A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Pentecost ~ Ezekiel 37:1-14
I love this passage of scripture. It’s one of my favourites. I just find it so incredibly powerful and profound. It was written by the prophet Ezekiel who was tapped by God to call the wayward people of Israel back to faithfulness. I’m going to take a few liberties with it and re-imagine it as a contemporary 21st century message to the mainline Christian church in North America. In other words, us. It’s about a vision of the power of the Holy Spirit – a perfect text for Pentecost Sunday. I hope we can catch the vision too. I will play the part of Ezekiel, and the Church (not the fine folks of Faith United necessarily, more the denomination) will play the part of the people of Israel (and we’ll let God play Godself!).
The spirit of the LORD caught my imagination and showed me a valley full of bones. God led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.
God said to me, “Minister, can this church live?” I answered, “God only knows – I mean, only you know.” [Ezekiel 37:1-3]
Then God said to me, “Preach to these bones, and say to them: Hey church, listen up. The Lord God says to you: ‘Watch this: I’m bringing the breath of life to you and you’ll come to life. I’ll attach sinews to you, put meat on your bones, cover you with skin, and breathe life into you. You’ll come alive and you’ll realize that I am God!'” [37:4-6]
That sounded good, so I preached as I had been commanded; and as I preached, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I kept watching. Sinews formed, then muscles on the bones, then skin stretched over them; but there was no breath in them. [37:7-8]
Then God said to me, “Preach to the breath, preach boldly, minister, and say to the breath: God says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain. Breathe life!” [37:9]
I preached as God commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. [37:10]
Then God said to me, “Minister, these bones are the whole body of Christ. They say, ‘Our bones and churches are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely – we’ve been marginalized, they call us quaint, we’ve gone from mainline to sideline to offline to flatline – we’re dying, or maybe already dead.’ [37:11]
Therefore preach, and say to them, Listen, God says: I am going to open your graves (churches?), and bring you up from your graves (churches), O my people; and I will bring you back to the body of Christ. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your churches, and bring you up from your churches, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, I’ll breathe my life into you, and you’ll live. [37:12-14]
It’s such a pertinent text for us in the United Church in the 21st century. A spirit-filled person (like a minister – we hope) is set apart and given a fresh perspective of the reality of church health. Perhaps it’s harsh to say the people are lifeless, or maybe not (and again, I’d say that Faith United is vital and healthy). The leader wonders “is there hope?” and responds with “God only knows!”
The leader is challenged to preach a message of breath which will enliven and renew. So they preach it, and it’s heard, but it’s only marginally successful. There’s still something missing. The people aren’t dead dry bones anymore, but they aren’t generally vitally alive either. What’s missing? The church has all the apparent attributes of life but in critical ways is not abundantly alive. What’s missing? Maybe the most convicting sentence in the reading: “There was no breath – no Spirit – in them!” (Spirit and breath are the same word in Hebrew – ruach!)
God challenges the leader to dig deeper and to preach again – to boldly preach what no one has preached before! – to boldly preach what we seem to have collectively forgotten (or chose to downplay) – to preach to the breath, the Spirit, and to invoke it to come. It came, and they lived happily ever after.
At least that’s how we hope the story ends. The people complain of feeling dead spiritually. God promises renewal, sends the Holy Spirit, and the people are renewed. Yes please!
I think we can all relate to this text because even though this is a very healthy and vibrant church, and we’re not exactly dry bones around here, we all know what it’s like to have a dry season – to be in a spiritual desert. It happens to everyone from time to time, and as people of faith we know that the dryness doesn’t last forever (even though while you’re in it it can feel that way). Covid certainly hasn’t helped!
The people of Israel complained about being dead spiritually because they were in exile and were cut off from their land, and more importantly their temple which was their spiritual home. Interestingly, this text speaks to us in a way it’s never spoken before – because we’ve been forced into a kind of exile by the pandemic. We’re cut off from our church in some ways – and connected in other ways – like right now. For the people of Israel online worship wasn’t an option. In those days it was all about the temple – and they were cut off from that.
Today our choices and possibilities for worshipping – for tending to our dryness – are virtually endless. This “live stream” worship service makes it so that wherever you are on the planet you could pull out your phone or computer and be right here with us on Sunday morning – live, in real time, or watch the recorded version at your leisure. Plus, on the internet, we have access to more spirituality stuff than we could ever possibly exhaust.
So with such absolutely ubiquitous availability of spiritual resources people nowadays should never, ever experience a dry season!
