Author, Minister and President of Princeton Theological Seminary Craig Barnes says of our text today, “When the promising young Hebrews were dragged into exile in Babylon, they were not kept in prisons or even camps. They were free to marry, build homes, plant crops and exchange goods. Some became quite wealthy. They were also free to assemble, elect leaders and worship. But the Hebrews had a hard time worshiping in exile because they never got over the destruction of their holy city and temple in Zion. They were not where they wanted to be, or where they were supposed to be. So they lived with a sadness that ran down to their bones. And they refused to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. Often when people’s lives have been interrupted by a great tragedy, they stop coming to worship. I used to think this was because they were embarrassed by their loss of a loved one, job or health. But I’ve discovered that more often the reason people stop worshiping is that they have lost their vision of God. To stand in worship beside so many who are singing praise to the Lord just creates too much existential contradiction. It’s a tragic irony of the soul that in the times we most need to worship, we find it most difficult.”
Like the exiles in Babylon, we try to numb the spiritual pain by making life more comfortable. We work hard. We collect a lot of things. We buy houses, plant our roots, live quietly and try to make Babylon as nice as we can. But however nicely we decorate it, Babylon is still not our home, there remains a void. I make no categorical statement here that everyone needs to worship as a Christian, but I do say that what I see so often in our culture are people turning away from their spiritual selves toward some form of materialism or conformity. Some people eventually find their way “home” through Buddhism, Islam, evangelical Christianity or our own mainline Christian faith but many others remain in Babylon, disconnected, lost and hurting.
Eventually the Hebrew exiles got so accustomed to their coping devices that even after they were encouraged to go to Jerusalem most of them didn’t want to go back. So one day the Spirit of the Lord grabbed hold of his prophet Ezekiel told him to start preaching to the dry bones, even gave him the message: "I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live!” Walter Brueggemann, the great Old Testament scholar, has written that the way things appear is precarious so we dare not absolutize the present. Brueggemann says that is why the poor are great at hoping, and why we in the middle and upper classes who are coping well in Babylon have such a hard time with hope. We in the middle classes cling hard to our stuff, to our patterns, to our signs of success, but deep down there is a spiritual void, a need to connect with the deeper questions, with others around us, to explore who and what we are. Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community says that what he learned from living with persons with physical and mental challenges is that they could not hide their brokenness. Communicating with them was a choice, to hide behind the comfortable place of always being a caregiver, the master of the universe, the one who can “help” others but never be “helped” or to tear away the distractions and signs of success and enter into a conversation about what we really care about, our value, their value, and what that value is based upon.
My friends our churches do have a lot of dry bones, we have strayed a long way from the spirit of the early church with its deep relationships and too often focus on our buildings, our “form” of worship, governance and traditions while neglecting the deeper questions that both haunt and excite us.
At our Session meeting on Monday I asked the gathering to share with me a time at Bethany in the last year when they witnessed God breathing the Spirit into our church. I expected people to complain, “There you go again Kevin with these intense big questions, putting us on the spot, asking us to identify one experience when our heads are spinning in many memories”. But that is not what happened. Instead everyone shared an experience, a moment when God breathed into our personal and collective dry bones and gave us life.
One thing I noticed, many of those who shared that night lifted up our faith studies. Interesting that the faith study was highlighted because these have focused on the deep questions; why do we pray, how does our faith speak to our suffering, what do we make of the really hard questions that challenge our faith, and what does faith mean to us. As I looked around the room I could see people who had suffered were responding to the opportunity to be honest about their pain and the challenges of having faith in the midst of these experiences. No pious answers here, no clichés, no tidy statements that do little to satisfy our hunger for answers, these studies opened us to God’s presence, to each other’s experiences and to the way we navigate this in community.
But studies only go so far. They are the long walk on a cold night that clears your head and makes your body feel alive. Once God has breathed into us the next step is ours. These five new members and thirteen new transferred members have made commitments about following the pathway Jesus created through his words, actions and miracles. These commitments are likely the first of many such commitments they will make. I look at my 15 year old daughter and I know Lucy is only now becoming aware of the commitments life will ask of her.
There is a lot of talk in our culture about “charity begins at home” and the stress of making too many commitments. But I want to share a story with you that carries a deeper lesson. Several years ago I helped organize a funeral for a man who had served the church for many years. Since the man had outlived his birth family and never married I was the sole organizer of the service and I completely underestimated the numbers who attended the funeral. At one point an usher from the church came into my office and told me that for third time he was running off more bulletins. We had originally printed 200. The usher was about to rush to the photocopier when he stopped in his tracks and turned to me and asked, “How does a man without a penny to his name, no family, no significant others in his life, get 400 people to attend his funeral?” I paused and thought about it. I responded, “Oh, he had a family alright, they’re all in the church right now.” Walter Brueggemann is right, we the middle class have a very hard time thinking outside our own experience, finding hope in anything other than our own reality of success.
At the end of that service I stood next to the urn of ashes. I put my hand on the rough wood that contained his remains and I said, “These dry ashes contain more life than almost anyone I know. God breathed life into this man and he could do no other than to reach out beyond himself to touch and bring life to others.”
My friends of Bethany God has breathed life into us. Let this Pentecost Sunday remind us that we are called to push away the distractions we use to numb our affections and embrace the commitments that connect us deeply and make us human. We are truly blessed to live in God’s house. Amen.