Yesterday’s sermon came from Ezekiel 17:22-24. It is titled Crafting a Legacy of Care because it followed our pastor’s sermon on being a community of care.
“Set our feet on lofty places, gird our lives that they may be armored with all Christ like graces in the fight to set all free. “ This line from the hymn God of Grace and God of Glory holds a bit of a different meaning for me now, as I consider and ponder things I heard at the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship this past week.
Our theme was “Local Church, Global Church,” and the most impactful workshop for me during the past week was called “Preaching and the Global Church. In this workshop, the facilitator drew from her experiences of mission work in Fiji, and how being in a particular place with a particular people deepened, changed and challenged the way she viewed and interacted with scripture, and the way she chose to live out her faith.
What most stood out to me in her presentation was the practice of listening for God’s promises for all of God’s people, from multiple perspectives, paying special attention to how the word of God is heard by someone on the margins of society, and someone in the main stream, and someone in between.
What differences are there? And what is the good news for each group? So, I’d like to practice that with you today.
The writings of Ezekiel hold a sacred fascination for me, especially the idea of place and belonging, likely because of my own experience of mission work in Brazil and Mexico. Having grown up in two homelands has helped me understand what it’s like to long for home. Maybe you have a similar experience. Perhaps the land your parents farmed for generations was where you learned hard work and discipline, and a fresh glass of milk some days harkens you back to home.
Maybe college or work became a special place for you on your life’s journey; perhaps a station overseas, or even a home you once lived in with your love, and you face that home by yourself now. Whatever the particulars of the places in our lives which hold the most meaning, the unifying factor in each of our lives today is this: place matters. Place is important and it is a crucial part of life and faith to have a place to belong.
Although I am familiar with the longing for a particular place that has been home for me at one time or another, I have been blessed with a lack of familiarity of how it feels to be exiled – banished from home, place, identity and belonging, and a nonexistent likelihood of ever experiencing a violation of my human rights.
My friend Kaitlin has been helping me understand the intricacies and sorrows of exile, as she delves into an exploration of her native people, the pains they’ve endured as a displaced people, and how the sacred stories of place and belonging live in their hearts as they try to ensure survival that was once a guarantee and is now a struggle.
Kaitlin is a member of the Citizen Potowatomi Nation. In 1838, the Potawatomi Indians in the state of Indiana were forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands by order of the U.S. government. 859 Potawatomi journeyed accross Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas before arriving at their destination. This forced removal became known as the Potawatomi Trail of Death, for the 41 lives lost on that harrowing journey.
For Kailin and her people, this story was an important part of their culture, passed down through generations and instilling in each surviving and thriving member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a longing for belonging, existence, identity, and place.
Kaitlin uses her story to bless others. She has written a book about finding the divine in the ordinary called Glory Happening, and is in a lot of ways, a prophet herself. And much like Ezekiel and the exiles, the Katilin and the Potawatomi longed, and still long, to hear a word of welcome, restoration, peace, and belonging.
We don’t have to reach too far back in history to find other examples of exile. In the 1950s and 60s, the Civil Rights movement emerged as an attempt for the black community to claim identity, place and belonging in America.
Their struggle continues to this day as, much like Ezekiel and the exiles, they seek to find a word of welcome, justice, reconciliation, and belonging. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideal of beloved community still resonates in our hearts as we long for that day when his dream comes to reality.
Even today, tensions over place escalate into exile. In 2018, more than1500 children have been displaced from parents and families at the US – Mexico border. Scared and helpless, much like Ezekiel and the exiles, these children long to hear a word of welcome, love, acceptance and belonging.
The US Mexico border in California is a tense and intimidating place. I’ve crossed it many times, and each time, I feel out of my depth and vulnerable. My entrance into and out of the country I love to serve is completely dependent on a heavily armed guard and his mood that day. The youngest age I ever crossed that border was 15, as a freshman in high school. I can’t imagine what fear those guards and volatile moods would have caused me as a child.
These examples cause me pain because of the sorrow and suffering that others have been through, and because they make me feel a little bit like Isaiah recognizing his humanity in the presence of God in the temple, confessing his sin and the sin of his people and saying “I’m a person of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”
For those in exile, is there any hope? For Babylon, and for those bearing witness to exile, is there any good news? According to the word of the Lord, through the prophet Ezekiel, the answer to both questions is a resounding “yes.”
