Sunday, June 17, 2007
Spirit Matters: a Sermon for Pentecost Season
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:43-47
June 17, 2007
A few weeks ago the church celebrated Pentecost Sunday, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the early followers of Jesus. We Christians regard this as the birthday of the church, and celebrate it accordingly. I was privileged to spend Pentecost Sunday with my family at a local church where my daughter was being confirmed and received as an adult member of that congregation. The church was beautifully decorated with red and orange streamers that moved in the breeze, almost like flames. We had birthday cake at the coffee hour! It was a wonderful day.
But I think it’s a shame, really, that for much of the church, we think about the Holy Spirit only on Pentecost. To say the Spirit’s role is in the birth of the church, and then to simply leave it there, gives us an impoverished understanding of God. For the rest of the year, the third person of the Trinity gets short shrift, if you ask me. I was so delighted to see that this congregation recognizes the fact that it is still the season of Pentecost… we can still talk about the Holy Spirit! But that brings us to a great question: how do we understand the “Spirit?” What do we mean when we, people of faith, say, “Spirit?” And, more than that, why should we care?
Dictionary definitions don’t help much. Spirit is usually defined as “the incorporeal part of humans”—the part that’s got nothing to do with the body. When we talk to un-churched folks about the Spirit, sometimes the best we can hope for is something vague, something harmless… “It’s out there,” or “It’s about a feeling I have,” or, my particular favorite, “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.” By which it is usually meant that Sunday morning is spent at the Church of the Sunday Paper and Bagels… a great, church, by the way, as far as it goes. A dependable experience, with a little something for everyone. When I asked a non-churchgoing friend for a definition of spirit or spiritual, she replied, “That’s airy-fairy stuff.” She may as well have said, “Stuff that doesn’t matter, things that don’t have any relevance to my day to day existence.”
The witness of scripture tells quite a different story. Look with me at this morning’s reading from the prophet Ezekiel. This reading is dominated by the Hebrew word ruach—meaning spirit, wind or breath. Every time you see the words “spirit” or “wind” or “breath” in this passage, it is that same Hebrew word. And ruach as we experience it here is bold, powerful, active, body-oriented! It matters. It makes a difference, a difference of life and death.
Ezekiel is preaching to people in exile: people disoriented, cut off from the place they call home, cut off from their familiar leaders, cut off from the reassuring pattern of their life of worship. The prophet does not begin with words of reassurance. He spends the first 32 chapters of his book dismantling everything God’s people thought they knew for sure about God. He tells them, “You were wrong. You were wrong to expect God to go on mindlessly blessing your offerings and festivals. You were wrong to think you knew exactly who would be your leaders forever and ever. You were even wrong to think that your worship and your Temple were eternal. You were wrong to think the good old days would last.” Hard words.
By the time our passage begins, Ezekiel has finally been commissioned with a word of hope for the exiles. But to experience that hope, they first have to see clearly the reality of their situation. And so God gives Ezekiel a vision. The powerful hand of God comes upon the prophet, and by the ruach of God he finds himself in the valley of dry bones. There are a few modern day parallels we can invoke to understand the picture Ezekiel is painting: the killing fields of Cambodia, the mass graves of Auschwitz. For the exiles, they may have immediately conjured a memory of the killing fields of the Assyrians.
God tours Ezekiel around the bones, convincing him of their dryness—their deadness, their seeming beyond-all-help-ness. But when God asks, “Son of Adam, can these bones live?” Ezekiel knows better than to rule it out. And so God gives him this prophesy: Say to the bones, I will cause ruach to enter you, and you shall live… And there follows a noisy scene, a scene that’s the opposite of decomposing, a coming together of the bones and the sinews and the flesh that is, frankly, more "CSI" than “airy-fairy.” But still there is no ruach in the re-enfleshed bodies, so God tells Ezekiel, Prophesy to the ruach, son of Adam, say to the ruach, thus says the Lord God: come from the four winds—the four ruachot!— O ruach, and breathe-blow upon these slain, and they shall live. So says the Lord, and it is done.
This is the vision. Then God interprets the vision. Yes, God tells Ezekiel, these bones are the whole house of Israel—all my beloved chosen ones. And then God does something I don’t want us to gloss over. God tells Ezekiel what the people have been saying: they say,
Our bones are dried up
and our hope is lost;
we are cut off completely.
These words in the Hebrew make up a small triplet, a rhyming verse. They were probably sung or chanted by the exiles in their worship.
Our bones are dried up
and our hope is lost;
we are cut off completely.
God hears. God says: I hear your laments, I hear your prayers. And here is my response: I will re-flesh your dry and parched bones, O my people and I will pour my spirit, my wind, my breath into you, and you will live. You will live.
One of the most important things we can do as people of faith is to engage in the sacred act of honest self-appraisal. We can look hard at our own situation—do our very best to see it clearly, like the exiles were able see their situation. How many of us feel, at times, that we are living in a kind of exile? How many of us are feeling disoriented, cut off from the places that have felt like home to us, cut off from our friends and families, cut off, even, from God, our very source?
When we are able to see clearly where we are, and we call out to God in our distress or isolation—just as honestly as the Hebrew people when they said, “Our hope is lost, we are cut off completely”—when we do this, there is room for the Spirit, the very breath of God to enter with power. The Spirit of God rushes in when we recognize the bare and painful truth of our need for God—when we open that space where we are able to admit that we cannot do it all ourselves. This is the truly good news in this passage: God hears our cries. This is what scripture tells us: “Spirit,” ruach, is not “airy-fairy” and separate from the body and remote and irrelevant. The Spirit matters. The work of the Spirit of God is the work of binding together weary flesh and dry, aching bones—yours and mine and our church’s. The action of the Spirit of God is earthy, and earthly—it is resurrection—resurrection now, in the form of new life and energy and joy. The power of God’s Spirit says, “You think you are beyond all hope. I know better.”
God wants us to be whole, not fragmented, body and spirit as one. But when we are feeling fragmented, cut off, or torn apart, God wants to be with us in our pain and distress. God wants us to call out—to pray, to sing, to share our fears and pains and joys. When we do, we open a space for the Spirit, who wants to bring us back from our exile and build us up into a living and thriving community—like that early group of Christians in the Acts of the Apostles. Remember what our passage says about them? They devote themselves to the teaching of the gospel and to fellowship, they share what they have, they break bread together. The Spirit is a powerful and ongoing reality of their lives together.
To say that the Spirit is present at the birth of the church, and then to simply leave the Spirit there and dismiss its role ever after, is a little like saying being a father is all about the act of conception. There is a role for a father to play there, to be sure. But being a father is about so much more—it is about being present, about recognizing a child’s needs and responding to them, about recognizing a child’s openness and teaching them. Being a father is a very flesh-and-bones activity—it is about picking up and holding, and binding up wounds and wiping away tears. And, yes, it is about changing diapers and feeding and all those earthy and earthly realities of basic human need. So it is with the Spirit. The Spirit helps us to recognize how very much we need one another, how we are just as connected to each other as the bones and sinews of our bodies are connected, as parents and children are connected. Thanks be to God, who holds us together, body and spirit, in this earthy and earthly reality of our lives. Thanks be to God who, when we feel like we are falling apart, gives us the power of prayer and fellowship, the blessed ties that bind us back together. Amen.
Photo courtesy of Flickr and (nz)dave.