Not Locked-In

As we are all staying at home during COVID-19, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

— (Rev) Andrew Jensen

Not Locked In


Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

Matthew 21:23-32

When I was a kid, there was a silly TV show called “Laugh-In”. Occasionally they awarded a prize they called the “Flying Fickle Finger of Fate”. I don’t remember much about it, I was pretty young, but I have the sense it was awarded to anyone who had got their comeuppance – what we might now describe as karma, as in: “they deserved that!”

Of course, that’s a gross over-simplification of the idea of Karma or fate, for that matter, but then, it was a comedy show.

The idea of fate often gets tied to the idea of vengeance. It certainly was for the first readers of Ezekiel’s message. There was a well-established proverb about the children paying the price for their parent’s faults and there are other biblical passages warning about this.

We rebel against this idea; it’s so patently unfair. And so did Ezekiel, as we can see. Ezekiel says that God rejects this way of doing things and we cheer as we hear these words.

At the same time, there are parts of our society that subtly buy into the idea of fate, or predestination or the idea that one generation pays for the sins of the past.

An obvious example of that is the climate crisis we are seeing. Our children and grandchildren will be living in a world that we and previous generations helped damage. We can’t deny that kind of reality but we can work to undo the damage as much as possible. I would call this a consequence, not a judgment.

And we also accept that some flaws are socially transmitted:

certain groups will behave in ways we might not like. We may even expect the children of those people to cause trouble in school with no evidence from the individual child. How is that different than what Ezekiel is preaching against?

But we still do it! Current protests about racism against black and indigenous peoples make it clear that there are statistics to demonstrate that we do this very thing: condemn children because of who their parents are or the neighbourhood they come from or some other factors that we justify to ourselves.

It’s amazing how much of this stuff sneaks into our lives quietly, as we grow up. So, we don’t question it; we often don’t even look at it until we are confronted by an open challenge.

In Ezekiel’s day, people blamed God. The logic isn’t hard to understand: if God is all powerful then how can we resist the life fated for us? If we have no control over things, then God must be throwing us into this bad situation and judging us for something we didn’t do.

And any time we talk about fate, or destiny, we are borrowing from this attitude.

It’s fair to notice that there are things outside of our control, lots of things in fact. The world is a big place and the illusion that we are in charge is eroding right now as we struggle with a pandemic that circles the world. Good! Our arrogance needed correcting.

But that doesn’t mean that God is judging us and punishing us and it doesn’t support the prejudices that we’ve let slip in that pre-judge individuals.

We love the idea of a second chance; the idea that God will look at us for what we do and give us the chance to make mistakes and start again. It’s central to the Methodist roots of the United Church and it’s a core message for us still.

The challenge comes when we have to apply this principle to others. In theory we agree, sure, but we stumble in church, and in other parts of life. Especially when we buy into the assumptions made by the crowd, or the institution; when we buy into any presumption that lets us look at someone as part of a category instead of as a person.

This is a risky time. We feel locked in by this disease. We feel helpless and fearful and when we feel this way we become more susceptible to messages that cast blame onto others; that make it easier to push whole groups away.

We are tired, and it is harder to look at each person as an individual. Love and respect take effort and right now we hope the love and respect flows our way instead having to work to offer it to others.

But we don’t believe that God is out to get us. We don’t believe that we are fated or destined in some way, however tempting that interpretation might be in hard times. We really don’t believe that God punishes us for things others have done.

Yes, there are consequences we have to deal with; like climate change. But that’s not God punishing us – that’s God letting us deal with the results of our short-sighted behaviour as a society, as a human race.

Hopefully, we will learn from these consequences and do better in the future. But it’s not punishment. God loves us, and the idea that we are in this together matters deeply. It is central to our message as Christians.

When we see that poor people suffer more from COVID or bear the brunt of climate change; that’s not God punishing the poor. That is God calling us to do things differently; to share in the recovery and deal with the challenge; to work together to make things better.

Do we feel like everything is out of our control? It’s actually not. We can control our attitudes and we can demand better approaches from our leaders. We can insist that all people really are of equal value in God’s eyes and that the built-in favouritism we have in society needs to be fixed so that people are lifted up; so that no individual or group has to unfairly bear the burden of whatever problem we face.

The pandemic isn’t a judgment, it’s a crisis. And the front-line workers have carried an extra burden for us.

The climate crisis isn’t a judgment. It is a consequence of our behaviour and we need to learn to do better and to work to lift the burden that is being passed on to future generations.

Systemic racism, and other kinds of prejudice are our society’s judgment on innocent people in direct defiance of today’s lesson from Ezekiel and so many other scriptures, all of which call for justice.

These are not fate, or destiny, or God’s judgment on the children for the sins of the parents and we must not treat them as somehow justified.

God wants us to see each other as people, loved by God and worthy of love by us; worthy of the chance to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes; just as much as we are worthy of forgiveness, of hope, of respect as people. Worthy of love as God’s children.

As this difficult time challenges us right where we live, let’s rise to the challenge and re-think our assumptions.

God isn’t judging us. God is giving us an opportunity to learn, to grow, to change. Let’s make sure we seize that opportunity.


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