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April 6, 2014
The Rev. David Minnick
Sunday, 6 April 2014
Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14
I doubt very much if Tennyson had recently read the prophecies of Ezekiel when he proclaimed his infamous words of encouragement in the midst of loss—“Tis better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all.”
The reason I say that is that Ezekiel had the demanding job put upon him by God to prophecy to a people in Exile around 587 BCE. For centuries, the tribes of the Hebrews had wandered about, clinging to the ancient promises of God. And now, after they have had just a taste of that promise for a few years, of a land they could call home, their fortunes are reversed, their nation is history and they find themselves once again a people in Exile. They had to be wondering among themselves, “Wouldn’t we have been better off never having known the promises of God fulfilled, than to have tasted that long awaited promise and then have it taken from us?”
These were broken and desperate people who Ezekiel was called by God to speak to. They had seen the dreams of their ancestors and of themselves realized and then crushed. The ancient hopes, which had been theirs to know for a short time, now were in ashes. If the job of any preacher is to “keep hope alive,” then Ezekiel had his work cut out for him. For the hope that the Israelites were holding onto, was like the last burning ember in a fireplace. It lies there burning, but not for long.
In fact, that may be an optimistic view. For the vision Ezekiel describes is harrowing and even more bleak, one of the bleakest in all of the Scriptures. It is not unusual to hear in these days someone who is frustrated in their efforts to learn something say, “It’s hopeless. I’ll never get this right.” They are usually referring to learning how to fix a computer, drive stick shift on a car, or grill salmon just the right way. In modern day America, we toss the word “hopeless” around quite casually. Yet when if you think of it, it is really one of the severest curses we can utter. Hopeless, there is no hope, what you see is what you get. This is as good as it will ever get.
Now if anyone has a right to use the word hopeless in the same tone and frustration which we are quick to utter it, it is Ezekiel. He is summoned by God to look out on a valley of dry bones. The bones of his ancestor’s dreams. Lying in a valley. All semblance of flesh, blood and muscle now gone. Just piles of bones as far as the eye can see. And these bones bear only the slightest hint of the life which once was. They have been bleached dry by the sun over a period of time till they are brittle and only a few sandstorms away from becoming dust in the wind.
Yet God sends Ezekiel into that valley of dry bones, that hopeless valley, with a word of hope. Clearly something only God could get away with.
God sets Ezekiel there and asks the question, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel and we know the answer is “Of course not”, but he also knew that God could be tricky, and so he does the smart thing and answers wisely, “O Lord, only you know.”
And God answers by ordering Ezekiel to prophecy, to speak the encouraging but demanding word.
Today I want to share some thoughts and remarks on what this story of Ezekiel is saying to each one of us as individuals on our unique journey of search and faith and what they are saying to us as a church family.
As individuals, each one of us has spent time in the valley. It goes by many names. The valley of dry bones, the valley of the shadow of death, downtime, a slow spell, I’m in a rut, I’m in the dumps, I’ve got the blues, it’s just one of those days—whatever you may call it, you know what is has been for you. You know what has led or maybe is leading you today into an abyss. You know what frustrates you to the point of giving up and losing hope.
It is one of the miracles, one of the mysteries, one of the paradoxes of life that our greatest growth comes as we pass through those times, those times which seem when we are in them as if they have no end. Thomas Merton, the great Trappist monk of recent years says, “True love and prayer are really learned in the hour when prayer becomes impossible and your heart turns to stone.” (as quoted in A Path with Heart, Jack Kornfield) I know those words ring true for me and I suspect for some of you also.
Times of suffering are indeed the times when our priorities rise to the top, past the busyness, past the wants and greeds. These are the times of self and spiritual inventory, where we sort out our wants from our needs. These are the times when we realize in our heart of hearts, our gnawing hunger and need for God’s presence and guidance in our lives.
These may be the times in our lives when we know the crushing grief which follows significant loss. Or when our greatest fears and anxieties take root in our minds and call us to follow, leading us away from our sense of being centered in God’s love, leading us away from the path Christ calls for us to follow.
If you’ve been there, if you’ve followed where fear and anxiety and that oh so seductive sense of dread can lead, then you know the wisdom Bryce Courtney speaks of, when he reminds us that “the imagination is always the best torturer.” (The Power of One, p. 47) Our fears and second guesses can lead us far astray as they overwhelm our lives.
