Hearts of Stone to Hearts of FleshEzekiel 36:25-30
Ezekiel is a priest who becomes a prophet. It happened this way. In 597 BC, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylonia, attacks Jerusalem and carries off into exile some of its more prominent citizens. Among them is the priest Ezekiel. Ezekiel settles in a colony of exiles. He is there for five years. Then in 593, Ezekiel is visited by four winged creatures. These aren’t ordinary angels, like you see on Christmas cards. These are four creatures each with four faces—one face human, one face like that of a lion, another like the face of an ox, and the last like the face of an eagle. Ezekiel writes that beside each of these winged four-faced-creatures is a wheel. Ezekiel says of those wheels, “Their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl; (beryl—or beryllium is an alloy—which is today used in the making of spacecraft and telecommunications equipment) and the four wheels had the same form, their construction being something like a wheel within a wheel.” Some people have said that the wheeled things that Ezekiel describes may have been alien spacecraft! I leave that for you to decide. And if that doesn’t get you reading your Bibles, I don’t know what will!
Ezekiel’s visit by winged creatures and these wheeled things, is followed by a visit from God!. That’s right. In chapter two Ezekiel actually comes face to face with God, who tells him, “Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; They and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day.” In chapter three, God commands Ezekiel to eat a scroll—eating God’s words, maybe? Ezekiel writes, “Then I ate it, and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.” This is a turning point for Ezekiel. Upon eating that scrolls, he becomes not just a priest but a prophet.
Ezekiel does in fact speak to the house of Israel. He warns the house of Israel that Babylonia is going to strike again. And Babylonia does. It all but destroys Jerusalem, kills many of the inhabitants, burns to the ground homes, shops, AND the beloved temple, and takes even more of Jerusalem’s elite into exile. God’s people have been defeated. It seems like the end of a country, of a people, of a faith community. At this time, though, the prophet Ezekiel has new words for the people of God—these are words of hope for a people whose hope has literally gone up in smoke. Ezekiel says, “I will turn their hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.”
In 2007, my youngest daughter, Paige, was a student at Virginia Tech, when a gunman opened fire, killing 32 students and professors. As soon as I heard the news, I was on the phone with my daughter, and then, probably every hour after, until finally, finally, I wheedled an invitation out of her. “Mom, do you want to come to the vigil with me?” God is good! I SO needed to count the hairs on her beautiful head, and get assurance that her precious spirit was still intact.
The very next morning, I hopped in my car and made a frantic drive to Virginia Tech. The vigil was the day after the shooting—funny how stressful, poignant times like that, get etched on our brains, down to the minutest details. So for example, I remember so clearly that vigil. The parents’ faces of the slain students, as they walked out in a line, from the end of the drill field, to the dais—parting the crowd of mourners, like Moses parting the waters; their faces like the faces of defeated soldiers, maybe, trudging slowly, deliberately back to camp after battle.
Out there on the drill field, maybe 1000 of us? Each of us was given a white candle to light which we did at the appropriate time in the service. Let me tell you about those candles. Each candle had a little orange drip-catcher (Virginia Tech’s colors are orange and maroon) and printed on each drip-catcher were the words, “Donated by the Roanoke Emergency Medical Center.” How did anyone have time to get that project together? We’re talking one-day turn around. And how much did it cost to buy all those candles? And how many people worked to put those little paper-drip catchers ON those candles?
This past Tuesday as I watched the TV newscasts in Orlando, the camera panned an extraordinarily long line of men and women standing in front of an Orlando hospital; they were waiting to give blood. According to one newscaster 5,000 people actually made blood donations the day after the shooting. That was then, By now, probably even more people have given blood. Those people in line missed a day of work, hired babysitters. cancelled dentist and doctor appointments, withstood the hot sun, got sore feet and had aching backs, all to give a pint of blood. A donation of a candle, the assembly of drip catchers, the giving of a pint of blood. Evidence that if there were any hearts of stone in Blacksburg or in nearby Roanoke back in April, 2007, they were quickly turned to hearts of flesh. If there were any hearts of stone in Orlando on Sunday, June 12, or in the days following, THEY were quickly turned to hearts of flesh.
