I have often thought that Ezekiel’s proclamation that we heard in our first reading of God’s absolution of children from the sins of their parents is incomplete. It is true that people are liable only for their own sins, but it is also true that many people suffer from the consequences of other people’s sins, including the sins of the people who came before them in the past. We can see that in children who were born of mothers who ingested dangerous substances during pregnancy. We can see it in generations of families caught in cycles of abuse. We see it in first world countries suffering from terrorists fueled by the hatred and frustration of people living in their former colonies that were pillaged by the earlier governments and business interests of those first world nations. We see it in the seemingly unsolvable racial problems caused by our own nation’s history of slavery. We see it in church denominations separated from each other because of the what seem to us to be trivial matters, but were seen in the past as issues important enough to split churches.
However, there is also the truth that just as children suffer because of the sins of their parents, we also benefit from the good things they have done. We live in a wonderful monastery associated with a wonderful denomination in a wonderful country because even though all of the people who came before us in those institutions were sinners who sinned, they also did many good things of which we are reaping the benefits.
So we too must be careful in our actions. We are sinners who have, do, and will sin, and the people who come after us will suffer because of it. We must heed Ezekiel’s proclamation to repent and turn from our transgressions, and get new hearts and new spirits; to turn from our own selfishness and turn towards God, turning from death to life. We heard Paul talk about that in our second reading this morning, when he wrote to the church in Philippi to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard each other as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” That doesn’t mean that we should not enjoy life here and now, but it does mean that we should enjoy it in such a way that it does not leave a mess for others to clean up after us.
Of course, most people do not do evil on purpose. It does happen occasionally, but that is a topic for another sermon. Most people do selfish things without thinking about it, because human society is selfish, and that is what we are used to. First world countries pillaged their colonies because that is what first world countries were expected to do. Large landowners in this country kept slaves, because that was how things got done. People split churches because they thought the issues of the time were important enough to do so. We just can’t think outside of our box, or culture, or zeitgeist, or whatever we want to call it, and that is why it is important to pray about our occasional big decisions, as well as our daily patterns of little decisions and behaviors. Everything we do will have an impact on future generations (even the most trivial things), and even though we can never be certain of the situations in which those generations will find themselves, we must always try to put ourselves in their shoes and see how our actions and decisions will affect their lives. We must base our lives on the desire to be a blessing to all, and when we do that, we will be ever more able to think outside our box, guided by the Holy Spirit.
We are responsible only for our own actions, but we are also responsible for the impact that those actions have on everyone else throughout time and space. May we act wisely and prayerfully, always as servants whose Lord of the Universe is servant of all. AMEN