Breath to Live; Ezekiel 37:1–14; April 2, 2017, FPC Holt

Breath to Live
Ezekiel 37:1–14
April 2, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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What is the meaning of life? Now if you’ve been reading your Book of Confessions you may echo the Westminster Catechism and tell me why of course it’s “to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” If you’ve been reading Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and you’re feeling a bit silly you may say, “42.” Even when we have full confidence in knowing our lives are in God’s hands, everyone experiences a season, or two, or many of thinking, “what is the meaning of my life?”

When you feel in a rut, or a valley if you will, and your wells of inspiration and perhaps even hope have dried up, it can be difficult to see God’s meaning or purpose in it. With this in mind, Ezekiel’s prophetic conversation with God doesn’t seem outside the bounds of what we might want to discuss with God as well. For some, these dry bones are far too close of an analogy, for those struggling with the ravages of cancer or loss, or in the deep throes of depression or grief, you know what it is to feel dried up and hollowed out.

In this text we hear God asking Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” And there seems to be some annoyance coming from Ezekiel as he responds with something akin to, “I dunno. You tell me!”

Like anything in the Bible, this text is not an isolated little story of some time that Ezekiel spent talking to God in a valley, but comes to us from the historical context of the Babylonian Exile. Ezekiel, alongside other Judeans, was thrown out of Jerusalem and the temple was destroyed. Previous to that time the people of Israel were similarly deported, losing their communal identity in the ravages of life as refugees in Babylon. Ezekiel then was speaking to a people who were, in a great many ways, lost. By many markers of ancient culture, these followers of the God of Moses and of Abraham would have every reason to believe that their God had indeed lost out to a Babylonian god. They’ve taken over the Davidic monarchy, broken down the temple, uprooted the people, what’s left? It is in this context we hear, “mortal, can these bones live?”

It reminds me of a question in another story, that of Mary Lenox and Dickon discovering a Secret Garden and asking, “will it grow?”

When I was younger my parents would read to my sister and I every night. One of my favorite reading experiences was the Secret Garden. My experience was most certainly heightened by my mother’s love of this story, particularly in the musical stage adaptation. When we read the Secret Garden we had plans to go to see the musical in Detroit at the Fisher Theater when we had finished it.  As we read the story, we accompanied it with a listening of the soundtrack, but my mom was always sure to stop it before it got past wherever we were in the story so as not to spoil any of the plot for us. So, needless to say, we heard that soundtrack quite a bit over the weeks leading up to seeing that production.

One of the songs was titled, “Wick.” When Mary and Dickon uncover the Secret Garden, Mary believes that all the plants have died because, well, they look like they’ve all died. Dickon explains that it’s not so simple, there’s still life in those plants, life that can be coaxed out with attention and care. He calls this spark of life within the plants their “wick,’ and sings:

“When a thing is wick, it has a light around it. Maybe not a light that you can see. But hiding down below a spark’s asleep inside it, Waiting for the right time to be seen. You clear away the dead parts, So the tender buds can form, Loosen up the earth and Let the roots get warm, Let the roots get warm.”

Dickon knows the potential left in those plants and knows the way to bring it out. He will prune and water, weed and rake. He will take away the dead parts to give room for life to flourish. He knows that though this garden has experienced abandonment, it’s story is not over yet.

Ezekiel finds himself in a similar position, but learning how to bring renewed life only through God’s good counsel, who tells him to prophesy to the bones, to tell them, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

When you are feeling like those dried bones or that neglected garden, it really isn’t a matter of pulling yourself out of it, you need that prophetic word. You need someone else to believe on your behalf that there is life in you that is worth saving; noticing and naming that you are “wick,” and then tending you back into blooming.

This spring there has been an incredible example of renewed life in, of all places, Death Valley. As the name would suggest, this valley is known for being dry, a place where not much grows. But… every decade or so, there is just enough rain that there is a super-bloom that brings life and brightness to the valley. Rangers are saying that this year is the best one they’ve seen since 2005.

