Ezekiel 37:1-14, Acts 2:1-21
Pentecost: On Fire or Burned Out?
I’ve been thinking about how we’re going through our seconds of a lot of things in this global pandemic. Last year, congregations made their way through Lent and Easter and Pentecost in the midst of a fairly new pandemic. We were afraid and figuring things out and so sad not to be together, but I was so moved by how quickly pastor and church leaders and congregations pivoted to find new ways of doing things, ways to continue to serve the community, ways to continue to be in relationship with each other in the Body of Christ, ways to continue praising God, journeying in Lent, proclaiming resurrection, and feeling full of the Holy Spirit despite all the struggles. The persistence and faithfulness of God’s people was impressive and inspiring.
And here we still are. Yes, there are so many signs of hope about the pandemic, as things open in new ways, as vaccines roll out, as healing and recovery of all kinds begin. But there’s also an incredible fatigue, and a sense of finally really taking stock of the toll the pandemic has had on all aspects of life, including, very much including faith communities. Last June, after 17 years of ministry in the local church, I stepped away from pastoring, wrapping up my time as the pastor up in Gouverneur and North Gouverneur to go back to school to work on a PhD. My plans to go back to school were made well before I ever heard of Covid-19. But although I felt some guilt about stepping away from my congregation during such a global crisis, I’ll admit I also felt relieved about responsibilities that would no longer be mine. I wouldn’t have to figure out how to pastor during a pandemic anymore! But so many of my friends, so many of them pastors - they’ve been doing this - figuring out how to lead a church through a pandemic - for more than a year now. And congregations - they’ve been working hard to figure out how to keep it together for more than a year now. And frankly, I think everyone is just exhausted. Done. Drained. How much more can churches take? The list of retiring pastors this year in our Annual Conference is huge. The number of churches in our conference that are closing? - also pretty large this year. And I’ve heard from congregational leaders and members who have stuck it out all this time a sense of fear and foreboding: Yes, things are opening up, slowly. But will anyone come back? And if they don’t, how can we keep going? We’ve hung on for so long, but how much more can we take?
I don’t say all of this to overwhelm or depress anyone, or to make things seem hopeless. I say it to acknowledge and recognize and face the reality of the state of our well-being as the Church. I say it, because when I first thought about preaching on Pentecost, and I thought about all the metaphors for the day of being “on fire” for God, my sermon title immediately popped into my head. On Fire? How about Burned Out! Last year we could summon the energy to feel On Fire despite all the challenges, with a sense of “we’re in this together.” Can we still? Or have we used up all our energy and creativity and we’re just really tired and really done with all of it, and really scared about how we feel. Burned up, not on fire.
So that’s why today, in addition to the traditional Pentecost text from Acts 2, we’re also reading an alternate Pentecost text, from the prophet Ezekiel. In Acts 2, the traditional Pentecost text, the disciples are gathered in Jerusalem, waiting. They’re waiting because just recently, Jesus returned to God’s home, leaving earth, at least physically. He’d been with the disciples for forty days after his resurrection, and undoubtedly they wished he’d just stay with them forever. But he leaves, promising them that he’s going to send the Spirit to help them, to empower them. It must be hard to believe, though, and they must feel somewhat like everything they had with Jesus is sort of over. But on Pentecost, a harvest festival that is part of the Jewish faith, the disciples are gathered together, when suddenly this sound like a violent rushing wind fills the air. The spirit rests on them each like tongues of fire, and they suddenly find themselves proclaiming the good news of Jesus and God’s reign on earth in many languages, so that they are understood by all who hear them. At first many think the disciples must be drunk, but Peter gives a fiery sermon, quoting the prophet Joel, and speaking about the dreams and visions that will come to all through the Spirit - young and old, men and women, slave and free. And in the rest of the chapter, after the section we hear today, Peter calls the crowds to repent - and they do! And three thousand are baptized on the spot and commit themselves to discipleship. It is a truly amazing story. It’s so amazing in fact that it feels unreal. The disciples were on fire and the results of their passion for God were immediate, tangible, huge, and transformative.
