Longing For Home
Rev. Dr. Amy Butler
I went to elementary school at a private Christian school, a small kindergarten through eighth grade program called St. Mark’s Lutheran School, where the pastor of the associated church loomed large in the awareness of all the kids. Pastor Gundermann not only pastored the St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, he led weekly chapel services at school and was a prominent figure in the community. With a loud, booming voice and a perpetual bounce in his step, Pastor Gundermann was hard to miss. And anybody who spent any time around St. Mark’s knew that Pastor Gundermann was serious about his work. In fact, at the biggest fundraiser of the year, the St. Mark’s fair, Pastor Gundermann was all in. It was one of the highlights of the year when he took a turn in the dunking booth—people lined up around the building to get a chance to dunk the pastor. (We all thought that was so cool. Now that I’m a pastor, it just doesn’t seem to be such a great idea.)
But good leaders are all like that: they go all in to create the kind of community that gives life and offers home to people who need it. Today our lectionary passages introduce us to a leader like that: the prophet Ezekiel. Most of us are fairly unfamiliar with Ezekiel, but you should know that he was, like Pastor Gundermann, one of those preachers who really got into his work, willing to do whatever it took to get the message across.
On one occasion, for example, Ezekiel was trying desperately to warn the people that they’d better change their ways or sure destruction was right around the corner. They weren’t listening, as usual, so to demonstrate the destruction that awaited them he shaved all his hair off, a humiliating act for any Jewish man. Then, he divided his cut hair into three equal parts, the public weighing of which symbolized the public day of reckoning right around the corner. One third of his cut hair he spread around a model of the city he’d built, one third he threw to the wind, one third he burned . . . all of this to rather graphically demonstrate that though God had placed Jerusalem in the middle of the nations, because of their indifference to God they were destined to be destroyed or scattered to the winds.
Need I tell you that modern interpreters of Ezekiel’s writings have serious concerns about his mental health? But Ezekiel knew that being a leader, living in such a way that creates community—home—for people who need a place to belong, is a hard job; it often takes someone who is a little crazy, unusual, willing always to take one for the team, to see the bigger picture and work toward that dream. In fact, communities that manage to build something life giving together have many leaders like Ezekiel, because we’re all called to create this kind of home for each other.
Walter Brueggemann’s definition of a prophet can help us understand a little more about who Ezekiel was: prophets are called by God “to have an impact on persons, to impinge upon perception and awareness, to intrude upon public policy, and to evoke faithful and transformed behavior.” Ezekiel was a prophet who shared a special distinction with another, more familiar prophet of Israel, the prophet Jeremiah: both of them lived before and during the time when Jerusalem was captured and the people sent into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah and Ezekiel were called upon to provide leadership for the beleaguered Hebrew people during a time of total national crisis.
Ezekiel began his prophetic career about 593, when he was 30 years old. Most scholars think that he was also a priest, having served in some official capacity, likely in the temple.
In 597, just four years after Ezekiel started preaching, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, invaded Jerusalem and carted 10,000 captives, all members of the elite leadership of Jerusalem, along with their households and possessions, off to Babylon. Jerusalem was finally destroyed and a second wave of captives taken ten years later.
Ezekiel the prophet was one of those taken in the first wave; Jeremiah the prophet stayed behind. So you can think of these two as serving on opposite ends of a desperate national tragedy, and Ezekiel was a captive himself, forced to create a new life in a new land.
Of course, Ezekiel wasn’t surprised when any of this happened.
He’d been telling the people this was coming for years, but nobody listened to him. By the time we get to chapter 34, our reading for today, Ezekiel’s job of warning the people of destruction to come was over—they all knew full well that he hadn’t been making it up because they’d lived through the exportation to Babylon and were now settled as exiles far from home.
It was time now for some political analysis, some projections for the future, which the people needed desperately. This section we heard today from the prophet is called an “oracle of hope,” a prophecy toward a hopeful future in the middle of their exile, a promise that God would eventually and always lead them home.
“Thus says the Lord,” he began, and the people were sure to perk up their ears and listen closely. It was time for God’s kind of leadership: a radical new way to look at the world, one that would, if they could manage to lead each other in the way of God, turn the disaster through which they’d just lived into a kingdom where peace and justice were the order of the day.