The Washington Post describes it this way:

“The types of flowers that appear during a superbloom are known as ‘desert ephemerals,’ since they are so short-lived, according to the National Park Service. Their brief lifespan is a survival strategy; rather than battle the relentless heat year after year, the flowers’ seeds lie dormant underground….One upside of the hot, dry conditions is that they keep the seeds from rotting as they shelter beneath the soil, waiting for the right moment to sprout. A winter like this one provides that moment. An autumn storm brought 0.7 inches (a deluge by the desert’s standards) to the valley in October. The storm was devastating at the time, setting off flash floods and damaging one of the visitors’ centers. But it also prompted park rangers to begin speculating about a super bloom like they hadn’t seen in more than 10 years.

“The rainstorm washed the protective coatings off of the dormant seeds, the NPS explained, allowing them to sprout. Then, the “godzillo” El Niño climate cycle that has chilled and drench parts of the West Coast… brought more water to the parched landscape. The continued watering kept the … plants alive as they waited for spring to come. With the arrival of warmer weather … the plants finally began to flower.

In a video we’re about to watch, Van Valkenburg says “I’ve lived in Death Valley for 25 years and I’ve seen lots of blooms, lots of wildflower blooms in Death Valley, and I kept thinking I was seeing incredible blooms. I always was very excited. Until I saw one of these super blooms. “And then I suddenly realized there are so many seeds out there just waiting to sprout, waiting to grow,” he continued. “… When you get the perfect conditions…they can all sprout at once.”

What in you is lying in wait for God’s breath to make it live? Who around you needs the care and tending that you can provide to help them bloom to their fullest? As we enter this Spring season, may we be attentive to that which is “wick” in one another, seeking to speak God’s message of hope, that God is ever eager to fill our lungs with the breath of new life. Amen.

Watch: www.washingtonpost.com/video/c/embed/b7ba8caa-d166-11e5-90d3-34c2c42653ac

“Make Way”; John 1:1-8, 19-23; December 14, 2014; FPC Holt

“Make Way”
John 1:1-8, 19-23
Rev. Kathleen Henrion
December 14, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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2014 12 14 Slide01Wilderness. It is a place where one can get lost, some intentionally, some accidently. It is a place of in between: between Exodus and Promised Land, between an inheritance and a prodigal’s return. It is the place that lies below the mountaintop and precedes the burning bush. It is a place of abandonment and provision; humility and testing. Where manna falls and rocks gush. Even when we enter into it willingly, wilderness is not a place where one intends to stay, but rather the place from which one comes.

2014 12 14 Slide02Wilderness is not restricted to the Biblical narratives. Wilderness can look like the descending cloud of depression coloring all that you experience. Wilderness can be the powerlessness felt when watching the news or reading the paper. Wilderness can look like learning to navigate life after the loss of a beloved spouse, parent, sibling, or child. Wilderness can be the cold plunge into the unforgiving waters of Alzheimer’s. By nature, wilderness isn’t restricted at all, but rather it paints obscurity over that which we think we know, in either our surroundings or our very selves.

2014 12 14 Slide03Jesus was no stranger to the wilderness, both surrounding him and within his own self. We often, and rightly so, associate “wilderness” in our liturgical year with the season of Lent, as Jesus goes into the wilderness for forty days proceeding his fateful week in Jerusalem that took him from parade to upper room to cross. But today, we have a different scene of one emerging from the wilderness into the public eye.

2014 12 14 Slide04He had his surprising birth announced by an angel. He lived life as a revolutionary, an outcast of society. He preached the truth of God’s judgment and God’s grace. He proclaimed the coming reign of God and the establishment of God’s Kingdom. And being that we’re in church, less than two weeks away from Christmas, it seems logical to imagine that I’m talking about Jesus. And of course that biography would be fitting for Jesus, but it also belongs to Jesus’ cousin, John, SLIDE 4 - John the Baptistalso known as John the Baptist, forerunner of Christ, “the voice crying out in the wilderness.”

The wilderness is John’s origin in this Gospel, and his persona is notably marked by these beginnings.SLIDE 5 - Saint John the Forerunner  John is often depicted like this picture here. Here in this otherwise formal portrait, John is disheveled, a wild man of wilderness. He was described wearing a leather belt and a tunic of camel hair, living off locusts and wild honey. He comes from the wilderness place of in between.

He comes with the message of Christ coming soon and still not yet.

