Dry Bones -- Pentecost Sermon at Trinity UMC, Lenoir City, May 27, 2012
Jane Clark Taylor Whitaker
Common English Bible (CEB)
Valley of dry bones
1 The Lord’s power overcame me, and while I was in the Lord’s spirit, he led me out and set me down in the middle of a certain valley. It was full of bones. 2 He led me through them all around, and I saw that there were a great many of them on the valley floor, and they were very dry.
3 He asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?” I said, “Lord God, only you know.”
4 He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the Lord’s word!
Are you humming the words to that old spiritual now:
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Hear the word of the Lord.
And so let us continue and hear:
5 The Lord God proclaims to these bones: I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again. 6 I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you, and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the Lord.”
7 I prophesied just as I was commanded. There was a great noise as I was prophesying, then a great quaking, and the bones came together, bone by bone.
Still remembering the old spiritual:
The toe bone connected to the heel bone,
And so on...
Hear the word of the Lord!
Back to the word of the Lord at verse 8:
8 When I looked, suddenly there were sinews on them. The flesh appeared, and then they were covered over with skin. But there was still no breath in them.
9 He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live.”
10 I prophesied just as he commanded me. When the breath entered them, they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company.
11 He said to me, “Human one, these bones are the entire house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.’ 12 So now, prophesy and say to them, The Lord God proclaims: I’m opening your graves! I will raise you up from your graves, my people, and I will bring you to Israel’s fertile land. 13 You will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, my people. 14 I will put my breath in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the Lord. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the Lord says.”
In historical context this is a vision story, an allegory if you will, not a literal event. It is a story with a point and that point is Hope. Ezekiel was born into a priestly family of Jerusalem around 623 BCE. He was young man, probably about 25 yrs old, at the beginning of what we know as the Babylonian captivity. He was among the first large group of Israelites taken to Mesopotamia. The prophet, exiled in for the rest of his life in Babylon, experienced a series of seven visions over a span of 22 years, during and after the final destruction of Jerusalem in 586.
The vision of the dry bones was sent for a people who were defeated, disconnected and discouraged- defeated politically and militarily, disconnected from their homeland, loved ones and Temple, and discouraged about ever returning home to Jerusalem and restoring their kingdom. They longed for the restoration of their glory days of old. The vision of the dry bones coming to life is meant to encourage the captives, let them know that God is still acting, that there is hope.
The vision of the valley of dry bones is very old, but it has a message that we can all relate to in some way. Who among us (over 30) has not felt ourselves at some time in our lives to be in a dry spiritual desert? Defeated by the complexities of modern life? Who has not felt as disconnected from life and vitality, from neighbors, friends, even family, as disconnected as those scattered dry bones on the valley floor? How often are we discouraged, with scant hope that things will be better tomorrow. We all experience these dry, lifeless times in our personal lives, and also we have these times in the life of the church.
Now I would not go so far as to consider us a collection of dry bones. But I think that our church people long for the old days when the pews were crowded, when you better get here early on Easter or you would be sitting in the aisle, when meeting the budget and making our apportionments was not an issue. We want to bring back the good times of the past and relive our glory days.
The disciples must have been feeling something like that longing for the good old days when the day dawned that we commemorate today - Pentecost. The story occurs about seven weeks after Jesus has been crucified and buried. His disciples were amazed and full of joy when he returned to them, living and breathing, walking and talking with him. But he had gone away again and would not come back in the flesh. Now what? They were a small group - defeated, disconnected, discouraged. They must have felt that their mission had been defeated. They were disconnected from their past and from most of society, they were discouraged and not sure about the promises that Jesus had made. They were just overwhelmed with problems. They longed to be restored to their relationship with Jesus. They didn’t know how to go on, to continue to proclaim Jesus message without him. Their hope was fading. And then God breathed life into them.
Let’s read some of the familiar story again from the second chapter of Acts
1 When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting.3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. 4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
I won’t read the whole story. We know it well. Jews from every nation were gathered for a religious celebration. As the disciples began to speak a crowd gathered and each person heard in their own native language. The people thought these preachers must be drunk. Then Peter stood up front and shouted something like Claire might say to get our attention. Peter said “Listen up, people!” Then he went on to speak eloquently and explain Jesus as the fulfillment of the promise and prophecies of the Messiah.
Let’s take the story back up at verse 37:
37 When the crowd heard this, they were deeply troubled. They said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”
38 Peter replied, “Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites.”40 With many other words he testified to them and encouraged them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” 41 Those who accepted Peter’s message were baptized. God brought about three thousand people into the community on that day.
42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything.
God took defeat, disconnection and discouragement and with the power of his Holy Spirit brought about a dramatic transformation. We look back in awe on those events of old, but we do not expect wonders and signs or dramatic transformations in our present situation. We feel defeated, disconnected and discouraged. We would be happy with little transformations and gradual changes. And we would like a little encouragement.
In response to the defeat, disconnection and discouragement felt in so many churches today, the bishops of the United Methodist Church issued a Call to Action. We are called as of old to change our hearts and lives, receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and to transform the world, starting on our own corner of C Street and 2nd Avenue. We want to look forward, not backward, to increase the ministry of our congregation.
The Call to Action asks us to address seven particular issues with goals and action plans. These are Worship, Attendance, participation in small groups like Sunday School, Bible Study and choir, participation in mission and outreach activities, giving to mission, including apportionments, developing lay leadership and developing clergy leadership.
Trinity’s Call to Action Planning Team has been working since the beginning of this year. The first part of the process was to answer the questions: Who are we? What is our identity? and What is our role in the community? We found that our average attendance over the past five years has been fairly steady, a little over 100 each year. We have to go back to the late 90‘s to find years where average attendance exceeded 120. Those were years when churches everywhere saw a surge in attendance from the baby boomers who returned to church with their children. Bill and I were in that group. Since then Trinity, along with churches of all denominations everywhere, has seen a decline in attendance and giving. It is discouraging. We don’t know what to do and sometimes have little hope of the situation improving.
As our team thought about and discussed our church, we found so many positives. We recognized that our Sunday morning service worship and music is deeply meaningful to those who participate. We are looking for ways in which we can communicate our strengths to the community and generate more participation. We have not followed the popular trend of making our service more casual because we do not consider worship a casual experience. However, we recognize that our style of worship doesn’t appeal everybody, especially those who have not grown up with the same kind of traditions. So we want to be open to other avenues for attracting people to our fellowship.
We discussed that our calling must be to minister to our neighbors and community. We already do that in many good ways and we are looking for ways in which we can more. One of our most significant ministries is for children and youth. We have more children and youth from our neighborhood participating. Penny has a summer camp experience planned for the children this summer. You have been hearing from Ryan about how we can minister to youth through the Life Leaders program.
We have some members who are exploring a community garden and garden-share project on our property. We have some people who are searching for ways to more effectively manage our large playground. We have others who are working hard to revitalize our small playground. We are using our wonderful music program as an effective tool bring people to worship with us. These are all evidence of a vital congregation. But we worry about whether all this will be enough. Will enough people buy in, support, participate, make it happen? Can it be sustained? Even as we, the people of the church, plan and carry out church programs, we often feel defeated by the magnitude of the problems we face. We feel disconnected from our neighbors and friends and sometimes one another We feel discouraged about the prospects for becoming a growing congregation again.
In today’s scriptures and in the whole of God’s Word, defeat, disconnection and discouragement are never the end of the story. In the beginning of Creation, God breathed the breath of life into Adam and Eve. He took their physical bodies and breathed into them his Holy Spirit. Wind and breath are powerful metaphors that are used throughout the Bible to represent both God’s power and His infusing, indwelling presence. God spoke to Job from a mighty wind. He carried away Elijah in a powerful whirlwind. He breathed the breath of life into those dry bones. He came to the disciplines on the first Pentecost as a howling, fierce wind. With His Holy Breath, God brought about powerful transformations.
But Pentecost was not the end of the story either. It is the beginning of a new story, the story of the church and the gift of the Holy Spirit. God is still breathing into us His Breath of Life. He gives each of us, personally and individually, the breath of His Holy Spirit. And he will infuse our church with His Holy Spirit. He will enable us, too, to do great things right here in Lenoir City, things even beyond our imagining - if we ask it, if we expect it and if we will receive it. Sometimes God breathes his Spirit into us even before we ask.
So my challenge for all of us is to breathe deeply of God’s Holy Breath.
Breathe in the Holy Spirit and breathe out defeat, sorrow, loss.
Breathe in the Holy Spirit and breathe out disconnections - anger, alienation, elitism, prejudice.
Breathe in the Holy Spirit and breathe out discouragement, despair, hopelessness.
Breathe in God and receive strength, communion and hope.
Creator Spirit and Giver of life,
make the dry, bleached bones of our lives
live and breathe and grow again
as you did of old.
Pour out your Spirit upon the whole creation.
Come in rushing wind and flashing fire
to turn the defeat, disconnection and discouragement within us
into faith, power, and joy. Amen.