Sunday, May 20, 2018
© Stacey Steck
For many people, “The knee bone’s connected to the hip bone” is all they know about our story this morning from the book of Ezekiel, that collection of bizarre images and prophecies made by the prophet to his people in exile. It’s a great song, very catchy, very humorous, but if that’s all we know about the Valley of the Dry Bones, we’ll miss the point of this incredibly significant metaphor of our life and our ministry. You see, the only thing humerus out there in the desert in Ezekiel’s time were a few arm bones. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.
But seriously, too seriously…the people of Israel had been reduced to bare bones, dry bones. Defeated by the empire of Nebuchadnezzar, carted off to a foreign land on a forced march across the desert, the bones of their fallen kin and countrymen, quite literally, lay baking in the sun. Still others would have died since arriving at their destination, and who knows if or how the Babylonians would have permitted the Israelites to attend to their dead. They too might have been left exposed for scavengers to pick clean. And those who remained would surely have felt like they were mere bags of bones, stripped of their possessions, stripped of their homeland, and worst of all, stripped of their dignity. Their sense of despair was captured so well in the psalms: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept…If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.” This was the remnant of a proud people who lamented their fate and wondered if they’d ever go home again. Dry bones to be sure.
In a similar way, those who had followed Jesus with high hopes and expectations must have felt like their bones were left hanging on the cross with those of Jesus. Yes, by the time Pentecost rolled around, they were somewhat renewed having seen Jesus come back to life, but there for a while there wasn’t much left of them. They were despairing the loss of their friend and teacher. On the road to Emmaus, the sneaky and still-unrecognizable Jesus heard the lament of Cleopas and his companion, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who did not know that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified?…But we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” Not quite as bad off as their ancestors in the faith, but another Biblical case of dry bones, nonetheless.
And there are dry, despairing bones in Houston, Texas, as wet tears flow from friends and family, as again, a shooter acts out of despair or anger or revenge or whatever horrific motive resides in his heart. There are dry bones in Gaza amid the blood flowing there. There are dry bones in Hawaii as the lava flows. There are dry bones all around where we are gathered at this very moment, and I don’t mean the ones in the cemetery. And there are dry bones in this sanctuary. There are dry bones anywhere that unhealed human hurts, and unfulfilled human hopes, reside. There are valleys and valleys of dry bones in our world, as far as the eye can see.
And God asks us the same question God asked Ezekiel: “Mortal, can these bones live?” And Ezekiel hedges, doesn’t he? “Um, O Lord God, you know.” Isn’t that our answer sometimes? “God only knows!” we say when we are afraid to give an unqualified answer to an uncertain question. You can hardly blame Ezekiel, can you? It doesn’t say that, in a vision, God showed Ezekiel that valley of bones. It says the Lord brought him out by the spirit and set him there. He was facing the cold, hard, dry reality of the situation, not just some hypothetical divine facsimile. He might even have crunched a bone of one of his ancestors when that spirit set him down in that valley. It was real. And he probably wasn’t really prepared. You know, theologies and theories are great when you’re sitting behind a book in a library or a classroom, but how much good do they do you when you’re faced with the cold, hard, dry reality you’re crunching beneath your feet? When your whole retirement savings are on the line for that once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunity your brother-in-law wants you to make, none of his forecasts and business models are going to keep you from being anxious. When your wilderness guide tells you that the rope bridge that looks like it’s hanging on by a thread is perfectly safe, you pause for a minute! And so Ezekiel hedges, doesn’t he? “Um, O Lord God, you know.” He’s not going to answer that question with so much evidence to the contrary.
But God can handle our doubt. And so God goes ahead and says to Ezekiel, “Prophecy to these bones,” and we know what happened. And then God says to Ezekiel, “Prophecy to the breath,” and we know what happened: “the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” In the face of Ezekiel’s doubt, in the face of Ezekiel’s failing courage, God does not let the dream die. There is still hope for Israel, hope for a vast multitude, hope for a return home from captivity. These dry bones will live, Ezekiel! And in the face of the doubt of the disciples, and in the face of their failing courage, God does not let the dream die, but raises Jesus’ dry bones from the tomb, and releases him back into our world for a little while. And in the face of our doubt, and in the face of our failing courage, God does not let the dream die. Our bones too will live. We can be, we will be revivified both in this life and in the life to come.
No, it's not just an old prophecy about a Valley of Dry Bones. It’s a promise for all eternity. From whatever may leave us feeling stripped down, God will raise us up. Whether it’s from shame, injustice, or disillusionment, that our bones are stripped bare, God will raise us up. Whether it’s from controversy, conflict, or criticism, God will raise us up. Whether it’s due to illness or grief or loss of any kind, God will raise us up. Whether it comes from toxic relationships or micromanaging bosses or corrupt governments, God will raise us up. Whether it assails us through self-doubt or addiction or resentment, God will raise us up. Yes, all these things will leave us feeling at our bare bones minimum, but that’s never stopped the spirit of God. The almighty power of Pharaoh couldn’t stop the spirit of the Almighty God from freeing the slaves from Egypt. All those tribes of Amalekites and Jebbusites and Perezites couldn’t stop the spirit of God from leading the people into the land of milk and honey. Israel’s worst sins couldn’t stop the spirit of God from bringing the nation back from Ezekiel’s Babylon, and death itself sure couldn’t stop the spirit of God from opening that tomb. There’s nothing in this world that can keep God from putting life into your dry bones and filling you with the very breath of God.
