When I was young, I was an altar boy. The congregation in which I grew up — St. John’s Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Iowa — is a large downtown congregation, with one of those impressive church buildings erected a century ago in a different era, an era of big steeple churches that were the center of community life and civic identity. An era during which it was pretty much safe to assume that everyone on your block went to church somewhere, that they were probably Protestant, and almost certainly Christian. And it was an era that had already begun to pass by the time I was old enough to don the white alb and join the older kids who got to carry in the cross or light the candles at the beginning of worship.
We altar boys, and altar girls for that matter, were expected to sit in the chancel on pews set against the side walls, behind the altar and the lectern, in full sight of much of the congregation for all of the worship service. On a festival Sunday, when the side pews were taken up by the full retinue of acolytes, banner bearers, bible bearer and crucifer, you might luck out and be relegated to the stairs behind the chancel, in which case you could goof off and talk to your friends. But really, most of the time, you had to find ways to keep yourself engaged during lengthy sermons or long hymns.
I often found myself staring at the ceiling high above the altar. The ceiling panels in the chancel, no less than the stained glass windows, were filled with biblical images and iconography. There was the winged eagle, which I knew represented St. John because our church building was filled with eagles. Then there was the winged ox, which I’ve come to know stands for St. Luke. We have banners with images of flying oxen at St. Luke’s in Chicago, where I serve, and I always think they must just seem really bizarre to people who are unfamiliar with Christian iconography. Thank God there are no winged pigs, or they’d be truly lost. There was a winged lion, which I suspected was related to Aslan, but turned out to be a symbol for the gospel of Mark; which left Matthew as the winged person, the only recognizable angel out of the bunch.
I can’t hear the description of the four winged creatures from the first chapter of Ezekiel without thinking of those images of the eagle, the ox, the lion and the angel looking down at me through the ceiling panels of our sanctuary. There they were, the four heralds of the gospel, the forerunners of the living Lord, early instances of cultural appropriation as the Christian church reached back into its Jewish cultural inheritance to find parallels for the clouds of words and witnesses that were spreading out all over the world in advance of the burgeoning, blossoming reign of God.
All that said, I had no idea as a youth that these strange icons representing the four gospels had any connection to the first chapter of Ezekiel, and it was only as I began to prepare to preach that I came to see the subtle irony of their inscription into the walls of the church of my youth.
You see, when we first meet these bizarre creatures in the book of the prophet Ezekiel, they have left the temple.
Ezekiel, sitting by the river, in the company of the exiles, perhaps wondering how his people who have lost their access to the dwelling place of the Creator will continue to worship their God, feels the hand of the almighty upon him and is drawn up into this wild, psychedelic vision in which God has left the building and come to meet him by the waters.
Over the course of this weekend, it has felt to me like God has been meeting us by the waters. From the welcoming waters of the hospitality center in Oakland to the gathering waters of our opening worship; from the deep waters flowing from Bishop Flunder to the sanctifying waters ladled over our brother Pieter’s head; from the still waters to which we each withdrew at various points over these three days to the hot, salty waters that ran from our eyes. God has been meeting us by the water all throughout our time together.
That’s something I’ve come to expect from this annual retreat. It’s why I keep coming back, why I hope you’ll come back too. This is my ninth retreat, I first came in 2005. Like some of you here this weekend, I’d finished seminary, I’d been out on internship, I’d written my thesis. Furthermore, I was in a relationship that had suddenly ended, and I was unemployed, so I was looking at the very real prospect of moving back to Iowa and in with my parents.
I was 31, freshly-single, over-educated, under-employed, and completely terrified. In the lead up to my first retreat I got emails and letters telling me what to expect, inviting me to bring an instrument or a poem, or something to share at the talent show.
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held such goodness.
All seems beautiful to me,
I can repeat over to men and women, you have done such good to me
I would do the same to you,
I will recruit for myself and you as I go,
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.
“Song of the Open Road,” stanza 5. Walt Whitman
“From this hour I ordain myself…” That’s kind of what it felt like we were doing at that point, even though we weren’t. We were called and ordained by communities of justice-making, rule-breaking Christians, some of us. But not me, not yet. And before that could happen, I had to believe that the impossible could become possible, for me. That my ordinary life could be made extraordinary. I had to ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines.
But it felt so good to say that, to pray that, to cling to that — “from this hour, I ordain myself…” that I kind of missed the rest of the stanza, particularly that line, “I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them…” What did that mean? What does it mean to sow both gladness and roughness among God’s people? It sounds a bit like law and gospel, doesn’t it? Like the odd news that good news is bad news for those who want no news, but the best news for those who are longing for all things to be made new.
After God meets Ezekiel by the waters of the river Chebar, God sends the prophet to scatter a new roughness among the nations. God says to Ezekiel,
“I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them. And you, [child of humanity], be not afraid of them, nor be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns are with you and you sit on scorpions. Be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. And you shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear, for they are a rebellious house.” (Ezk. 2:3-7)
At this point, there are two things in this passage that seem terribly relevant to who we are, here, today.
The first is just to acknowledge that those God calls, God sends. In the worst days of my waiting; waiting for approval, waiting for call; I held on so tightly to the power in Uncle Walt’s words, “from this hour I ordain myself…” forgetting that the poem doesn’t stop there. Stanza 11, which I did not cling to as if for dear life in those days, describes the future to which the self-ordained are called.
