Saturday June 9, 2018: Closing Worship for the New England Synod Assembly
He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’ ~ Matthew 13:33
He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” ~ Ezekiel 37:1-14
It was because of the bread just how hard it really was. We’ve had a tough spring in my family. And I knew it was a hard season because I wasn’t baking any bread. Now, I am not an excellent baker, it’s mostly too precise for me, but I’ve stumbled upon a sweet Sabbath ritual. On Sundays, after the church I’ve visited in the morning and after the evening service I attend with my wife, I would start a batch of no-knead bread dough: 3 cups of flour, half as much water, 1 ½ tsp of salt, and just a ¼ tsp of yeast would be enough. Stir it up, then wait. Let it rise overnight and let the yeast do its work. And on my preacher’s Sabbath Monday, I would wake up to a dough that had mysteriously doubled, and shape it. Let it rise again in a container to guide its form. Bake it under high heat and cool. Start it on Sunday night, and wake up on Monday to this remarkable rise.
But this spring was brutal- multiple deaths in our family, hospitalizations, unclear diagnosis, and then in my ministry, we were forced to move from the building that has housed our council of churches for 83 years. There was no time to bake bread. It seemed silly anyway. How could we bake bread at a moment like this? Instead, we bought our bread of affliction at the store. Mostly we were eating take out. We rushed from from crisis to crisis for months at a time. In all our struggles, there was no time to let the dough rise. I knew we were coming back to some health when I started baking again.
Let us pray….
We get to the valley of dry bones by curious means. In a vision, Ezekiel has been picked up by the hand of God and dropped back down. And then, verse 2 “The Lord led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.” Or as the poet Petra White puts it, “God takes Ezekiel for many walks.” God guides Ezekiel around the bones. Femurs and clavicles, fingers and skulls. A place so bereft of life that even the wind does not blow. Did they walk for silent hours? Did Ezekiel’s eyes sting with the dust? Did his throat clench up?
Into that silence, God asks, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Judah has collapsed, Jerusalem is destroyed, Ezekiel and those who thoughtthey were God’s chosen people have been forced to leave the home God promised them. In exile, in despair, in the valley of the shadow of death, now God asks, “Can these bones live?” After a long silence, Ezekiel responds, “Only you know, Lord.”
I hear in Ezekiel’s response my own exasperation and weariness with the state of the world, and occasionally, the state of the Church. Maybe you hear yours, too. The weariness of one who has endured much, tried to lead, tried to follow God, whose words have fallen on deaf ears, Ezekiel who could not even stop to mourn the death of his wife. How could Ezekiel have any confidence in living?
If we haven’t read recently the prior 37 chapters, we could forget that Ezekiel is heartbroken and isolated, tired and traumatized, a refugee from the holy city, trained for a priestly role with no altar to preside. Tired in the depth of his own bones. “Can these bones live?” I dunno, you tell me, Lord.
I think there’s a tendency to preach this text from the vantage point of Ezekiel, skeptical of God’s power to enliven the bones. If we just had more faith, all the death around us would just spring to life! From Ezekiel’s eyes, we proclaim a message of trusting God’s power and provision, even to bring the dead back to life. Which is all true. And good. And yet, I wonder about the bones.
I wonder what the bones must feel like.
All those nameless, now faceless bones.
Those left behind after war, the war on terror, the war on drugs, the warring that founded this nation, the unauthorized but perpetual warring on certain bodies still.
Those bones. I want to know about those bones.
Those without headstones, those whose names are known to God alone. Those unidentified bodies of refugees washing up on the shores of Libia and Lesbos. Those bones of occupied territories who died in their desperation for a homeland too.
Those impoverished dead shoveled into unmarked graves of the potter’s fields of Hart Island, NYand Long Island in Boston Harbor, among bodies of Native Americans held captive there during King Phillip’s War.
Those bones of the unknown dead of Puerto Rico, dead not by entirely predictable storm but an entirely ineffective national response. Those bones of the unfathomable dead of Syria and Yemen, the dead of those in the places we cannot find on a map.
