May 20 Sermon

“And You Shall Live”                                                                                                   Ezekiel 37:1-14
Rev. Sean Weston                                                                                                             Acts 2:1-21
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
May 20, 2018

If you’ve heard me preach much, you’ve heard me talk about something called the “Babylonian Exile.” This was a time, starting in the sixth century BC – roughly 2500 years ago – when the powerful Babylonian empire defeated what was left of the Hebrew people and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, the center of religious life. If God’s home is the temple, what happens to God once the temple is destroyed? The leaders and elites were taken away, and everyone else was left to scratch a living on a destroyed land. It’s hard to overstate just how horrible this was. It was one of those experiences that shook the people to their very core, turned everything upside down, and unleashed untold depths of grief. I believe it is impossible to really understand the scriptures – especially the Old Testament – without understanding that the exile is the backdrop for so much we find there.

Ezekiel was a prophet during the exile. His job was to make sense of God for people who probably felt abandoned by God, even as he himself worked through his own questions and grief. It was in that situation that God gave Ezekiel an image of a valley of dry bones. In the Psalms we find similar images:

  • “My bones waste away”
  • “My bones are shaking with terror”
  • “My bones burn like a furnace”

In this story, in the valley of dry bones, God is speaking to the very deepest part of God’s people, their most secret inward self, the sense of hopelessness and despair, of separation from their land and their temple and their God. The bones are dry. There is no life to be had.

You may be wondering why I’m talking about the valley of dry bones on our 175th anniversary. You may wish I would talk about something more hopeful or positive. “Come to our 175th anniversary celebration and hear about our ancestors’ hopelessness and despair!” It’s not exactly a great tagline.

But the dry bones are the beginning of the story and not the end. God directs Ezekiel to look at the dry bones and speak words of life: “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” Something amazing happens then – the bones come back to life! The wind blows and God’s people have breath once more. And God says to Ezekiel: I will do this for the whole house of Israel, my beloved people who say “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” God says, “I see your hopelessness and despair, I see the valley of dry bones, but I am with you still. “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”

An anniversary is a time to celebrate, to remind ourselves of our history, of the work of our ancestors. It is a reminder that we have been given something precious, that we have a solemn responsibility to faithfully honor those saints who have passed into eternity. It is a time to tell the stories of our common life, to be proud of where we have been, and who we are becoming. But if we only tell the happy stories and gloss over the dry bones, we will also miss out on the chance to see God do something amazing with us today. Hope that does not account for the dry bones of our own needs and fears and anxieties is no hope at all. This week of all weeks – a week of yet one more school shooting, of yet more hate coming from the halls of power – we don’t have to look far to find dry bones.

There is no way a church can make it 175 years without going through some dry bones, and without God breathing new life into those bones. Maybe, just maybe, if we don’t need our ancestors to be perfect, we can deal with the fact that we aren’t perfect either, that sometimes it seems all we have are dry bones. Let us never imagine that our ancestors were somehow better people than we were, more deeply faithful, more brave, more knowledgeable about God, more capable of carrying out ministry. It was God, not our ancestors, who brought the church to life, in and through and around them – and yes, sometimes in spite of them. Let us not fall into the trap of nostalgia and imagine that things were better here in the past because there were more butts in pews and dollars in plates. We have at times shared incredible love with one another, yet at other times we have failed and hurt one another. The same church that sheltered escaped Black slaves on the underground railroad was built on land stolen from Native tribes.

Just like you and I, our ancestors were that strange mix of saint and sinner that can do both extraordinary good and deep harm. Like them, we try to act according to what we believe, and trust that our descendants will have plenty to sort out; successes to learn from, mistakes to correct. The best way to honor our ancestors is to tell the story honestly: to speak plainly that God was God and they were not – and that God is God and we are not.. As much as I love the Church, and as much as my love for you grows day-by-day, my hope is in Christ, not the church.

The best story to tell is not about how great we are but about how great God is, and that story isn’t finished yet. God can somehow take what we bring and turn it into something beautiful and holy. Let us never think we have built this church: no, God has built this church, and our life is in God’s hands. And if God could build a church with our ancestors, saints and sinners they were, God can build a church with you and me. It turns out that’s all God needs – us, no matter how dry our bones, not as we wish we were but as we are, willing to admit we can’t figure this church thing out on our own. Us, giving up the need to have the answers, willing to let God make us into something new.

God makes beautiful things from the valley of dry bones. God did not tell the bones to get up and work harder. God did not give them a laundry list of things to do. God did not give them a strategic plan. No, God gave them God. God looked at the bones and said “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.”

Margaret Odell focuses on the importance of breath here: “breathing becomes a metaphor for divine presence. Despite the exiles’ fear of being cut off from God, God is as near to them as their own breath…though they remain in exile, still coping with the death of loved ones, still mourning the loss of familiar ways to find and meet God, they are reassured of God’s presence…Because God is present, they can breathe. And stand ready for the future, looking forward in hope.”[1]

Because God is present, they can breathe, and in the breathing they can know God. So this is the call to action today, beloved people of Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ: Breathe. Breathe in and imagine God’s spirit coming in. Breathe out and imagine anxiety and fear leaving your body. Breathe in. Breathe out. Allow God in. Let us not get so caught up in the “doing” of church that we forget to simply be with God. First things first.

As you breathe today, breathe in the gift of God’s spirit, poured out on the valley of dry bones during the lowest point for God’s people Israel. Breathe in the gift of God’s Spirit poured out on the early church, sending them out into the world with power. Breathe in the gift of God’s Spirit poured out here in this corner of the Body of Christ, Lyonsville Church, drawing together a church.

As we face the summer, I encourage us all to slow down and breathe, to focus on deepening our connection with God and one another. This includes me. You’ll hear more about this “summer slowdown” soon. I’m even encouraging people to have less meetings. Since it is God who guides and directs the church, and not you or I, we can do no more important work than growing closer to God. To breathe in, and out. For “Thus says the Lord:….I will put my spirit within you and you shall live.” Thanks be to God.

Thanks be to God for drawing this church together, for sending God’s spirit on our ancestors and on us, for putting everything together in ways far more amazing than we could ever imagine. Thanks be to God for being here in the joy and laughter and grief and sadness, the times of dry bones and the times of new life. Thanks be to God for being with the saints who have gone before, doing with them what they never could have done alone. Thanks be to God for those here, and for those yet to come. Thanks be to God for pouring out the Spirit even today, that we might face an unknown future with hope. Happy Birthday, Lyonsville. May you breathe in God’s Spirit today and always and know that there is life to be had.

Amen, and thanks be to God.