SLIDE 6 – John Preaching to CrowdAs John stands among a gathered crowd, priests and Levites that the Jews had sent to Jerusalem confront him. They ask him, “Who are you,” and there is a series of back and forth questions and answers between John and these Pharisee representatives. Is he the Messiah? No, not the Messiah. Elijah? Nope, not Elijah. Surely he must be a prophet. No, not a prophet.

As these priests run out of possible suggestions they seem to throw their hands up in the air saying, “Who are you? …What do you say about yourself?” He replies not with his name or credentials, but with scripture he says, “‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

John defines himself by his wilderness context and by his voice that testifies to Christ’s imminent presence among them. We read that John was sent from God and “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

Who John is and what he does are as a function of his role as witness to the light of Christ, in and among the dark wilderness spaces of this world. This light shines in darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.

SLIDE 8 - MirrorIn his book, “It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It,” Robert Fulghum tells this story: “At the last session of a two-week seminar on Greek culture, our instructor (asked), ‘Are there any questions?’ These two weeks had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but for now there was only silence. So I asked. ‘What is the meaning of life?’ He looked at me for a long time, asking with his eyes if I was serious and seeing from my eyes that I was. ‘I will answer your question.’ Taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, he fished out a very small round mirror, about the size of a quarter and said: ‘When I was a small child, we were very poor and lived in a remote village. One day, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find. I kept this little mirror, and as I grew up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I am not the light or the source of light. But light is still there, and will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it. I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world and help change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.’”[1]

SLIDE 9 - Light in DarknessJohn knew this was the meaning of his life. He was not the light, but he would do everything in his capacity to reflect that light that had touched his life.

What is the wilderness you find yourself in today? Your space of disorientation, confusion, disillusionment, or disconnect?

What could you do with in this wilderness space with just a little bit of light? The good news that John brings for you and for me and for all of us is that the light is never overcome by the darkness.

SLIDE 10 - Christmas Eve Columbia Seminary Professor, Marcia Y. Riggs writes “Like John we live as witness to the light of Christ, for the light of Christ is life. Thus, as we testify to the light, we also embody that light as believers who reveal the life of Christ anew in the world this Advent season. To embody the light and reveal the life of Christ anew means that we are to live so as to nurture our humanity – especially the capacity to love our enemies – and to act humanely, offering compassionate and restorative justice.”[2]

SLIDE 11 - Candle What does this light mean for our own wilderness? Might it be that what we now only see as wilderness is in fact Advent embodied? We, like John, await Christ’s presence in our lives with hope. Through our hope we are making a way in the wilderness for Christ to come again.

Thomas Merton, 20th century Catholic writer and mystic wrote this of our wilderness turned Advent hope, “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”[3]

Might we live as Advent people, make a way for Christ’s light to shine in our wilderness. Amen.

[1] “The Meaning of Life”: from It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It by Robert Fulghum ©1988, Ballantine Books

[2] Marcia Y. Riggs, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1

[3] Thomas Merton, http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/weekly-seeds/hope-restoredrejoice-always.html

“Loving a God Who is Worthy;” Deuteronomy 30:15-20; February 16, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Loving a God Who is Worthy”
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
February 16, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - what_do_you_wantWhat do you want? At different points in our lives this can be the simplest or the most baffling of questions. You might answer “a ham and cheese sandwich,” or “to be a better person,” or “to meet the person of my dreams.

What do you want?

Slide02When we look at it on a larger scale the question could be “what do you want to shape your life?” or “why are we here?”

Perhaps the answer is still “a ham and cheese sandwich,” but since you are a person who seems to find it worth your time to show up at church on Sundays, gathered with the people of God to experience God’s presence and seek God’s will for their lives, I’m guessing you are searching a little harder than simply creating a lunch order.

Slide03The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church is made up of two books, one is the book of order which tells us how we do all sorts of things in the church from the buying and selling of property to the placement of the communion table and the methods of baptism. Our new elders and deacons study these each year for their training in the leadership of the church. This book shows us a lot of the “how” of the work of our church, but for the why, we look to the other half of the Presbyterian constitution, the Book of Confessions.

This book is a compilation of various confessions over time that the Presbyterian Church affirm as congruent with what we believe to be true. If you take the time to read through these documents you will find that there are some tensions in what we believe. Some tensions between the affirmations of the various confessions, but still, as Presbyterians we affirm that all of these things, even in their tension, get at the truth of God.