Those bones of the martyrs who wait still to have a stone marker from Montgomery placed at the site of their lynching. All those bones that have lost hope that anything might be otherwise.
Among these bones is where God starts, not merely in a place of desolation, but among the most violated. This is not a display of divine hubris, but a sign of God’s eternal prioritization of the most vulnerable. That’s whom God prioritizes. God starts the work of restoration not among the powerful and prominent, but among the nameless bones.
The Methodist reformer John Wesley mused, “of all the bones of all those numerous slain, not one was missing, not one missed its way, not one missed its place, but each knew and found its fellow. Thus in the resurrection of the dead, the scattered atoms shall be arranged in their proper place and order, and every bone come to his bone, by the same wisdom and power by which they were first formed in the womb of her that is with child.”
Which is all well and good in the resurrection of the dead, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the gliding of each particular bone to bone does not happen without pain. For us living, for anyone with a hip replacement, a knee repair, who has endured a broken bone or twisted ankle, you know just how hard it is to put our bones back together again. Rehabilitation is long and painful.
I think, even for as much as Ezekiel felt the weight of their collective trauma, God wanted Ezekiel to sense what the bones felt too. Prophets are useless they actually empathize with the people. I think Ezekiel’s bones are weary, too.
Ezekiel repeats God’s prophesy and The Lord gets to work. God reverses decomposition, a repeat performance of creation. “God flings sinew on the bones, liver, spleen, gristle.” And like something from a video game, the bones are made into mortals- a standing vacant mass, eyes that are as empty as they look. But there is no life.
My sense, as a Church in New England, is we are in this place of standing and not yet moving. Standing upright, but not living. After your pastor has left, after your spouse has left, after that big vote and half of the church has left, after the economy tanked and all those new families moved away and left, after whatever it is that came and stole your hope. We know what it is to get upright but not fully alive.
We know what it is to be too afraid to take a breath.
We know what it is to be too afraid to take a step.
We know that immobilizing fear that we cannot trust the promise of new life.
The bones never speak themselves. It is God who voices their fears, explaining to Ezekiel, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Who these people are becomes clearer and God knows their fear. These now standing are the desperate, the exiled, those who died to the possibility of life because all hope was lost.
You know this. You know that it is possible to live without being alive. And maybe we will learn, like the bones of the desperate, we cannot re-animate ourselves.
But my God, we put in a real good effort to will ourselves to life. In many parts of the Church I visit, there’s a middle class, white delusion that our agency animates the world, that if we’ve not formed a committee, it isn’t getting done. That if we don’t do it, no one will. That if we just work harder, we can manufacture life. With confidence in our own agency, with presumption in our very thorough planning process, we strive earnestly, mightily even to be the animating force of life in the world.
Again and again, God calls Ezekiel: Mortal, mortal, mortal. God keeps calling Ezekiel mortal, and unsubtle a reminder of who is mortal and who is God. To be called mortal while standing next to the dead, seems a little heavy handed Lord. YES. WE GET IT. We are unable to animate ourselves.
And yet, while we are so busy strategizing about how to gather up all the broken bones by our own power, how to will ourselves to life, we are missing the animating that God is already up to. Faithful ministry invites us to participate in what God is already doing, and not the other way around.
I tell you this church; there is no secret sauce for Church renewal other than trusting the Lord. As executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, visiting churches each Sunday, I have seen flourishing churches in every denomination, every part of New England, every size and style, every budget and background. And I have seen churches flush with money and staff and impressive buildings that are standing with no life in them. The churches that are alive are the ones deeply invested in the thriving of their neighbors and profoundly trusting in Jesus Christ to lead them. And as it turns out, the Holy Spirit appears to actually be interested in things beyond our church doors.
My friend Kate went to pastor a church that was barely standing. Kate is the kind of pastor that makes you want to be a better Christian. The Church was struggling. The neighborhood had changed, but the church had not changed with it. They were cut off. In their struggle, they participated in their denominational renewal program, made some hard decisions, lost about half of the church. In searching for signs of life, they “finally realized that no one from the Presbytery was going to come save us. No anonymous donor was going to bail us out. We were going to have to trust that if God wanted this Church to live, we were going to have to actually trust in Jesus.” And in trusting God to lead their renewal, they found that God wanted this community to change and thrive.
