A lot of this narrative comes out of a grand vision that God sent an 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.
So in this vision God is restoring the temple to its original purpose. God is going to pour out of the temple from the throne of God. What starts as a trickle and turns in to running water that at first is ankle deep, then knee, then waist deep then over our heads and only swimmable. And of course, we are focused in on the water. I just love water. Water is such a powerful element of nature that has all sorts of wooing qualities. I love the sound of rain against the window. I love to hear birds land in and on the water. I love the sound of fish jumping in the lake in the evening. I have had the privilege of living very close to two great lakes and really appreciate the sounds of the waves crashing on the rocks of the shore.
There’s something about a river too, something that resonates deep within our souls. We have so many songs about rivers, so many scripture texts and stories that take place near the river. They are mesmerizing and highly spiritual. Water is used time and time again in the Bible as you are hearing as a sign of God’s presence or a tangible symbol for God’s love, mercy, grace and healing. I drive over the Mississippi four times a day and often enjoy it out my office window. It is both grand and beautiful, but I know at times I take it for granted that we have such a massive and most beautiful structure in our back yard here in the St. Cloud Region. So, like many of you I mostly appreciate the river from a distance, but a few weeks ago while walking in monsignor gardens I appreciated it in a whole different way. I wasn't driving over it on a massive structure in my car or staring at it from the protection of a huge brick building. Instead I was toe to toe with the river. From a height the river sparkles, but when you are at its level it is most definitely moving. Its powerful right? And a lot more vulnerable than the lakes and pools of water we are used to.
We have taken several things for granted. We take time with our loved ones for granted. We assume permanency and often treat the earth as if it has unlimited resources and we are just recently starting to realize that’s not true. We too can find ourselves in a house divided. There seems to be two kingdoms fighting at all times. The loggers and the tree huggers, the animal rights activists and the poultry industry, Republicans and Democrats. The Vikings fans and the Packers fans…I have even witnessed our own denomination fail to pass a piece of legislation with a vote of 51: 49 stating that we as a church disagree on a particular issue. We can’t even agree on the fact that we disagree sometimes.
There is no shortage of stories in the news to be discouraged about and if you think the people in Ezekiel’s time were depressed imagine what it was like if they had access to social media? We all need reminders of God’s presence in our midst. We all need to be pulled from our complacency and challenged by change and movement. Even Jesus needed to do some work to keep himself focused and in check. In the selection read from John today we read about how Jesus in all the chaos returned to the river to connect with his baptism and to connect with God. I hope this is not too sacrilegious, but this scripture text comes straight out of the scene from the Lion King when Rafiki asked Simba to look in the water to re connect with his father, “that’s not my father that’s just my reflection” and Rafiki says, “no look harder, you see he lives in you.” Then you hear Mufasa (Simba’s father) say “you have forgotten me. You have forgotten who you are and so forgotten me. Look inside yourself. You are more than who you have become…remember who you are, you are my son and the one true king. Remember who you are.”
So, we like Simba, we like the people of Ezekiel’s time, we like Jesus may find ourselves at times in stagnant waters. In times of fear, doubt, questioning and this is okay…But, what if we could envision ourselves standing waist deep in the center of the river. Can you do this with me? Think of a time in your life (and maybe that time is right now where you were burdened by fear, doubt, worry, disbelief… can you position yourself facing down stream and imagine yourself releasing those fears, those, doubts, those worries…. Watch them as the water pushes them from you. Watch them as they fade and get smaller the further away from you they travel. After you have sent some of these feelings downstream and knowing that perhaps you'd did not give yourself permission to release some them all position yourself upstream. The water is now coming towards you. It is moving swiftly and steadily in a gentle motion. Imagine the grace, peace, mercy of God gently moving toward you. Receive it… swim in it… drench yourself in it… dance in it.
We are called to engage in the river. Just as God restores the temple and brings restoration to a devastated world we as United Methodist are called to make disciples for the transformation of the world. We can do this of course by grandiose gestures, significant financial contributions, overseas mission trips (and these are great) but we can do this also by pointing to the God of grace, peace and mercy. Telling individuals about the ways God has changed your life. The growth and vitality of life in God and the fruit that you witness in those around you.
I recently produced a musical in Paynesville with our summer community theatre group. We pour our heart and soul into these productions and want people to experience and witness what we have accomplished. This year we received a grant from the central Minnesota Arts Board. They are having gifted us a generous donation of seven thousand dollars towards are production wanted us to track our results. One piece of information they wanted to know was how people heard about our show. So, in the entryway of the school just outside of the auditorium we hung a plastic table cloth that was sectioned off into various categories: newspaper, social medial, cast and crew, yard signs, banners, etc.… Each person in attendance was given a small dot sticker and asked to place it in the appropriate category. The results will be reviewed by the grant committee but were astonishing to me the producer. I had spent over $200 dollars on yard signs, multiple hours on social media posting pictures and encouraging show attendance, another chunk of money in the printing and distribution of flyers but the “I heard about the show from someone in the cast and crew column was remarkable. After just under a thousand people entered and existed our auditorium over the course of three shows over 75% of those who attended the show had heard about it from one of us on the cast and crew.
What a learning for us in our future productions and what a message for the church and our impact as Christians. To participate in our Faith, to be witnesses to God’s grace, mercy and healing are one thing but our call and need to share and spread it is even more important. The river and life produced from the water in this text is a metaphor for the kingdom of God. Which I believe to be both the now and the not yet. We have a great responsibility to speak to… to point to the work and movement of God in our lives, in our church, in our communities in our world so that we can partner with God and God’s vision for the world and bring about the kingdom of God here and now in this time where we find ourselves. Thanks be to God.