Extricated by Hope
This sermon, on Ezekiel 37:1-14, was preached at the final worship service of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Asheville, NC, on October 25, 2015.
We would rather be ruined than changed.
We would rather die in our dread
than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.[i]
These words from W.H. Auden have been rattling in my head for the past few months.
God takes Ezekiel to a place of ruin. We don’t know much about this valley. Maybe it was a battlefield or maybe these people had died of famine. Ezekiel’s people were cut off from their land. They were living in exile. They no longer felt hope.
Life without hope is devastating.
* * *
About a month or two ago, an elder and I visited or called everyone in this congregation to share the decision to provide closure to this ministry. It was really hard.
Yes, it seemed like the sensible to do.
Yes, no one was surprised.
Yes, it was a possibility that we had openly discussed.
It was difficult, though, because you are a people of hope.
We may have been out of optimism, but we had an abundance of hope.
Optimism waxes and wanes; our hope is eternal.
* * *
Just ask Ezekiel, whose name means “God strengthens” or “God will strengthen.”
Matter of fact, if I could, I’d go back in time—there has been a lot of discussion time travel this week—and speak to Church Extension Committee of the Asheville Presbytery. I’d tell them, and “Name that Haw Creek/Beverly Hills congregation Ezekiel Presbyterian Church. Name them God will strengthen.”
It would have been a fitting name for this congregation.
Ezekiel needed strengthening. He had the impossible task of being both priest and prophet of Israel during the Babylonian exile. To strengthen him—oddly enough—God offers Ezekiel a vision of a valley full of dry bones. Ezekiel had more in common with those dry bones than he’d care to admit.
God doesn’t identify these bones right away, but Ezekiel doesn’t need to be told. These are his people—the people he was called to serve and love.
God says, “Can these bones live?”
I imagine it was a rhetorical question with the implied answer of “no.”
Ezekiel answers the question anyway. Ezekiel knows that if God could give him strength—if God works with us and strengthens us—God can give life to these bones.
Ezekiel says, “Only you know, Lord.”
Imagine the whole church looking over that valley of dry bones. What question would God ask us today?
Will Willimon once suggested a new test for the church. How do we “push ourselves so deep into that valley that nothing can extricate us—except for a God who loves to raise the dead?” [ii]
* * *
This is first image of resurrection in the Bible. Ezekiel does not use this image to describe an afterlife, rather it is an image for the renewal of the people of Israel. [iii]
As the most recent pastor of this congregation, sometimes I feel like we have been led deeper and deeper into that valley waiting for God to ignite something. We tried to become more honest about the purpose and future of our ministry. I think we watched a lot of illusions slip away. We took risks. We tried new things. Our ministry became infused with hope.
And, yet, I wonder what God has in mind. As much as we would like to think that we are called to a sustainable ministry, perhaps we are really called into valleys of dry bones.
We have come to expect the Church to be expressed through congregational ministry. The Church has sometimes expected to be a dispensary of the pleasantries of God, instead of being an embodiment of a life-giving God in the world.
The loss of a congregation—no matter how heavy that may feel—perhaps frees us from certain illusions of the Church. This loss, at its best, affirms that we are the body of Christ in the world.
* * *
I have a friend who recently moved across the country. Right after unpacking his boxes, he visited some churches in the area. He wanted a place to be nurtured in faith; he wanted to be spiritually fed. On the first Sunday in his new town, he went to visit a church that he was excited about. He pulled into the parking lot, and it was completely empty.
He was surprised. He knew this was an active, vibrant congregation. He had done his research. He decided to try to go inside anyway. He got out of her car and went to the bright red doors of the building. There was a sign, which read in big, bold letters: “God has left the building.”
“Huh,” he thought, “I wonder what they mean by that?”
As he read the fine print of the sign, he learned that every fifth Sunday, this congregation cancels worship. They didn’t cancel Church—that’s impossible—only Jesus can do that! They place that sign on the door, and they go out and feed people. They go out to and do ministries of harm reduction for intravenous drug users. They’d pack a moving van of donated furniture for someone moving into permanent housing. They’d sit with veterans with PTSD. They’d paint classrooms for children.
My friend confided that he didn’t know how he felt about cancelling worship. Then he said, “However, there was no better reminder for me that we don’t go to church. We are the Church.”
* * *
How deep are we going to be pushed in that valley of dry bones? How far are we willing to go? If we are to go into that valley, we need to be assured of one thing: We worship a God who loves to raise the dead.
God told Ezekiel to say to the bones: “I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again. I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you, and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the Lord.”
The presence of God confronts the despair of this valley.
There is a communion liturgy from Scotland. Every time I hear it, I am reminded of what God told Ezekiel to speak to his people. In the Communion liturgy, the pastor says:
Light looked down and saw darkness.
And the congregation says: “I will go there,” said Light.
Can we say that together? “I will go there,” said Light.
Peace looked down and saw war.
“I will go there,” said Peace.
“I will go there,” said Peace.
Love looked down and saw hatred.
“I will go there,” said Love.
“I will go there,” said Love.
We will go there? We will go as the Church to those places where we can only be extricated by a God who loves to raise the dead?
* * *
Ezekiel spoke to the bones as he had been instructed. God breathed into the bones. They came to life and stood on their feet.
This is an unsettling image. In some Jewish traditions, you were not allowed to read Ezekiel until you were thirty years old. This is PG-30 material. We are re-formed, recreated, and restored. What is it like to give up despair for hope?
Anne Lamott writes about what it is like to be stitched together. She reflects on all of the ways we are given hope, even when we feel tattered. She reflects on being stitched back together by God and the people we love. Even if sometimes it feels like they were the ones who pulled us apart.
She looks at the curtains in her house—curtains that have been stitched back together many times—and she says:
“Without stitches, you just have rags. And we are not rags.”[iv]
In Ezekiel, it kind of seems that God is a quilter. God is quilting the bones back together. And instead of using stitches, God uses God’s breath. God breathes life.
Westminster is but a piece of God’s quilt of the Church. We are not discarded. We are bound together. We are quilted together with all of the people who helped form not just the church, but the churches Paul writes to in the epistles. We are quilted together with all of the congregations in our presbytery, city, and world. And we quilted with a church yet to be birthed.
Even when if we think we are becoming undone—even when we can be confused for a heap of dry bones—God breathes life into us. God holds us together in something larger and more intricate than we can imagine.
* * *
As a church stitched together by the Spirit of God, Westminster’s story today is not unique. People estimate that there are over 4000 church closures a year in the United States.
In 1994, theologian Walter Wink took an assessment of the church. He said that he could not imagine the gospel as ever being “more relevant, exciting, and urgently needed.”[v]
At the time, he cited declining numbers in churches, revelations of abuse in congregations, financial downfall, church closure, and “a growing sense of captivity to regnant culture,” as examples of the gospel’s relevance and urgent need. He said, “Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones could be describing us, not Israel in Babylonian captivity.” That was 21 years ago—coming up on a quarter of a century—and it doesn’t sound like much has changed.
What is God’s breath going to do to us on a day like today?
Here is Wink’s response:
God is at work in our malaise today. It may be that the parish-based church will continue to wither away, even as people experience unprecedented levels of spiritual hunger and restlessness. It may be that the denominational way of doing things will continue to decline […]. It may be that the new forms of the church’s faithfulness are already present among us, unrecognized. It may be that they are still waiting to be birthed. This will be one of the most turbulent and innovative periods of the church’s entire history. The very depression that wracks so many may be the pry bar that will separate them from dying forms. In any case, God is already bringing these dry bones to life.[vi]
God is already bringing these dry bones to life. Maybe God is prying us away from something familiar, in order to fill us with something new.
As a congregation, we have worked diligently to face the possibility of closure with grace and hope. We are working to leave behind a legacy to future church development and ministry through selling this property. Our Presbytery has recognized this as “a courageous, mission-minded, and faithful decision for building up the Body of Christ and will have ministry implications of telling the good news of the gospel for years to come.”
I have never wanted people to see this congregation as a canary in the coalmine. I refuse to accept that metaphor for Westminster. We did not suffocate for the lack of God’s breath. We did not suffocate for the lack of God’s spirit. Rather, we are filled with God’s Spirit. We embraced that paradox of Christian life: New life is found through death. Those who lose their lives for sake of the Gospel will save them. If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
As individuals, we may feel disoriented. We may be like my friend appearing in the parking lots of different churches—not knowing which door to approach. As we listen for God’s voice calling us to new congregations, I hope we carry with us the sign that he saw on that door: God has left building.
God is out in the world breathing on despair and calling it hope. God is out in the world wanting to show us something: a resurrection!
Will the Church go to those places where we can only be extricated by a God who love to raise the dead? Will God stretch your sinews and fire your synapses?
Yes. God is beckoning you to be Christ’s body in the world because you are a people of hope.
God is taking the rags and quilting with them.
God is taking the bones and breathing life into them.
Without God’s breath, we are just bones. And we are not just bones.
We are not ruined. We are changed.
[i] W.H. Auden, Age of Anxiety.
[ii] Bishop William H. Willimon’s Podcast, “Can These Bones Live?” Published June 6, 2011. Preached at First UMC, Bentonville, Arkansas. The exact quote was: “Maybe the test for the church ought to be that we ought to push ourselves so deep into that valley that nothing can extricate us except for a God who loves to raise the dead.”
[iii] This sermon draws heavily on the following article by Walter Wink: “These Bones Shall Live,” The Christian Century, April 6, 1994.
[iv] Anne Lamott, Stitches, Riverhead, 2013. 83.
[v] Walter Wink, “These Bones Shall Live,” The Christian Century, April 6, 1994.