First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Dr. Jane Florence
August 6, 2017
Scriptures: Exodus 20:5, Ezekiel 18:1-4, 32
Sermon: “Who’s to Blame?”
Israel was a Small country, actually not much bigger population than some cities of rural Nebraska. Let’s take Beatrice for example with a population of just over 12,000. How would it be if ten thousand people from that town – including the mayor, city council, school-teachers, preachers, rabbis, doctors, police officers, lawyers, dentist, electricians, plumbers, farmers, cooks, seamstress – were suddenly removed? Then the city’s churches, city offices, schools, and homes were all bulldozed, crops around town were left in ruin? Those ten-thousand people were walked to, let’s say to Lincoln Park, Chicago. They were told they could set up shop and go about business, but they had to stay there, and they had to do life the city way. They couldn’t practice their old ways of small-town old-time religion. Let’s say there was a new religion in Lincoln Park, Chicago. These small-town Nebraskans had to leave behind all their Jesus songs and Jesus prayers and church potlucks and take up the new religions, pray to different gods, offer sacrifice and worship to many gods of Lincoln Park, Chicago.
Imagine the exile lasting for sixty years. Three generations growing up, growing old and dying in foreign lands. Children hearing of their heritage and homeland only as story and imaginations could convey, never knowing anything other than they were not home in the “Good Life.” The children asked why? Why aren’t we home? Why don’t we go home if life is so great in Nebraska? They were given the reason: because their great-grandparents had offended God. God expelled them from their homeland and sent them to this God-forsaken land beyond God’s love.
Imagine believing that you are beyond Gods love. That’s exile.
Exile is the Hebrew story of faith. One of their convictions was that the sins of the parents fell upon their children for three and four generations. Who’s to blame for the trouble we are in, they said ? What did grandpa do that we should suffer like this?
Who’s to blame for this? Ah, great-grandpa made God mad, so now we pay the price. That’s who to blame. Ezekiel was a prophet and priest 600 B.C.; he brought a new idea, a new understanding to this doctrine of inherited sin and punishment woven throughout the Hebrew narrative.
We read with our lens of 21st century, self-made men and women, individual accomplishment, survival of the fittest, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, personal salvation and private religion. We read the Bible with singular ‘You.’
“I have plans for you,” says the Lord… “I will be your God,” says the Lord. “…I will forgive your iniquities and remember your sins no more,” says the Lord.
We hear it personally- for our individual self.
But that is not how the Hebrews wrote it. They didn’t write with the individual ‘’You.’’ They wrote with the plural “You”. Salvation was not an individual, private, personal matter; salvation was a national, communal matter. The community was the entity in relationship with God. There was a collective consciousness at work in their faith.
Ezekiel challenged their communal accountability belief. He cited the ancient proverb in a fanciful way, “if your parents eat bad grapes, you get a bad taste in your mouth.” Then he interrupted the commonly-held wisdom and said, that’s not right. God doesn’t work that way. No longer will the sins of the parents visit the children. Now we are all accountable for ourselves. That’s the good news and the bad news. He reinterprets God; he teaches of a God of grace not punishment for generations. “God takes no delight in punishing.” That’s good news.
Ezekiel’s introduction of individual accountability challenged the faith foundation of his day. The people wrestled with it for some generations. John’s gospel, 600 years later, tells of a time when Jesus and his disciples were walking along. They see a man blind from birth. The disciples use the blind man for an object lesson. Pointing to the blind man, they ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Six hundred years after Ezekiel introduces this idea, people still ask Jesus, “who’s to blame?”
Two thousand years later, we still ask the same question: who’s to blame? Who’s to blame for the ice caps melting? Who’s to blame that one-in-every-ten black men in their thirties are incarcerated? Who’s to blame that Native American Indian youth are three-times more likely as white youth to be held in a juvenile detention facility? Who’s to blame that there are 13 million children in this country within insufficient food- 1 in 6 children with a hungry belly? Who’s to blame that our teen suicide rate is up? Who’s to blame when the marriage falls apart? Who’s to blame when a building collapse? Who’s to blame when the trash doesn’t get put out, the doors don’t get locked, the bills don’t get paid? Who’s to blame when cancer strikes? Was it something the parent’s did? Or did the patient bring it on himself? We ask the same question; who is to blame? But we are usually trying to pin the problem on a human agent, not God. We want someone to pay the price and carry the blame, and we don’t want that someone to be us.
There’s the tension in Ezekiel’s teaching. We know that God doesn’t fling punishment upon us because our grandparents mess up. However, we also know that our behaviors can have lasting effects for generations. God doesn’t punish generations, but society and family systems pass along unhealthy behaviors. One generation’s sins often manifest themselves in the suffering of the next. Painful family legacies confirm the old proverb as true not false. One generation’s alcoholism is trickles down the family tree to the next. Domestic violence and sexual abuse migrate from generation to generation.
The surest predictor of one’s poverty is the poverty of one’s parents.
Racism, sexism, discrimination, poverty, ecological repercussions are passed from one generation to the next, and we are exiled from one another in our prejudice and ideology. We are exiled from our connection to the earth and exiled from claiming our true identity as God’s beloved. We are living in exile toady away from God as our center because we have placed priority in everything and anything besides God. Sports preempt church; work preempts family; convenience and comfort preempts earth’s preservation; consumer debt preempts freedom. Who’s to blame for the mess? Did our parent’s mess up? Did we? The answer is not one, but both.
Many of our problems have been in place for generations. Oppression and injustice in the workplace and marketplace, greed and arrogance, racial discrimination and prejudice are not 21st century inventions. But that doesn’t mean that we can say, I never owned a slave, so don’t blame me for racial inequality. I didn’t put Native Americans into reservations, their misery is not my fault. True, but we haven’t corrected the sins of our fathers, and we continue to benefit from them. No one wants to make reparations to those our grandfathers harmed.
Ezekiel calls the people from blaming their ancestors and doing nothing about the current situation. The situation doesn’t get better if everyone just says, well things are the way they are because previous generation messed it up, so now that’s just the way it is, and we have to live with it. The situation doesn’t get any better if everyone points a finger at one person or another and litigates to find someone to blame, and still no one takes action.
Our actions do resonate through the generations. Ezekiel reveals God’s graciousness grants each generation a fresh start. Each generation has a responsibility to make change. Each one has chance to make a difference.
The question might not be so much, “who shall we blame?” but “who will take action now?” Who’s going to help the community live differently? Who’s going to help eradicate old messages of prejudice and segregation still taught to children? Who’s going to step up and take action so that we might return to the way of God?
The prophet’s vision calls us all to set our children free, to right the wrongs, to come back from our self-created selfie exile, to return to love, and compassion of community.
To turn then and live in God
May it be so.