Sunday, September 27, 2020

Sermon: “The Runaway Train”, Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 (September 27, 2020)


Today’s reading from Ezekiel requires a bit of context to really understand it. Ezekiel was a prophet during the Babylonian exile in the early 6th century BCE. His prophecies primarily consist of explaining what the Israelites have done wrong, telling them what they need to do in order to get out of their predicament, and occasionally reminding them of God’s love (you know, so they don’t feel completely hopeless all the time). Chapter 18 addresses a common concern for the Israelites (and, as we remembered last week, for us, too): fairness. Apparently, God had overheard someone complaining that the exile was punishment for their parents’ sins. From this person’s perspective, God allowed the Babylonians to take over their homeland because the older generation had been faithless. Yet they, the 6th century equivalent of millennials, had taken no part in those sins. So why were they still stuck in exile?

God decides that this new generation needs a reality check, so Ezekiel goes to set the record straight. First, God addresses what was apparently a common proverb at the time: “When parents eat unripe [or sour] grapes, the children’s teeth suffer”. In other words, it was “common knowledge” that the punishment for a parent’s sins are also borne by the children. This would certainly explain why the younger Israelites were still in exile. But God denounces this proverb as erroneous on no uncertain terms: “Stop saying that! That’s completely wrong! Children *and* parents belong to me, and I don’t want anyone to suffer or die. So what reason could I possibly have for inflicting punishment on children for something they didn’t do? Ugh! Do you even know me at all?”

The Israelites, of course, are ready with that age-old retort: “Oh yeah? Well, if that’s the case, then you’re not being fair!” But God, becoming increasingly irritated with them, interjects saying, “I’M not the problem here; YOU are. If you’d do the right thing and carry out your responsibilities, you’d be fine. But when you turn away from the right thing and ignore your responsibilities, that’s when you get in trouble. I don’t know why it’s so hard for you to understand. If you’re being punished, it’s because you yourself have sinned. And I already said that I don’t like punishing my children, so STOP IT.”

In order to fully understand the logic of God’s complete and utter rejection of the Israelites’ whining, we should look at verses 5-24, the section that the lectionary cut out of the reading. In these verses, God’s argument is expanded in excruciating detail. It gets kind of repetitive, so it’s no wonder it was cut. But in verse 21, God says something that I think is key to understanding why the younger Israelites are still in exile, even though they had no part in the original sins of their parents. In summary, God says, “If [someone] turns away from all the sins that they have committed, keep all my regulations, and act justly and responsibly, they will surely live and not die.”

That may sound obvious to you, but hear it again in a different way: In order to live and not die, you must turn away from your past sins, live according to God’s rules, and act both justly and responsibly. Not only are these deceptively challenging tasks, but all three require personal accountability and active responses. It’s not enough to not sin; you must *turn away* from your sin. It’s not enough to accept God’s rules; you must *live* by them. It’s not enough to recognize what is just and acknowledge your responsibilities; you must *act* according to these values. In order to be considered innocent, one must both avoid evil AND actively do good in the world.

And therein lies the rub. The next generation of Israelites may not have committed the specific idolatry of their parents that led to the initial exile, but they had done nothing to correct the enduring effects of those sins. Because of their inaction, the sin was no longer individual—it had become systemic. By neglecting to reform the culture that their parents’ idolatry had created, the younger Israelites had inadvertently committed their very own sins.

I know that this is sort of a strange concept, so I offer a parable to help clarify. Imagine that a club of railway enthusiasts decided to build a train for themselves. They loved trains so much that they wanted to live in one together. But the problem was, once the train got underway, it left devastation in its wake. Peaceful communities were disrupted by noise and pollution, small animals were regularly run over, and many an old-timey damsel in distress tied up on the tracks was put in grave danger (if I’m gonna use ridiculous metaphors, I might as well go all in). The worst part, though, was that the railway enthusiasts never made any effort to try and stop it, because hey—they LIKED living on the train.

Over the years, there were several children born to this strange rail-bound community. They didn’t know any life other than this train that had been built by their parents. They may not have even realized that they were *on* a train. They’d taken no part in its construction, and for many years, they were just along for the ride. They didn’t really have a choice. But as they grew older, they began to notice that there were consequences of their inherited lifestyle. They heard the complaints of the townspeople; they saw the carnage of the woodland creatures. They certainly couldn’t ignore the screams of the damsel in distress as the cartoonish villain relentlessly tied her to the tracks yet one more time.

They could see that the effects of the train were destructive. But instead of making any effort to apply the brakes, to redirect the train down a different track, or to do something to help the townspeople, animals, and damsels, they shrugged and said, “*We* weren’t the one who built the train. It’s not *our* fault.” Would you consider these children innocent, blameless for the damage caused by their parents’ runaway train? The answer, of course, is no. By failing to correct the damage done by their parents’ choices, the children are just as culpable for the train’s continued harm.

If we apply this metaphor to the Israelites, the train represents the consequences of the parents’ original sins: the traditions that were abandoned, the bad habits that were picked up, the excuses that were made. Over time, these adverse changes in their way of life became deeply entrenched in their culture (remember how the children on the train had never known anything different?). Eventually, behavior that was once a mark of disobedience became just another day in exile. And the Israelites accepted it.

It’s certainly not the children’s fault that their parents sinned, but it *is* their fault that they refused to correct the injustices and harm that continued to be done as a consequence. Therefore, when God demands that the new generation of Israelites “act justly and responsibly,” God is holding them accountable not for *committing* the sins of their parents, but for perpetuating them, whether intentionally or not. Being a person of faith is not a state of being, it’s a way of life. And it requires taking responsibility both for the sins that we’ve personally committed, and the sins that we’ve failed to correct.

What might our systemic sins, our own runaway trains, be? Poverty? Racism? Prejudice? Hypocrisy? Jesus taught against each of these,[1] and yet we STILL persist in riding these trains that were set in motion generations ago. It’s certainly not easy to bring something so enormous and well-established to a halt, but remember Newton’s First Law: “An object in motion stays in motion.” Regardless of who started them, these trains will NOT slow down on their own. So we must act now. It’s not enough to ignore the train or even to disembark. Our faith in God demands that we bring it to a full stop.

It’s never too late to start pulling the brake. Even if you’ve been a proud conductor of one of these trains for years, forgiveness already is waiting for you. Through Ezekiel, God promises that true repentance and reformation will get you back on the right track (pun entirely intended). The Lord says, “None of the sins that [repentant sinners have] committed will be held against them, but they will live because they do the right things.”[2] But this can only happen if we stop pointing fingers, and start taking responsibility for the sins that we’ve allowed to thrive around us.

We need every single person to work together to pull the brakes on this train, sinners and saints, parents and children, left and right, rich and poor, black and white and everyone in between. It’s not the parents’ job because they started it; it’s not the townspeople’s job because it impacts them; it’s a job for all of us. Together, let’s take responsibility for the world built by those who’ve gone before us. Let’s not let their sin become our sin through our inaction. Jesus is already standing at the station, ready to welcome us home, just like the Israelites returning from Exile. So what are we waiting for? Let’s stop this train. Amen.


[1] Matthew 21 (The Cleansing of the Temple), Luke 17 (Healing a Samaritan), Luke 9 (Eating with Zacchaeus the Tax Collector), John 8 (“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”)

[2] Ezekiel 18:22, CEB.

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