Now, if you don’t have anything that’s stripping you down to your bare bones, praise the Lord. But for the rest of us, there’s some good news this Day of Pentecost. Yes, the Spirit is alive and well and moving in your life. It’s there for the feeling. It’s there for the taking. It’s there for the blessing. It might take a little while to come to full flower, but it’s there. It took a while with the disciples, yes it did. You could say that even after the disciples had their reunion with the risen Jesus, and their bones had come back together, so to speak, that they still weren’t quite alive. They had their bones back together but they had no breath within them. Remember that in Ezekiel, it takes two prophecies to do the job: one to put the body back together, and another to bring it to life. And it took two prophecies for Peter and the rest of the disciples too. Jesus’ resurrection was his first prophecy; the coming of the Holy Spirit was his second. And then the church really came alive. And in a funny way, we could make a parallel to our own lives of faith, that the first prophecy is what gets our creaky bones out of bed on Sunday morning, and into the car, and through the doors of this place, and set down in our pews, and that the second prophecy is when we really experience the breath of God flowing through our lives, when we really get it, deep down in those bones, that we are loved by God no matter what the world tells us, or what other people tell us, or what we tell ourselves. Or think of it this way, that in our baptisms our bodies come together, and in confirmation, or in whatever moment that we find ourselves truly claiming the love of God, the spirit brings us to life. However you think about, know this: that there is hope, on so many levels, and in so many ways. That’s the spirit of God. That’s the promise of Pentecost. Dry bones come alive.
I want to invite you live with that thought for a few minutes, that dry bones come alive. I came across a song this week that reminds us just that and that just seems so appropriate. So, close your eyes if you like, or read the lyrics as they show up on the screen, but however you choose to let the spirit flow a little through this music, I hope it will bring you refreshment and assurance that “Dry Bones Come Alive
Sunday, May 06, 2018
1 John 5:1-6
© Stacey Steck
Winning. It’s what everybody wants to do. I want my Cleveland Indians to WIN, not just to compete. Competing? Doing your best? Nice ideas in principal, but WINNING is where it’s at. Victory. Complete and total victory is the goal. Annihilation of the enemy. Domination of the opposition. Second place is just the first loser. Winning is what makes our country great, right? At the Olympics, it’s the medal count that matters. Which nation or which competitor takes home the most gold medals. That’s what matters right? Nobody remembers who won the silver medal!
Now, maybe you didn’t know this, but Presbyterians are in a dogfight with Episcopalians for being the winningest Protestants in the United States, the most powerful and prestigious. The Episcopalians, part of the Anglican Communion, of course, have a historical advantage, coming as they do from the English elite, who were after all, the colonial power that subjugated these United States for quite a number of years. And who were these subjugated? The Scotch-Irish of course, who came from poorer stock in the first place. But we’ve evened things up somewhat over the last 240-plus years, and so in terms of economic power and societal privilege, Presbyterians are second to one. I guess that makes us losers, right? Of course, you may not feel like you’re on top of the heap here in Western Rowan County, but you are definitely part of the second place team. We do lead in one category at least. We are the best in prayer. They may have the famous Book of Common Prayer, but our prayer is anything but common. It’s the best! Yes, if you take the word Presbyterian and rearrange the letters, you get “best in prayer.” It’s true! However, the Episcopalians like to point out that if you take the word Presbyterians, and do the same thing, you get Britney Spears. So, there’s that.
Yes, winning and victory are pretty important virtues in our common life, and the Bible even says so. In First John it says, “Whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” I mean, that’s pretty clear. We believe that Jesus is the son of God, so we are the conquerors. Cue the “We are the Champions” soundtrack please. All those other phony religions don’t stand a chance against us. We rule the religious roost. There’s something superior about Christianity, isn’t there? And isn’t it nice to be on the winning team? That’s kind of the thinking behind the very all or nothing, black or white worldview you find throughout the letter of First John, good versus evil, light versus dark, saint versus sinner, and there can only be one right answer. If you’re not for us, you are against us. I guess they thought there was a lot at stake.
The thing is that you have to really read the fine print to see what victory is all about. Yes, John paints a pretty stark portrait of the difference between those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God and those who don’t, but what is the real difference? What makes a winner in John’s eyes?
