Journey to the Table: Finding New Life
A sermon for University Congregational Church
Sunday, April 23, 2017
Pastor Paul E. Ellis Jackson
Ezekiel 37New International Version (NIV)
The Valley of Dry Bones
37 The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life.6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’”
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel.13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’”
“Christian vocation, then, is not just hearing the voice of God and then responding, but it is tied deeply to the suffering of this world.” Patrick B. Reyes
Journey to the Table: Finding New Life
Today is the first Sunday of our new sermon series, Journey to the Table. For the past few weeks we’ve traveled together all over the Jordan Valley as we journeyed to that great river to be baptized, as it were, and now it’s time to head to the table—the table of our shared community—the table of communion. So, let’s get started!
I asked Robin to share the Hebrew Bible prophetic dream of Ezekiel for a number of reasons: It’s the lectionary text for this week and I had to write a midrash for my upcoming chapel service at Phillips Seminary on Tuesday, so my head was already wrapped around these two-thousand six-hundred year-old words; I wanted you to hear the language that the Jewish people used to talk about dreams; the evocative images and the use of metaphor; and I wanted us to be reminded of the ancient covenant between Israel and God, because the roots of our faith are planted firmly in the solid ground of that covenant. So, first, death…and us.
Last week Robin reminded us of how the great resurrection of Jesus Christ is a call for us– that “Easter is the beginning of the rest of your story. You may be standing next to an empty tomb not knowing what is next.” Indeed—what is next? And this same question must have been on the minds of the early Jewish people after once again suffering a terrible devastating event in their history.
The Hebrew Bible’s prophetic book of Ezekiel covers a very critical 22 year period in Jewish history: from about 593 BCE to about 571 BCE—shortly after the Babylonian ruler King Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the First Temple and had forced the Jewish elite, the rulers and priests, into exile and slavery in Babylon. This left those Jews whom remained in Judah without a true king—they were instead ruled by a Babylonian occupying administrator. This left the Jewish people in a state of disequilibrium and dual identity: They had a large number of their people left in Judah and then their leaders and priests were in exile in Babylon. A split personality almost?
So into this gap comes their Prophet, Ezekiel, who is going to serve more as a “watchman” to guard the remnants of Israel, and this is unlike the other Hebrew Bible prophets who called the Jewish Nation to repent and return to covenant with Adonai. But there is a deep and troubling question that is posed to the Jewish people, and one that Ezekiel attempts to answer–this question that emerged after the unimaginable destruction of their temple and ensuing separation of their people. Here’s the question that is posed: What is the status of this covenant between God and the Jewish people after it has been broken by Israel and after God has allowed their sacred temple to be destroyed? Is new life possible for them in both the degradation of Babylonian occupation and the slavery and defacement their leaders and priests endured in their exile? Broken covenant—broken promises—on both sides. And Ezekiel is going to try and return his people to “right relationship” by returning into covenant with Adonai.
How many times in our own histories have we broken our covenant with God? How many times have we broken our covenant and promises with each other? And how many times have our modern prophets called us to return to right relationship? Patrick Reyes is once such modern prophet and I’ve been studying Patrick’s work in one of my other seminary classes this semester. Aren’t you all lucky—you get to share in my outrageous burden of reading—you know, I saved three electives for this, my last semester—thinking that, you know, they’re elective classes—how tough can they be? No one told me that “elective” is a relative term, especially in seminary—I have more reading assignments and more writing assignments in this, my final semester, than I’ve had in any of the previous ones. But—three weeks—three more weeks—and I’m finished! Of course, then the real work begins, right? Anyway, back to Patrick Reyes…
Patrick Reyes was born into a Latino community in Los Angeles where generational poverty and the ensuing, almost inevitable, violence that occurred was a constant threat to his life and this violence continues to threaten life in this moment. Somehow, Patrick survived against almost impossible odds to become a leading theologian and educator today. Dr. Reyes was subjected to horrible defacement and dehumanization on his journey to adulthood and he documents, not only his great struggles against institutionalized and socially accepted forms of racism and defacement, but his ultimate rebirth into New Life through his relationship with mentors, church members and church leaders, and his fellow students and academics who saw in him great potential. Patrick’s journey is documented in his new book, Nobody Cries When We Die: God, Community, and Surviving to Adulthood.
Dr. Reyes tells of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepfather. The unimaginable violence he encountered on a daily basis. Listen to this modern prophet’s words as he describes his life: “As a child, I always listened intently for the sound of God. God could have come in any form. Raised in a Latinx Catholic Church, I longed to hear God calling me out of my adolescent reality and into a thriving future. Sometimes, that is what we think vocation is: God calling us out of our present reality and into some divinely purposed and infinitely better future. Unfortunately, life does not always allow this to occur. In fact, God often just calls us to survive. That’s how it was for me. The days were always short when I knew what was waiting for me at home. When my parents split, I was only 12. I remember feeling as though my conscience split. My sense of right and wrong, my grounding, my sense of belonging to a space—to a people—belonging to the Holy, all felt off.”
Does any of that sound familiar? Didn’t our Jewish ancestors feel those exact same emotions in their forced division? Patrick Reyes shares his journey from these feelings of non-belonging and division to a new life of community and inclusion. His journey is as heart-breaking as it is life-affirming and it is profoundly moving. Later in the book, when dealing with generational issues and institutionalized racism, Reyes writes these words: “My father’s own method of survival was to get an education and get away from his home community. My father, like many Latinxs, saw education and work as ways of ‘getting out of’ one’s material conditions. My father, an incredibly brilliant man, had two recruiters from Harvard come out to visit him and persuade him to attend their institution. I suppose he checked a lot of boxes—poor, brown, Mexican and smart. Did he attend? No. Why? Because he was the first in his family to get an education and no one knew who or what Harvard was. Now, before you roll your eyes, think for a moment that this was before the Internet. This was before mass communication. Bakersfield, the town he grew up in, is one of the poorest communities in California. The Central Valley had migrant farm laborers and some services, but didn’t’ have any emphasis on education.” Patrick Reyes’s honors his father by sharing his father’s story, which is part of Patrick’s story. Patrick is trying to make sense of his life by retelling his family’s story—their hopes and dreams.
The Hebrew Bible prophet Ezekiel shares with his people a prophetic dream he had. It’s called The Valley of the Dry Bones and it’s in your bulletins. It’s a dark and brooding meditation on death and resurrection and in it Ezekiel is showing the way to New Life for the Jewish people. As Robin shared with you at the beginning of this sermon, the images in the Valley of the Dry Bones are stark and disheartening– and yet, we are called to find the breath of God within us and to find new life within our dry bones.
Maundy Thursday, a little over a week ago, Robin and Laura and I presented an evening communion service as we prepared for Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. As I was introducing our communion I told those gathered that I was taking communion that evening to clear away the dust of my life that had accumulated that week. I was breathing out the dry flecks of my life that were weighing me down and keeping me from fully participating in our Easter celebrations. This symbolic cleansing of my mind and heart served me so well. I was able to enjoy the company of those gathered that evening and to really contemplate some deep and powerful thoughts on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. By last Sunday morning, when this congregation joined in full voice with our orchestral guests and this wonderful choir as we all proclaimed “Christ the Lord is Risen today, Alleluia!” I was almost overwhelmed. Tears were coming to my eyes and the palpable energy and power in this room was thrilling. I took some deep breaths and reminded myself that I had much work ahead of me that morning, so I better get my head out of the clouds and back to the tasks at hand. But for that sublime moment I allowed myself to feel the breath of God, present in your voices, fill my soul and let me soar. I doubt I could have experienced this without the preparation of Maundy Thursday-without the clearing of my mind that I endeavored to do during our little communion in Fellowship Hall. I think this is similar to what Ezekiel was pointing to when he wrote: “I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.”
The heart of Patrick Reyes’ book and the theme of Ezekiel are both of being present in the suffering of this world. When we turn away from the suffering of humans, whether they are the neighbor next door who is struggling with depression, or the woman in the supermarket who is angry with her misbehaving child and embarrassed and frustrated, or is the suffering is of the migrant laborer who works 10 hours a day on a Wisconsin dairy farm and sends over one half of their income home to Mexico, or if the suffering is that of a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy and trying to decide how to move her life forward. If we refuse to face the multitudes who suffer every day—the homeless man over here at K-96 and Rock begging for change—the families this church served yesterday at the Hygiene Pantry—the Nicaraguans that we are building relationships with—if we choose to ignore their suffering, then we can’t know God. God is present in this suffering and God is asking us to breathe New Life into the dry bones of human suffering.
The suffering may be in your own life. Where do you need God to breathe new life? As Robin asked us last week: “What about you? Are you standing at an empty tomb not knowing what to think or expect? To be an Easter person is to discover the joy of giving birth to new life, new relationships, hopeful beginnings, and exciting adventures. What is straining within you to be born? Is it poetry? A new venture? A dream? A relationship which is budding? Is it music waiting to be written or played? Is it a new skill waiting to be developed? Your faith anxious to be shared? All of these “dry bones” are awaiting the new life of God, and you, to be breathed into them.
Patrick Reyes closes his book with the prayer that Robin shared during our prayer time this morning and I repeat part of it in conclusion. These are the words of a man who not only endured terrible suffering in his own life and not only witnessed terrible suffering in the lives of others, but he survived to breathe new life into all of this. I am making his prophetic words my own—I am borrowing them as an anthem for myself—hear his words now: “This is a call to life. Don’t let it be choked out by the suffering of the world. I am here. Send me. I am here, God. Send me. I am here, and I love you. I love you like my grandma loved me. I love you like my family loved me. I am here because I love life. I am here because I am to till the soil so new life may emerge. I am here because I survive. I am here because I survived and no longer fear death…but sometimes am haunted by it. I am here because of my vocation. My call. My call from God to breathe life into the world with you. I am here, Send me. We are here, together, in life.” May Patrick Reyes’ words resonant with us this morning—as we think of the suffering we encounter in our owns lives and those of our neighbors—“We are all here, together, in life” May God send us into the world, to stand in the midst of human suffering and be a witness to the fact that God is present in our suffering and that God, through us and our work together, can breathe new life into old, dry bones.
Please stand as you are able and sing our choral benediction.