This is three things, a paper for a class, a work of fiction and a sermon. I don’t know how well it does any of them.


            Sunday, September 4, 2005

            Somewhere in southern Mississippi


            I guess I need to write this now. We said we’d do the service after people had their breakfast. We’re going to use the same tent (if it doesn’t have walls, is it still a tent? In happier times, at a wedding reception maybe, we would call it a pavilion. But that’s not right now. I wonder when it will be again)

            I’m glad I was able to find this red pen. I would almost always write my sermons on my computer, but the few times for one reason or another I had to write one out by hand, I would always use a red pen. Not because I thought my words needed to be in red like Jesus’, but because there is some thing special about writing in red, it sets whatever you write apart from the mundane black and blue words. Sermons need to be set apart, they need to be more than just my words, the red ink helps me to remember that. It helps me to remember to stop and listen for a voice beside my own.

            There are so many things that this sermon has going against it. Well, there are so many things that this service, this shelter (camp?), these people have going against them it seems only right, only fair, that the sermon should have problems, too.

            It has been so hard since the storm came, our city, our homes, our churches are gone, just wiped away. Where there were lives, jobs, prayers, music now there’s just rubble, trash, destruction.

            It feels kind of dumb to say that this sermon is going to be hard — everything is hard now. There might be an easier way, I thank that there is an obvious, feel good path — “God loves you and everything is going to be alright” — but I can’t take that path, those words would turn to dust in my mouth, though I imagine that some of the people coming to the service think that’s what they need. Our culture wants things to be that way — “sure it was hard there for a minute, but now everything’s okay.” We don’t want to think about how the bad times are going to continue, how we cried yesterday, but we are also going to cry tomorrow. We want it to be all better right now. And we want our churches, our preachers to give that assurance. It’s okay once in a while to read the sad parts of the Bible, but it’s never okay to leave us there.

            But, I can’t give them a happy talk this morning, can’t stand in front of them and tell them to “just get over it, Jesus will make everything right,” when I can’t stop crying. And I think, in their hearts, the people know that, and they would see right through any attempt to buck them up, even though that’s why they think they’re coming to church.

            They think they want to hear “comfort, o comfort my people,” but I’m not there yet, and I don’t think they are either.

            But, I can’t go to far the other way. It makes me ashamed of my calling, but even without access to radio, tv or the internet, I can still hear the voices of my colleagues in ministry who are telling their flocks that this was God’s punishment, that God sent Katrina because he (and I also imagine that every single one of those preachers refers to God as he) was angry about gambling, homosexuality, or abortion. Then they’ll tell their flocks that they had better straighten up, fly right. And (probably) give them more money if they don’t want something like this to happen to them.

            Somehow I need to find a place between those two extremes, between rushing to the good news and pushing these people even farther down. Here goes...

Water Bottles

            Text: Ezekiel 12:17-28

The word of the LORD came to me: 18 Mortal, eat your bread with quaking, and drink your water with trembling and with fearfulness; 19 and say to the people of the land, Thus says the Lord GOD concerning the inhabitants of Jerusalem in the land of Israel: They shall eat their bread with fearfulness, and drink their water in dismay, because their land shall be stripped of all it contains, on account of the violence of all those who live in it. 20 The inhabited cities shall be laid waste, and the land shall become a desolation; and you shall know that I am the LORD. 21 The word of the LORD came to me: 22 Mortal, what is this proverb of yours about the land of Israel, which says, "The days are prolonged, and every vision comes to nothing"? 23 Tell them therefore, "Thus says the Lord GOD: I will put an end to this proverb, and they shall use it no more as a proverb in Israel." But say to them, The days are near, and the fulfillment of every vision. 24 For there shall no longer be any false vision or flattering divination within the house of Israel. 25 But I the LORD will speak the word that I speak, and it will be fulfilled. It will no longer be delayed; but in your days, O rebellious house, I will speak the word and fulfill it, says the Lord GOD. 26 The word of the LORD came to me: 27 Mortal, the house of Israel is saying, "The vision that he sees is for many years ahead; he prophesies for distant times." 28 Therefore say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: None of my words will be delayed any longer, but the word that I speak will be fulfilled, says the Lord GOD.

            The Word of the Lord

            Thanks be to God.

            I think it’s amazing how much these (holding up a ½ liter plastic water bottle) have become apart of our lives and our culture. Aquafina, Dasani, Deer Park, Poland Springs, store brands, they’re everywhere.

            30 years ago we would have laughed at someone who said they were going to sell bottled water like this.

            20 years ago Perrier and Evian were yuppie status symbols.

            10 years ago they were for runners and other athletes.

            2 weeks ago they were a hand convenience, but nothing important.

            Today, today they’re keeping us alive. Case after case, pallette after pallette they come in here and keep us going. Where would we be without them?

            We have, all of us, learned in the last few days what it means to eat and drink with fear and trembling as all of the things that gave our lives stability, that gave them shape have been taken away from us. And the things that remain have been changed forever, we’ve heard that New Orleans is gone, changed from a vibrant city to a memory. We’ve heard the stories about the Superdome and how it’s been changed from the home of the Saints to Bedlam. And these simple bottles of water have been changed into necessities for our lives.

