I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live. -Ezekiel 18:32
This Sunday, Ezekiel quotes God as saying, "You say that the way of the Lord is unfair. Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it....When the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life."
Could it really be true that our troubles are caused by our own iniquities? Does God really punish us when we are bad and reward us when we are good? There are those who preach the "Prosperity Gospel" that proclaim just that. They claim that if you live faithfully, following God's laws carefully, (and if you also send generous donations to their megachurches) you will live a healthy, wealthy life of reaping God's rewards.
But there is a randomness to this life that the prosperity gospel does not address. Bad things often happen to good people. Good things often happen to unscrupulous people. Sometimes it seems that all our imperfect efforts make little difference in the world or in our own lives. That sense of hopelessness might lead us to want to believe a wealthy preacher when he says that faith in God got him to where he is, and that we, too, can be just as 'successful' if we also work hard enough. Wouldn't it be great if we held our lives and destinies in our own hands like that?
So much of our lives are out of our control - especially the big, life and death things. And life is full of many struggles, disappointments, pains and losses. In the end, death comes to us all whether we've been good do-be's or bad hombres. As Jesus says in the sermon on the mount, God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. There is no amount of faithful rule-following that will undo that basic reality.
So if death and hardship is not a punishment only for sinners, what could Ezekiel mean? Maybe he means that there is a certainly quality to a godly life that matters, and there are advantages to living a spiritually healthy life. When things hit the fan, really knowing that you are not alone helps you navigate rough seas. Spiritual maturity helps you accept rather than fight reality. But life won't be any less hard. Life is never easy - not even life in God. Perhaps, though, with God we are relieved of the burden of thinking we have to make things go well all by ourselves. We can accept that is impossible.
I take heart from Ezekiel's assurance that God takes no pleasure in the death of anyone. Disasters and struggles happen, and our world is full of all manner of iniquities. Just turn on the news tonight if you don't believe me! I don't think God is any happier about this than any of us are. God takes no pleasure in our human weaknesses. It's not like God is just waiting in the alley for us to mess up so as to leap out and punish us.
When I was a hospital chaplain, I learned very quickly that that there is no satisfactory answer to why bad stuff happens in life. All I do know is that no matter how hard what we go through in life is, we are never alone. God is right there with us through it all, weeping when we weep, mourning when we mourn. Suffering when we suffer. A deep presence. We can punish ourselves by rejecting that presence and try to go it alone, or we can rest in the knowledge and love of God and trust there is a wider mercy that we simply cannot understand - or even, at times, feel.
It is now October and we find ourselves in the pledge drive season at St. James. We'll all be asked to offer some of our financial resources to sustain the ongoing ministry of our church. I cannot promise that a big donation will bring you personal prosperity and freedom from pain. But I do know that when we give generously and gratefully to the work of God in this difficult world, we find a way to make a difference, not just in theory, but where the rubber hits the road. Our prayers and our commitment to church helps the whole world turn toward life instead of death. Just the mere existence of St. James is a witness to the presence of God among us in all kinds of weather. So please consider increasing your annual gift to St. James for 2018 as an act of gratitude to God and in support of our church's faithful voice in the wilderness of the world's iniquity. Choose to turn, and live!
Our readings for this Sunday are HERE. Note that during the season of ordinary time, we are using the readings from "Track 2"