A sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, March 17, 2002, dedicated to the memory of Laura McIsaac who died too young and always to the glory of God!
(Part VI of VII in the Lenten Sermon Series:
"God's Word and Our Struggle to Respond")
Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
Many times in our lives, things are not as we imagine them to be. Take Sam Sapotski, for example. Sam was a member of my first church in Cleveland who never missed Sunday worship until the Sunday following my announcement that I was leaving for a new call to ministry. For weeks, he didn't show up. Finally, I called and he agreed to see me in his home. Our visit was wonderful. We laughed and thoroughly enjoyed our time together which convinced me that everything was all right with Sam.
When the time came to get up and go, I stood to pray and then to leave. Sam said, "Wait a minute, I want to show you my ice skates." He hustled to the other room. He brought back a pair of skates that looked worn and well-used. He told stories of skating with his brother in Brookside Park in the early 1930's. Then he told me his story of pain. He told me about how his big brother went off to WWII and never came home. And he added, "When you announced you were leaving, I felt the same feelings I felt when my brother died. I stopped coming because I couldn't stand the pain."
Through the years, I have found that people often stop coming to worship when their lives are interrupted by great loss, great pain, and tragedy. In a recent article in The Christian Century, Pastor Craig Barnes helped me to name that experience and I hope this helps you. Perhaps it reflects your experience at such times. Dr. Barnes writes:
I used to think (people stopped coming to worship) because they were embarrassed by their loss of a loved one, job or health. But, I've discovered that more often the reason they stop worshiping is that they have lost their vision of God. To stand in worship beside so many people who are singing praise to the Lord just creates too much existential contradiction. It's a tragic irony of the soul that in the times we most need to worship, we find it most difficult. (Craig Barnes, "Resurrected Hope," The Christian Century, 2/27-36, 2002, p. 20).
Ours is not the first story of pain and lost vision in the midst of despair, and it won't be the last. Let us turn to Ezekiel for vision and direction in the face of perplexity and pain.
In 597 B.C., King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon captured Jerusalem and took many of its leaders into captivity, including the prophet Ezekiel. They were not imprisoned in Babylon. They were free to marry, build homes, plant crops, worship their God, and many thrived in this environment. But, there was always a yearning for the homeland. There was always a heaviness of heart that could not be glossed over. There was always a pain in them that could not be filled. There was always a sadness in them that ran down into their bones. And they refused to sing the Lord's song in a strange and foreign land. Psalm 137:1 says, "By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept."
Like the exiles in Babylon, we try to find a way to numb the spiritual pain we experience. We work harder. We accumulate things. We try to put down our roots. But, Babylon is not our home and we don't feel alive. We feel all dried up spiritually. Something is missing. The old dream of living fully in the spirit of God is dead and buried. And we wonder what will we do with the emptiness.
But, we are in God. And God's story and creative energy never ends in emptiness and despair. It simply has its beginnings there. God's story is one of resurrected hope. Whether with the death and resurrection of Lazarus in John 11 or the hope raised in the valley of dry bones, into the midst of such despair, God sends prophets and a messiah! In our Hebrew scripture lesson today, God takes Ezekiel by the hand to prophesy to the dry bones and the pain of his people! And hope returns again on the very breath of God!
Please listen to this text as translated from the Hebrew. This comes from a translation I picked up last February in a little Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Bookstore in Jerusalem. Listen again to these words from the pen and the lips of Ezekiel:
Then the hand of God came upon me and brought me outside by the spirit of God and set me down in the midst of a valley of dry bones. And he led me toward them round about and behold, there were many on the surface of the valley and behold they were very dry. And he said to me, Son of humankind, will these bones ever live again? And I replied, `You, my Lord, God, Who reveals Your Loving kindness in justice, only You know it!' Then He said to me: Speak your prophetic word over these bones and say to them: Dry bones, hear the Word of God! Thus has my Lord, God, Who reveals His loving kindness in justice, spoken to these bones, Behold, I will bring spirit into you and you will live again! And I will put sinews on you and cause flesh to cover you, weave skin over you and put spirit in you - and you will live again and recognize that I am God!
And (Ezekiel continues) I spoke my prophetic words as I had been commanded and behold, even as I prophesied, there was a noise and, behold, a tremor, and you, bones, moved toward each other, bone to bone. I looked and behold there already were sinews on them, flesh had grown over them, and He also wove skin over them - but there was no spirit in them.