I think many of us find our discipleship, even when we feel on fire for God, rarely so immediately and quantitatively transformative. And so sometimes - for me at least, but I’m guessing you might feel this way too - it’s a little hard to relate to Pentecost. On fire? Maybe. But the fire has fizzled, and we’re burned up now. But Ezekiel? I get Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a priest living in exile in Babylon, along with many other Israelites during the 6th century BC. 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 this season 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 the results, the consequences of their turning away from their faithfulness to God - they were separated from their land.
Ezekiel describes in this passage an image God brings to him that represents what the exiled people of Israel look like emotionally – like a valley of 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 don’t just spring back to vibrancy though. Instead, they 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.” Ezekiel knows that God is faithful, even when we are not, and so Ezekiel knows that Israelites are not abandoned. Eventually, Israel does come home from exile, and slowly, they come back to life, and reclaim their identity.
I’m guessing you know exactly what it feels like to be dry bones. Some of you know because that’s what you feel like right now, with the weight of this enduring pandemic and all that it has taken out of you, your family, and our world over the last year. But you probably know just what it's like to be nothing but dry bones from other seasons in your life too, or from other seasons in our world. You might know because you’ve experienced the pain of being mistreated by others, consistently, in ways that wear you down and break your spirit. You might know because you’ve struggled with losing your way, choosing things that drew you away from instead of closer to God, even though you meant to make different choices. You might know about being dry bones because you’ve tried again and again, so hard to be faithful, so hard to share God with others, so hard to be full of hope, so hard to look for growth, so hard to see signs that you were on God’s path, and been unable to find anything that looked promising, until eventually you felt - like dry bones. Burned out.
As I said, when God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I think Ezekiel responds so wisely. “God, you know.” It’s a wise answer because it acknowledges both that God does know and the implied converse: Ezekiel does not know. And that’s ok. Because God does know, and Ezekiel - and the dry bones - are listening to God. And actually, the disciples on Pentecost were in much the same situation as Ezekiel. They, too, didn’t really know what was going on, as much as Jesus had tried to prepare them. But God knew. And the disciples were listening, and heard the Spirit, moving on the wind.
Church, can these dry bones live? We do not know in the midst of being dried up and burned out if there is any life left. But we don’t have to know, because God does know. Earlier this week I had the opportunity to go on a retreat day for clergy with Church of the Wild, a new church start based at Sky Lake, one of our conference camps down in the Southern Tier. Church in the Wild is focused on sustainability and care for creation. The focus of the retreat was on figuring out what the next step was in God’s call on our lives. We took a walk around the lake, stopping at spots along the way, reflecting on questions in a guided meditation. On one segment, the leaders asked us to pay attention to nature, to creation, and to think about what lessons we found there when thinking about what God is calling us to in our next step. As I walked along, and noticed everything that was teeming with life in these warm days, I also noticed how much is dying all the time - crunching leaves from last year’s fall, pine needles, trees that didn’t make it through a windy storm or that succumbed to something or another. And yet, all of these dying things were an integral part of the lush life that was unfolding. The dying things made fertile soil for new life to unfold in very literal ways. And so I found myself wondering what in my own life has “died” to make way for new life, and what I need to let go of, in order to embrace what God has in store next. And I found myself thinking about the seasons when I was sure I was burned out and burned up and had nothing left. But God knew better, planning unforeseen joy.
Church, can these dry bones live? God knows. It’s ok if you’re feeling burned out right now. Because it turns out, God can work with dry bones. If you can’t figure out how to revive and renew and refresh, and if the idea of trying to work for a new vision and new hope and new start sounds exhausting, and if you feel like you’d rather have a good long nap than a bout of the Holy Spirit, and if God birthing something new in the Church universal, and in this particular congregation, and in your individual life sounds too good to be true, or like it means too much hard work, or like you’d rather just be left alone, or like you’ve got nothing left to give, take heart. God is just asking this: that you trust that God knows if we’ve got life left in us or not. And if God knows, God also equips. God also makes a pathway. God breathes life into us. And sometimes that Holy Spirit - literally Holy Breath - looks like a violent rushing wind that has results we can count, and grasp and measure. And sometimes that Holy Spirit - Holy Breath - is just reminding us that there is life where we thought there was only death. And while that might not be a gift we can measure, it is a priceless treasure all the same. God knows what can live and work and move among us, and God is ever faithful, to on fire people, to burned out people, to me, to you. Thanks be to God. Amen.