Sunday Sermon

Day of Pentecost

Year B, RCL

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15; Psalm 104:25-35, 37

The Collect

Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

YOU SHALL LIVE

     The lessons for today are about the power of God to bring life.  Where you see life being restored, God is there and at work.  I began with the Ezekiel reading today, rather than Acts, because it is all about the laborious restoration of a people.  This image of an elephant graveyard like the La Brea tar pits with bones lying all mixed together mastodons, dinosaurs, mammals—all the detritus of creation in a huge sticky puddle.  The power of God begins to reunite the bones into skeletons, and then lays on the cartilage and sinew, the flesh, the organs, the skin.  Taking the leavings of creation God rebuilds a people to serve him.  It is exactly what I believe that Jesus did.  He was called and released the power of the Spirit of God, just as Ezekiel did, to work in and with and for us every day.  Someone said to me last week that they felt the Spirit of God in this place.  I replied, “So do I.”  

      When we look at a community of people that we know very well the warts of that community may be more obvious to us than its graciousness.  It takes the Spirit of God to see potential in a raw recruit, to build up a community of ministers from old sticky bones. Sometimes my greatest challenge is to bring a group of people to an appreciation of their own worth. I have often come to churches that were no longer able to perceive the gift they are and the gifts of ministry that they could bring to the communities in which they are located. They seemed to me lost, like sheep without a shepherd.  I have connected to that saying of Jesus many times.  We are called to be the spiritual, beating heart of the world.  It is the breath of God that calls us, that invites and cajoles us to join bone to bone, building back the strength that once was and can be again.  Last week I used the image of a scout building a fire with a stick, bow, tinder and elbow grease.  It’s not easy to do, requires a focused effort to make a coal with friction and to feed it bit by bit until there is enough flame for a camp fire.  Building a community from old sticky bones is that kind of slow, careful, focused work.   I believe that it is the best work in the world.

     Ezekiel is writing to a people devastated by the loss of all they knew.  Their homes, country, families, their identities.  We know from the stories that they hung up their harps and could not sing songs of home because it was just too painful.  That always touches me because I love to sing but have been too sad at times to sing. Ezekiel calls them from tragedy and sorrow to rebuild.  He indicates that the spirit of God has not deserted them.  That Holy Spirit will resume the work of creation beginning with their old, dry, dusty bones.  They may be a sorry remnant of what they were, and yet, and yet…their God has the power to restore them, will restore them when they call upon the name of the Lord, even in a foreign land. It is hard for me to explain to people how powerfully the Lord wills to do this.  It is a drive that defines God, that drive to rebuild, to restore, to bring to life again.  When we remain dwelling in sorrow and ashes we create a dying world to live in and we were not made for that.  We were made for life.

     I always try to recall you from dust and ashes when you are lingering there, just as I call my own self from that dry place when I stay too long.  I call you back with prayer together and intercessory prayer as I go about my day.  Rarely I will prod you because I know that you are created for life and not for dust and ashes.  That is what Ezekiel is doing as a prophet of Israel.  He calls her from her mourning to begin the work of living again, wherever they may be.  He knows the people and he knows God.  He calls God and man together, bringing them to this work of restoration in the power of the Spirit of God.  I love this passage. I rarely do this day without it.

     I love the image of the breath of God stirring the old, dry bones.  The breath begins in the will of God, flows into spirit of the prophet.  Filling his mind and then his lungs the Spirit moves out in speech to touch those old sticky bones with the breath of God’s intent.  Without the prophet there are no words to stir the bones.  In today’s gospel you read about the disciples who are told to preach the gospel.  Go out into the world and speak to it.  Everything that lives knows the voice of their maker at some level.  Because Jesus taught us about the living God these gospel words carry the power of creation to rebuild and restore.  Speak to the bones and they shall live because they know His voice.

     There are always false prophets and teachers and priests.  There have been since time began, and yet Jesus tells us, “I know mine and mine know me.” There is that continuous refrain in the gospel of John.  When you hear me, you hear the Father; when you see me, you see the Father; I and the Father are one.  The ones who know Jesus are the ones called by the Father.  Like those old dry bones, they know their Master.  I love the slow, plodding pace of the Ezekiel reading.  Speak to the bones.  

