Saturday, May 26, 2012

What a Bit of Breath Can Do

Ezekiel 37:1-14
The Day of Pentecost
May 27, 2012
William G. Carter

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

            It was a sunny summer day, early June, as I recall. I was up in the hills a bit north of here. As I roared along the winding country road, I came upon a little church. The Holy Spirit said, “Stop!” so I stopped.
            There was no parking lot. Just a gravel driveway about ten feet long. The white paint was peeling. Eight large stained glass windows had been removed and replaced by three-quarter inch plywood. A gap existed above most of the window openings, and as I stood there, a sparrow flew out. A two-by-four was nailed across the front doors, and a small tree had sprung up a foot away from the front right corner of the sanctuary.
            The Spirit said, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I didn’t have an answer.
            Grass had grown up through the gravel, and I walked over to the cemetery adjacent to the church. Limestone gravestones marked the dead, and rainwater had erased some of the names. The stone wall surrounding was covered in moss, and Bull Thistles had deeply invaded the plots. The dead Christians beneath my feet were going to stay that way. They were six feet deep in neglect.
            The Spirit said, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I didn’t know what to say.
            The question was asked in Biology class: “How do you know something is alive?” There are lots of answers. Medical people might say you are alive as long as your brain functions. I beg to differ; I’ve seen people who seem perfectly alive but their brains had long ceased to function. Some of them appear on Reality TV.
Others would declare life depends on circulatory function. If there is blood in your veins and your heart is pumping, you are alive. But sadly, most of us can name someone who was perfectly alive but they had no heart.
            The best answer may come from the book of Psalms. In the Psalm we hear today, structured as a seven-fold celebration of life abounding, the poet says to God, “When you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your (breath), they are created.”
            This is true of plants, who must breathe to live. It is certainly true of people, who cease to live when they cease to breathe. I think it’s also true of churches. Sometimes they run out of breath.
            I walked around that little country chapel. Once upon a time, children were baptized there. Teenagers had their faith confirmed in that spot. There was a season when a preacher sang out the Good News, and then grace was revealed in broken bread and poured-out wine. It was never a large congregation, but once it had been alive.
            What brings a church alive? Breath. Not hot air, but breath. The Psalmist is right: when God sends God’s own breath, we are brought alive. The old Hebrew word “ruach” can be translated “breath,” or “wind,” or “Spirit.” And when God gives it, everybody knows. Everybody breathes.
            That’s what happened on the very first Pentecost. A huddle of weary disciples were hiding out in a locked room. It sounds like the same upper room where Jesus had served them the Last Supper. Suddenly they heard a noise, a really big noise. When Luke tells the story, he can’t quite describe it. “It was like a wind from heaven,” he says, “like the rush of a violent wind.” It filled the entire house, not just their lungs, but the whole house. And it spilled out into the street, because it was never meant as a private possession.
            God blew the Holy Wind and filled the lungs of the church. Simon Peter and the others exhaled the Gospel. Pentecost became a public event, intended for the benefit of all. It happened because of the breath of God.
            The Spirit said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” As I walked around a dead country chapel, two more sparrows flitted out of a window. A snake slithered in the grass. Then I came upon the electrical box on the side of the building. Somebody had cut the wires. There would be no more Power from Headquarters.
            It was a stark reminder of what happens to Christian people when they do not breathe the Breath of God, when they do not celebrate their life as a gift, when the living faith of people is reduced to mere obligation, when their Gospel mission to the world is reduced to mere building maintenance. God send the electrician to cut them off – because there is no Breath within them.
            All of this is commentary on the strange vision of Ezekiel. God drops the prophet into a valley full of bones. Old dry bones. Disconnected bones. Starched white bones. There is no life in that bone yard, until God tells the prophet to preach. “Preach to those withered, white, dry and disconnected bones,” says the Lord. “Tell them to listen to the Word that I am exhaling. Tell them that I am going to breathe on them. Tell them that I alone am the One who will give them life. Tell them that I alone am the One who will connect them, embody them, and cause them to dance.”
            Remember what happens? Ezekiel preaches these words. The toe bone is connected to the foot bone, the foot bone is connected to the ankle bone. The ankle bone is connected to the leg bone. Oh, hear the Word of the Lord!
            God speaks in Breath. Breath brings us alive. When we are alive, we are connected, embodied, and we keep moving.  There is life from God, for the glory of God. And everybody knows it.
            God says, “Mortal, the address of that bone yard is Israel. The name of that bone yard is the Church.” Wherever people lose their hope, they are living in the Valley of Old Dry Bones.
            Can these bones live? Absolutely, when the Spirit of the Lord, when the Wind of the Lord, when the Breath of the Lord comes upon them.
            This Pentecost, we baptize little Dylan. We splash his head with water and claim him in the name of the Trinity. But listen for something else: we pray for the Holy Spirit of God to stay with him, to teach him faith and to direct his life. If baptism is only a splash of water, we might as well stay home in the tub. But it was declared of Jesus himself that he would baptize us with Holy Spirit – and with fire! In baptism, we welcome God’s Holy Presence into our lives. The water washes us, the Spirit fills us. Baptized bones will live!
            This Pentecost, we ordain and install elders and deacons in our Presbyterian Church. These are the orders of our ministry by which we declare the truth about God and serve with the compassion of Jesus. They are so much more than mere officers of an organization. They are servants of Christ. They need his wisdom to do their work. They require his love to make their decisions. They need his mercy to lead the work. So we ask them questions about their faith, we pray for the Spirit to come – to come upon them -- so that the Breath of God would take flesh in their lives.
            This Pentecost, we pray for our graduates. They have written all the papers and passed all the exams. They have been in the posture of learning. Now we call on them to take on the mantle of service. Education is always in the service to the public good. Otherwise we fill our heads with useless facts and waste time and tuition. Those who learn are called by Christ to make a difference in the world. So we pray for our graduates, that God would breathe on them, that the Holy Spirit would fill each of them with a passion for the truth and set before them the opportunities to work for Christ’s justice.
            This Pentecost, we come together in this one place. All of us are disciples of Jesus, or at least curious about what that might mean. Maybe we are tired old bones, all of the hope starched out of us. Maybe we are bored, and need something to challenge us. Maybe we are frustrated at the ways that the world tries to squeeze all the faith out of us, and we really want God to become real to us once again. Or maybe we know very clearly what we are called to do, but we lack the courage or the ability to do it.
This is the day for us. This is our Pentecost day. God’s question comes to each of us: Mortal, can these bones live? Look around the room – can these bones live?
The best way to respond is the same way Ezekiel responds, “O Lord God, you know.”
Great God of heaven, you know what can bring us completely alive. Send your Spirit upon us, Lord. Let the Holy Wind of God blow upon every person here. Breathe, O breathe, your loving Spirit. Fall afresh on us.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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