Fifth Sunday in Lent A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
When I was at First Lutheran Church in Muskegon, MI, the church participated in a program with the local school to bring in high school kids to do odd jobs and give them some experience.
JD was a special kid. He was 18 years old, and had some special needs. He got into fights at school, which was one of the reasons he was a part of this program, yet around the church, he was nothing but respectful and friendly. He would help us schlep recyclables to the dumpsters, take out the trash, and clean some of the rooms in the church, and never once complained or talked back. We looked forward to the days when he would come around.
It wasn’t long before our version of Mr. Pickleball convinced him to try the sport when he was finished with whatever jobs we had for him. He caught on quickly, and man, that kid had a few surprises up his sleeve. Then we accidentally broke his arm, and he was given a note from school that said he was not allowed to play pickleball with those “old people” anymore, a title to which the players took exception.
The summer before my internship ended, JD and a friend tried to swim across one of the small lakes around Muskegon. Half way across, they started to have trouble, and panicked. The other boy managed to get back to shore, but JD didn’t make it.
The news shocked the church and the community. Death is never easy, but when it is the death of a school kid, it affects a lot of people. The way in which he died was particularly hard to imagine. Drowning is not a pleasant or easy way to die. Water fills the lungs, choking the person as the breath is literally forced out of them. Once that happens, there’s not really a lot of hope.
Without our breath, we cannot live.
The Bible makes a big deal out of breath. It is the breath of God that gives the first human being life, without which, the human being is just a sculpture of dirt. Divine words and prophecy were carried on the wind, on the breath of God. In fact, in both Hebrew and Biblical Greek, the same word is used for breath, wind, and spirit, so closely connected were the concepts.
Breath is also important in Ezekiel’s vision. It is fantastic enough that Ezekiel sees in this vision a valley full of dry bones. These are bones that have been there a long, long time. At the behest of Ezekiel’s words, the bones come together, and sinews and muscles and organs and skin wrap around the bones until they form human beings. But it isn’t until God summons the winds, the breaths, that the human beings are again made alive. Without that breath, they are but skin and bones.
At first, this story sounds like a story about the resurrection of the dead, but God explains the vision to Ezekiel. The dry bones are the people of Israel in exile. They have been there so long, they have dried out. The community as a whole has no hope for a life back in their homeland with God. They’ve given up, resigned to stay forever on the floor of a valley, withered and dried up. Their spirit has gone out of them.
They aren’t the only community who has ever had the breath knocked out of them. When JD died, it was like the community took a collective punch to the gut. In one moment, the life of the community was forced out. We just had a funeral here a few days ago, and I know the feeling was the same.
Sometimes, though, the feeling is slow.
There is a lot of apprehension in the church about the state and future of our congregations. For decades, there has been less money and less people. For some, that’s a frightening thought. Without money, how can the church serve the community? Without people, how can the church perform the mission it was sent to do? And worse, if there aren’t people in the pews, does that mean that they aren’t saved?
Ignoring that last one for now, and the many, many things wrong with it, do the other concerns sound familiar?
We are a congregation, like thousands of congregations across church lines, that can feel the way things used to be coming down around us. How do we respond to the reality of losing our privileged place in society? How do we respond to being plucked out of our ways and placed somewhere different?
If God were not here, I’d have cause to be worried. But thankfully, we know that God is here in this place. The spirit moves through it. There is life in it.
It wasn’t enough for the bones to become people in Ezekiel’s valley. They needed to have the breath of God in order to live. Without that breath, they were nothing but sculptures of dirt and clay. Without the word and breath of Jesus shouting forth, “Come out!” Lazarus would still be in that tomb the first time, with neither breath nor spirit nor life within him.
The problem with resurrection, of course, is that one first has to die. The bones in the valley were dead dry. Lazarus had been dead for four whole days. For new life to occur, we must first die.
This is the challenge for the church. What must we let die in order to have new life? What must we let go of, before our tightly gripped hands become nothing more than bones? Do we trust the baptismal promise that, when we die with Christ, we, too, will be raised with him to new life? These are difficult questions, and questions that we would rather avoid. We’d rather die holding on to our pride than letting go of it.
It is time to let go. It is time to open the windows, fling open the doors. Let the wind blowing outside come in. Give the Spirit already moving among you the room to make you grow and fill you with new and abundant life.
We cannot stay in the valley. We cannot stay in the tomb. God’s spirit, God’s breath, blows through here.