There’s a lot of answers in these confessions as to the “why” of our lives, and all of the “what”s that accompany them.

Slide04The shorter Westminster Catechism is a series of questions and answers, the first of which is “what is the chief end of man?”

This giant question that people have attempted to answer for years of years the Westminister Catechism summed up in just one sentence: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”

“Glorify God and enjoy God forever.”

Understanding and affirming that as our own chief end, or reason of being is both empowering and daunting. Knowing that we are to glorify God with are lives can seem like an insurmountable task, causing us to question all of the little  ways that we live our day. Am I being kind to others? Am I showing respect to my self as a creation of God in the way that I eat, exercise, and practice habits? Is the job that I have chosen reflecting God’s glory into the world?

But the second part of that confession, is much easier to take in, “enjoy God forever.” That sounds great to me. Basking in the glory of God, simply enjoying God in all of God’s goodness.

Our scripture today gives us insight into how we can live out this chief end of God.

15See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” – Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Slide07By choosing to love and follow God we are choosing a life of hope, a life of blessing. This scripture is clear that there is another choice that can be made. We can chose to turn away our hearts, we can chose to follow other gods, and in fact we will be tempted to do so, but those who make it out to look to be easier and more gratifying and simpler. But the ease and simplicity of following that which is not God does not last and it does not have our best interest in mind.

Slide08Free will is a tricky thing, given to humankind so that we might be in relationship with God. So we might respond to the love of God. We are not puppets, and God knows that when given the choice, we all to often chose the wrong thing, we all to often chose things that do not bring us life.

Adam and EveWhen Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden they had a great many choices: what to name each individual animal, what beautiful garden they wanted to rest under A they enjoyed God’s presence. They only had one choice that would cause them harm, one choice that would limit their experience of life, their experience of relationship with God. And, as we all know the story, of all the choices they had, they took that choice, the choice to bring separation into the world, the choice to not trust God in providing all they needed. And for it, they were banished from the garden of Eden, and humankind was forever held at a distance from our creator God.

Our world is filled with an innumerable amount of choices these days. With instantaneous availability of almost and movie, music, or book we could desire and an internet full of almost any thing we could ever imagine to search for, it is hard to think of things as black and white, right and wrong.

SLIDE 10 - Choice GraphicI came across this graphic this week, showing a diagram of how an average consumer in today’s world would address a basic problem, “having a headache,” and then it spirals out from there of all the many ways they can make that choice and the actions to be taken. Just look at this fives me a bit of a headache. Even the simple choices are not so simple anymore.

These days there’s kaleidoscope of choices spanning the spectrum of good and bad. God calls us in this text to chose a way that is different from the culture around us. A way that is often countercultural even, choosing to follow God in faithfulness.

SLIDE 11 - TorahThe Jewish community that would have been the first to adopt this book of Deuteronomy as their own truth did not see it as a restrictive document but as a gift. The scripture of God, the Torah was a gift to them. It showed them how to be in right relationship with God. It showed them how to choose life, as God instructs us to do in this passage. It showed them how to glorify God and enjoy God forever.

SLIDE 12 - JesusWhen Jesus came, the rule following aspect of our faith was thrown upside down like the tables Jesus turned over in the temple. We’re no longer instructed not to eat pork or not to wear clothing of blended fibers. At the same time, Jesus came to fulfill the Torah, to create a way beyond the rules, into the very arms of God.

SLIDE 13 - ArrowsOur scripture gives us a choice: will we chose life or death? Will we chose God or will we chose the world?

When our scripture tells us that to choose other gods will cause us to perish, it’s not just talking about death as an end to our life, it’s talking about being whittled away, becoming less than what God intended for our lives. If we chose that which causes us to perish, we are making the conscious choice to life in a state of diminished possibility. When we direct our reverence towards things that are not God, we miss out on having that relationship reciprocated in a life fueling way.

SLIDE 14 - mountaintopOnly God is God, and only our creator knows how to love and care for us so utterly and completely. Only God knows every desire of our heart and has intentions fully for our well being.

Choosing life means that we get to live into all that God intends for us. We get to fully realize the possibilities that come with a life in relationship with God. Choosing God is choosing this life of fulfillment.

May you discover the joy and promise of living to glorify God, and enjoying God forever. Amen.