July 8, 2018
The Jesuit priest James Martin tells of his drive near the Rift Valley in Kenya two decades ago:
“I was transfixed by the verdant green grass that carpeted the hillside”, he writes. “Suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, a lone white sheep clambered down the hillside and darted in front of my car. I swerved to avoid hitting it… Then I watched the sheep gingerly climb down into the valley on the right side of the road. Just then, from my left, a figure darted across the road. It was a young Maasai shepherd… The shepherd dashed in front of my idling car. Barefoot, he smiled and waved to me as he passed. He scrambled down the side of the hill in pursuit of the sheep, raising clouds of dust, calling loudly all the time… Then I looked up and saw the rest of the flock, about twenty or thirty sheep, up the hill on my left. How stupid! I thought. He’s leaving behind the whole flock for that one sheep. Then something dawned on me, and I laughed out loud. It was the Parable of the Lost Sheep in action!”
As a reminder, here’s that Gospel parable:
“If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So, it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”
James Martin continues:
“If God pursues us with even half the energy as that young Maasai boy, then humanity has nothing to worry about. That parable is just one example of Jesus’s use of an image that his listeners would have known well, a shepherd who loses a sheep from the fold. Now, as a person who had never seen a shepherd outside of the movies before coming to Kenya, I had no clue that a shepherd would leave a flock behind… [Jesus is] not telling his original audience something new; he’s drawing on what they already know.”
One challenge in reading the Bible is that the words come to us from a time and a culture that seems distant, foreign and, frankly, primitive.
Take today’s Psalm. I am inclined to gag at the words “slave”, “slave girl” and “liege lord”… medieval words with no place in our times. Joanna Manning gave me a brilliant book by Nan Merrill called Psalms for Praying which preserves the beauty and wisdom of the Psalms using more modern language. Rather than begging for “seigneurial aid and favour”, as we read in the second verse of today’s Psalm, Merrill offers:
“Have mercy on us, O Compassionate One, have mercy,
that we might turn from our ignorant ways.
Too long our souls have been veiled by fear and illusion.
Have mercy, lead us to the path of wholeness,
that we may know the abiding Peace of the Beloved.”
Talk about speaking directly into a 21st century world where fake news is used to fuel fear and division, and hatred is a tool of public policy.
“Too long our souls have been veiled by fear and illusion.” Amen.
“Lead us to the path of wholeness.” Amen to that.
“May we know the abiding Peace of the Beloved.” Amen again.
Which brings me to Ezekiel. My study bible says Ezekiel has “perplexed readers for centuries… He speaks, falls down, acts out God’s word, travels between Mesopotamia and Syro-Palestine in a trance, sees strange things, and proclaims dangerous messages. Perhaps it is not surprising that according to some Jewish traditions the book was to be read only by those over thirty.” So, there is a parental advisory attached to Ezekiel… What is God saying to Ezekiel in this strange little passage: God, rather surprisingly, is saying that the biggest problem facing the people of Israel is… wait for it… the people of Israel. This is not some anti-Semitic screed, but a profound observation about human nature, human relations and human politics.
Some Christians try to personify the problem facing humanity in the form of a cloven-hoofed, horned devil that reeks of sulphur. In more secular terms, we are told that our problems are caused by “the other”; people who are “different”; like Muslims, people whose gender identity doesn’t fit into a straight mold, low-income people, newcomers, anyone whose abilities don’t conform to some arbitrary “normal”.
Instead of blaming the other, God is saying to Ezekiel that it’s time to recognize that, and here I am quoting the Pogo cartoonist Walt Kelly, who wrote in 1971: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Imagine that: God is telling the Prophet Ezekiel to tell the people of Israel that they are their own worst enemy.
