Monday, May 19, 2014

Thinking in the We

We don't often think in the "we."  In our churches we acknowledge the good we do as a group.  But I rarely hear anyone consider that our sin might be a group project.  What might that look like, you ask? Consider this...

One Sunday while you are home sick with the baby a gentlemen attends your church.  Without a home or adequate hygiene, he sits on the back pew and is ignored.  Finally on the way out the door, several people say hurtful things in his hearing like, "Doesn't he have anywhere else to go?"  "Do you suppose he's looking for a handout?" or "Good grief, doesn't he know how to dress for church?"  Word gets around, back to you.  And you remember the Savior's words, "The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head." And you start to weep.

It's not that one middle class person judged one impoverished person unworthy.  An entire congregation of middle class people rejected one person (James 1:1-13).  But not you.  I meant you weren't there.  So what are YOU supposed to do?

That's a question that Ezra is uniquely qualified to answer.

If you've forgotten, the book of Ezra begins as Cyrus, fulfilling the word of Jeremiah, sends the first of the Jews (both first, second and third generation Babylonian exiles) back to the land of Israel.  Then Ezra comes on the scene (Ezra 7).  He is facing a dispirited and discouraged group of Israelites. Despite the amazing work God has done to preserve a remnant of his chosen people, they are falling back into the same kinds of sins that eventually led their forefathers to be punished by God in the first place; specifically they are intermarrying with the people of the land.  It's especially bad among the leaders/rulers.  Ezra is outraged.

So what does he do?  What would you do?

There are a lot of options.  For example, Ezra could write an open-letter to all the leaders chastising them for their bad example.  He could start gathering support for a political push to remove these leaders from their positions.  As a priest, he could have them ex-communicated; re-exiling them from the renewed temple.  Those kinds of options may not be available to you.  But you could blow up twitter with your witty but bitter commentary on the lack of morality among the high and mighty.  That would show them!

So what does Ezra choose?

He prays.  We might have expected that.  He is a man of God.

That's not the surprising bit.

Despite being personally innocent, a man of God, he prays in abject guilt and repentance.  First in sorrow for the actions of the nation before his birth.

O my God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift up my face to You, my God, for our iniquities have risen above our heads and our guilt has grown even to the heavens. "Since the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt, and on account of our iniquities we, our kings and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity and to plunder and to open shame, as it is this day. (Ezra 9:6-7)

Then in sorrow for the sins of his modern Israel.

O LORD God of Israel, You are righteous, for we have been left an escaped remnant, as it is this day; behold, we are before You in our guilt, for no one can stand before You because of this.

This is heartrending "corporate repentance."   Rather than praying for himself, by himself and about himself, Ezra is praying a "we" prayer.  Although he hadn't personally taken a wife who was a foreigner, he prayed as representative of God's people, on behalf of God's people, in repentance for their sin.  If that sounds strange to you, join the crowd!

Americans aren't corporate people.  We don't think in terms of our family's honor or our company's long-term good (as it might be different from ours individually).  In our deep belief that each person is individually responsible for their own sin (think Ezekiel 18 for example), and individually responsible for their own relationship with God (Philippians 2:12), we may have neglected an important aspect of our faith.  We are still, altogether, the people of God, the family of God, and the kingdom of God.  We not I.

Ezra was in no way tolerant of the sin of his people.  He describes himself as pulling out his own hair, tearing up his clothes and sitting down astonished.  After fasting, he literally fell on his face and began to pray. Yet rather than rejecting his people, he begs God's mercy on all of them, himself included.

We're leavers. Problems far less serious than Ezra faced send us scooting out the door. Something goes wrong in our church, a leader falls into sin, somebody's clothes seem too casual, the Sunday school teacher is too harsh, and we're church shopping.  We're happy to divide ourselves and point out how different we are from those people over there.  Disagree about some point of doctrine, politics, lifestyle?  No problem we'll just divvy up.  Me over here.  You over there.*

What if instead of leavers we were pray-ers?

Isn't that where Ezra's example brings us? Back to prayer.  Not for the sinners, but with them.  We are so disassociated; we can hardly imagine a time when the sin of the group would drive us to repentance if we personally had no part. Everything depends you, your love and you loyalty.  Are you one of them, broken by the group's sin despite your personal innocence?  Can you imagine yourself on your face praying with Ezra? Because we belong together, one church, one community, one country reciting this.

We are before You in our guilt,
for no one can stand before You because of this.
The church desperately needs Ezras.  People who see sin clearly and know how outrageous it is.  People who know that we have to start with prayer. People who like Jesus Christ, personally innocent, love the group (be it church, community or country) so much that they will beg God for mercy, for forgiveness, so much that they will sacrifice anything for atonement.  


*Please don't hear me to say that in a situation where the sin is hard-hearted and heavy-handed, where we've prayed, fasted and called for repentance and gotten nowhere, that we might not need to leave. We just need to understand that leaving is the "nuclear" option. 

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(R), Copyright(c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. 

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