I Will Put My Spirit Within You and You Shall Live – Ezekiel 37.1-14 & Psalm 104. 1-4, 14-24, 27-30

May 24, 2015 – Pentecost

Typically on Pentecost Sunday we focus on the story of the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit as it’s told in the 2nd chapter of Acts. But, of course, the Spirit has been around long before that—in the very first chapter of Genesis we hear about the Spirit moving over the waters before anything was created. This morning I’ve chosen to look at one of the other great Spirit texts—this one from the prophet Ezekiel. The story of the valley of the dry bones.

Ezekiel was a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem until the the Babylonian army came through, marched the people of Israel, including Ezekiel the priest, into exile and destroyed the Temple. Away from the land God had promised them, the reign of the house of David disrupted, and the destruction of the Temple which was identified with the very presence of God, everything that assured the people of Israel of God’s presence and providence was destroyed.

As the years dragged on, the exiles despaired: “Our hope is dried up; we are lost and cut off completely” they lamented. “We might as well be dead.” It was in this theological, psychological, social and emotional void that Ezekiel’s career as a prophet began. For some perspective, one writer says Ezekiel wrestles with a disaster similar to the modern problem of understanding the Holocaust. “Why did God allow Jerusalem and the Temple to be destroyed and why did God allow the people of Israel to be carried away into exile?”[1]

While few of us in this congregation have personally experienced a devastation like the Holocaust, many of us have had, or are living now, in circumstances that take us to the brink of hopelessness. Losing your job or a partner or a child. Chronic pain or illness or depression. Addiction that holds you or a loved one in its teeth. Poverty and all its limitations. Incarceration. Discrimination because of your skin color or gender identity or sexual orientation. Circumstances in our lives that take us to the depths of despair, persuaded that God has abandoned us. Where we too say, “Our hope is dried up.”

In the midst of the despair, Ezekiel had a vision. The Spirit of God took him to a valley filled with bones. And God says to Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?”

Well, the answer to that question is no. There is no life in those bones.

But God says to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones and say, ‘Hear the word of the Holy God.”

And don’t you just know Ezekiel wants to say, “Hey bones! Get yourself into a grave.”

But God tells Ezekiel to prophesy that the bones will live again.

So Ezekiel looks over at the expanse of dried out bones, “Hear the word of the Holy God.”

He said it sort of under his breath at first. Then he said it again with a little more spirit. “O dry bones, hear the word of the Holy God.” And he hears a rattling behind him. And the rattling grows loud all around him as the bones come together.

And then the bones are covered with tendons and muscles and skin.

And then it is silent again.

And Ezekiel looks at the bodies all around him—bodies of the thousands who were murdered in the destruction of Jerusalem and who died of broken hearts in the exile.

But God is not finished. Speak to the breath, God says. And in Hebrew that word for breath also means spirit and it means wind).

So Ezekiel does as he’s commanded. And the Spirit fills each of the bodies—just like in the story of creation. And they lived. As far as Ezekiel could see. The bones once scattered in hopeless disarray now are living beings filled with God’s spirit.

Once more, Ezekiel is told to speak. Speak to the exile’s hopelessness with words of hopefulness. That they are not cut off. That even from the grave—even from the valley of death—God’s spirit still blows and breathes among them.

Can these dry bones live? Yes!

Those dry bones, filled with God’s spirit, are reshaped into the community of God’s people, healed, restored and made whole again.

A number of years ago I heard Judith Jamison, who was then the Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, talk about Alvin Ailey’s vision. “Celebrate what you couldn’t see” is how Jamison described it. For Alvin Ailey, back in 1958, I suspect that meant celebrating African American dancers and choreographers, the rhythms of African American musical traditions, the beauty of African American bodies.

I think of that vision when I hear this story from Ezekiel. Looking for what can’t be seen with human eyes but can be seen through God’s eyes. Even in that valley of bones we will celebrate the power of the Spirit— the power that surrounds us and fills the universe.

It’s the power of the same Spirit that came upon the disciples in Jerusalem centuries later—Jesus had left and they weren’t sure what was next or what they were supposed to do and the Spirit arrived and their lives were ignited with God’s power to tell and live the Good News of Jesus who is alive.

