Thursday, May 01, 2014

Sermon for Second Sunday of Easter, "Resurrection Stories: Dry Bones," Ezekiel 37:1-14

Sermon 4/27/2014
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Resurrection Stories – Dry Bones

            Last week, as we gathered on Easter Morning, we heard The Resurrection Story – as we lingered with Mary at the tomb long enough to experience the resurrected Christ, as we pondered the difference between resuscitated lives and resurrected lives. But the celebration of Easter isn’t a one day event. As we sang last week, we are indeed Easter people, and every day to us is Easter because we always live in the promise of the victory of life over death. And so we always celebrate Easter, but we also have a liturgical season of Easter that is fifty days long – lasting from Easter Sunday to the day of Pentecost. These days represent the forty days that Jesus remained on earth after the resurrection, and the days leading up to the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit, which we’ll celebrate in June. Fifty days of Easter. During these fifty days, we’ll be lingering, so to speak, sticking with this Resurrection Story – as we seek out and listen to and learn to tell our own resurrection stories. The scriptures are filled with stories of resurrection – the victory of life over death, hope over despair – in many different forms. Each week, we’ll look at a different story of resurrection from the Bible, and we’ll think about what it means for us, and what resurrection looks like in our own lives.
            Many of you know that I was blessed to spend part of this past week with our Red Bird Mission team in rural Kentucky, where 18 of our youth and adults worked hard to repair homes, make improvements to ministry buildings, and do other projects to aid in the outreach work of Red Bird Mission. I knew I’d have to work on my sermon a bit while I was there with them, so I decided to take advantage of my captive audience, and I spent some time asking the trip participants questions about our scripture text today. I didn’t get to interview quite everyone, but I got many responses, and I’ll let you hear some of their answers, as we enjoy this way to be connected to them, even as they travel home today. They got to be my guinea pigs, since I am hoping that eventually we’ll all be more able to think about and share about God’s resurrecting power in our own lives.
We start our study of resurrection stories with a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, known as The Valley of Dry bones. Ezekiel was a priest living in exile in Babylon, with other Israelites. I think it is hard for most of us to imagine our whole community being conquered and living in exile in a foreign land, but the time of exile, in the sixth century BC, was Israel’s most devastating experience since their slavery under Egyptian rule. They were a people whose religious roots were deeply tied to their land – the Promised Land – and living in exile represented a great turning away from faithfulness to God.
Ezekiel, then, describes in this passage an image God brings to him that represents what the exiled people of Israel look like emotionally – like a valley dry bones – skeletons. “The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. [The Lord] led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry,” we read. Then God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel is smart, and says, “You know God.” God tells Ezekiel to prophesy that God will breathe into the bones and cause them to be covered with flesh and come to life again. Ezekiel does as he’s told, and it happens just as God describes, and the bones live again, given flesh and breath. These newly living beings say that their bones are dried up and their hope is lost. But God responds to them: “I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord … I will put my spirit within you and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil.” Eventually, Israel does come home from exile, and slowly, they come back to life, and reclaim their identity.  
This passage is popular passage in the Bible. If you know anything from Ezekiel, chances are this is the story you know. And I think it’s so popular because of how easy it is for us to relate to the image of dry bones. How often have you felt like dry bones, piled up in the valley, no life in you, no hope in you? I asked our Red Bird folks to talk to me about the dry bones imagery.
Eric Holmes shared that he thought of dry bones as a metaphor for what happens when you don’t live the life God wants you to live. It’s like the “old boots in the closet that dry out and age,” he said. But then “you find them, and then you find the boot rub ointment, and bring new life into the old boots and bring them back to what they’re meant to be used for.” Marybeth talked about the hustle and bustle of life. When you get caught up in what other people are saying, when you feel useless, overwhelmed by stress, like you are at your lowest point. Kay Phillips said dry bones are when you feel like there’s nowhere to go. Like you might as well just die. “Have I ever felt like that?” she said, “Yeah! But when I start to feel like that, I look back over all the different times that I’ve felt like that where God has turned it around, so I know that [God will turn it around] again.” Dry bones come, she said, when we try to do it on our own instead of with God’s help. Mike Nortman talked about dry bones as “desolation. Isolation.” Sika said dry bones are when “you are sad and you don’t have anything to fulfill you and you don’t have anything to interest you and you don’t have anything to dedicate your heart to and you’re are stuck and you don’t feel well and you feel empty inside.” Sakari equated dry bones with that feeling you get when you’ve worked so hard that you’ve used up every bit of energy you have. Dominique, our animal lover, said dry bones make her think of bird’s bones, many of which are hollow. Dry bones are when it feels like our bones are hollow, she said, even though they aren’t supposed to be – that hollow, empty feeling. Emma talked about a recent challenging health struggle, where her long recovery kept her out of school for months and she had to sleep and sleep to recover. She felt like dry bones. Bill Mann talked about a time when he was a child and his uncles were fighting in World War II, and he lost sleep, worrying that they would never come home. Others talked about struggles with depression, or watching loved ones face that struggle. It seems like we can all relate to dry bones. Have you ever felt like dry bones?
