Rev. Diane K. Hooge
I will never forget the first time I heard Marian Wright Edelman speak. It was in the conference center in San Jose, CA. It was a huge setting, and it was perfectly silent. She stood there as founder of the Children’s Defense Fund rattling off the overwhelming statistics that come with children in poverty in the United States. She did not hold back her disdain for those who take money away from programs that feed children. Prophets are not easy people to hear. It’s hard work to have one’s eyes opened.
Like many prophets, she has been deemed “inflexible”…and she agrees. As she puts it, “I’m inflexible about children being killed by guns…I am totally intolerant and inflexible about children going hungry in the richest nation on earth…about children being homeless, about children being in schools that don’t teach them how to learn.” It was a year ago that she passed the forty year anniversary of her founding the Children’s Defense Fund.
Her lawyer husband, Peter Edelman, believes that it is her daily meditation practice that has kept her from leaving her highly demanding role. She grew up in a faith tradition and has held on to it. She also holds on to her African American history by wearing two pendants around her neck –one is a portrait of Harriet Tubman, the other is of Sojourner truth.
The Old Testament prophets were an eccentric bunch of folks. No matter what era one is born into, the established order has very little use for those who don’t fit in. Ezekiel had difficulty in interpreting his figurative and visionary prophecies. Mystics are not always the easiest folks to understand. Ezekiel’s history indicates that he came out of the established order. He was from an elite, respectable family of ruling priests. He worked in the prestigious temple setting in the hills of Zion. Life was good for Ezekiel.
However, when Jerusalem was captured by Babylonian forces in 597 B.C., Ezekiel was among those taken back to their captor’s homeland. The curious reality is that it was on this foreign soil that Ezekiel was called by God to serve his own people. Now, one might have expected that the people would have welcomed and embraced Ezekiel as “one of their own”, but the reality was that he probably would have been better accepted if he had been sent to another part of the world. His own people had difficulty accepting him.
These verses from chapter three are the last verses of a lengthy account of his call. The call came in the form of a vision. The key verse for our consideration this morning is verse 15: “I came to the exiles at Telabib who lived by the river Chebar. And I sat there among them, stunned for seven days.” Other translations use the word “astonished” or “overwhelmed”. We are informed in the opening chapters that Ezekiel resisted the call of God to become a priest-prophet. After all, God wasn’t dealing with a ‘nobody’. Ezekiel was considered part of the elite. He had power—power over.
However, God saw the potential in this priest and young Ezekiel was given an internship experience. He was to sit with the people for seven days. Scholars inform us that this was actually a longer period of time. In sitting with the people, Ezekiel came face to face with the nitty gritty reality of life outside of the confines of the temple. All the trappings of his life were gone. He had lost his citizenship. He had no power as an expatriate. Although the people weren’t slaves, they weren’t free. Gone was his status as an educated priest. No longer could he hide behind his fancy temple robes. He had to endure the pain of making the transition from the gown to the town. Ezekiel traded in his robes for some overalls to work alongside the people in the fields as a bi-vocational pastor. In our text, we’re told that the setting of this transformation is the River Chebar at Telabib. He went from presiding at the prestigious temple setting to informal gatherings down by the river in front of low income housing.
The key to Ezekiel’s call is that he couldn’t claim his authority until he learned to sit where the people sat. What we find in the book of Ezekiel is that as he sat with the folks listening—
-listening to their stories
-living with them in the same community
-working alongside them
Socializing with them—he began offering them a liberating view of theology that grew out of his own internal liberation process. He offered them a new concept of God. And, when the people complained that the sins of their fathers was what caused them to be held captive on this foreign land, Ezekiel proclaimed a new understanding of God which was not focused on a corporate concept, but was based on an individual responsibility to God.
This young priest provided an integrated view of theology. He was involved in renewal. He established a new understanding of grace that emerged out of his ministry of being with people in the daily-ness of life. He made it clear that to encounter God one didn’t have to be where the Ark of the Covenant was located nor did they have to be in the sacred temple on their own country’s soil to experience God. He made the edgy claim that God could put God’s Spirit within the individual and the individual didn’t have to be on Mt. Zion to receive the gift of the Spirit.
