There are certain storylines that work culturally because we value what they are offering to us or we are used to stories being told in a certain way. So in romantic comedies it is often the case that the two people who are going to fall in love meet in some crazy way at the beginning of the movie— maybe they run into each other and their books and papers go flying— and instantly you know those are the two who will be together at the end of the movie. Or in a mystery novel there are certain clues that are dropped throughout so that the puzzle comes together just in time for the main character to figure it all out. But these things don’t always work cross-culturally. I remember listening to an interview with the comedian Kumail Nanjiani who grew up in Pakistan. As a kid he loved American movies, but he said there were some that he just didn’t get until he came to America in high school. One of those was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off— a movie about a kid who skips school and convinces his friends to do things they wouldn’t normally do— like take out their father’s prized convertible—to make a great adventure. Nanjiani said he was horrified that a teenager would do that. Coming from a culture in which family is prioritized over individual desires, he couldn’t figure out why this movie was portraying Ferris Bueller as a hero, when he was convincing everyone to break all of the rules. It wasn’t until he was in America for a few years that he understood how that movie fits into one of our cultural norms about teenagers needing to rebel against rules and be individuals.
In the past few weeks we have been to several rivers in the Bible. We have crossed the Red Sea, we have heard about the river of life in Ezekiel, and we have had a story about the Jordan River— when Joshua and the people crossed the Jordan with the Arc of the Covenant. Today we have two more stories that involve the Jordan River, two very different stories about two very different men; but both men walk into the water and know that life will never be the same again.
This is one of my favorite stories in the Bible, and I think it’s because the premise is so familiar. It’s about an important man who has to learn that he’s connected to other people; it’s about a little girl who, in her compassion, desires for her captor to be healed. It’s about a couple of Kings who don’t know where to find answers, and about a prophet that wants to keep things simple. But mostly it’s about all of us who find out that health, or our lack of it, is something that unites us all—we are all susceptible to things we can’t control; there are always ways in which we cannot heal ourselves.
A lot of this narrative comes out of a grand vision that God sent and angel to share with Ezekiel. And although we might not all have the privilege of getting grand visions from God we have the privilege of trying to interpret his story in a way that connects with us in our present context. Today’s text from Ezekiel comes out of a time when there was significant discord in the community. Many conflicts had left the people divided. First the northern kingdom fell to foreign invaders and then the southern kingdom attacked. The fall of the temple is very significant since the temple served as the center of the city and in some ways the center of the universe for the people there. It was believed that temples were to be a sign of God’s presence. The seat of God among the people and with the temple gone not only did the city not have a center, but the people no longer pointed to God in the same ways they had previously.
So Ezekiel, a priest and prophet of Israel shows up at a time when everyone is pretty depressed. Some groups and individuals took some responsibility for the division and discord. While others maybe started to accept the new normal. They had been given several warnings along the way we are told but ignored what was important. Most knew they had in some ways contributed to the problems…done harm to themselves, each other and the world around them. They seemed to be only concerned about their own lifestyle so disregarded concerns of the poor and destroyed the earth for temporary profit…They abused powers, squandered blessings and it appeared that all signs of vibrant life had disappeared. The river dried up…. all that remained was stagnant.
How do we create community in a world that seems bent on distrust and division? Where do we find the courage to cross over the gaps that separate us from one another and from our neighbors here in the St. Cloud region and beyond?
This past week I was reminded by two novelists just how challenging it is to create healthy community in our world. The first novelist is Barbara Kingsolver best known for her book entitled The Poisonwood Bible. She followed that best-seller with the novel Pigs in Heaven which I was re-reading on our recent flight home from Norway. I was especially attentive when in the book one of the main characters, a woman by the name of Alice, makes interesting observations about the behavior of people on an airplane on which she was a traveler.
Coming from a small town, Alice notes that she can’t remember a time when she “was ever around so many people at one time that she didn’t know.”Alice, who ‘flattered herself in knowing how to get a conversation going” repeatedly tries to connect with the woman seated next to her.Alice gets her final chance when the plane descends under the clouds and reveals the Mississippi River and the city of St. Louis far below, it passes directly over the largest cemetery Alice has ever seen.Her neighbor, hunched over in the window seat, has spent the entire flight in silence, but now remarks: “Well, that’s some welcome!” In response, Alice does her best to keep a conversation going, but it is clear that her effort is in vain when her neighbor snaps the window shut and closes her eyes.Alice next reaches across the aisle and offers a peppermint Lifesaver to the man across from her.As the author continues …”but it’s the same story over there, he barely shakes his head.They are a planeload of people ignoring each other.Alice has spent her life in small towns and is new to this form of politeness, in which people sit for all practical purposes on top of one another in a public place and behave like upholstery.”