And, as hard as it may seem, the most valuable qualities to cling to during those times are of trusting in God and proceeding with patience. Waiting in the presence of the Lord. Mother Nature reminds us. After a long night, the sun does not just pop into the sky. So too, when the weights and worries of life keep us awake through the long dark night, we gradually catch a glimpse of the sky brightening, then the first slivers of sunlight, and only then the sight of the rising crescent as the sun ascends on another day. It is worth waiting for.
Isaiah reminds us that “your dead will come back to life…the land of ghosts will give you birth.” (26:19 Jerusalem Bible) Indeed, it is in passing through the valleys and shadows, the land of ghosts, that we grow spiritually, realizing how utterly hopeless our lives are without God. And it is only through that journey that we realize in our heart of hearts what we have to depend upon and lean on and what we need from God.
Yet Ezekiel’s prophecy speaks to us as a community also today. We are a family in transition. In these days, we are soliciting names of those interested in serving on the pastoral search committee. Please give prayerful thought as to whether this is a committee on which you can serve or if you know someone who you believe would serve us well. As a church family, we have faced some challenging times in recent years, nothing that approaches the bleakness of this vision of a valley of dry bones, but still quite challenging times. And today, in our process of moving ahead, God is calling us, much like Ezekiel, to a place of proclamation, hope and daring to vision ahead.
In these days of transition ministry, may the lesson from Proverbs, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (29:18) be the guiding force as we seek to discern the will of God, as we seek to know just where the four winds of God’s Spirit we hear of today will lead us.
One of the lessons within the lesson today has to do with Ezekiel first setting foot in the valley of dry bones. God called Ezekiel there and he followed. According to the religious laws of that time, Ezekiel would have been defiled by having contact with human remains. (Numbers 19:16) Yet that is where God called him to be to begin his prophetic ministry. God often calls prophets to a time of uncertainty and predicament.
Note that the Spirit of God, the breath of God which filled the lungs and animated the souls of those dry bones came as four winds. It came from the North and the South, the East and the West. The breath of God which came across that valley came as the cooling winds of the north, and the warm breezes of the south, as the headwinds of the east which slow us down and the tailwinds of the west which push us ahead. The breath of God comes upon us as an inclusive Spirit, calling upon all the children of God, regardless of all that distinguishes us and makes us unique, to find our common ground in Jesus Christ and be doers of Christ’s Word in these days and times.
Ezekiel’s pilgrimage into the valley of dry bones has a lesson for all of us who seek to follow Jesus Christ. We must never ever give up hope. Even when that which once was strong and mighty now seems as brittle and fragile as bleached dry bones in the summer sun, there is hope where there is a vision which includes God almighty.
What is the sound of new life like? It’s the joy after a long awaited mission or a pastoral search is completed. It’s the groan as emergency food is consumed by the hungry people of the world. It’s the sigh which comes after a long night’s rest when a depression is finally lifted and the sun seems to shine more brightly than before. It’s whatever noise you find yourself making when you are reconciled, at peace, or knowing anew the hope which comes when you know that God is alive. For some that is a sigh, for others it is tears, for still others, it is a rush of warmth throughout their body.
Dorothee Soelle, a Roman Catholic theologian and writer says that she learned that one of God's names is 'All-is-possible'. She writes: "I know that if I cannot talk to 'All-is-possible', if I do not listen to 'All-is-possible', if I do not believe in 'All-is-possible', then I am dead. Thus my prayer would be to ask 'All-is-possible' to be present." Let us ask 'All-is-possible' to be present in our midst today to bring life and renewal to our lives. (Ann Smith website, sermon on this text)
It may take us some time in Exile now to be ready for the renewing winds of God’s Spirit to come into our midst and blow gently at first upon the glowing coals of hope. Of what once was and which we all seek to know anew. Yet God proclaims in so many ways and through so many people that we are not alone, we are never abandoned.
That good news has sustained and carried our ancestors to endless frontiers and through incredible challenges. May we be bold enough to believe as they have, so that when we find times when love is lost, when lands are conquered, when hope is fading within us like the last ember of a incredible fire, we too will know that God has the power to blow over and through us with the winds of the four corners so that the graves we feel ourselves sliding into will be turned into gardens, our hearts of stone will beat again, as our lives are renewed by the living hope which is Christ alive in our midst. Thanks be to God. Amen.