“Ezekiel challenges his fellow exiles and us: Can these dry old bones live? Not on the face of it. But look at them through God’s eyes, and watch bones” coming together. Watch as bones become bodies. Watch as the Spirit “infuses them, so that they rise up…testifying to the power of [God]. Can corpses be brought forth from graves and become living beings again? Look through God’s eyes, and watch them come up, receive God’s spirit, and return home. When we raise our vision to look beyond [the circumstances] our [ordinary] eyes can see, we watch the impossible happen through God’s eyes.”[2]

Jim Wallis in his book The Great Awakening, raises the question about whether the church is an institution or a movement.[3] An institution prefers things to be settled and contained. A movement lives in the arena of risk and possibilities—celebrating what cannot yet be seen—attentive to the Spirit who blows where it will.

A movement might look more like an Alvin Ailey Dance Company where the barriers that keep us in our place are broken down and the possibilities of life and freedom are celebrated not just with our heads but also with our bodies. Where traditional forms are learned at the same time they become the springboard for something even more amazing and transforming. And new ways of being emerge—ways that we couldn’t even imagine until one person starts moving and then a second person starts moving in response to that first person and then a third person starts moving in response to the first two…and on and on.

As a congregation we are still in the process of New Beginnings that began last July—asking “What is it God wants us to do and be in this time and place?” The small group leaders have met together to share the passions and resources and ideas from their groups. The common big idea from all seven groups is two-fold. First, for us to focus as a congregation on a few social justice issues and, second, for us to pay particular attention in our congregation to spiritual and leadership development.

A group of five to seven people will take all that the small groups talked about and help us get specific about that two-fold big idea.

The nominating committee welcomes your suggestions for the people who will help lead us in this way. There’s a form in the back pages of the bulletin to nominate people. Those nominations are due today.

What is it that God wants us to do and be in this time and place? What does God desire to celebrate that we cannot yet see? Where is the Spirit sending us to bring new life into old dry bones?

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1.  “Ezekiel – Introduction” in The Access Bible, eds. Gail R. O’Day and David Petersen, (Oxford: University Press, 1999), 1058OT.
2.   Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, “The Book of Ezekiel” in New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VI, Nashville: Abingdon, 2001, 1504-1503.
3.  Mentioned in Walter Brueggemann’s article “Elisha as the Original Pentecost Guy: Ten Theses” in Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2009, p45.

The Love Abides – John 15.4-17 & 1 John 4.7-21

May 10, 2015 – 6th Sunday of Easter

I was 70 miles down the road in Indiana earlier this week at the St. Meinrad Archabbey—a community of Roman Catholic Benedictine monks. I was there with a group pastors and we were working on a 6-month stretch of sermon texts and preaching. The monastic community gathers five times a day to pray together. A number of us from our group walked over to the Archabbey church to pray with the brothers in the evening.

As I watched the brothers, some youngish, some quite old, file in and out of the sanctuary, I thought about the vow of stability they had each taken to remain in that place and with that community for the rest of their life. One of the promises that Benedictines make is a promise of stability: “to limit oneself voluntarily to one place with one group of people for the rest of one’s life.”[1] Given all the ways that life and circumstances change, it seems like such a old fashioned—and perhaps near impossible—thing to do—to make such a vow.

After we’d been at St. Meinrad’s for a day and a half, a few of us went over to the community of Sisters of St. Benedict in Ferdinand. There we met Sister Christine who gave us a tour of the community’s beautiful church. She said she had been part of the Sister’s of St. Benedict in Ferdinand for sixty years. She said this while we were looking out a window at the cemetery where the sisters are buried. The year she arrived in Ferdinand, the markers on the graves changed from iron crosses to granite block markers. She told us about that change and then said, “Every woman whose grave has a granite marker is someone I have known in this community.”

I thought about the vow of stability Sister Christine had made and all the changes she had seen, all the people she had seen come and go, in those sixty years.

Most of us are not going to stay in the same place for the rest of our lives. We leave one place to go to school. We leave another because of a relationship. We leave another because of work. We leave another because of boredom or adventure or disappointment or a search for something better.

Very few of us stay in one place. Even religious sisters and brothers don’t always stay in the same place. They may move to a different city where there is another community of their order. They may take an assignment to teach or heal or preach in another country. And certainly women and men leave monastic orders altogether.

Esther de Waal in her book Seeking God, writes about the Rule of St. Benedict for ordinary Christians. The Rule was written 1500 years ago by St. Benedict as he formed a monastic community in Italy. It has endured all these generations since as the way that Benedictine communities seek to live their lives together and their lives with God. So Esther de Waal looks at the Rule and wonders how it might be a guide for the spiritual life of those of us who seek to follow Christ but are not taking up orders in monastic communities.