            As we sit here our world has been changed forever, none of the things we have held onto, that we relied on to make sense of the world are here for us. Even the meanings of words have changed. Just last night I thought to myself, “I need to go home,” and I meant my tent.

            We are lost, we are adrift, we are numb. We are only just beginning to ask questions: How? Why? What about tomorrow? And hardest of all: where was God? Where is God?

            We are in exactly the same place that Ezekiel’s community found themselves. Their city, their country has been razed by a conquering army, and they have been forced marched overland to another country, to serve their new rulers.

            They had been the elite, they were priests and princes and now they had nothing, they were nothing. What could they hold onto? Not their homes, not their wealth, not their power and not their positions.

            Their once vibrant city was nothing more than a memory, the temple, the home of God, had been changed to a pile of rubble. And the most common things had become precious, even a simple vessel of water could be worth more than gold.

            Ezekiel is writing to his community when they were at about the same point that we are here this morning, the immediate danger was over, and after a time when they had struggled to survive and when their minds had been mostly numb to what had happened; they had reached a place of at least relative safety where they could catch their breath and begin the process of making their lives make sense again.

            They were beginning to ask the same kind of questions that we are asking today, how did this happen? Why did this happen? Where was God? And they were asking question that we wouldn’t ask, like, we are God’s chosen, how could God abandon us? And was God defeated? Are the gods of Babylon stronger than our God?

            Ezekiel had the job of answering his community’s questions. Just as this morning you are looking to me to answer some of yours.

            Ezekiel was one of the great prophets of Israel. He was called by YHWH. He saw the likeness of the glory of the Lord. He had many visions.

            Me, I’m just a small town Presbyterian minister. I haven’t eaten any scrolls, the Word of the Lord has not come to me to show me visions. I am not a prophet.

            But I don’t have to be a prophet. Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah have all already walked that road, and we have their words and the eternal hope of the preacher is that the Spirit will move through the words of the Bible and in some small way through my words to make them as relevant and important today as they were 2,500 years ago.

            Ezekiel says to his people: you should be afraid, you should eat your bread and drink your water with fear and trembling. God sent prophets to warn you that this was going to happen. God said: You. All of you. All of the inhabitants of the land. You have committed violence. Violence against God and violence against each other. And God warned you that the land would become desolation and the cities would be destroyed.

            And what did you say? You said God can’t mean here. God can’t mean us. God can’t mean now.

            Ezekiel said to them: You said that the prophets must be talking about a different people. Maybe they’re talking about our children or our children’s children. But they can’t be talking about us, can’t be talking about now.

            Ezekiel says to them, well you were wrong. God meant you. God meant right now. Not tomorrow, not next week, but right now. You bear the guilt so you get the consequences.

            It seems to our ears that Ezekiel’s words are terribly harsh. These people have had all these terrible things happen to them, everything stripped away from them and Ezekiel is standing in front of them telling them how awful they are, how everything that has happened to them is their fault. Is he cruel? Is he sadistic?

            No, because there is another aspect to Ezekiel’s message. He’s telling them that what has happened is the work of God, and that’s what his people needed to hear.

            Those people needed to hear that God hadn’t gone anywhere. If all this was the work of God, then God hadn’t abandoned them and God hadn’t been defeated. The Babylonian gods are not more powerful than YHWH. No, YHWH manipulates the gods and kings of the world for God’s own ends.

            Yes, Ezekiel seems to be adding insult to injury as he chastises his community for all their faults, but he is also telling them that God is still in charge, and he is telling them in a way that they are able to hear the message.

            If Ezekiel had just said to them, “hey guys, God’s still in charge and God really cares about you,” they would ignore him or laugh at him, but they wouldn’t hear his message. If he just told them, they’d look around at all that had happened and say, “yeah, right,” and then they would go back to trying to figure out how to worship the Babylonian gods.

            The other thing that Ezekiel is doing in this passage is preparing them for the future. By reminding tem that God’s word means right now, they’ll be ready to hear good news from God about the future. When the times comes for Ezekiel to say to them, “God will redeem you,” they’ll be able to hear that as being a message for right now.

            Now, we are really not in the same place as Ezekiel’s community, we know about weather patterns, the Coriolis effect and hurricanes. We’re not sitting here wondering if the hurricane gods have defeated our God. And I really hope we are not sitting here trying to figure out who’s to blame or whose fault this is.

            But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn some important lessons from Ezekiel.

            The first of those lessons is that we need to know that bad things happening to you does not mean that God has abandoned you or that God doesn’t care. Things were not always easy for the Israelites, but God never abandoned them, God never broke a single promise to them.

            And that leads us to the second lesson: God has made promises to us through the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. And just as Ezekiel’s people needed to remember in their despair that God’s words were for them and for right now, we need to remember that despite how bad things look right now, God’s promises are for us and for now.

            And I think that is good news for us to hear, as we sip from our water bottles with fear and trembling.

Hallelujah and Amen.