Listen! I will be honest with you,
I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,
These are the days that must happen to you:
You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,
You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart,
You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you,
What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting,
You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands toward you.
“Song of the Open Road,” stanza 11
And that certainly seems to be borne out by the prophets and apostles we read about this morning. In the passage from Acts, Saul is recovering from his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, and has been loos’d of limits and imaginary lines so much so that he will one day preach,
“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:27-28)
God calls Saul into a life so different from the one he’d been living that he needs a new name for his new world. Not old smooth prizes, but rough new prizes as he rises up from his blindness to the violence he’d been doing to God’s people and is sent to scatter a new gladness and roughness among them. When Ananias expresses some doubts about Saul’s appropriateness for ministry in God’s growing church, God responds “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:16)
I don’t mean to be blunt, but I think it bears saying that, in the end, God doesn’t call people into ministry because those people have a sense that it would be a good fit for their personality and gifts and graces, or because it would be really rewarding and satisfying. I’m not saying that God hasn’t gifted people with tremendous talents and a rich diversity of temperaments and types that make ministry possible in a variety of contexts and settings. I’m not even saying that ministry in all its forms, ordained and non-ordained, isn’t deeply rewarding and satisfying at times (though, clearly, not all the time). I’m saying I don’t think that’s why God calls us.
God calls God’s prophets to trouble the waters. God calls God’s prophets to tell the truth to a world that doesn’t want to hear it, which is why Saul gets chased out of town and has to be snuck out of Damascus in a basket lowered over the walls by night. He pissed some people off. He did not sail smoothly through candidacy! “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
God calls God’s prophets to announce that the world’s rebellion against God’s desired shalom, God’s peace with God’s justice, will not stand. This is what God sends Ezekiel to do. I don’t know how long it’s been since you’ve read through the entire book of Ezekiel, but it’s kind of brutal. He is sent to issue words of condemnation for Jerusalem itself. To accuse Israel of idolatry. To name the abominations in the Temple. To warn of the day of wrath.
In fact, the essence of most of the book of Ezekiel is that God has left the Temple, where the upright, respectable, but ultimately condemned pastors and priests have been content to keep the rituals while forgetting their purpose. Who mislead the people by saying “Peace” when there is no peace (Ezk. 13:10).
Who God calls, God sends. Let’s remember that, and not confuse being sent out with being invited in.
Secondly, I think we need to internalize God’s counsel to the prophet Ezekiel — perhaps not as fully as he did, I’m not saying we should start ripping pages our of our bibles and eating them — but we need to take to heart God’s encouragement that we “be not afraid of them, nor be afraid of their words.”
Here I want to say that I’m not just talking about the church, or the ELCA, or whoever the obvious they is when you gather a group of queer people in public ministry together. Yes, for some of us, this counsel to “be not afraid” applies most directly to our relationship with a candidacy committee, or an assignment process, or a call committee. But, the reality is, that there is always a “them” of which we could be afraid. The Council. The old guard. The grant funders. The press. Our parents. The public.
We have to think that if God has called us, then God has sent us. And if God has sent us, it’s because there’s a need. And if there’s a need, then there’s a problem. And if there’s a problem, then it needs to be confronted. And confrontation is scary. But God says to Ezekiel, and all those whom God has called and sent, “be not afraid.” Not because the situation isn’t scary, but because we can be sure that God is acting in and through history to bring new life to people and places left for dead.
“Be not afraid.” It is God’s message to Ezekiel, and to those who gathered on the first day of the week at the opening to the tomb where they expected to find something dead, but were met instead by messengers in dazzling white.
Which brings us back to those other angels, the cherubim and their crazy animal faces. In the book of Ezekiel, these members of the heavenly host move in advance of the presence of the Lord, as it leaves the temple… but also as it returns to the temple. Having fulfilled his commission to call the nations to repentance, and the rulers to servant leadership, the glory of the Lord returns to the temple. Ezekiel describes this restoration in laborious detail,
“And behold, there was a wall all around the temple area, and the length of the measuring reed in the man’s hand was six long cubits, each being a cubit and a handbreadth in length.” (Ezk. 40:5)
And you know how slow-going the scriptures get once we introduce cubits into the picture. It’s the construction of Solomon’s Temple all over again. It’s the measurements for Noah’s Ark all over again. But here’s it’s all those things rolled into one. A new temple that will carry us across the waters to the safe shore of God’s new creation.
After all the messages have been delivered. After all the measurements have been taken, God returns to the temple.
“Then he led me to the gate, the gate facing east. And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east. And the sound of God’s coming was like the sound of many waters, and the earth shone with God’s glory. And the vision I saw was just like the vision that I had seen when God came to destroy the city, and just like the vision that I had seen by the Chebar canal. And I fell on my face.” (Ezk. 43:1-3)
We are called. We are sent. But it is not back into exile. Dear friends, we are Ezekiel and we are Paul. We are the eagle-eyed and the lion-hearted. We press on with the strength of the ox in solidarity with all humanity. We are being caught up into the vision of the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us to testify to the truth that God is making all things, even the temple, new.
Here’s how the poem ends:
Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe — I have tried it — my own feet have tried it well — be not detain’d!
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
“Song of the Open Road,” stanza 15.