worship

Pentecost 2015
Drew Stockstill
May 24, 2015 - Acts 2:1-21; Ezekiel 37:1-14

 

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Pentecost 2015
Ezekiel 37: 1-14         

Rev. Drew Stockstill
Morningside Presbyterian Church
May 24, 2015

 

A potential new disciple of Jesus, inspired by his teachings and miracles, once told the rabbi that he would follow him wherever he went. In response to the man’s ambition, Jesus was honest and clear about what was at stake— following him would not be easy. “Foxes have dens, birds in the sky have nests,” he said, “but the Human One has no place to lay his head.” Jesus was always honest about what discipleship meant: giving up reliance on material possessions, an open invitation for all, service to the poor, radical love and forgiveness, embrace of one’s enemies, embrace of one’s full self, the list goes on. He was also always clear that placing your trust in God rather than in the impersonal and cold systems of the world leads to a much richer, truer life filled with light, grace, peace, beauty; water that would cause you to never thirst again, a new vision of the world, a clean heart and life everlasting.

 

This is something the young preacher / prophet Ezekiel knew very well. Not only did he have no den or nest or manse or housing allowance, his congregation was a valley of very dry bones, their sanctuary- a cemetery, the service music- the rattling of bones. The very Hand of God placed Ezekiel in this particular “Call,” to use Presbyterian terminology. I really can’t imagine a more thankless pastorate than Ezekiel’s graveyard. If you thought a Presbyterian congregation was quiet during a sermon, imagine making a joke to pews of femurs and metatarsals. No smiles of understanding, no lips even; the slightest nods of agreement could lead to mass decapitation. Ezekiel’s congregation didn’t just have some folks dozing off, the Bible says there was literally no life in them; he was preaching to sun bleached skeletons and faded headstones with moss and weeds growing on them.   

 

Now, Ezekiel isn’t literally in a valley of dry bones, it’s an allegory, the text itself points this out. Ezekiel is a preacher so he uses the tools of a preacher: metaphors, allegories, dreams, and visions to communicate a deeper reality. Think Dr. King at the March on Washington sharing his wild, unimaginable dream of racial harmony in the midst of what felt to very many like a societal valley of bones.

 

Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones represents his congregation. They were living as exiles and captives in the Babylonian Empire. His congregation had been Jerusalem’s leaders and elites: politicians, educators, bankers and lawyers, and, of course, preachers before they were taken captive in 597 BCE in a series of assaults on the kingdom by the Babylonians which eventually resulted in the sacking of the city and destruction of the Temple a decade later. Jerusalem and the Temple were the center of their lives. This was effectively a total annihilation of their identity, their pride and their future.

 

Imagine if 9/11 kept on going until Wall Street, Washington, every university, every church, synagogue and mosque lay in ruin. Imagine if it became clear there was no Plan B, C, D, or Z. Imagine as the anger and desire for revenge give way to the acceptance of defeat and humiliation. In the words of a Syrian soldier trying to hold ISIS at bay this week: “We are finished.” If you can imagine this state of complete despair, then imagine living it out in captivity to those carrying out the destruction of your homeland. You are getting close to imagining Ezekiel’s congregation: exhausted, dislocated, scattered, without breath, without life. You are getting close to imagining the feeling of many refugees in Atlanta. You are close to imagining what many in our nation’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods feel. They said, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are finished,” but even those words don’t fully capture the feelings. So this is Ezekiel’s task, to name the experience from the rock bottom. He does so by using this imagery of the Valley of Dry Bones. He is saying, “I see you. God sees you and yeah, it’s pretty bleak.” Ezekiel matches his tone with the tone of the people he’s been called to serve. He gets real. The whole book of Ezekiel is pretty heavy. In fact, some early Jewish communities wouldn’t allow anyone under 30 to read it because of how intense it is. But when you start to listen to the music and the poetry that’s coming out of disenfranchised communities today and you start to look at the art, you’ll see some common threads. Baltimore R&B artist Joy Postell posted a song to YouTube last month called, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” She sings along with those exiled from the Promised Land: “These days ain’t funny in the land of milk and honey. Better get that money ‘fore they play you like a dummy.”1 Ezekiel backs her up on guitar, “come out of your graves,” he sings.

 

Just being seen and having one’s pain named, even graphically, can be powerfully cathartic. This was the case for Israel. The Holy Spirit brought Ezekiel the image of a valley of bones. “Speak to these bone!” God said, “Speak man!” And Ezekiel tells it like it is and the people find hope in the midst of hopelessness, just from hearing the truth, their truth. He is a voice amongst the voiceless, breath for those who choke, “I can’t breath!”

 

What’s even more powerful is that it’s God who is active in it all, God who brought Ezekiel to see this devastation, God who really knows their suffering and God who will bring healing and dreams of a future, dreams that in this valley are truly unimaginable. God is often accused of being absent when the dried bones hit the fan. “God, where were you when we needed you most?” we often ask. Well, here God is, walking amongst the bones in the cool of the evening, remembering the lives and stories they once carried, and will carry again.

 

“How can there be a God if these kinds of things happen?” More than a few youth and college students have shared that this unacknowledged question is what led to them ultimately leave religion.  For the people of Israel, Ezekiel is getting to the root of this fear before all hope is lost. He’s digging to the root of their pain and from that point restoring hope. If their hope goes, well, so goes their faith in God.

