Proper 21, Year A, St. Ann’s Church, Nashville

Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” (Ezek. 18:31).

If there ever was a time for new beginnings, that time is now. Americans, and the world at large, are waiting for a vaccine for the Coronavirus, marking time and attempting in the meantime to mitigate the impact of the virus on our societies. Never has “meantime” been so excruciating; never so “mean” as now. Our country is also in the midst of a political contest, heading toward resolution, of some kind, in the days and weeks ahead. At the same time, we are engaged in a time of reckoning over racial injustice, part of an even larger political and social dialogue. Whatever the new beginning will be, now seems to be the time appointed.

The need for a new beginning is part of the message of the prophets of Israel, usually conceived as a call to repentance and a return to the Lord. So, God says to Israel through the prophet Isaiah: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean… cease to do evil” (Is. 1:16). Or through the prophet Jeremiah, “O Jerusalem, wash your heart clean of wickedness so that you may be saved” (Jer. 4:14). Or through the prophet Joel, “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful” (Joel 2:13).

I like the way the Presiding Bishop’s Rule of Life for the Episcopal Church uses the word “turn” as a placeholder for this part of the Christian life. I think this is a good riff on return and repentance, the ancient prophetic theme. “Turn: pause, listen and choose to follow Jesus”: that’s the first of the seven disciplines. “Turn” sums up the insight of the prophets of Israel: a return to God and a new beginning.

That brings us to our first reading, from the prophet Ezekiel. “Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin” (Ezek. 18:30). Here the ancient call to “turn” continues, carried forward by Ezekiel in the time of Israel’s exile in Babylon. His time was like our time: it called for a new beginning.

For Ezekiel and for the People of God, the old way of life had become unsustainable. The ancient pattern of king and priest, palace and temple, in Jerusalem, had become impossible after the conquest of the city, and the exile of the leadership. God’s covenant with the People had been a promise to Abraham’s family, to continue forever in the land that God had given them. God had made covenant with the family of David, to lead the People from generation to generation. Now, for Ezekiel and his fellow exiles, none of that was possible.

For the People of God this state of affairs was unimaginable. “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel” (Ezek. 18:2-3). This must have been a popular proverb, since it’s featured in Jeremiah as well. The whole premise of the proverb presupposes the intense community life of Israel, the multi-generational commitment God had made, and the inheriting of guilt (or blessing) by successive generations. Someone must have done something; someone in the system must have transgressed. Somehow it must all add up.

Well, of course it does add up, but not according to the calculus that ancient Israel or that we employ. We want things to add up, to make sense, but God’s scope and scale is different from ours, infinitely so. The simple answer we long for is just not available. God is not limited by our imagination or our sense of justice.

What Ezekiel does give us is a different formula for proceeding with our lives. His word to Israel brings us back to a new beginning, that new beginning we long for. “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” (Ezek. 18:31). Instead of being stuck in an unsustainable position, we can move ahead. Repentance is possible; a new beginning is real. The new heart and the new spirit are available, through God’s grace. We can begin to live again.

Today we’re blessed that two members of the church are showing us what a new beginning is like, by re-affirming their baptismal vows and receiving the laying on of hands. Today we see a turning point in life. Each of us is blessed as well in being able to renew our own baptismal vows as part of our liturgy.

For Israel in Ezekiel’s time, the message was that God was faithful, in spite of the unimaginable state of affairs that the People found themselves in. For us in our day, the message is the same. Jesus Christ brings us good news, the new heart and the new spirit we need. It’s a word of hope for us, in this time of new beginnings, when the world desperately needs a word of hope.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee