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

Listen here

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

Photo a Day Lent – Day 15: Hear

“Hear”

SONY DSC

This picture is from a Taizé service at Richmond Hill. The night of this service rain was pouring down outside with thunder and lightening crashing. In generally quiet and contemplative service, God was collaborating with the musicians in the service taking place. Sometimes God’s presence is hard to discern, but that evening, God was certainly there.
“Whoever has an ear that hears, let him hear. And his disciples approached and they were saying to him, “Why are you speaking with them in parables?” But he answered and said to them: “It has been given to you to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to one who has it, it will be given, and it will be increased. And from him who has it not, will be taken even that which he has, therefore I am speaking to them in parables because they who see do not see, and those who hear neither hear nor understand. And the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled in them, which says, ‘Hearing you will hear, and you will not understand, and seeing you will see and you will not know.” – Matthew 13:9-14

Aramaic Bible in Plain English (©2010)

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey,” Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41; June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey”
Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41
June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

The other day I went for a hike on Mount Greylock, on the Bradley Farm trail. This trail is a “self guided trail,” with markers every once and a while. The numbers on the markers correspond with numbers on a brochure and each has information about that specific site.

One of the sites drew my attention to a big rock in the pathway. I looked at my brochure and it said, “The Mount Greylock range is made up of mostly grey-colored metamorphic rock (changed through heat and pressure), as in this boulder. According to geologists this rock here was created from what was once part of a muddy sea bottom hundreds of millions of years ago. Bands of translucent, white colored quartzite, formerly sand, are found here too.”

Reading this, I couldn’t help but laugh, you see, as I was driving up the mountain I was thinking about our scripture passages today, how to bring light and life to two very different passages. One, which we heard read from Genesis, discussing the formation of the world, and another, which we read together, speaking of a short narrative moment in Jesus’ ministry, both having to do with God’s ability to control the ocean.  And then my car stereo started playing a favorite song of mine, Paul Simon’s “Once Upon a Time There was an Ocean.”

The chorus to this song goes, “Once upon a time there was an ocean but now it’s a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.”[1]

And now, here I was, about 3,400 feet above sea level, being told that I was much closer to being in an ocean than those 3,400 feet would have me believe.

Thinking of these large shifts in the ocean over a long period time I tried to picture the land around me in a new way. That the nearby butterflies were not butterflies at all, but rather they were seahorses, flitting about in a familiar way. And the fern along the path, bent in the wind as seaweed moved by a slight current in the ocean.

How different things seem when we look at them through the long lens of history. Amazingly, this is the very vantage point that God brings to creation and to our lives.

In our New Testament passage today, we read that Jesus and a group, widely assumed to be his disciples, are traveling across the Sea of Galilee on a boat, when a great windstorm arises and the water laps over the sides. While the disciples were frantic, Jesus was asleep on a cushion. They awake Jesus and say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He wakes up, rebukes the wind and tells the sea, “Peace! Be still!” The wind stops and it is entirely calm. Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” They were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Nowadays the body of water they were traveling across is called Lake Kinneret. It’s a large, shallow body of water, prone to very sudden violent storms. West of the lake are mountains that form a funnel around winds blowing in from the Mediterranean, creating volatile weather over the lake.[2] By their nature, these storms don’t last for long.

Let’s be clear, this storm was frightening, and no one could fault the disciples for feeling threatened by this seemingly all-encompassing storm, but by Jesus’ reaction we see that this fear was greater than that. Pastor and author David Lose offers this perspective, he writes: “maybe the issue isn’t that the disciples are understandably afraid because of the storm, it’s that they allowed their fear to overtake them so that they don’t come to Jesus and say, ‘Teacher, we need your help,’ but rather come already assuming the worst, ‘Teacher, don’t you care that we’re dying.’ This isn’t a trusting or faithful request; it’s a fear-induced accusation.”[3]

God has the bigger perspective, has seen the other side and knows that this storm will end.

