“Pour It On” – Sermon for May 24, 2015

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Singapore-large“Pour It On”

A Sermon on Ezekiel 37:1-14 (with ref. to Acts 2:1-21) for the Day of Pentecost, Year B; preached May 24, 2015, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister

 

Earlier in the week, I visited at home one of the members of our congregation who fought on the battlefields of Europe in the 2nd World War. He recently went on trip to Washington DC with a cohort of World War II veterans, and as he and I visited, we got to talking about the World War II memorial that now stands on the National Mall. One of the criticisms that has been made of that memorial arises from a tension between what is merely monumental and what truly moves the soul. ‘It is big and impressive,’ someone will say of the World War II memorial, ‘but it doesn’t really speak to the experience, or speak to me now.’ It’s a critique shared by our friend that I was talking to on Tuesday, but it’s actually one I’ve heard before from others, too. Anyway, that observation got us talking about memorials and monuments in Europe and elsewhere that do seem to be a bit more moving, a bit more rooted in the pathos they stand for, the tragedy or the victory.

In the northeast of France, between Paris and Calais, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial has towered over Vimy Ridge since 1936, a monument to the Canadian soldiers who lost their lives moving up the plains to capture that ridge in a 1917 battle, but also to all of Canada’s war dead in the first World War. I myself saw the Vimy Memorial on a Europe tour I took with a friend some 13 years ago this very month.

Like the vast majority of visitors to the site, we approached it from the south, coming up on what is actually (unbeknownst to most) the backside of the memorial. As you approach, you see these two absolutely massive stone towers rising above the plain, one capped with a maple leaf and the other a fleur-de-lis. It is an impressive structure that you see from this view, most certainly—like that World War II memorial in Washington DC, a fitting tribute in nobility, if not in emotionality. But it’s when you walk around the pillars to the other side of the Vimy Ridge memorial that you discover what I would consider the real monument. As you round the side, your field of view opens onto a stone terrace, and at the far edge of it stands a sculpture of a cloaked young woman, head cast down and gazing across the wide expanse of the Douai plains beyond her. Not unlike a Mater dolorosa or Michelangelo’s Pietá, it is Mother Canada[1], and she stands weeping over those plains where so many of her children now lay dead, fallen on their way to capture the ridge on which she now stands. And you can’t help it, as a visitor viewing the statute, to do much else than to join her gaze across the plains below, and as your mind’s eye sees the men on those fields—the ones dead, the ones wounded, the ones still fighting—then you experience the real monument to war and its incomprehensible cost.

Some two and a half millennia ago, Ezekiel the prophet also found himself gazing over a field filled with figures of the fallen. Dry bones, they were. The nation—Ezekiel’s nation, the nation of Israel—lay dead. Surely many had fallen as the Babylonian Empire laid waste to Jerusalem and hauled so many of the peoples into exile in Babylon—an ancient ‘trail of tears’, if you will. Moreover, though, the nation itself lay dead. Israel—the collective body of God’s chosen ones, the heirs to God’s covenant with Abraham that they would be the ones through whom God would bless all the world—Israel was no more, it seemed. Nothing but bones. Dry bones.

“Can these bones live?” comes the question. “O Lord God, you know.” It’s hard to know how exactly to take Ezekiel’s response. Is he simply conceding the fact that he is but a mortal, limited and finite, and if anyone would know such an answer it would be God? Or is he rather actually just being fatalistic about it? “O Lord God, you know…” As in, ‘you know as well as I do, God, that dry, dead bones, are exactly that: dead and dried up.’

Quite frankly, simply living in our world today can be like walking among dry bones. The signs of death and deterioration are all around us. From being stuck in a valley of economic inequality where the top eighty individuals in the world control as much financial power as bottom two billion, and the top 1% in our country has the same financial power as the bottom 50%…[2] To passing through cities where “poor men and women scratch out existences that promise little and provide scant hope for the future”[3] and then get criticized for being angry when another one of their children gets killed by police… To dwelling in a dome that we can’t bring ourselves to stop poisoning, because apparently the cost of death from environmental catastrophe later does not outweigh the benefit of profit and prosperity now… All around us, dry, dry bones.