Then he said to me: Speak your prophetic word to the spirit, say it, son of humankind, and speak to the spirit: Thus has my Lord spoken, God, Who reveals His loving kindness in justice, Come from the four winds, O Spirit, breathe into this slain that they will come alive again.
Then I spoke my prophetic words as He had commanded me. And the spirit came into them and they lived again, and they stood there upon their feet, a very, very, great host! And He said to me: Son of humankind, the bones are the entire house of Israel! (And I move to the end of the passage)....I will place my spirit in you and you will live. I will grant you rest on your native soil and you will recognize that I, God, have spoken and also done it - this is the pronouncement of God!
The vision of Ezekiel proclaims with clarity and boldness - God's sovereign power reigns! When God breathes life through prophecy and resurrection, exile is ended and homecoming begins. When life appears dead and dried-up, God breathes hope! After all, "Resurrection" is in fact, a metaphor for God's capacity to work newness in the personal as well as historical process. That's right, this text is not about the resurrection of One! (That we can find in John 11). But, Ezekiel 37 is about hope breathed by God into the entire household of Israel. From Ezekiel, we learn that in the spirit of God, communities of despair become communities of hope! Communities which appear powerless become communities which have hope through their active participation in the power of public life! No longer victims, no longer depressed and defeated people, there is resurrection hope in the bones of communities which knew only despair in recent times.
From death to resurrection; from despair to hope, we have to call forth the spirit and breath of God! Now, as you know, I find much resurrection hope in the organizing efforts of the BREAD Organization - of which we are a member congregation. BREAD stands for Building Responsibility Equality And Dignity. With close to 50 congregations, representing more than 20,000 members of Jewish and Christian Congregations, BREAD is working for justice for with poor in areas of housing, education, jobs, and now health care! Tomorrow night, if you are willing and able to help with this important organizing effort you are invited to St. Philip's Episcopal Church at 7:00 pm to help raise the dry bones of Columbus! I hope as many of you that can come, will come! I remember several years back, before I was your Senior Minister, picking-up Rev. J.A. Clarke who at 93 years young, I found walking to a BREAD meeting! He knew the power of people working together for justice and since he didn't have ride - he was walking to be a part this effort long before First Church was in the effort! If J.A. Clarke could walk at 93 to get there, you all can find a way, too! Tomorrow night, 7:00 pm, St. Philip's Episcopal, on Woodland Ave.
You see, I believe God is restless and intent to see change and hope brought into the communities where despair has reigned too long. After all, as Ezekiel tells us, "He is the One who reveals His Loving kindness in Justice!" There is not a person in this room, nor a neighborhood in this city, which does not hope for homecoming, for restoration, and for justice!
But, in the midst of resurrected hope, we must always name and claim where the source of our power is and where it is not. Our source of power is not in our good works! It is in God's great nature for justice and righteousness! It is not in our wish for good things to happen. The source of power is in God's standing with us and God speaking through us in the valley of dry bones, in the midst of communities which have only known oppression and pain and saying, "Prophesy Deliverance!" We must speak very clearly against empires and the powerful forces in our city, state, and nation which intend for dry bones never to live again. We must say, "No more!" Our God doesn't like valleys of dry bones! Our God doesn't like death with no hope! Our God doesn't like our merely crumbling and weeping by the river of Babylon!
Our God calls us to move from exile to homecoming! Our God calls us to move from inequalities and injustices to equality and justice! Our God calls us to be alive!
"Can these bones live?," our God asked Ezekiel and asks us! And the answer on his lips and ours is, "You, my Lord, God, Who reveals Your Loving kindness in justice, only you know it!" And that which he knows is this, "These bones will live!"
So, arise people of God, from your pain, and live! Arise, people of God, from your despair in the hope of Christ! Arise, people of God, and discover that the Holy Spirit is breathing life back into you! Arise, people of God, in resurrection hope because our world is dying for you to believe that God is not done, yet! Our world is dying for you to speak out, to prophesy deliverance, to proclaim that our God is sovereign and reigns in justice and righteousness! Be no longer alone in your pain, our God is calling you home to a place and a community of hope! Amen.
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