Did you notice how many active verbs are in this passage? My college freshman English professor would have given Ezekiel an A for sure, because nothing about the leadership he describes here is passive. Words and phrases like: search, rescue, bring, gather, feed, seek the lost, return the strayed, bind up the injured, strengthen the weak . . . this is the kind of leadership that would set the nation of Israel to rights and usher in the kind of kingdom God had had in mind all along.
There’s nothing about bringing God’s kingdom to reality here and now that is passive or innocuous; instead it’s decisive, definitive leadership, executed, it seems, by all of us who live believing that the way things are is not the way things have to be.
And who were these leaders Ezekiel was calling to the fore? Not kings, but regular people who were willing to follow the example of Almighty God, who would go to any lengths to create a new order, a new way of living, who would care for each other as God cares for us: seeking the lost, bringing back the strays, binding up the injured, strengthening the weak and feeding each other as they had been fed by God, he said, with justice.
Today is the very last Sunday in the church year, Christ the King Sunday. This is a liturgical occasion on which we wonder what our lives, our church, our world might look like if the reign of Christ, what Jesus called “the kingdom of God,” really came to be. And our challenge today as leaders in this community of faith is to look long and hard at the kind of leadership we’re providing for each other: are we building the kind of community that meets the needs of so many of us who are longing for home?
Ezekiel spelled out the dream, and Jesus told us how to do it in our gospel lesson from the book of Matthew today. If we want to be about ushering in the kingdom of God, about welcoming people home, our time is best spent, not advocating for our own interests or lamenting our insufficiencies, but by feeding people who are hungry and caring for those among us who are dying to see leaders motivated by compassion, people ready to work toward the priorities of God’s kingdom.
The Hebrew people learned this lesson the hard way, and as a result, prophets like Ezekiel led them to reexamine their priorities and think about what a kingdom ordered by God might look like.
Jesus took this lesson one step further, by laying out a challenge to all those who said they wanted to follow him.
This order God has established—it’s going to take some effective leaders to put it in place. They don’t have to be kings and queens or governors or presidents. They will be unlikely leaders, like crazy prophets and homeless Messiahs . . . and they’ll be graphic designers and business administrators and Wall Street professionals and stay at home moms and retired pastors, non profit executives and teachers and small business owners and federal employees and lawyers. They will be all of you who work so hard so create a community in which all people feel welcome, and everyone who wants to be a follower of Christ the king.
All of us bear the responsibility of leadership, of living what we say we believe in such a way that the people around us can learn what it means to create faithful community that feels like the home we are all longing for.
This past week has been a painful week for all of us who work here at The Riverside Church. We came to work on Monday, greeted by the news that Kevin Carr, one of our colleagues in the engineering department, had died suddenly. This was heartbreaking to all of us, as Kevin was someone whom we LOVED getting stuck in the elevator with—a true servant who loved this church and showed his love to all of us. No matter who you were, he would drop everything to help with whatever was going on. He enthusiastically participated in programs going on here at the church, lending a hand and regularly giving money to support hurricane relief, Freedom School, the food pantry—so many other things.
Early this week we all gathered to remember Kevin, to share our memories of how he impacted our lives, as we will do again today at Kevin’s funeral, at 4 pm here in the nave. On Monday, a member of Kevin’s family came to one of our staff gatherings and shared this: “Kevin felt that he found a home at Riverside…that this was a place that…where he knew he could be himself and be loved and accepted for who he was.”
Isn’t that the kind of place we are trying to create? If so, WE are the leaders who will make it happen, who will bring each other to the home we are longing for—like Ezekiel was describing.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, another Sunday we hope, dream and pray for a world that is ordered by the radical Gospel of Jesus Christ, that the “kingdom” he talked about might being to unfold all around us.
But we must do more than hope, dream and pray, for sure.
You and I are called to the tasks of radical leadership, of living lives that model the way of God: looking for those who are lost, welcoming those who wander, healing those who are hurt, tending to those who need help and feeding each other with justice…so that anyone who walks through the doors of this church, anyone who works on the staff or sings in the children’s choir or sits in the very back and sneaks out before the benediction, anyone at all…feels the power of community welcoming them—welcoming all of us—home to the heart of God.
As a new church year begins, may we all be the kind of leaders who work to create this place, this home, for all God’s people so that the world will look at The Riverside Church and say: that place—that place is a little piece of heaven. Home. Amen.