            So I next asked folks what it felt like to have God’s breath breathed in to you. What does it feel like when you’ve been feeling like dry bones, and suddenly, God brings you to life again? Mike Nortman talked about climbing a mountain and how it feels to reach the summit and see the view. “I think it is because of the expanse of the view,” he said. “It’s huge yet comforting to be there, which is how I feel about God.” Kay said it’s like a brand new morning. “You see the sun and hear the birds and you know it’s gonna be all right.” Marybeth said it feels like a cleanse, refreshing. “I know when I’m doing something through God it just feels right – not high or low – just right.” Paula Lamberson said it’s “a feeling I know I can’t get on my own, no matter how hard I try to do it on my own – it’s not the same [on my own.]” Daija Dowe said she feels God breathes life into her when she helps other people. Lexie Ryan talked about building new relationships and working hard feeling like a new start. Dominique talked about “all the little things that fill us up that we may not even [realize].” Elliott Lawrence talked about his work with the Conference Youth – “[You feel] really good, like you are surrounded by people who care about you who also have God’s breath in them and you can feel God’s presence all around you.” Eric talked about getting involved with the LIFE Youth program, remembering how Mike and Janet Ehrhart convinced him to come: “All you have to do is be there. You don’t have to do anything.” And now he’s one of the primary youth leaders here. What about you? When and how have you been brought back to life by God’s holy breathe filling you up? What did that feel like? What made your experiences so life-giving?
            Finally, I asked folks about the verse in this passage that really caught me. God talks about planting the newly God’s-breath-filled people on “their own soil.” Of course, this language is literal – God’s talking about bring the people back to Israel from Babylonian exile. But it is also rich in metaphor. What does it mean to have God plant you in your own soil? That’s what I asked our Red Bird folks. Kay said her own soil is when she’s doing something for someone else. Kay got injured on the worksite on the first day at Red Bird. She ended up with 38 stiches and quite the story to tell, but remained in her irrepressible good spirits throughout the whole adventure. Kay said that her biggest frustration with her injury was that it disturbed the work folks were there to accomplish. She wasn’t there to be helped but to help! That’s her own soil. Marybeth said, “It makes me think of the word confident – confident God has me, that I can go out into the world, that I’m protected.” Mike said his own soil is when he’s at home – not necessarily the physical place – but when he feels at home. Bill feels like he’s on his own soil when he can help others, especially if he can do it without them knowing about it. He’s on his own soil when he can use the gifts and talents God’s given him to help others. Paula said it’s when you have that knowledge that you are where you belong, not wandering anymore, not frustrated, not on an island alone. A peace. Elliott said being put on your own soil is developing your own self, your own self-image, your own uniqueness, being different, but with God and others to support you. Dominique said being on your own soil is being “in the element that [God] created us for – like how Marybeth [is] an EMT – that’s her soil, she’ knows what she’s doing, confident, happy, to help people. With me, with animals is where I can help – that’s what God wanted me to do. [It’s] what we can really find ourselves in.” Emma said being on your own soil is when you are serving God. She’s noticed that since she’s committed herself to serving God, opportunities keep appearing in her life to do just that. Daija spoke of being set on solid ground. Sika talked about the soil being God’s plan for our lives. Eric said it’s being in the place you are supposed to be. Lexie said being planted on your own soil is being “somewhere where you belong and fit in and [you’re with] people who belong with you – like a chain – like this link belongs next to this link – these links go together. [Being in your own soil is being in] the right place for your link.” What’s your own soil? Where is God placing you, so that you’ll grow and live and feel God’s breath coursing through you, resurrected, hope renewed?
I felt like I should let some of my youth write my sermon more often. Some deep wisdom from all those youth and adults. I feel blessed by their stories. They all knew what I meant by dry bones. But they also all knew what it meant to have God breathe new life into them. They knew something about the feeling of being placed on their own soil. What about you, Easter people? We’ve heard Jesus’s resurrection story. We’ve heard Ezekiel’s story, and the story of the exiled Israelites. We’ve heard from some of our mission team. Now it’s your turn. What’s your story of new life? What story of God’s resurrection power will you share? Amen.

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