Have you ever felt like dried out bones? Have you ever felt washed up, dried out, pushed beyond your limits? Have you ever felt like you were walking on a tread mill, getting nowhere and only tiring yourself out? Have you ever felt like despite your best efforts, nothing ever seemed to change? Were you almost ready to quit? Have you ever felt like dried out bones?
This past week, for the first time in my entire career, I found myself in a very unfamiliar place when it came to the biblical texts appointed for the day. Of course, today is Pentecost. It’s the birthday of the Church. It’s the day we remember the power that surged through the disciples turning them into apostles and proclaimers of the good news of Jesus Christ. It’s the day when in a rush of wind and flame fear was driven out, and an overwhelming, undeniable desire to tell of Jesus’ death and resurrection came over the followers who until this time had hidden behind locked doors. They moved out into the streets and began speaking in all sorts of languages where all could understand. At first, everyone thought they were drunk, but Peter proclaimed the message of Jesus to them, and 3000 people were added to the Church in one day. It’s a fantastic story. It’s a story that normally gets my blood pumping as I think about the realty of the power of God blowing with the Holy Spirit. It’s a story I love preaching on because I can talk about the vision of the Church and the power that can change the world. But it was not the story I found myself resonating with. Far from it.
Instead, I actually found myself in the Old Testament lesson from Ezekiel. It’s one of the other appointed texts for the day, and we read it just a few moments ago. It too is a story of power–God’s power in restoring a people and giving them life. But it begins with a valley of dry bones. And this is where I found myself.
For you must understand, for the first time in nearly 12 years, I could really and truly identify with those dry bones. Maybe you can too. Have you ever felt like dried up bones?
For most of us, it’s not one thing that brings us to that point. It’s a lot of things that keep piling up one after another after another. For me, it started with family. No, not my wife and kids; not that family. My church family. I read this little snippet the other night to our council for our devotion. It’s by Charles E. Jefferson who once described the difference between an audience and a church. He said, "An audience is a crowd. A church is a family. An audience is a gathering. A church is a fellowship. An audience is a collection. A church is an organism. An audience is a heap of stones. A church is a temple." And he concludes, "Preachers are ordained not to attract an audience, but to build a church." I hope that everyone in this room understands that critical difference. For you are my family–the family of God. And as such, that means something to me
St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians chapter 12 verse 36: If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. I don’t think I need to tell you but there have been a lot of our family members suffering, and I have done a lot of suffering with. Since last July, I counted at least seven of our members who have had open heart surgery of one sort or another. We’ve had tragedy strike children. We’ve had weird medical things happen to several of our congregation members. Two weeks ago, I put over 400 miles on my car driving to see hospitalized folks. I don’t mind the driving, but seeing folks suffering isn’t fun; again, especially when you care about those folks. All of this stuff in such a short amount of time wears a person down.
If that were the only part that takes its toll, it would be one thing, but there is more. As with most families, there is oftentimes conflict. We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had a whole lot of it, but there have been some things that have happened that were completely out of our control that caused some folks to become upset. Some have left our congregation in the past couple of weeks. I know this happens in every congregation, and ours is no exception, but it hurts. You see, going back to that whole family idea, I have a relationship with each and every one of you, and I don’t like it when those relationships get broken. I try hard to maintain my end of that relationship, and when it fails, there is pain. I know it’s my job to connect you with Christ and not myself, but I can’t help but get attached when I see what you do and how you operate. You see, I actually do care. The alternative is to keep a critical distance between myself and you so that I don’t feel that pain, but how is this possible if we truly follow the commands of Christ–or what Paul tells us about suffering and rejoicing together? It’s impossible. And so, I am open to pain.
And then the piece of straw that broke the camel’s back: I was extremely excited to announce to you that we’ve hired a new director of worship and music. I am overjoyed at what Janice Whitehead brings to the table. It seemed like as a congregation we’d have all our staff in place and ready to move forward. Well, that’s before Valerie told me she needed to leave as secretary of our congregation to get a full time position. It had nothing to do with our congregation, and God knows I watched her shed more than a few tears because she had to leave. But it hurts me to see her go as well. She’s been a joy to work with because of the passion she brings in serving the Lord and her desire to minister with you. She’s done an excellent job in handling the business of the church office, and I will miss her tremendously. My grief was palatable the day Valerie told me of this news. I was heading out to visit Christian Patterson in the hospital. I stopped at home to grab a drink on my way out. I told my wife at that point, "It’s almost getting to be too much."
Have you ever felt like a bunch of dried up bones? Have you ever wanted to just quit and let everything go? Have you ever wanted to walk away from the hurt and the disappointment and the frustration–to seek greener pastures where there weren’t as many headaches or heartache? Have you ever been there? Yeah, that’s where I’ve been in the past couple of weeks.
"Can these dry bones live?" These are God’s words to the prophet who stands looking at a valley of dry bones. It seems like a silly question. How can dry bones live? How can they carry on? How can they do anything more than serve as musical instruments for the wind to blow through? Can these dry bones live?
"Oh Lord God, you know."
God knows. God knows what He can do. God knows what He can accomplish. God knows that dry bones can indeed live. God knows such bones can be knit together, clothed with sinew and muscle. God knows they can be filled with breath and brought back to life. God not only knows such things can happen; God makes it happen.
Then the Lord offers His lesson, "11Then he said to me, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act," says the Lord.
Ezekiel’s message to you and to me at this juncture is, "Have hope." Don’t just believe, but expect that God will restore you. Don’t just believe, but expect that God will make good things happen. Don’t just believe, but expect that the Holy Spirit will blow through you and upon you to bring you back to strength and vitality so that God’s work can be accomplished.
And how does God do this? Here’s how it started with me. I got my first sense of restoration Wednesday night after council. In the midst of discussing all this stuff going on, I asked a question to one of the council members, "What are we trying to accomplish as a congregation?" What is our focus? What is our mission? What is God calling us to do and be in this time and place? What are we trying to accomplish?
Things solidified for me as I worked my way through that question, for I do have a dream about what the church is called to do and be in this time. I have a dream about the church that I think sets the church apart from the rest of society. Out in the world, we are divided. Out in the world we are forced into taking on labels: liberal and conservative; Republican and Democrat; pro-life and pro-choice; for gay marriage against gay marriage, and the list goes on and on and on. We are almost bred to distrust one another and insulate ourselves from people if they disagree with us.
But Jesus calls us to a higher standard. He calls us to love even those with whom we disagree. Now, notice I didn’t say, you have to accept what another person believes. Far from it. I don’t do that. In all likelihood, I never will. I’m pretty much set in what I believe. But one of the things I believe is that I am called to be like Jesus as best as I possibly can. I fall far short, but it is a goal–a goal I strive for. And how did Jesus handle sinners? How did He minister with them and to them?
You probably remember the woman caught in adultery. She was brought before Jesus for judgment. The law was clear. She should be stoned for her actions. But Jesus set himself between her and death. Jesus said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." All walked away except for Jesus. He saved her life and then said, "Go and sin no more."
Too often, we in the church are willing to say, "Go and sin no more" without showing the kind of love Jesus shows. Too often we are willing to point the finger without any sacrifice on our part. Too often we are willing to render judgment without being willing to die for others just like Jesus was willing to die for them. But what if we were? What if we really and truly sought to love the person and not what they believed? What if we really were different in the church? What if we didn’t try to change everyone else but allowed God to make those changes to them and to us, for aren’t we all a work in progress? Can you imagine the impact such a community of faith could have on the world?
There was a community that did that at one time, and it changed the world. The power of the Holy Spirit blew through them. It can also blow through us. Can these dry bones live? Absolutely. Amen.