Well, basically it’s love. It all comes down to love. If you love, you are on God’s side, and that makes you victorious. Over and over again in this slender letter, it’s love. Perfect love casts out fear. Love conquers all. “See what love the father has given us that we should be called children of God.” “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” And it all comes together in this morning’s collection of verses, where the content of our love for God becomes clear: “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.” “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” Obeying God’s commandments. Following the divine rules. No wonder Presbyterians are on the top of the heap, or almost are. We follow the rules! Isn’t our famous motto that we do everything “decently and in order?” So, the bottom line here is that being a winner, being victorious in God’s love, gets you the grand prize: more work to do! Because isn’t following the rules always more work that just doing whatever it is you feel like doing? We are only a couple of weeks removed from tax day, a reminder that following the rules is a lot harder than ignoring them.
Except that John also adds a little golden nugget to it all. Right in the middle of these verses this morning, he reminds us simply that God’s “commandments are not burdensome.” Oh, what a relief! Because John says so, it must be true! Easy for him to say! Those old commandments sure feel burdensome to me sometimes. I don’t know about you but I’d rather keep my tithe for myself, and lay around reading the New York Times on Sunday morning, and skip Session meetings. I’d rather not be burdened by sorrow when I see homeless people or guilt when I see starving children. I’d rather do all kinds of other things than doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with my God. Those things are tough, if I do them right. What does John mean that they are not burdensome?
Well, he might mean that following what God wants us to do is no more burdensome than a parent’s nurture of a child, or a child’s caring for aging parent, or one friend lending another a listening ear. Doing those things might be challenging, and worrisome, and even really, really draining, but they are not burdensome because love is not burdensome. Love may be aggravating and tempestuous and even heartbreaking at times, but it’s not the love itself which weighs on us, it’s all the other stuff that comes with delivering on our love for one another. Yes, that stuff is hard. But love is no burden. If it were, we wouldn’t put ourselves out for others, for those we love intimately, and for those we don't even know. If love were a burden, we’d just lay waste to one another, and try to claim victory after victory over one another. We’d try to conquer one another rather than cooperate among ourselves, and we’d try to dominate one another rather than delight in one another. And maybe worst of all, if love were a burden, we’d stop being able to see ourselves as created in the image of a loving God. We’d shed that too, like every other burden we could get off our weary backs. And then where would we be?
We’d be friendless, that’s where we’d be. Victorious, but friendless. Winners, but losers. In the words we heard from the Gospel of John, Jesus is talking to his disciples in his last long conversation with them. He’s getting ready to go to the cross. The handwriting’s on the wall. And so he’s making sure they know everything they need to know, including all about love. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Now, he’s not telling them to be a human shield when the Roman guard comes for him. He’s not asking them to go on a suicide mission to protect him. It’s not like, “Well, if you were really my friends, you’d bail me out of this mess I’m in.” No, he’s saying that he’s going to do that for them, and for us all. He’s the one who will be laying down his life for his friends, and get us out of our mess. Like he does so often in the Gospels, Jesus redefines what we think we know, and this time he does it to victory. Victory may be about vanquishing your enemy, but you have to pick the right enemy. The Romans weren’t Jesus’ enemy. Death was Jesus’ enemy. The Scribes and the Pharisees weren’t Jesus’ opponents, sin and injustice were his foes. “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do,” he says from the cross. That’s victory. From John’s perspective, Jesus’ death is the victory because it’s the ultimate expression of love, the kind of love we are to emulate as best as we can. “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world.” No, Christ’s love for us was no burden because he never stopped being able to see us as created in the image of a loving God, born of God. We never stopped being his friends, even when we were crucifying him, the friends for whom he willingly laid down his life.
In a few moments, we’ll come to the victory table to remember Christ’s glorious victory. But it’s not the lavish spread you’d see the winning team eating after taking home a championship. There’s no champagne spraying on victory lane, no garland of roses on the victor’s shoulders, no gold medal around the victor’s neck. There’s just a little bit of bread and a little bit of grape juice, and a whole lot of memory. Do you remember the story in Matthew when the mother of James and John went to Jesus and asked that her sons be seated at his right and left hand when he was seated in his kingdom, in his glory? What she meant was that when he was victorious and ruling Israel, she wanted her sons to sit right next to him at the winner’s banquet, for them to be as close to greatness as they could, to be identified as winners, to be seated at the places of highest honor. She wanted her sons to be winners! And what did he say to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
“When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
The other ten disciples may have been angry, but it’s only because they didn’t know then what we know now, that winning the world’s way creates only tyrants, but loving Christ’s way makes friends, the kind whose faith conquers the world by serving it. It won’t be true for each of you this morning because of the way we are seated, but many of you will literally have the opportunity to serve one another as you pass the trays of bread and juice. And as you do, let me invite you to share a toast to the winner, and remind the person next to you, “This is the body of Christ, broken for you,” when you pass the bread, and “This is the blood of Christ, shed for you,” when you pass the juice. And together we will remember the one who laid down his life for his friends, of whom we are numbered. Amen.