Grace Presbyterian Church
May 20, 2018, Pentecost B
Can These Bones Live?
I did not get up to watch the royal wedding yesterday. Being awake and functional for an 11:00 service on a Sunday morning is enough of a challenge for me; being up at 5:00 a.m. to pay attention to a wedding is quite beyond me.
There was, however, a certain amount of this particular wedding that actually was of interest to me, something that is not typically true of royal weddings and me. Normally when these things happen I am about equally frustrated with those who pay all sorts of fawning attention to the event and those who complain and gripe loudly about all the attention paid to the event. Both are equally frustrating, if you get my drift, where royal weddings are concerned.
But this year, I wanted to hear that sermon, and thanks be to the internet, I was able to do that yesterday without getting up that early.
Partly it was professional interest to be sure – I’m pretty sure this is the first such wedding to take place since I started this path into the ministry. Mostly, though, I wanted to hear and see what happened when The Right Rev. Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church here in the United States, preached the wedding sermon before the royal family and a large swath of the British upper class – the stiffest of stiff upper lips, you might say.
Bishop Curry did not disappoint: he did what any preacher is charged to do in such a situation. In the presence of God and of the congregation, rooted in the scripture and led by the Spirit, the bishop brought the good news, with a little fire.
Fire, of course, plays prominently in the reading from Acts, the story behind the festival of Pentecost we celebrate today. First the disciples were touched with it, so to speak, and then they preached with it. That fire is represented, just a little bit, in what you see in the sanctuary today, the red of the paraments and the red in my vestments and the red you see around the sanctuary, a suggestion of those tongues, like fire, that touched the disciples and sent them to the windows to preach a message that would be heard in more tongues than any of them knew.
And that’s how we typically mark Pentecost in churches like ours. We turn things in the sanctuary red for the day, we might do something interesting in the reading of that Acts scripture in some years, we sing songs that make reference to the Holy Spirit. Then we put away the red for another year.
I wonder if we might need to hear another message, though. Not just us in this one church, although maybe we do, but maybe all of us in churches like ours, where things are quieter, more sedate maybe, than in some other churches. Maybe we need to hear the word from the prophet Ezekiel.
Ezekiel had something of a traumatic life, preaching as he did in a time of conquest and exile for the people of Israel. In one of those sieges against Israel, Ezekiel’s own wife was killed. His prophetic career was not against the backdrop of any kind of comfort or official support (but then most prophetic careers, or at least most real ones, aren’t). And he was the one to whom God seemed to give the strangest prophetic messages – that “wheel within a wheel” vision found in the very first chapter, and then this grotesque, almost macabre account of the valley of dry bones.
I don’t care how much stiff upper lip you attribute to the British, even that congregation at yesterday’s wedding was livelier and more alive than this “congregation” to which Ezekiel gets called to prophesy.
Brought out to the valley by the “spirit of the Lord” (you didn’t think I was going to forget this is Pentecost, did you?), Ezekiel is confronted with this … well, a valley full of bones. Human bones, to be sure. It’s the kind of thing that a Hollywood director of a particular sort might have a field day with. Ezekiel makes sure to let us know that the bones were “very dry.” They’re not just dry, they’re very dry, presumably dead a very long time, and exposed to the harsh elements of a desert valley a very long time.
And before this dead, desiccated valley, the Lord asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
What a question.
It’s no shock that Ezekiel’s answer is what it is; in fact, in the Hebrew, the answer is much more emphatic, almost as if Ezekiel is repeating himself for emphasis – “You, Lord, you, you, you know,” with the emphatic if unspoken “NOT ME” left hanging in the air.
The Lord doesn’t bother explaining; instead he gives Ezekiel a command: “Prophecy.” (We’d use the word “preach” in this spot.) God tells Ezekiel to preach to the bones, these dried-up bones in this dried-up valley, preach to them that they will live, will be restored, will be given flesh and sinew and skin and all the good stuff of the human body. Ezekiel preaches, and in a scene that Hollywood directors must absolutely freak out at the thought of preaching, exactly that happens. Sinew, flesh, skin; all of the bones come together – “foot bone connected to the ankle bone, ankle bone connected to the leg bone” like the old spiritual sings – and now instead of preaching to a valley full of dried-up bones, Ezekiel is preaching to … a valley full of lifeless bodies.
You see, one thing was still missing: the breath, and Ezekiel is now commanded to preach to the breath itself, to come in from the four winds, and bring these bodies to life.
Here’s where it’s useful to know one thing about the Hebrew in this passage; the words we read as “breath,” “wind,” and “spirit” (or capital-S “Spirit”) are all rendered with the same Hebrew word: “rua’h.” Breath, wind, and spirit, all linguistically intertwined. The wind, the breath, the Spirit…
And the lifeless bodies indeed live.
One hopes the obvious available metaphor doesn’t have to be hammered home too hard here. The breath – the wind, the Spirit – is going to breathe into us, if we’d just open up our mouths. Even the most lifeless of bones will live. As God promised through Ezekiel to raise up the crushed, exiled, lifeless people of Israel, to put his Spirit within them and see them live, so the Spirit breathes through us and into us, bringing us to life.
But do we recognize it, though? Or do we trust it?
Karoline Lewis, a professor of preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, asks that very pungently important question, wondering if indeed we do trust the Spirit to show up and be the Spirit in our worship, or in preaching or song, or if we’ve:
gotten to a place — in our churches, in our church institutions, where we assume control over the Spirit. Where our longing for the Spirit’s imagination has turned into impatience. Where our hope in having the Spirit show up has turned into attempts to manage the Spirit’s presence with secular and indistinct demands of its manifestation. Where our yearning for the Spirit’s surprise has devolved into certainty of the Spirit’s core characteristics, core traits, core ways of being in the world.
Dr. Lewis continues:
As a result, with earthly and irreligious spiritual solutions meant to be relevant, substituting “creative” with “innovative,” “eschatology” with “forward-thinking,” and “inspiration” with “methodologies” and “taxonomies,” I wonder if the church would truly recognize an appearance of the Spirit. Rather, I suspect the church would shrug off a pneumatological apocalypse as too far outside the boundaries it has built, the stipulations it has constructed, the expectations it has erected.[i]
In short, would we know the Holy Spirit if it kicked us in the posterior? There’s a reason we get called the “frozen chosen” sometimes. We choke ourselves to avoid the breath of the Spirit rushing through us, whether lighting those tongues of fire upon us, or simply breathing through us, keeping us spiritually alive. Would we know an outbreak of the Spirit if we saw it, heard it, felt it? The church these days partakes of so many potential substitutes for the Spirit – big-time preaching, new and “exciting” music, special events – that we are numbed even to the possibility of the for-real Spirit moving among us, breathing through us. We make ourselves into dry bones.
Christian, can these bones live? God, only God, can know. And God says yes.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #282, Come Down, O Love Divine; #292, As the Wind Song; #286, Breathe on Me, Breath of God; #66, Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit
[i]Karoline Lewis, “A True Pentecost,” from Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5154, accessed 5/19/18