The following sermon was preached by Klaus-Peter Adam, Associate Professor of Old Testament, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, September 28, 2011.
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Welcome to the repentance hotline! Please listen carefully as we have recently changed our menu options. If you are new to this place and think that “Jehezkiel” or “Ezekiel” is a throat problem rather than the name of an Israelite prophet, please press 1 or consult with Esther Menn or Ralph Klein. If you suffer from decaying tooth enamel caused by too much acid in your parents’ diet, please press 2 or consult a dentist. If you question whether “guilt” can be handed down between generations, please press 3.
I don’t know which option of my fictional repentance hotline resonates with you this Wednesday morning. Maybe, the third? Why does this sixth century prophet assume any burden of ancestral guilt for the next generation at all?
We need to unlearn modern individualism if we want to understand Ezekiel.
Ezekiel sees humankind in Judah as a whole connected – generation to generation, spanning from the generations before the exodus until the exile: Judah is embedded in about half a millennium’s history. And Ezekiel’s generation pays for the collective guilt of their mothers and fathers. The proverb “The fathers and mothers eat sour grapes – and the children’s teeth are set on edge” sums up a generation’s life reality.
All of us experience the connectedness of generations, for instance when we leave our country of origin. Some of you will be privileged to travel to the Holy Land this year. When you stand in line of the passport control: Watch how people are treated differently, depending on their passport. When you pay your hotel bill with an American credit card or when you change your bucks at the money exchange in the Damascus gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, watch carefully how Palestinians and Israelis look at you.
Watch closely how your national identity, your cultural identity honor or humble you: You will immediate understand your national identity and how we are all interwoven into a tapestry of collective merit and guilt within our nation of origin. As a post-world-war II born German, I have a cultural advantage when it comes to inter-generational exchange of guilt in a nation. In my travels, I have met people who, when they find out I am German, tell me out loud and most enthusiastically: ‘Hitler was great!'
In such problematic encounters with my own national past the guilt of my ancestors feels real and heavy on my shoulders. I feel blessed that I trace my origin also back to a people of faith, and to a prophet Ezekiel within it, who openly talks about the meandering ways of humans to commit wrong and right, and their need for forgiveness. In such situations I feel blessed that I can trace myself back to my mothers and fathers of faith in Jesus Christ.
For us today, our place within the generations past and the generations to come becomes relevant when we widen our perspective beyond our own nations, to how we intend to hand this world down to those who follow us, to all who will inhabit the earth in the future.
When I look back into my national past, I often find myself arguing in imaginative dialogues with my long deceased grandfather and his generation. I imagine to openly criticize him, yelling at him:
Didn’t you know?
Didn’t you read the newspaper in 1933-1945?
Didn’t you consult a history book? I want to scream at him.
On Sunday we’ve baptized Elijah Tammen, Esther Men’s son, on Monday Lea Schweitz has talked to us about how to learn from our children to ask questions. Let’s imagine our grandchildren and their children as they might address us, once: I imagine women and men in a church, sitting just like us, here, today, as they wrestle with the conundrum of a rotten planet.
Their questions might resemble those that I want to ask my grandfather:
“How could you just live in the state of Illinois back then, without marching on the streets in protest because 50% of the energy was produced by nuclear power plants?
Didn’t you read the newspaper?
Didn’t you know that the burden of your nuclear waste from 3 generations would rest as a burden on the shoulders of about the next 300 generations?
How come, I can’t go outside anymore when the sun shines because the ultraviolet rays are destroying my skin?
How could the egotistic generations of the mid twentieth and the twenty-first century produce this massive carbon footprint making us live as in a pressure cooker?
How dared they creating this inheritance, a demolished space?”
Today, children and some of the fathers and mothers of our community will bring the gifts of bread and wine to our altar to remind us about how we are interwoven with those who come before us and with those who follow after us.
Each of our generations are like earthen vessels who transport this precious treasure of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as Paul writes, and hand it over from one generation to the next.
We have not inherited this earth from our grandparents,
we have borrowed it from our grandchildren.
For us, as followers of Christ, this is an ardent moment of repentance, of returning back to God. We are called to live in the light of the gospel: How will our children in faith look at us? Will we be found as role models for them, as earthen vessels who have handed down the precious treasure of the gospel? Not only by carrying it to the altar, but also in our word and deeds in the world.
And all you who had your senior interviews last Friday and whom we send out as leaders of parishes of the ELCA: How will the ELCA in the next century look on you, the pastors and leaders of Lutheran Faith in the twenty-first century?
How will they look on you, graduates of 2012 through 2015? How will they judge you and your teachers at this seminary? How will we be considered among the followers of Christ world wide?
Look at the pictures of the pastors in the assembly hall or in the church basement where you serve: Take a minute, sit down, look into the faces and on the life times of those who ministered before you. And think, as you enter ministry: How do I want my picture to be regarded in this room? As what pastor do I want to be remembered here in this community of those followers of Christ?
-Time for another phone call.
You have reached the “enlightenment Immanuel Kant & Co. org”, an extension of the repentance hotline. Please listen carefully to the following menu options, even though we’ve been offering these options since about 250 years: If you think you are indeed a free human being – please press 1 now or read Ezekiel 18. If you think this is all about making people a bad conscience and make them feel miserable, please press 2 now or read Martin Luther!
In our passage, Ezekiel looks at us from the perspective of God. As we blame God:
“The ways of the Lord are not just!”, Ezekiel, instead, reminds us of our meandering thoughts, of our mindset that constantly oscillates between evil and good. He reminds us of our ever changing ways, our uneven paths, that are not right or just or straight. “Repent – turn away from all your offences!
Then sin will not be your downfall!”
Martin Luther heard this on the backdrop that we are captives of sin and cannot free ourselves. We resemble those who question Jesus (Matthew 21) who meander around in their answers. I quote from Luther’s “Bondage of the will”: “It is an evangelical word and the sweetest comfort in every way for miserable sinners, where Ezekiel [Ezek. 18:23, 32] says: “I desire not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn and live,” …. What, indeed, does … Holy Scripture contain, but sheer promises of grace, in which mercy, life, peace, and salvation are offered by God to men? And what else do words of promise have to say but this: “I desire not the death of a sinner”? (It is) … the same thing as to say, “I am merciful,” as to say, “I am not angry, I do not want to punish, I do not want you to die, I want to pardon, I want to spare”?” These “divine promises were … there to raise up consciences afflicted with the sense of sin and terrified with the fear of death and judgment”.
Luther’s sobriety, when he negates humans’ ability to act “good” might not be popular or charming. But: this can be healthy. Traditional 12-step groups reliably echo his take, when they say “we admit that we are powerless over …. “ and we now need to assess “the exact nature of our wrongs”.
-It’s time to pick up the call again:
This is the repentance hotline. Please listen carefully, even though we’ve neither updated this menu in the last 2000 years, nor do we intend to do so. We currently suggest the following option: Repent and Live! Look into the faces of the children among you and think of them, and their descendants and the multitude of your mothers and fathers in Christ who handed the precious treasure of faith in Jesus Christ down to you. Consider yourself in the light of the one “Who, though he was the form of God / Emptied himself, / Taking the form of a servant / Being born in human likeness / Humbled himself/ And became obedient to the point of death / Even death on a cross.”