The year is 598. Jerusalem has been attacked by Babylon. Ezekiel is among a group of leading citizens of Judah who have been who have been deported to Babylon, while their beloved city of Jerusalem is destroyed. In the first verses of Ezekiel chapter 17, God says to Ezekiel, “son of man, set forth for the people an allegory and tell them this parable…” and God tells Ezekiel a riddle of sorts to give to the people of Babylon.
The opening verses of this riddle are harsh, angry and judgmental – God in God’s anger, through a riddle about a tree, gives a harsh judgment to Babylon. Commentary writer John Rollefson says that preachers in America practice the art of preaching in a land of wealth, privilege and power, and when the bible speaks to us through the prophets, almost always, we can find it pretty easy to identify with the adversary, and it’s not easy to be on the receiving end of a prophetic word.
If we continue on, however, right after this allegorical image of an eagle that plants a tree from a seed which the Lord says will wither because of the people’s rebellion, is a tender, poignant and touching promise of restoration and forgiveness.
It seems that what we have here is a masterfully crafted promise that both elevates and nurtures the oppressed and exiled, and makes the ones not in exile – Babylon as it were – part of the healing.
Everyone is healed and thrives together in a beautiful representation of community, where the church becomes a great and noble cedar, a safe haven for birds of every kind – people of every kind – to nest peacefully and find shelter in its branches.
Perhaps the good news for us in this text is that through God’s mercy and love for us, and desire for a relationship with us, we the people of God will be equipped with courage and faith, and love and resources to become a place –
A place of refuge for the refugee, a place of hope for the despairing and weary.
A place of comfort for those in sorrow, a place of belonging for the displaced.
A place of inclusion for the excluded, a place of nurture for the hungry.
Every kind of bird will nest in our branches of acceptance, belonging, justice, reconciliation, welcome, inclusion, and love – and we will be a part of the great mystery of God’s grace and glory, making God’s love known in the world around us. When I think of a community of care, you people are the first things that come to my mind.
I watch you care for others daily when you come to church at home, when I speak with you on the phone and you ask who you can pray for, when you come to funerals and memorials to celebrate lives that have crossed our paths and gone on to be with the Lord. I think that this lovely promise from God today is a reminder to us that each of us can be a shining beacon of hope in our communities – because our world needs it very much.
So how do we craft a legacy of care within and without our walls?
We open our hearts to God’s leading, and spread our branches where God calls us to. We extend peace and welcome to stranger and foreigner, and we pray for those who are suffering or in pain, and we learn from our past so that we can act responsibly in our present and our future.
We amplify the voices of the least of these, and show them though faithful leadership in the kingdom of God that all have a place in the branches of God’s noble cedar, the church of Jesus Christ on this earth.
Native Americans, people of color, immigrants, children, the poor, and people whose lifestyle threatens the norm are among the most neglected people groups in society. In addition, the aging are also included in “the least of these” whom we are commanded to love.
Oftentimes, aging, especially alone, can be an experience of exile, and in exile, people want to know that God has not forgotten them, that they still have a place of belonging, of being remembered, of love.
In this allegory from Ezekiel, every bird of every kind will have a place, to feel like they belong, resting in the branches of the noble cedar which God has planted and nurtured and caused to grow. Through our faithful following and listening for God’s promises, we are becoming like that noble cedar, branches spread far, and we have welcomed all manner of birds into our shade.
Church at Home is one of our ministries that allows elder birds to find shade in God’s remembrance. Our welcoming demeanor has allowed birds of other nations and cultures to find renewal in God’s imaginative, diverse creativity, and welcome in a place of acceptance and not judgement.
Our faithful commitment to following Christ has brought red and blue birds into our midst, allowing each to engage in fellowship and community despite differences in thought and practice.
And our desire to invest our time and relationship into the lives of others in our community has brought us young birds to nurture in ministry and in other areas of life, and birds who were with us for a season and have since moved on, carrying seeds of our love and care with them.
We are the people of God, and with feet set on lofty places, armored with Christlike graces we strive to set people free from pain, sorrow, and exile, by providing a place. This is our legacy of care: listening for the promise through different lenses and views, learning from different perspectives and growing in our love each day as we lean into the promises of God for us and for the other.
In our commitment to care, we are becoming a place of love, belonging, welcome, and peace.
A place for every kind of person to come and to know that they are loved by God, held, sustained and cared for; a place where anyone is welcome in our branches at any time.
Thanks be to God.