We participate in God’s ministry, not the other way around.
There is an absolutely delicious sermon on this text from 1892 by the evangelical British preacher Charles Spurgeon, preaching to a gathering of other pastors. To these evangelists, Spurgeon cautions, “We find that men are dead—what is needed is that they should be quickened—and we cannot quicken them! There are a great many things we can do—and God forbid that we should leave one of them undone! But when we come to the creation of life, we have reached a mysterious region into which we cannot penetrate—we have entered the realm of miracles where Jehovah reigns supreme!”
He continues, “How, then, should this fact affect us? Because of our powerlessness, shall we sit still, doing nothing and caring nothing?… You may organize your societies; you may have excellent methods; you may diligently pursue this course and that, but when you have done it all, nothing comes of it if the effort stands by itself! Only as the Spirit of God shall bless men by you, shall they receive a blessing through you! Whatever your ability or experience, it is the Spirit of God who must bless your labor.” Midway through the sermon, in whatever the 19th century version of cap locks is, Spurgeon shouts, “WE ARE NOTHING WITHOUT THE HOLY SPIRIT.”
And you know this, but we cannot say it enough: The Holy Spirit is alive, wild, active already whether we have passed a resolution about it or not, moving whether we notice or no, animating whether we claim it or not. We mix the flour and add the yeast, but, Mortal, it is not us who causes the yeast to rise.
God is already restoring and resurrecting. All over. Everywhere. Even despite the pernicious human tendency to deal in death. God is already resurrecting. From the driest desert to the depths of the sea. My downstairs neighbor Marianna works for the New England Aquarium tracking right whales. Each summer she leaves us for months on end to follow when the whales move north. She’s developed remarkable skill and precision in identifying particular whales by their fins and marks, all catalogued in massive databases. These faithful researchers have had an incredibly hard few years. The population of right whales is perilously low. There are only around 100 adult females left in the world, and in the last year, they spotted no new births. And then last year, their Captain Canadian Fisherman Joe Howlett, was killed while disentangling a whale from fishing gear. The death of Joe and the deaths of so many whales has left Marianna and her colleagues struggling. So it was a bit strange to see her buoyant after work recently.
We sat on our shared back porch and shared adult beverages.
“How was your day?” She asked.
“Well, I tried to avoid refereeing a fight between two parts of a church, tried to solve a problem of getting displaced from our long term building, tried to pitch a good news story about the Church when what we hear of most often is Christians behaving badly, and tried to raise some money while everyone is telling me how anxious they are. So it was Tuesday.. How about you?” I asked.
“We had a resurrection.”
I nearly spit my drink.
“You had a what?”
“We had a resurrection,” she repeated. “That’s the actual term we use among the whale researchers. We call it a resurrection. We were going over yesterday’s photos from out at sea, and today in the office, I was looking over their photos, and spotted a whale we hadn’t seen in ages. We double-checked it against the database. We had counted him dead, but I saw him. We call that a resurrection.”
Church, I believe this in the depths of my bones: God is already restoring and resurrecting. Our job is to see it and proclaim it.
(End for Lutherans) from Martha Collins https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/88742/leaving-behind
last night I woke and found my body-
held living-for-now a piece of all —
over the graves the beautiful
skeletal: chalice and vase, tangle
and dance, the white bones
of the birch, its vertical script —
over my bones, this living that is my
my life my living my being my loving
my friend my friends my one my love
the huge white moon, missing almost nothing
my love in my arms, in my bed again
the advent candle for earth for hope
this almost last this work these leavings
my blessings my many my thanks for these
these days and nights, these lines
have changed (you must change)
my life my loving (my one) and
now this leaving behind this opening
out (the spaces between the dark
lines of the great unleaved) to where
the night is as clear as the day
Source: Poetry (April 2016)