I am reminded of a slogan that arose out of a tragic string of suicides particularly among LGBT youth in the late summer of 2010. In response to a number of students taking their own lives after being bullied in school, author Dan Savage created a YouTube video with his partner Terry Miller to inspire hope for young people facing harassment. They wanted to create a personal way for supporters everywhere to tell LGBT youth that, “It gets better.”[4]

“It gets better.” What I appreciate about this slogan is that it does not seek to diminish the current pain that anyone is feeling, but rather strives to instill hope for the future. Living with bullying and harassment is indeed a very violent storm, all encompassing when it is around you. And when it is around you, you’re not sure that it will end. But Dan Savage and a great many people following his lead speak out from the other shore, beyond the crashing sea, saying, “It gets better.”

In Hebrew there is a phrase that I feel encompasses this all surrounding stormy-ness: toehoo vahvohwho. In a literal translation it means chaotic void. It is found in the second verse of Genesis, which was read for us today. Beginning at verse 1, we read:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was toehoo vahvohwho and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This place of chaos, of desperation is our starting point. It is the raw ingredients from which our entire world came into existence.

Through God’s creation, this toehoo vahvohwho mess is separated out, dark from light, sky from water, land from sea. Creation, is inevitably an act of separating what is to become one from what is to become another. Even at a microscopic level we see this act, cells separating, particles pushing away from one another.

There is a story told that the great artist Michelangelo was once asked how he created his famous statue of David. He responded that he simply started with a block of stone and then chipped away everything that wasn’t David. And perhaps this is how we can view our own creation; our experiences sometimes chipping away at us, other times smoothing the rough edges, so that we can become fully who God created us to be.

Now, I am not going to stand here and say that our God is a God who would intentionally inflict pain to makes us better people, or to test us, or because we can handle it. But, I do believe that when we are in the midst of the storm we are to trust that it will indeed get better and to have faith that God’s will will be enacted by how we react to the storms of our lives.

There is an interesting moment in our Mark narrative today, where the disciples’ perspective is changed. In the midst of the storm they cry out to Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Once he has calmed the storm they are filled with great awe and say to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

In Jesus’ transformative act they are moved from one type of fear, that of panic and fright to another type of fear, that brought about by the awe and reverence of encountering something greater than ourselves.

“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” It’s a good question. Why would the wind and the sea stop at the command of a man? Well, we know that Jesus was more than a man, he was part of the Trinity, He was God incarnate. The wind and the sea obey God because God was the one who created them.

In our passage in Genesis, starting in verse 9 we read, “And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.”

The ocean became ocean by being separated from the dry land.

The hymn we will sing at the end of this service, “God Marked a Line and Told the Sea,” expounds on the meaning of these verses in Genesis. While I won’t read you all the lyrics, the first verse paints a good picture of the text, “God marked a line and told the sea its surging tides and waves were free to travel up the sloping strand, but not to overtake the land.”

As we know all to well, the seas have borders, until they don’t. Tsunamis have killed thousands, wiped out villages, crippled countries. Levee walls have burst, taking homes and lives in the wake. And we don’t even need to look beyond the borders of this town to know the devastation caused by flooding.

Why couldn’t Jesus ask the wind and seas to stop then? Were our prayers not strong enough? Why do such disasters seem to affect the people and places that can least afford such destruction?

We’re not given those answers.

We are, however, given these words in Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult…The LORD of hosts is with us.”

“The Lord of hosts is with us.” These are not empty words, but a promise lived out through the redeeming life of Jesus Christ and the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit. God is present in the midst of our suffering. God’s promise of salvation is an ever echoing, “it gets better,” “it gets better.”

Perhaps instead of being chipped away like Michelangelo’s David we could see ourselves like the ocean depth turned purple mountain range that surrounds us here in Williamstown. Maybe what we are undergoing is not a refinement, but a revelation. When we are able to trust in God’s greater perspective, God’s desire for good in our lives, we are able to see the possibility that though we may feel buried by oceanic depths, we are simultaneously a mountain range yet to be unveiled.

In both the joys and toehoo vahvohwho of our lives, all the raw ingredients of faithfulness are there. We must look to God’s creative hand, guided by eternal perspective to help us separate out what is to be from what is not to be. The words of Paul Simon might be right to call God’s great and beautiful act of creation, “Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.” Glory be to God. Amen.


[1] “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean,” by Paul Simon

[2] “Mark 4:35-41, Commentary on Gospel” by Sharon H. Ringe, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=6/21/2009&tab=4