel is ordered to prophesy to those dry bones, and, gradually, they are restored to life. "I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will act, says the Lord. This story is, of course, one of the great prophecies that is often read at the Great Vigil of Easter. It is one of the greatest proclamations of the Hebrew Bible.
I would like to believe that we could hear and respond to the cry of the sentinel, the shout of the watchman. That our leaders and all of us could see that the word is addressed to them, to all of us, as well. That we could hear the word of judgment as well as the hope that goes beyond it.
It seems there are times when all that we can do is to attempt to be faithful where we are, where we find ourselves, and to pray and to hope for God's deliverance, even as we pray and work for that which we cannot yet see, even as we pray for, and seek to relieve those who are suffering in the terrible aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, even as we seek peace in a world and nation so bent on war.
I close with our collect of the day. It is so powerful and so apt that we need to hear it, we need to pray it again and again: "Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen."