Sermon preached by the Reverend Adam Yates
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Last Sunday of Lent – April 10, 2011
I had a crazy professor in seminary, and following his lectures was often a bit of a trip. One day the lecture started with an exposition on the “J”uice (with a capital J).
It had taken us a few weeks to figure out what he meant by “J”uice, but by the time of this particular lecture, we were fairly confident that it was something like the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
“You’ve got to have the “J”uice with a capital J!” He never referred to it simply as the juice, as though he were afraid that we would think he was talking about orange juice. We were like, “yes, yes, we’ve got to have the juice!” He continued, “You’ve got to have the “J”uice, or else you will be dry bones!” We were like, “no, no, we don’t want to be dry bones!” He went on, “And if you are dry bones, the vampires won’t come after you!”
We just stared at him. He had completely lost us, because we were pretty sure that we didn’t want any vampires coming after us, literally or metaphorically.
In today’s reading we are confronted by Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, perhaps the very same dry bones that my professor warned us of becoming, although there are no vampires in today’s scripture. For as long as I can remember, I have had a vivid image associated with this particular story. In it is a valley—the mountains that form it are far off purple ridges on the horizon—and for as far as the eye can see are bones. Bones that are bleached white, bones that are dry and chalky, bones that obscure all life. It is a desolate valley, silent with death and changelessness.
But then a lone voice cries out, a prophesying voice and immediately an immense sound begins as innumerable dry bones, bones seen and unseen, begin to move and shake against each other. It is a dry and hollow sound, those rattlin’ bones, as God’s words, God’s meddlin’ words shake them out of their dry and deathly silence.
Those poor rattlin’ bones, God won’t just let them be! The lone voice, the prophesying voice, continues to cry out and those dry bones come together, and the God who would become incarnate first incarnates those rattlin’ bones. Then, just as God did during those first days of creation, God blows the breath of life, breathes out the Spirit, into those bodies and those rattlin’ bones are no more. Now there is no longer a valley of dry and rattlin’ bones, but a valley of God’s children!
It is a great story of God’s ability to bring life out of death, of God’s promise to renew a community. But it is also a story of something else, something that is often lost on us because we fail to understand one word: prophecy.
In our modern understanding and use of the word, a prophecy is a prediction, often made by a “wise” person in the distant past about some important event in the distant future. The task is for us to “decode” the often vague prophesies and watch for them to come true. This is the understanding of “prophesy” that is at play when you hear people speak of the end of the world coming in 2012 or the understanding of the Book of Revelation at play in the “Left Behind” series of books.
But this is not at all the understanding of the word that is at play in the Bible. Whenever you read about a prophecy, the act of prophesying, or prophets—the people who utter prophecies—you are not reading about a prediction of future events hidden under the veil of cryptic language. A prophecy is God’s direct words for a specific audience at a specific time about what is happening right then. If a prophet were to walk up to you on the street and say, “God’s going to get you,” you wouldn’t write down the message and ponder it, waiting for the day that it would come true. No, if a prophet came up to you and said, “God’s going to get you,” you would duck!
What’s more, prophecies always upset the status quo. Prophecies are messages of God’s meddlin’ in the world, and where God meddles, the world always gets turned on its head. The prophets were troublemakers, they left a wake of turmoil where there had once been quiet and comfort. Prophets would come and prophesy God’s words and bones that had once been dry and still would get to rattlin’! It is no coincidence that the greatest prophets in the Bible were often feared by the leaders and the powerful.
Today’s story then is not just about God bringing new life to that which was dead, it is the promise that God will get to meddlin’ with what is comfortable and unchanging. God will shake us out of our dry stupor and replace what was once a valley of dry, rattlin’ bones with God’s own children.
Twenty years ago this place was a valley of dry bones, and there are some of you here who remember it. You could hear them rattlin’ in the empty pews and feel their dryness in the strained life of this parish. It was not clear whether anything could be done for this church, and it was a very real possibility that this parish would have to close, putting to rest those dry bones beneath a layer of earth. But God cannot resist meddlin’ in a valley of dry bones, for God cannot stand their deathly stillness!
So a voice began crying out, a prophesying voice. Sometimes that voice was Nicholas’ and sometimes that voice cried out from the pews, but the message was the same, “Oh you dry bones, God is not done with you yet! Oh dry bones, God still has something in store for you!” And you know what happened? Those dry bones began to move and shake!
Oh those rattlin’ bones, the work wasn’t easy; God’s word wasn’t easy! For twenty years God has kept at the meddlin’ and this community began to change; the dryness of old conflicts and wounds began to heal. For the first time in a long time we began to welcome others into this community and these once dry bones began to be covered with the flesh of new life.
Still that prophesying voice cried out, calling us forward, and God breathed a new spirit into this community! We grew a choir and soon there was a joyful noise where before there had been the silence of dry bones. The sounds of children echoed within these walls where before there had been none. Just this past fall we added a third service to make room for all the new bodies of once dry bones!
We read about God’s ability to bring life where there was once death in today’s scriptures, but I tell you that it was not just back then, it is now too! The miracle of God’s resurrection is in this place, for even in the midst of a yard of bones God has brought new life. Next year marks our 275th anniversary and we have much to celebrate.
But I warned you, our God is a meddlin’ God. Even as we celebrate how far we’ve come, God is saying, “Oh my children, I am not done with you yet! Oh my children, I still have something in store for you!” And if you listen carefully, maybe even listening deep within yourself, you will hear those rattlin’ bones, because God cannot resist dry bones! There will be work and it won’t be easy, but the good news, my sisters and my brothers, is that a crying voice, a prophesying voice, is yet calling this community into new life!