SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D ALLAN B. WARREN III AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 25, 2011, THE FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

“The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

I suppose you could call this “ancestral guilt” - the notion that subsequent generations must pay the price and suffer for the misdeeds of their forebears.  It’s a dreadful idea, and that’s one of the reasons we hear the prophet Ezekiel condemning it this morning in the lesson.  As he says, “no more shall this proverb be used by you in Israel.” (Ezek. 18:2,3)

Dreadful as it is, it must have been a fairly prevalent idea, for we also hear the prophet Jeremiah quoting it and condemning it as well (Jer. 31:29-30) and in the Book of Deuteronomy its denial is codified into law.  “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, and the children shall not be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin.” (24:16) 

Even so, in spite of condemnation and codification, it seems to be a very persistent idea.  Some six hundred years later we encounter it again.  Remember the blind man in the Gospel of John.  Jesus’ disciples pose the question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)

And it is a persistent notion, I think, because on several levels it is quite true.  Historically, for instance, and politically.  You and I all now suffer the consequences of some of the disastrous and stupid decisions which politicians have made before our time.  Sometimes many years, in fact, before our time.  Psychically and psychologically, it is true as well.  The children of criminals often suffer greatly for the guilt of their parents.  For instance, the son of one of Hitler’s right-hand men became a Roman Catholic priest to atone for his father’s crimes.  And in a way I know this for myself.  My father was not a criminal.  He was a doctor and he served in the Pacific in World War II.  He would not talk about it, so we never know what happened to him, but every month or so the whole family would be awakened in the night by his screams, as in dreams he relived what he had done and what he had endured.  He was my father, my protector; it was terrifying.  Doubtless, deep within me, some of that terror remains. 

“The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”  As I said, this is a persistent idea, and it is so, again, because on several levels it is true.  However, what the prophet Ezekiel is telling us in the lesson this morning is that on one level it is absolutely not true.  As we stand before God, says the prophet, you and I are not responsible or rather not accountable for what our forebears did.  We are only accountable for what we ourselves have done.  Before God there is no ancestral guilt.  There is rather personal responsibility.  You and I are accountable for what you and I have done – good or bad – we are not accountable for what someone else has done – be it an ancestor or a friend.  Responsibility before God is entirely personal. 

Personal.  The mind of Holy Scripture is dead set against any notion which limits the reality of personal responsibility.  Fate, for instance.  As the Bible sees it, you and I are not caught up in a pre-ordained pattern in which we have no choice and the outcome is certain and decided.  Not at all.  And, though Scripture is very much concerned with history, there is no notion of historical determinism.  The stream of history may present a particular range of choices at one time and another range of choices at another time, but it is up to you and me to choose.

The Bible’s concept of personal responsibility is the source of what today we call individualism.  This is a noble idea:  that each of us is accountable for what he or she does.  We stand on our own two feet.  We determine ourselves.  We are not puppets whose strings are manipulated by fate.  Our decisions are real decisions, real choices – not something pre-ordained or determined or beyond our ken or control.

This is a noble idea, and it is also a terrible burden – a terrible burden – because, of course, it means that the responsibility is entirely your own, and there is no one to blame but yourself. 

To return to Ezekiel, “‘The fathers 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.  Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine:  the soul that sins shall die.”(18:2 - 4)

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There is no one to blame but yourself; “the soul that sins shall die.”  Martin Luther read this particular verse from Ezekiel and it terrified him.  He was – remember – a professor of Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, and he read this verse and others from the Hebrew Scriptures which made clear the penalty, or we might even say the retribution, inflicted on those who sinned and who failed to keep God’s law.  All this terrified him and cast him into despair.  He lived in fear and dread and sometimes, he tells us, in hatred of God.  Hatred of the God who demanded that he keep a law which he could not keep, and act when he was powerless.  Luther knew that he was a sinner.  He knew that he fell short – like all men and women – of what God had called him to be.  And, again, he was terrified of the consequences of his sin and shortcoming.

But then, as we all know, Luther made a great discovery:  the New Testament.  After years of scholarship and study, the meaning of the New Testament suddenly dawned upon him and it changed his life.  He realized that, as powerless to act as he himself might be, the New Testament claimed God was not powerless and proclaimed God had already acted.  God had acted in Jesus to bring about redemption and forgiveness and atonement.  In Jesus it was all already accomplished, it was done.  As strong as his own sense of sin and guilt might be, God’s act in Jesus was stronger.  As St John had written, we “reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”  (I John 3:19,20)

“The soul that sins shall die.”  That is true, but true not because God is vindictive or hateful toward the sinner, but rather because God is Himself life.  To sin is to separate oneself from God.  It is therefore to separate oneself from Life, and what can that mean but to die? 

But again, God has acted.  Acted in Jesus to bring about atonement and to return sinners to Himself.  And God is love.  God acts in love, not hatred.  “I have no pleasure in the death of any one, says the Lord God” (Ez. 18:32)  And in Jesus God acted to return sinners to life.  In Jesus God acted to return sinners to Himself.  He acted to return them to their source and center and to joy.

And to that God and to His precious Son and to the Holy and life-giving Spirit be worship, glory, praise and thanks, for ever and ever. 

Amen.