Of course we do! It’s human.
It’s not because of lack of resources; it’s because we choose not to plug into them.
And even more distressing is the fact that it’s entirely possible, and probably happens more than we’d like to admit, that even when we do take the time and plug in sometimes we’re here but we’re a million miles away. You can be present in worship and not be present. To be like those bones that had sinews and flesh and stood around looking pretty human but they were lacking the fundamental thing.
What was it? Breath!
And what’s the Hebrew word for breath? Ruach!
Which also means? Spirit!
Spirit. Life. Breath. Ruach.
Without it, people who look like they’re alive may actually just be a pile of dry bones.
It takes the Spirit to animate us!
It takes “God’s breath, Spirit, ruach”!
And God’s Spirit ruachs!
It’s no accident that breathing is a central focus in just about every major religion in the world. Like those dry bones we need God’s Spirit to bring us to new and renewed life. We’re dead without it. We need to learn how to breathe, to attend to our breath, and allow our whole selves to fill with God’s breath. In order to be spiritually vital, vibrant, and healthy we need to enrich and expand our spiritual breathing – our prayerfulness – our worshipfulness – in order to more deeply root and ground ourselves in God and open ourselves to God’s enlivening Spirit.
“Minister, can this church live?” I answered, “They can!”
Then God said to me…Therefore preach, and say to them, Listen, God says: O my people; I will bring you back to the body of Christ. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your churches, and bring you up from your churches, O my people.
I will put my spirit within you, I’ll breathe my life into you, and you’ll live.
I know we all know that.
And you know why I need to keep preaching it.
Because knowing it and doing it are two different things.
It’s such a basic and fundamental concept that I think we assume it and ignore it, thinking
“Well, of course prayer and spiritual breathing are core. That’s what churches do!”
Except they don’t.
Instead, we focus almost entirely on what we’re doing – on our activities – and take much of that spiritual stuff for granted.
If a friend asked you about your church would you start with how spiritually deep and grounded we are – how we take the time to breathe deeply of the Spirit and become renewed?
Nope – we talk about all the stuff that goes on here!
The events, the programs, the community connections, the busyness.
But Church isn’t supposed to primarily be a centre of activity; it’s a centre of spirituality (a spirituality that ultimately expresses itself in activity to be sure, but first things first). We brag about how Faith United is a busy church because it’s a testimony to our vitality – which I agree with, we ought to brag – we’re awesome! My point is that the busyness is not our purpose! Our vibrant busyness must be a product of our purpose. Our purpose is not to be a beehive.
Well, actually, our purpose is not to be a do-hive but to be a be-hive – a place where we grow in our capacity to breathe ever more deeply the Spirit of God.
Now let’s take all that and apply it to the story of Pentecost from Acts 2. I hope you remember it. It’s 50 days after Passover and Jesus’ disciples are hidden away in an upper room in Jerusalem (is it the same one they shared the last supper in? no one knows for sure but it seems likely). They’re still reeling from Jesus’ death and still trying to make sense of their experiences of his presence since Easter.
In a nutshell, the story goes that the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples, and lit them up, and propelled them into the street to share the message of Jesus with whomever they met. It’s said the Spirit danced like tongues of fire on them and gave them the ability to communicate to people of any language. It was the beginning of the Christian church. That day they were moved from fear to courage, from dejected to inspired, from inaction to action.
What was the difference?
Was it just that enough time had passed that they’d become comfortable with their new reality and decided it was time to do something?
Was it that the duh-sciples just didn’t get it and needed that much time to assimilate Jesus’ teaching?
No, it was about the Holy Spirit emerging from under the wet blankets they’d wrapped it in and renewing and reenergizing them.
It was like they were dead and were brought to new life.
They were dry bones who needed the breath of God.
Can those dry bones live?
Because Spirit ruachs!
They were in a time set apart for reflection, in a place set apart for being together (a place like this!) – where they breathed deeply of the Holy Spirit of God, and as a result birthed the church.
It would not have happened – it could not have happened – without the deep breath! – without the Spirit – without ruach.
Today is the day of Pentecost.
Today we celebrate the birth of the church.
Today we celebrate the disciples’ experience of breathing deeply of the breath of God and having it bring their dry bones to life.
That was then.
Let’s lay claim to that same celebration.
God says, I will put my spirit within you, I’ll breathe my life into you, and you’ll live.
Breathe that in.
Breathe it in again.
Can these dry bones live?