In reflecting on the vow of stability, she acknowledges that staying in one geographic place will be mostly impossible but the vow of stability can be about a stability of internal space; a stability of the heart. She quotes Metropolitan Anthony Bloom who was a bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain and a well-known writer on prayer and the Christian life. Bloom says this about stability: “You will find stability at the moment when you discover that God is everywhere, that you do not need to seek [God] elsewhere, that [God] is here…It is important to recognize that it is useless to seek God somewhere else…This is important because it is only at the moment that you recognize this that you can truly find the fullness of the Kingdom of God in all its richness within you; that God is present in every situation and every place.”[2]

de Waal reminds us that this kind of stability, this kind of awareness, of God being present in every situation and in every place, is not easy and takes perseverance to develop. She acknowledges that Bloom was a monk and a bishop, with years of practicing this; “most of us are beginners,” she says. “Yet we can admit the principle that underlies his understanding of stability…He has found his centre [sic] of gravity”[3]; he has found the place in which his life is rooted. Not a physical place but a spiritual space where God is found.

I’m thinking about all this as we hear Jesus say, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” That word “abide” also carries the meaning of staying in place, enduring, holding out.[4] “Abide” gets translated as “remain” (Common English Bible) or “stay joined” (Contemporary English Version) and in The Message “live in me” and “make your home in me.” I like that one particularly: Make your home…in Jesus, the incarnate God, the Word made flesh.

We hear a similar thing in 1 John: God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. (4.16b)

Abide, remain, stay joined, live in, make your home in love. Which is making a home in God, who is love.

How do we make a home in God? How do we abide in Christ? How do we cultivate a life that is rooted in God who is present in every situation and in every place?

The first thing is to desire such a life. Or to desire to desire it. And then there are practices, disciples, that people who have longed to know God’s presence have engaged for generations: prayer—the kind that talks to God and the kind that listens; reading scripture—both for learning about God and for being formed by God; participation in the sacraments that awaken us to God’s grace; being part of a community of others who long to know God’s presence so that we can be encouraged and challenged—and where we can support others and be supported ourselves.

Now we liberal protestants sometimes get a little nervous when people start talking about making a home in God, dwelling in Christ, living a life of prayer and contemplation. “When are we going to get to the action?” we say. “Shouldn’t we be doing something to demonstrate, to live-out, to embody the love of God in the world?” Yes, of course. And that’s what Jesus says: “Those who abide in me and I in them will bear fruit…I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” And the writer of 1 John says, “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

Love, in the bible, is not a feeling or a concept. Love is an action. “To know the God of love is to live the love of God.[5] If our lives do not reflect the love of God, then truly, we do not know the love of God, we are not abiding, we are not making a home in God. One writer says it this way, “There is no love of God if there is not love of neighbor.”[6] You can’t separate a life of devotion to God from a life of service to others. Love is a virtue, a “disciplined habit…that, like all the virtues, can be perfected only over a lifetime”[7] says another writer.

Gail O’Day, who writes on the gospel of John says the language of “bearing fruit” that Jesus uses is a “way to speak about the works of love that are required of Jesus’ followers…To bear fruit—that is, do works of love—is the tangible sign of discipleship.”[8] The works of love are not required in the way of we have to do them in order to be loved and accepted by God. The works of love, bearing fruit, is what follows—it is the outcome—of making a home in God, of abiding in Jesus. It is what happens when we are remaining connected to the vine that is Christ.

The Benedictine motto is (in Latin) “Ora et labora”; “prayer and labor” or “prayer and work.” The two are linked and the “ora” (prayer) is always first in the phrase. Benedict envisioned a balanced life of prayer and work with each nourishing the other.

Esther de Waal writes, “If prayer and love mean anything at all they mean entering into a dialogue with God. The essential starting point for this must be that we on our part are ready to listen, open and attentive to the [Living] Word”[9] of God who is Christ. In this listening, openness and attentiveness we learn to abide, to remain, to make a home in Christ and we begin to discover God’s presence in every situation and every place. And it is out of this abiding, this intimate knowing and being known by God that we love our sisters and brothers. “And in this way our whole life will become prayer in action.”[10] Making a home in Love, we love others.

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1.  http://www.thedome.org/about/rule-of-st-benedict/the-importance-of-community-life/, accessed 9 May 2015.
2.  quoted in Esther de Waal, Seeking God – The Way of St. Benedict, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001), 65.
3.  de Waal, 63.
4.  “John 15.1-8 – Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 473.
5.  Feasting 1 John 4.7-21 theological perspective, 468.6.  Claudia Highbaugh, “1 John 4.7-21 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 470.
7.  David C. Cunningham, “John 15.9-17 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 500.
8.  Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 757-758.
9.  de Waal, 146.
10.  Ibid., 153.