People come together, in tragedy. People become suddenly generous with their time, their money, and even their blood. We know that. But there have been some other extraordinary things that have come about as a result of this latest tragedy, which I remind you was a shooting at a gay nightclub celebrating Latino night, by a Muslim extremist. I want to name three extraordinary things.
Maybe ten years ago? I was waiting for a meeting to begin at Meadows Presbyterian Church. On a table in the waiting area was a magazine, Christianity Today. That magazine is of a conservative, evangelical bent. I scanned an article written by Kay Warren. Kay Warren is the wife of Rick Warren, the pastor who founded California’s Saddleback megachurch, which is under the umbrella of the Southern Baptist Convention. In that article Kay Warren admitted that as a conservative Christian, which she still is, she believed that AIDS was God’s punishment on gay men, for their lifestyle choices. Then, Kay wrote, she and her husband traveled to Africa. In Africa she saw first hand just how indiscriminate the AIDS virus is. In recent years she and her husband have donated millions of dollars to stem the AIDS epidemic.
We forget just how homophobic our faith tradition, as also our nation was, just a short decade ago.
Two. As you know I served a church in Covesville, Virginia—think apple and peach growing country. Lots of Hispanics in that end of Albemarle—originally from Mexico and Latin America. Good people. Warm people. People just trying to get by. Some of the families send their children to the preschool that operates out of the church I served. Especially in 2008, though, with the near collapse of our economy, the word in town, the word in Charlottesville, the word a lot of places in our country was: “Those immigrants are taking away our jobs!” Never mind that Mr. Chiles, who owns probably the largest peach and apple orchards in Albemarle County, attested that no one except immigrants were willing to do the low paying, backbreaking work. Other common gripes: “They can’t even speak English. They are lazy.”
We forget how xenophobic our country was just eight years ago.
Finally, I want to say a word about Muslims. When my family lived in Northern Virginia, our next door neighbor family was Muslim--from Oman. In that family was Said who worked for the World Bank. He was a Harvard Law School graduate. Smart man; Madiha, his wife, a stay at home mom. and Said and Madiha’s three children who are roughly the same age as my three girls. Our children played together, grew up together. One of Said’s and Madiha’s daughters, Layutha, and my daughter Emily became fast friends.
One fall, not too long after the family moved in, Madiha knocked on my front door. She was in a panic. A black snake was sunning in her driveway, threatening to glide into her garage. Could I help her catch it? Armed with a wide push broom, Madiha tried to coax the reptile into the trash can she gave me to hold. Of course, the snake slithered this way and that. I am sure to anyone watching, Madiha and I looked like two squealing dancing dervishes. That incident marked the beginning of our friendship.
All to say, not all Muslims are terrorists. They are pretty much just like the rest of us—well except…
Except that Madiha prayed five times a day as is the Muslim custom. She washed her hands and face, always before prayer times—as is also the custom. And, when she went to the grocery, took the children to school, or was out in her front yard chasing snakes, she covered her head. My goodness, I was studying for the ministry, and SHE was the one practicing all these acts of devotion! That irony was not lost to me.
Soon after 9/1l, Madiha was in her car, stopped at a traffic light, her car window open. She was wearing her hijab,her head covering. A man in a car next to Madiha’s, rolled down his window and screamed, “Muslim go home!”
We forget how anti-Muslim our nation was, just 15 years ago.
My oldest daughter Emily, went to divinity school. She and I talk religion. She believes that God arranges events in our lives so that we will learn things God thinks we need to learn. That’s certainly one answer to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people.” I don’t believe that, though. I don’t believe that because then we would have to conclude that God causes pain and suffering and tragedy, like the one in Orlando. I DO think though, that this week, it’s as if a mirror has been held up to us, the people in this country. We have had a chance to listen to each other and observe each other, as we have reacted to this tragedy. And I like what I have heard and seen—I hope you do, too. The vast majority of us in this country have demonstrated tolerance and more than that, compassion—certainly not hate or bigotry. Isn’t that amazing?! What Ezekiel prophesied is coming to pass.
We’re not there, yet, but it is clear to me, and maybe clear to you, too, that God has been at work in us, and will continue to work in us, changing hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. Amen