Earlier this summer, my friend and I had the occasion to serve as the virtual chaplains for a week of high school summer church camp at the Bishop’s Ranch. In the beginning of the planning process, all the camp staff and chaplains decided together that the theme for the whole summer of camps would be “The Apocalypse” which is… still a defensible choice… and still, in hindsight, like Icarus flying a little too close to the sun. Within that larger theme of the Apocalypse, my co-chaplain and I decided to do the ambitious thing and try to teach the entire book of the prophet Ezekiel from stem to stern, all 48 chapters, in just four sessions.
The book of Ezekiel is one of the more notable prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures but maybe not often understood as an entirely coherent narrative—more often reduced to the image of the Valley of the Dry Bones, or dismissed outright for its really quite appalling first chapter wherein God is introduced as a monstrous creature of wheels and eyeballs and fire. The prophet Ezekiel, however, is introduced to us in the early stages of a great tragedy, both for him and for his people. He was a priest of the temple – idk, probably living a nice normal priest-y life – when his city was invaded by the Babylonians, his temple was destroyed, and his people were sent into exile. Like… let’s just sit with that for a sec. The temple was destroyed. He was sent into exile. His people were alienated from all that they knew and physically moved out of town. He was living a profoundly disrupted life, if not permanently fractured.
This is the container within which we ought to read this story. And it’s the container that we tried to explain to our high schoolers – that we, too, have experienced a big disruption in our lives. God is still with us in the disruption, even though we wish we could go back to work and school and church in person, stop wearing our masks all the time, see people we miss dearly.
Even our most diligent efforts to understand this context can still fall short. I thought we nailed it. Truly. And then just a month later, the state of California was engulfed in wildfire, fires that were literally lapping at the doors of The Bishop’s Ranch. The terms of our apocalyptic disruption went from things like,,,, spending more time at home, feeling lonely or missing our alone time, being online for work or school, missing airplanes and concerts, or a general fatigue about the state of the world,,,, to something much more visceral, more urgent,,, packing to evacuate under the shroud of wildfire.
I do not say this to rank the difficulties we’ve faced. That would serve no purpose. But I do say this to highlight an important difference that I noticed and that served to deepen the frame within which I approach Ezekiel. If I’m honest, in the midst of all of this we’ve faced over the last six months, I’ve retained a great deal of control over my life. I’m not facing eviction, I haven’t been furloughed, I order my groceries and I can Zoom into just about anywhere I need to be. The way I am living my life these days is not the way I would choose to be living (and it’s still hard!) but I still retain a lot of choice over what happens to me. The same is not true for Ezekiel whose entire life was wrenched away from him. Ezekiel did not retain much control over his life – typical for God’s prophets. He was not mostly at-home, he was not telecommuting to the Temple, he did not take a sixth month sabbatical until things blew over. He was sent into exile, an exile that lasted 70 years, which was, in that day, a life sentence.
So when we described it to the high schoolers, we got a lot of the way there, but I guess I realize now, we did not get all of the way there in really grappling with Ezekiel. We talked about the Big Traumatic Event that kicked off a long, long season of difficulty. We talked about how we are in the midst of that long season of difficulty – a season that for Ezekiel lasted a good 35 chapters – and for us, that doesn’t have an end date. We talked about the first glimpse of life after pandemic/life after exile in the life that was breathed into Valley of the Dry Bones in chapter 37. We talked about Ezekiel’s vibrant vision of the restored temple and we spent time imagining what we hoped society would be like on the other side of this. The pivot for us, is maybe, realizing that when you or I share a vision for a restored society,,, it’s maybe six months, a year or two, on the horizon and it’s a society that looks mostly the same as the one we’re still living in and to know that that is different than the terms of Ezekiel’s prophecy.
So when we hear a passage like Ezekiel 33 and we hear God’s call to Ezekiel (and to us) to speak a warning to the wicked so that they do not die in their sin but repent and amend their ways, when we hear God’s call to Ezekiel (and to us) to condemn wickedness because the failure to do so is lose our own lives, we get to wonder how we hear these words differently than Ezekiel did.
When we chafe at the very notion of wickedness, when we downplay it, avert our eyes from it in our country, in our own communities, when we shudder to think about what it would cost us to name it in our midst…. Then we get to wonder if we are much more allergic to the idea of wickedness than Ezekiel and his fellow exiles, and we get to wonder why that is.
The truth is that there are people in the world, in our country, in this Bay Area whose lives are much, much more similar to Ezekiel’s than to ours, not only for this pandemic but all other sorts and manner. There are people whose entire lives have been upended by war, by famine, by economic devastation or by police violence or by our shifting climate, people’s whose lives have been demolished by the overall impact of this pandemic, there are people whose lives have never found the stability that take for granted for matters of income inequality or discrimination. There are people who will not have a normal life to go back to “on the other side of this” and people who never had a ‘normal life’ to begin with.
I wonder what wickedness they see. I wonder if this ‘apocalypse’ – this season of revelation – is revealing more to them than it is to us, if it feels deeper, more urgent, more explicit. I wonder how wicked Babylon seemed to Ezekiel and I wonder how much more wickedness Ezekiel saw than the Babylonians did.
The exhortation to Ezekiel and to us is to see and to name the wickedness at work in the world and to warn the wicked, to call them to repent. And we are called to do that both because God longs to see them amend their ways, but also because the failure to do so, to stand idly by in the face of wickedness, is also to lose our own lives. This is not an easy exhortation to hear and our work today is simply to sit with the full brunt of that call.
I wonder… where do you see wickedness in our society? Truly, where do you see it? In particular institutions? In the hearts and minds of particular people? In specific laws or rules? Is it everywhere or is it just in some places? Or do you not really see it anywhere?
I wonder… where do you think that the Ezekiels among us see wickedness in our society? What wickedness do they see that we do not? What structures, policies, prejudices seem like wickedness to them and seem like justice and freedom to us?
I wonder… why does it save my life to warn the wicked to repent? What am I doing or not doing that means that my life is in need of saving?
I guess what I am trying to say is that when we filter the bible purely through the lenses of our own experiences, there are some things that we miss. When I read the bible through Ethan’s eyes, the ideas of apocalypse and exile and wickedness seem different to me than they did to Ezekiel and than they do to other people suffering under much less control over their lives than we have over ours. Ezekiel was written for refugees, for exiles, for the destitute and the desolate and the alienated and the evacuated and the sick and the poor and the displaced and homeless. We can surely ask what Ezekiel means to us but then we also must ask what Ezekiel means to them. What wickedness do they see and why does God say that it saves our lives to see it, too?
One of the things that I appreciate about our Judeo-Christian tradition is that is makes space for me to ask hard questions and it helps me be brave enough to actually try and answer them, even if it means giving an answer that at the end of the day I do not like or is inconvenient to me or asks me to change my mind. And when I hear this exhortation from Ezekiel and the parallel calls from Paul and Jesus, I think there are questions in it that we must ask: What does it mean to love our neighbors as ourselves? What does it mean to see the world through their eyes? and Why does it save my life to do that?
I don’t know the answers to those questions… but I want to.