     They don’t spring back to life.  They are slowly, laboriously called back to life.  Invited, pleaded with, argued and commanded to live.  Slowly, gradually like watching grass grow, Israel is called back to life again over 70 years of exile in Babylon. Then a remnant returns to rebuild the home they left decades before.  The work of rebuilding overwhelms them.  Building takes time, will and supplies.  King Cyrus sends them home with all these things. Restoration takes even longer because it requires an understanding of who we have been and who we wish to be.  Their earlier project failed you see in a rather spectacular way.  Their nation was overcome, and their culture laid waste.  They need a new dream.  Without that dreaming restoration will stall.  The Spirit of God helps with that too, carrying the love of God into the world to make it active and enticing.  They discover the Law lost among the ruins and read it tenderly in the hearing of the people who have come home.  They rededicate themselves to that Law.  The muscle of the people is laid upon the bones of the community.  

     We are a people who choose the Law to regulate our lives.  Jesus set the commandments and the love command to rule the lives of his disciples.  He commands us in the power of the Spirit to keep them.  We are not just those who strive to keep the Law.  We believe in the power and forgiveness of God to help us.  This restoration works because God brings the life to it, continuously restoring the people who lose their way for any reason.  I say that because those who look to God for new life and intend to LIVE find that life restored.  My life has followed this cycle again and again when I felt crushed and wondered how I would go on.  You have seen me recover from forced retirement, loss of my Mother and Brother in the same month, knee replacement surgery for my failing knees.  I have seen you recover from whatever life has thrown at you again and again.  We have been witnesses to one another of the love and power of God that does not fail us as we struggle with loss.

     What does a human community need more than a loving God, life and a dream?  It needs hands to serve.  We are a dedicated people.  We are Jesus’ disciples.  We have the work of building and restoring community to do here, right here where we live.  This whole part of the country has been ill used, and we know it keenly.  But we are not just those who have been used.  We are more than that.  Pentecost is always about the MORE that God brings to the table. The power to reknit the community and make these bones live.  The Spirit of God moves among us bringing what we need as we need it.  I have called on this Spirit for years now.  The more I call on it the more I long to live up to God’s call to us.  This power of God builds in us the will to live as disciples as we call on it.  That is why you see the disciples raised up to preach the gospel to all nations beginning with Pentecost.  They experienced the presence of Jesus and through him were introduced to the power of the Spirit.  After Jesus returned to the Father they learned to experience that power on their own, and as they called on it they were strengthened in their discipleship.  Jesus showed them what that power working in them would look like, and then passed that power to them, trusting that they would learn what they needed to learn.

     In the Bible there are many periods of absolute desolation followed by restoration.  Most of us never experience the loss of everything and everyone like what is recorded in the Bible.  Noah and the flood, the slavery in Egypt, the Babylonian Captivity and the Roman destruction of the Jewish people and culture.  Each time a few people undertook to rebuild after the loss of absolutely everything.  Loss and restoration are addressed time and again in the Bible story.  The Spirit of God was released at Pentecost and active before the absolute destruction of the Jewish people, nation and culture by the Romans.  God sent His Son to disperse the seed of new life just as everything was falling apart.  Each time this happens in the Bible story the people recognize how they participated in their own destruction and resolve anew to build again. They rely on the power of God to save them and to help them do this work.

     This theme of loss and restoration recurs throughout the Bible, wheels within wheels. It is God who calls Israel to new life, who called Ezekiel to prophesy to those bones, who sent his Son to bring us the Gospel message, who sent his Spirit to build us up and make us disciples who rebuild community.  How can we neglect this message? How can we hope to rebuild without the power of God?  The power of decline is great.  We can feel it drawing us to circle the drain.  People in the Bible have felt that undertow, responded to it by taking up the work of restoring community, regardless of the cost.  As disciples we are asked to dedicate ourselves to bringing the power of God to bear on loss and destruction.             

     Have we failed regularly and most spectacularly?  Oh yes!  That cannot stop us because we know to call on God.  We know the way back to life and health.  God’s people have walked this path again and again through the ages of humankind.  We cannot, we must not be dismayed by the power that rips us apart.  God’s power is greater.  The Bible shows us the power of dissolution and the power of restoration working in human communities as they recover and undertake the work of rebuilding and restoring life and community.  The Ezekiel story is about the fundamental work of the people of God.  We call the world back to itself as created by God.  It is very hard, good work.  Let’s do it!

Sermon for Pentecost 2018 by the Rev. Deborah T. Rankin