These theological reflections were extremely new and radical for the people. Many of them could not accept them. There is a natural tendency on humankind’s part to want to get rid of the messenger rather than facing the message. Ezekiel was attacked on all sides for being a messenger of truth. The key to all that was accomplished on this foreign soil was the credibility that Ezekiel gained by sitting with the people.
Some years ago during another interim time in the life of a congregation that I served, I received a call from Sister Katherine, one of the chaplains at Children’s Hospital, regarding the daughter of a church member. The young woman had given birth in the county hospital; and because of complications, the baby was transferred to Children’s Hospital. She urged me to come quickly. I prayed that I would make it in time.
I arrived at the intensive care unit and was rushed into a tiny room where the family had gathered. The mother and father of the child were in agony, holding and stroking their infant son. As I held their precious son, so perfectly formed, I listened to the story of his birth. As I heard what seemed like an endless litany of botched health care procedures, I ached for this family who had endured so much injustice within the county system. I became acutely aware that my skin color and my neighborhood allowed me privileges that this family had not experienced.
Somewhere in the midst of their horrendously painful stories, I knew that the baby, their first born, who I held cradled in my arms, had died. I sat agonizing over the reality that had to be shared.
A book that I have read and re-read countless times is titled When the People Say No by James Dittes, A former Yale Divinity School professor. He talks about the importance of ministry that happens through the groans not to the groans. He also speaks of the importance of praying through the groans and not praying about the groans.
When a community has lost a beloved leader, it’s important to take the time to be with each other and listen. Grief often gets compounded during interim periods. A significant loss tends to tap into other losses. Being allowed to share the pain of another’s grief, whether it be because of death, a move, divorce, loss of job, or being in therapy to work through past childhood pain is a holy ground experience. There is something sacred about being allowed into another person’s inner world. The heart of ministry happens for us when there is trust to tell one’s story as well as when there is a trustworthy listener.
It has been in the settings of hospitals and nursing homes where I have learned that presence is far more important than words. In a culture that holds such a high value on words, I’ve been touched by the number of meditation and prayer options that there are held in this community. To sit collectively in silence, or to sit holding someone’s hand can express far more than words—and is often preferable to words.
During this season in the life of this community of faith, we are making neighborhood adjustments. It’s a time when we need to be spending time together—listening to each other. It’s a time when new people in the community need to find some rootedness, and find their place of belonging.
As an interim pastor, I’m convinced that it is out of shared “being time” ….shared listening time that we are enabled to make and embrace neighborhood changes that will enhance, support and give focus to this strong community of faith.
Ezekiel challenges us to experience the reality of what listening to one another can bring. New theologies are developed within community…not isolation. To be an inclusive people demands that we find ways to listen to those who don’t come to worship as well as to those who do. We need to understand and name what folks outside the walls of the church are longing for.
Ezekiel wasn’t sent to the people to “conquer them” for God. He wasn’t sent to place funnels over their heads and pour in knowledge. He was sent to join them—to stand with them in life. Before people could hear him, they needed to trust him. He had to learn to be their pastor.
And, as always, we’re invited into the story. Who are the people who have been with you in your life? Who reached out to you when you were in a new neighborhood—or in an unfamiliar setting? Who are the folks who have stood by you in the midst of various losses in your life? With whom have you chosen to sit? Who is it who would point to you and say, “yes, they sat with me and they held hope for me when I couldn’t hold it for myself.”
I made a visit to see Joor and Kari Bol last week. They are long-time members of this congregation who have been dealing with Kari’s challenging physical issues. I asked if I could share what she said to me in response to my question, “what’s important for me to know about this congregation.” She responded, “We are all totally different. I’m not following anyone else. God is in me. I know that I’m being guided. And, it’s important to make a friend of the people you don’t like.”
Learning to sit with another is sometimes the hardest thing to do in the dailyness of life. The reality of the Gospel is that it demands risk taking. It pushes us to change. It asks us to sit with one another in love. Without the freedom of this reality, we could not have the hope of liberation. Thanks be to God. Amen.
www.washingtonpost.com “Marian Wright Edelman marks 40 years of advocacy at Children’s Defense Fund” by Krissah Thompson, September 29,2013