Speaker: Michelle Burkholder
There are lots of Biblical proverbs that ring familiar in our ears [some more so than others]:
- Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding [Proverbs 3:5]
- Start children off in the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it [Proverbs 22:6]
- The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction [Proverbs 1:7]
- Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall [Proverbs 16:18]
- A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones [Proverbs 17:22]
- Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it [Proverbs 4:23]
And then there’s the proverb from today’s Ezekiel text:
Parents eat sour grapes and their children’s teeth are set on edge.
This parable is probably less familiar to us, however, it would have been familiar to the Israelites living in exile in Babylon. In that time and place, the parable was perceived as a word of comfort. It offered some sense of reason, it was an excuse of some sort, for the difficulties of life that the people of Israel were experiencing. In that moment the Israelites were captives under the rule of an invading power who had not only taken possession of their promised land, that power had forcibly deported them from it. As the Israelites lived into the trials and sufferings of their plight, they naturally wondered: who is to blame? Who has brought this destruction and death to our doorstep? The proverb offered them an answer.
Those who came before. Surely all of this is the fault of those who came before. Their sin, their lack of integrity, their unrighteousness has brought this suffering upon us. Our teeth are set on edge because our parents ate sour grapes.
There is no doubt that the actions of those who come before us, at any point in time, help set the stage and contribute to the context of life in the current time. That is how the story of the world unfolds. We live in the midst of an on-going story that has taken shape through the actions and choices of those who have come before us. When we step into our time, we step into a context that has been and is constantly created for us, in part, by others.
The people of Israel don’t just see their sufferings as the fault of their parents, they see it as the wrath of God. They see the exile as punishment from God in response to the unjust actions of those who came before. In this way of thinking – the people have resigned themselves to living in the perceived judgement of God. They have accepted an understanding that God has lost interest in the situation of the exiles and that there is nothing they can do about their plight.
God is, unsurprisingly, not so pleased with this way of thinking. To hear the people repeating this proverb and perpetuating a belief that God is to blame for the state of the people’s suffering is counter to the desires and preferences of God. And so God, through the prophet Ezekiel, sends a word to the people of Israel.
What the voice of God speaks to the people of Israel, God also speaks to us: Yes, you are in the midst of contexts that may not be of your own making, yet remember this, no context that celebrates injustice and death above life is of my making. What God reminds the people is that all people belong to God and that God takes no pleasure in the death of anyone. Above all else, God chooses, cares for, and offers life.
This is, after all, the same God that, through the work of Moses and Aaron, brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. This is the God who travelled with the Israelites in the wilderness showering them with manna. This is the same God who, despite the people’s constant grumbling and lack of faith, brought forth life-giving water from a rock to quench their thirst. It is the same God who offers this word of life.
This word is an invitation. It is an invitation, to all people in all times, to turn from and redirect our resignation to the contexts we may find ourselves in, particularly when those contexts are places of suffering, injustice, and death. It is an invitation to participate in the transformation of those contexts. Transformation that invites, values, and acts out justice, communal care, and integrity. Turning is part of the action because just as we can be participants in creating and making space for life in the world – we are also complicit in shoring up spaces of death and injustice [we are human after all and sometimes treat each other poorly] and so, in our active participation towards transformation around us, we too must open ourselves up to transformation. This is an invitation to a new heart and a new spirit – which might be found through a shift in perspective, or new ways of seeing and engaging.
I want to share with you a piece of art that I kept coming back to this week as I thought about this text. This is a piece of art by French artist Bernard Pras.
Bernard Pras is a collage/installation artist who uses anamorphosis in his work – which means his works distort a composition from certain angles, only to reveal those compositions in rich ways from different angles. Pras does this through the stacking of a variety of objects – sometimes seemingly junk – on a canvas, or in rooms to create a dimensional image when viewed from a specific place. This particular piece is a portrait of French postal worker Ferdinand Cheval. Cheval is an interesting character himself as he also was a person who stacked found objects together to create art. Cheval collected interestingly shaped rocks for over 30 years on his postal route and used them to build an architectural sculpture called: The Ideal Palace. This particular sculpture then is an interesting case of one artist [Pras] using the medium [found objects] of another artist [Cheval] to create a portrait of Cheval through the artistic voice of Pras.
And yet, what does this have to do with the scripture from Ezekiel that we are looking at today? As I kept thinking about this scripture and this piece of art this week, what I began see in this piece of art is a sculptural model of what God is getting at when God asks the people of Israel, and us in our time as well, to: turn, then, and live.