And not just “out there” either… closer to home, too, the dry bones lay on the floor of a life that feels so desert-like. The cancer diagnosis, the phone calls from the collections agency, the secrets that have been kept by the one you committed your life to, the anxiety and doubt that terrorize from right inside your own mind. Dry, dry bones. And even here in this place, in church. We get word of the newest study from Pew or Gallup telling of “mainline decline” or growing ranks of non-religious or some other tale of doom for churches like ours. Or we look around and remember pews that seemed more full and budgets that seemed less constrictive. Or we search our collective soul as a body and realize we’re still a bit fuzzy on just what our true, deep purpose as church is, still a bit tenuous when it comes to passionate, vital relationship with the living God made known in Jesus Christ.” Dry, dry bones all around, it seems.

“Mortal, can these bones live? … O Lord God, you know.”

Indeed, the Lord God did know.

“I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. … I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” Such is the “word of the Lord” to bones like these, to dry bones left for dead. You shall live. You shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.

‘Prophesy to the bones,’ God commands Ezekiel. ‘Speak my word, the word of the Lord, to them. Confront them with the good news that nothing less than my own breath, the Spirit of the Lord God itself, will enter them and raise them and live in them. Prophesy, Ezekiel. Prophesy!’

Some might wonder about the point of such prophesying, of such speaking the word of the Lord in the midst of that which is its opposite. After all, as we heard in the story of this day, the Pentecost story told to us in the book of Acts, some wondered if they were simply drunk… enough so that Peter felt the need to address that accusation when he began to speak. But such talk of the prophetic word, of speaking the Spirit of God into being and onto the scene, it is sometimes accounted for naught.

Preacher and teacher-of-preachers at Vanderbilt John McClure tells of a night in the winter of 2009 when “a small group of people gathered outside the state penitentiary near Nashville.” They’d been called by TCASK, the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing, receiving the news that a “vigil would take place that night in solidarity with Steve Henley, who was to be executed shortly after midnight.” On the coldest night of the year, they gathered on a grassy area outside the prison, “hugged one another, sang, and spoke brief messages of hope over a crackling megaphone.” A television reporter arrived and asked one of them why they were there. “Because we have hope!” came the reply. “We do not believe this is the way God wants us to treat each other! We believe that our voices can make a difference.”

“The little group prophesied to dry bones,” McClure says, “claiming God’s resurrection power in spite of, and in the face of, despair and death.” After midnight, when the news was out that, indeed, the execution had been completed and Henley was now dead, there were some tears shed, some more songs sung, and the group made their way home. “Was it foolishness?” McClure asks. “Was it worthless? Not according to those gathered. All those who work for social transformation know what this is about. Every time someone makes a phone call, writes a letter to a senator or representative, paints a homemade sign and shows up on a street corner, or otherwise speaks out against injustice, they prophesy with an emphatic trust in the God of resurrection.”[4]

I believe that God promises once more to cause breath to enter the dry bones of this world, to make them live and know that God is God, indeed. I believe that when we cry out that we are dried up and hopeless and cut off, that is precisely when the breath of God’s Spirit flows, giving wind in our wings, opening the graves of death that confine that which would be life, widening our mouths to speak of God’s deeds of power, that we and all the world shall know that God has spoken and will act.

That, I think, could be accounted the true wonder and miracle of Pentecost. Sure, there’s the sound like the rushing of a violent wind, there’s the tongues of fire, there’s the cacophony of languages as different tongues are spoken and heard together. But in pondering that cacophony, let us not miss what it was those apostles were saying: “in our own languages,” the people testified, “we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” Such talk—talk of our experience of God, talk of trust in God’s power, talk of seeking after the Spirit of God—it can seem like foolishness, even drunkenness.

But such a word is carried forth on the breath of none other than God’s Spirit. So, prophesy, my friends. Prophesy to the bones. Say to them, my friends “hear to the word of the Lord.” And by such a word, may you and all the world live, and know that God is the Lord.

 Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen.

 


 

[1] The figure of the young woman is officially titled “Canada Bereft”.

[2] John C. Holbert, “We Rattling Bones: Reflections on Ezekiel 37:1-14 for Pentecost”, Opening the Old Testament, patheos.com, 15 May 2015, accessed 23 May 2015 at http://www.patheos.com//Progressive-Christian/We-Rattling-Bones-John-C-Holbert-05-15-2015

[3] Ibid.

[4] This story and all quotes in this and the preceding paragraph from John S. McClure, reflections for the Day of Pentecost, in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B, ed. Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, & Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 255-256.

One Response to "“Pour It On” – Sermon for May 24, 2015"

  1. Pam Roberts Posted on May 24, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    Moving. Excellent timing. Popped up just as I was traveling with time on my hands. So read it. THANK YOU FOR POSTING.

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