Readings: Ezekiel 37: 1-14, John 11: 17-36
Let us pray: May the word of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our sustainer. Amen.
I read recently that there is a surprising resurgence of biblical mega production movies at the moment – Noah just released and films on Moses, Mary and Herod due out in the next year. As the news report said: not since the epics of the 50s (Ben Hur, Ten Commandments and Quo Vadis) have we seen so many breastplates and leather, swords and sandals. And the pull seems to be not just the sweeping storylines but also the possibilities that special effects and 3D afford in bringing these truly spectacular visual adventures to our screens. So can’t you just see a film maker getting enthusiastic over the reading from Ezekiel! Dry bones – desert – breath of God –bones knitted together, skeletons rising to a vast multitude.....
But we get ahead of ourselves – let us spend a moment with the ‘dry bones’ themselves –the scene that greets Ezekiel when he first enters that valley of desolation. Bones as far as the eye can see!
The people of Israel at that time were in a period of deep despair and hopelessness. Generations into exile from their homes, they had pooh poohed Ezekiel’s prophesies of the destruction of Jerusalem only to hear that the temple and the city had been demolished, and they felt isolated and rejected by God – believing that exile from the promised land meant exile from the protection and patronage and relationship with God. Ezekiel himself came from a priestly school of thought that closely associated God’s blessings and presence with the promised land. Where in this sea of desolation so far from home was God to be found?
One of my favourite hymns – ‘Nothing, nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God’. Yet the people of Israel proclaim the absence of God in their exile, in the time when they needed God most.
Similarly, in the Gospel reading for today, Mary and Martha both said that if Jesus had only been there, Lazarus would not have died – they noted his absence in their despair, seeing the resurrection hope only in the promise of the last day.
We are not averse to claiming the absence of God when things get difficult for us too, digging a pit of pessimism and hopelessness and filling it with dry bones.
But I wonder if we should not turn that thinking around – acknowledge that the spirit of God, the very breath of God is not absent from our lives but rather surrounding us, waiting to be let in. Let me explain a bit further. Could it be that the people of Israel, in their desert place, had excluded the Spirit of God through their mistaken understanding of who God is. If they believed God would only bless and nurture them in the promised land, in a particular place, then it followed that when they were separated from the place they were separated from God. Ezekiel and his people had to rethink their understanding of God, to believe that God was present, would renew and restore them to life again, that they would find hope and blessing in the new Zion that they would build, that their dry bones would be filled with life again.
It is a powerful picture that Ezekiel paints - of the spirit hovering overhead, breathing new life into the dry bones –that John brings of the raising of Lazarus to new life, a life that even death cannot stand against. And it raises for me the question – what is it that we need to rethink in our understandings of God if we are to be open to the breath of the Spirit that leads and nurtures, even when, especially when we see no way forward for ourselves.
And I wonder if some of our dry bones have to do with the sidelining of our spirituality, an increasing disengagement with hearing the voice of God for the here and now, for us, the people of God; a reliance on stories that no longer reflect God’s presence and purpose here in this place. What do I mean by that? Well there are lots of thoughts about the ways we might limit our understanding of God, but actually today I want to concentrate not on the what but the why.
It seems to me that anytime we switch off the Holy Spirit, the presence of God that breathes new life and hope and restoration into our lives and into this world, we end up floundering – noting the absence of God. One of my early memories of theological thinking was realising that the church I was part of didn’t really ‘do’ the Holy Spirit. We were a Christ focussed church, managing at the same time to rationalise the divinity of God and skirt around any real engagement of the Spirit in our lives. Simplified I know but that was how it felt. Somewhere in our history we have created a church that tends to keep the Holy Trinity of God out of kilter, elevating one aspect above the other at the expense of our relationship with a God who is holy and divine mystery, son, and spirit – three in one!
For when we no longer hear the voice of God, the presence of the Spirit interpreted in the life and teachings of Christ and held in power of a Creator God, then we are a valley of dry bones – and we can become an organisation, a club just like any other gathering of like minded people. Then the voice we listen to is that of the secular world – we bend with the teachings that say: self is most important, we make our own futures, injustice is to be accepted, and that love is ok to be conditional.
I tell you another thing that happens when we shut out that openness to spirituality in our church and our lives – we can become almost apologetic for being a Christian, convince ourselves that there is not much we can do against the detractors and kind of shut ourselves in, quietly and gracefully fading away. The world we live in is no longer particularly kind to faith communities – and a part of us quite clearly understands why that is. But how are we responding to the people who are dissing the church, often from a quite ignorant viewpoint – do we have the understandings of God that allow us to respond, to stand tall in our belief and in fact to believe that we even have the right to also be heard. Too often we are reluctant to engage, unsure of our voice, diffident about our faith and our God. And when we are sitting only on the somewhat fragile throne of past glories and not creating our own place as God’s people, not hearing and responding to the voice of God in the here and now are we not dry bones waiting to be covered up by the sand.
In case this has all been a bit theoretical – I would like to leave you with a real life situation here in Dunedin – a place where the voice of the people of God, including my own, has been strangely quiet.
Many of you have ties with the St Martin’s community, with the island that sits out here in the harbour. When I first connected with this group four years ago I was quite quickly aware of some very real tensions between those who honoured the Christian origins of this group and those who were quite passionately determined to get rid of all this spirituality and focus on the environmental aspect only. Now there would be not one person of faith there who did not also passionately support care for creation but unfortunately the opposite is not true. Nowadays we tend to talk of the spiritual value of the community as being much broader than just Christianity but nonetheless this was a fundamental value of the founders of St Martin’s Island Community. And yet currently there appears to be a real drive to reinvent the group as purely secular – even to the extent of changing the name so the Saint is gone. Where is our voice in this, or do we prefer to let the breath of God be shut out of this place that for so many of us has been a restoring life giving sanctuary, a place of the presence of God ?
A Poem by Dempsy R. Calhoun (unpublished) from Feasting on the Word Year A volume 2; p.124
Bone lay scattered and artifactual
Wind-rowed like dead branches
Whose tree bodies repeat the dessication
All hope bleached and lost
Living moisture evaporated
Calcified memories of what was
Or seeds of what could be
Wandering shards of vessels
That once thrummed with pure energy
Where honour and dishonour wrestled
Stripped of living water to walk the hills
Needing only gravity to line the valley
It was never about the bones anyway
Rather a glimpse of pure power
A reminder of who’s in charge of restoration
Real hope lies in the source.