This sculpture, at the most basic level is a pile of junk. It is broken things. It is a mishmash of objects. It appears to be chaos. And yet, when you step directly in front of it and take it in, it becomes a clearly defined image. An intricately beautiful whole made up of the sum of its hodge-podge parts.
The image we see in this sculpture [like in all sculpture] depends on the perspective from which we view it. In the scripture text today, God reminds God’s people that God’s perspective is one that affirms life for all. God’s message counters the human instinct to see suffering and injustice solely as the condemnation of God. God’s message is a reminder that we are not incapacitated and bound by the contexts in which we live, we are instead participants in creating the story of our time and place, not only for ourselves, but for all of God’s beloveds who share this time and space with us and for those who will yet come into the story of God’s people in the world. God’s word reminds us that we have the choice and ability to extend care and grace to each other. We have the choice to engage in the breaking down of systems of injustice. We have the ability to name spaces of suffering and death around us and we have the choice to linger and fuel those spaces of death or we can choose to turn from inaction and injustice and seek to transform them into places of life. God’s plea to God’s people is to: turn, then, and live. What God is asking of us is to be mindful and intentional about the perspectives from which we view and engage in our living.
And that is an on-going active process. God’s phrasing is: turn, then, and live, and yet God might as well have added: turn, again, and live. Because in being people who choose to seek life and work to transform spaces of suffering and death into spaces of justice and life, we are people who will be constantly tugged back and forth between experiences of death and life. We live in that tension all the time. This request to turn towards life is a call to engage with that tension and to intentionally tug on it instead of letting it retain all the power to manipulate us.
In the example of the sculpture we just saw, that means being mindful of how and where we focus our vision. If we focus only on the side view of the abstract pile of junk, we miss seeing the image that comes into being from that collection of stuff in relationship to each other. Likewise if we only view the portrait from one place and perspective, we see a nice image, but we miss the depth of complexity that is going into the creation of that image – we miss the space within it, we miss the individual details, and the wonder that comes with seeing the image move from definition to abstraction and back into focus again as we move around the sculpture.
This is the complexity of engagement that God is calling us to. God’s message to turn, then, and live, was initially spoken to a people living in captivity, a people discouraged, and downtrodden. God’s call to life wasn’t a denial of the suffering of the Israelites in exile, nor is it a denial of the suffering and injustice surrounding us here, in our own time and place. God’s call to life wasn’t a quick fix solution to the suffering of the Israelites, nor is it a quick fix solution for us now. Instead, God’s message to turn, then, and live, was and is a reminder that life and transformation is available even in the midst of suffering if we choose to turn towards it.
Where are some spaces that we might turn, then, and live?
- For Queer persons [at least for me] it is in the act of coming out, of celebrating one’s identity and choosing to embrace the gift of that identity instead of letting the fear of others restrict that acceptance
- For white people in this country, it is the act of breaking open our vision and seeing how our whiteness has given us privilege at the cost of suffering and death in the lives of people of color, and then turning and choosing to live in ways that create life giving space for others
- For all of us it is engaging in intentional awareness to the ever shifting environmental status of our plant and turning towards lifestyles that practice and speak out for creation care
- For some of us it is the act of putting down our phones, stepping away from social media or the news from time to time, not to turn away and ignore all that is going on in the world around us, but turn towards a space to live into personal relationships and being mindfully present in this world without the constant bombardment of other peoples’ opinions
- What are the spaces of death, suffering, and disillusion in your own life? What might it look like to turn, then, and live in those spaces, relationships, practices?
Lucy Kalanithi is an internist on faculty at the Stanford School of Medicine. She was married to Dr. Paul Kalanithi who died in 2015 from lung cancer. As Lucy and Paul journeyed together from diagnosis to death, Paul wrote a book entitled: When Breath Becomes Air, about his transition from doctor to patient and about their commitment to choose to live alongside Paul’s impending death. Since his death, Lucy has continued to share wisdom and reflections from that journey with people and in a TEDMED talk she said this:
Being human doesn’t happen despite suffering. It happens within it. When we approach suffering together, when we choose not to hide from it, our lives don’t diminish, they expand.
God invites us to expanded life. May we be people willing to lean into life together, may we be mindful of our perspectives and willing to challenge and shift them when needed, may we choose life and justice even, and especially when, we or others are surrounded by suffering, injustice, and death, and may we open ourselves to the unexpected transformations that come when we choose to turn, then, and live.