 

You might have heard the saying, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s fear.” That’s true but I’d like to add another one: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s hopelessness.” Hopelessness leads to an atheism which says, “There is no God with us here. We are just dried up bones. There is no God.” More tragic, hopelessness can lead to apathetic agnosticism, “Who cares? Who cares about God anyway? It just is what it is. C’est la vie.” This is the spiral of despair facing Israel and so God brings the edgiest, most crass, most authentic preacher / prophet / pastor to them and his biggest challenge is to cast a bold, imaginative vision of hope which springs from their very real pain.

 

We’re on familiar ground here church. There is much threatening hope in the world, in our communities, even in our families and there is a temptation to forget God’s presence in the midst of it all, or deny it, or sadder still to just say, “Who cares? Each to her own.” “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  

 

Dr. Gregory Ellison, is a professor over at Candler. He wrote in a book called “Cut Dead but Still Alive.” It’s about the danger of this sort of apathy amongst young African American men which is caused by the loss of hope. He shows how by and large the “vast multitude,” to use Ezekiel’s language, of African American young men have been muted and made invisible in our society. You’ve probably heard that one in six black men have been incarcerated and if current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison.2 This takes its toll on the consciousness of the individual and the community. We can become a valley of dry bones. Racism in this country is not simply overt but covert, insidious, and systematic. One friend recently said, “Drew, you don’t even see it and we have had to learn to cope.” To think that racism is behind us, is dangerous and does damage to the body of Christ as we try to minimize and erase the injustices faced by our brothers and sisters. Or, in our privilege we simply ignore it, it’s not our problem. Or we deny it. When Israel says, “we feel like dry bones, our hope is lost, we are finished, cut off,” what if Ezekiel were to say, “No you don’t. Stop complaining. Stop rattling so much. Be quiet. This cemetery is a perfectly acceptable place for you to be, let’s just put some flowers out and pull the weeds around the headstones and you’ll be fine.” But bones don’t pull themselves together by themselves. God does that by the Holy Spirit working through a mere mortal- Ezekiel. “Speak man.”

 

Atlanta’s motto during the Civil Rights era was, “The city too busy to hate.” Now, some of you knew Ivan Allen and I’m not trying to knock him. He did good and important work, but that phrase perfectly illustrates the problem. I mean, let’s play that phrase out. Doesn’t it imply then that if we had the time, if we weren’t so focused on our own ambition, so self absorbed we might just be a bunch of hateful bigots? “I’d love to terrorize those folks at the lunch counter but I have a 1:00 meeting. Aw shucks, I guess I’m just too busy to hate.” Is it just saying, “Atlanta, the city too busy to care?” Isn’t that what it is too cut someone dead, by denying the validity of their suffering, refusing to acknowledge their pain, their exile, their captivity? That is exactly why God picks up Ezekiel and sets him down in the very midst of despair and says: “Speak! Prophecy! Dream a future these folks can’t imagine. Name this for these people before they really do go to their graves. Say to these bones, ‘God sees you and I am going to open your graves and bring you out of your graves, O my people!”

 

Ezekiel was a prophetic poet. So is Willliam K. Gravely, “a twenty-five-year-old spoken-word artist and recent seminary graduate who, Ellison says, “laid down his pistol for a pen.”3 Like Ezekiel he uses metaphor to speak truth and breath life into a people close to losing all breath. In a poem titled “Invisible Assumptions” Gravely writes:

                 See me? I know you’re looking!...but in your

                        eyes I’m just a hoodlum

                 If that’s all you choose to see, that’s all I choose

                                    to be

                 Why waste time tryin’ to climb out of this box

                        you built for me

                 ‘Cause at least in a casket I’ll be viewed and

                                    seen,

                 I lived as a ghost, and accomplished the most,

                        my imprisoned mind could dream.

 

“Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal…”

 

And so this gets us to Pentecost. Yes, Pentecost. That is why we are wearing red, that is why we keep singing about the Holy Spirit and that is why we will no longer be able to live as disciples of Jesus, in the safety of our own homes, not without becoming intimately linked to the lives and experience of one another, and not just those gathered here, but those out there, whose minds and souls have been liberated by the Spirit of Pentecost. Those whose home looks like a desolate valley, those whose pantries are bone dry, those whose stories are littered with broken bones and black eyes, those who are breathless and stand in the midst of the vast multitude of others who are breathless.

As those first few followers of Jesus gathered in a room waiting for a word from heaven about what they are to do next, the very Spirit of God that placed Ezekiel in the valley of bones descended from heaven and linked them up with folks who look, talk, act and believed differently than themselves and, honoring the uniqueness of each person there, God empowered them to truly understand one another, to see each other for who they are. This is what Pentecost is, y’all. If you come running up to Jesus and say, “Lord, I will follow you anywhere,” you know where he will take you? Not just to Sunday service at Morningside, though we’re happy to have you, he’s going to take you into the valleys of bones and cemeteries and make you start preaching new life. He’s going to show you resurrection, he’s going to use you, no matter your age, no matter your own past, no matter how dried up, hopeless, agnostic or atheist you are and he’s going to put the Holy Spirit fire on you and use you to bring hope, light and life in others and I assure you, if you truly give yourself over to this, you’ll find yourself coming out of your own grave and starting to stand on the fertile soil of new life… and breath……amen.

 


1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekS2ZCndumw

2 http://www.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet

3 Ellison, Gregory. “Cut Dead but Still Alive.” 

Last Published: June 2, 2015 10:31 AM