In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.
-Ezekiel Chapter 1 Verse 1 (NRSV)
I remember it like it happened a couple of hours ago. It was one of those memories that fills your mind so vividly your senses are taken back to the very moments.
I can smell the room, feel the temperature, visualize the way the sun shone through the window, and recall the strong feeling of homesickness that came over me.
I was almost six months into my seminary studies in Denver, Colorado and something about that February day made me think of home in Virginia and the warm memories of my family there.
Memory is a strong emotion albeit it is never 100 percent accurate. Memory can be a soothing balm as well as a painful burden.
In the verse above, we know that the priest Ezekiel was likely experiencing the simultaneous pain and joy of warm memories past. He was one of the exiles from Judah taken from his homeland, and swept into the strange culture of his captors, the Babylonians. I imagine him by the Babylonian river weeping with his kindred as represented in Psalm 137;
By the rivers of Babylon — there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion (Psalm 137: Verse 1).
As a priest, perhaps his memories filled with the great joy that it must have been to work on the Judean temple staff. Within Ezekiel’s memories likely dwelt the specific knowledge about what rituals must take place in order to enter into the Holy of Holies, the most sacred room in the temple that housed God’s presence.
I can only imagine how devastating it must have been to be taken to a land where the comfort of those rituals was taken away and the familiarity on how to access the divine and receive God’s blessing had been forever stolen from him and now, he must face this new reality.
But then something extraordinary happened to Ezekiel. At the end of the first verse in Ezekiel’s oracle, God shows up. The heavens were opened and as the chapter progresses Ezekiel sees burning wheels in the sky among many other strange things.
Ezekiel sees visions of movement, of living creatures, and permeating all of these strange visions is the presence of the glory of the LORD. The presence of God, that which was once thought to have been contained within a room and too powerful to experience without the proper ritual performed by the right people, was now revealed to be everywhere, even in this strange new reality that Ezekiel was surrounded by. In that moment, Ezekiel went from a priest to a prophet.
And here we all are, most of us likely sitting in the still places of our homes and sheltering in place for the safety of our human community, both here and in the world at large.
Our rituals have been taken from us. Our hearts and minds are likely filled with warm memories of a reality that once was but likely will never be exactly the same again.
Thanks to Ezekiel, we know the beauty and sacredness of our world. That energy that makes us feel joyously interconnected and what we pastors like to call the presence of God, is not limited to our familiar practices and spaces.
Community, fellowship, solidarity and interconnectedness have been bubbling up all around the world in profound and prophetic ways. How has it shown up for you? Are we willing to expand our idea of how goodness is shared and embrace a new reality? Are we ready to become prophets and share love in new ways in a world that needs it more than ever before?
Tom Owens is the executive pastor for ministries at Long’s Chapel United Methodist Church.