That would be kind of like God saying to us today to go to Premier Doug Ford and tell him that newcomers are not the cause of massive housing insecurity and growing homelessness in Toronto and across the province and, instead, tell him that the problems are caused by provincial government decisions. Just a few days ago, Premier Ford blamed “illegal border-crossers” who were being “encouraged” by the federal government for causing a “housing crisis and threats to the services that Ontario families depend on…” Instead of blaming Toronto’s over-crowded homeless shelters on outsiders, Premier Ford should understand two realities:
First, Ontario government decisions to gut tenant protection laws and cut income supports for the poorest Ontarians during times of growing economic insecurity has led to an immediate rise in economic evictions that, in turn, caused a big rise in homelessness; and,
Second, Ontario government decisions to end affordable housing funding, including cancelling almost 18,000 homes previously approved, and then to stand passively as a virtually unregulated private housing market ignores the housing needs of low and moderate-income Ontarians, has led to crushing housing insecurity.
Of course, the feds have a crucial role alongside the Ontario government. That’s why the federal-Ontario bilateral housing deal signed one month before the election of Premier Ford’s government is so very important – and must be honoured by the new provincial government.
So, yes, God is calling us to a prophetic role today, and, fortunately, that is a role that many here at Holy Trinity readily accept – including the homeless memorial on Tuesday at noon.
The prophetic voice speaking truth to the power of Israel at the time of Ezekiel was important then, and it is equally important today as we take up the theologically astute observation of Walt Kelly: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
But we have to bring a level of humility to all that we do. Beware of false certainty and smug self-righteousness. Embrace complexity, the difficulties, the baffling realities of this place and these times. As Wendell Berry says: “The mind that is not baffled is not employed.”
Which brings me to today’s Gospel reading. There is much wisdom in this story, however, I have already taken a good deal of your time, so I want to focus on just one phrase: “And they took offense at him.” We aren’t told what Jesus said, but we read that the people were “astounded”. The Greek word is “ekplesso” and it is forceful. The people were astonished, shocked, amazed, even panicked. Look at how they responded to Jesus. They didn’t raise substantial arguments against what Jesus said, they attacked the person of Jesus. Who is this guy? Isn’t he just a manual labourer? What makes him so special? This kind of thing happens all the time on social media – when someone feels threatened, they attack the person.
We read that the people were “offended” – the Greek word here is “skandalizo”, indignant. Why were they so steamed? An extended meaning of skandalizo: to disapprove of what another person is saying and deny their authority. I don’t agree with you, so you must be wrong, and stupid. This is certainly common practice in political and public discourse. The author Stephen R. Covey has written:
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people’s lives.”
So, let’s weave together these modest thoughts:
First, seek to live in a world not veiled by fear and illusion, but a world of mercy, abiding peace, wholeness and abundant love.
Second, take up the prophetic mantle and, facing towards church, state and community, remind all who will listen that the enemy is not them, the enemy is us. Jennifer Henry, in her homily last week, said this:
“Our faith must be active—in fact, it’s understood in bold action. If you believe someone can help, then pin hole him, confront him in public, convince them, even if you are mocked. If you believe you have truth, grab on to the holy, even if people say you are ‘unclean.’ Claim the power, assert your dignity…”
Third, the way forward is not to be smug, scandalized and self-righteous. Yes, structures and systems that sustain misogyny, racism, classism, ableism, hatred, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, colonization and more need to be challenged. We can start to dismantle these structures when we stop using the tactics of division.
Nicky Hawkins wrote in a column in The Guardian this past week:
“Changing public thinking requires us to celebrate all that we share, not draw attention to the dividing lines. We can learn a lot from the handling of recent polarised debates on marriage equality and abortion in the Republic of Ireland. Campaigners built on – and continue to build on – shared values and ideals. They speak to the moral shared ground instead of casting aspersions from the moral high ground. It’s not about stripping out the conviction or substance, or about dialling down passion. It’s about communicating in a way that is compassionate, inclusive and is actually effective. We don’t win the internet – or anything else – by stirring divisions and telling people they are wrong. We don’t win with snarky put-downs from the moral high ground.”
To which I can only conclude: Amen, indeed.