Sunday, May 27, 2012

"The Breath of Life"

My niece Olivia when she was born.

May 27, 2012 (Day of Pentecost)

Old Testament Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14
1The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”
4Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I 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.“
7So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.
9Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
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.”

SERMON: “The Breath of Life”

There are moments in a person’s life when you feel most alive, when your every breath and movement are put into slow-motion perspective.  These moments are burned into your memory forever.  Mine was in a remote mountain village in the tiny country of Lesotho, nestled in the heart of South Africa.  I was horseback riding (I am from Texas after all) on the bumpy, rocky plain at the top of a mountain.  I could hear the distant hammered bells of goats as they were herded along by skilled shepherds.  I felt the warm breeze swirling around me and the gritty red dust in my eyes and mouth.  I saw the yawning valley below me and all around the brilliant blue hazy Drakensburg Mountains, seeming to go on forever.  I never felt more alive than that moment. 

And then I found out that HIV/AIDS had visited that remote village, and never left.  Nearly 90% of people there were HIV positive.  Having just felt completely alive, I was suddenly surrounded by the reality of death.

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

While in seminary in Atlanta, I spent a summer as a Chaplain Intern at Grady Hospital, a trauma hospital in the heart of the struggling inner-city.  My first on-call night, I was paged to the ER to sit with a “multiple GSW victim”: a young teenager who had been shot while walking home from the store with his cousin.  Tragically his cousin had died in the shooting and his family had erupted with grief, leaving him all alone as nurses removed shrapnel from his legs.  I sat with him, overwhelmed by such a responsibility, and listened as he told me that, unlike many he knew, he was not involved in gangs.  But that didn’t protect him from their violence of such a desperately poor neighborhood.  The fifteen-year-old then looked at me and, with the solemnity of a soldier, said “Well, I guess I need to get a gun and carry it with me always.”

“Mortal, can these bones live?”
My last Christmas supper with my Granddaddy was bittersweet.  Cancer had taken his strong farmer’s body and turned it frail and tired.  Only his eyes still shone with the strength he once had.  All of my family was gathered that Christmas, the air heavy with the awareness that he would not be here for the next one.  At one point, he spoke quietly with my Father and my Father hugged him tightly.  I asked my dad what they talked about and with a weary sigh, choking back tears, he told me that my Granddaddy had given him his old beat up Ford farm truck.  It was a priceless treasure, and a concrete sign that he would soon leave this life for the next.

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

What a familiar question.  We ask it in hospital waiting rooms and in the silence remaining when family or friends have left after a visit.  We ask it when the violent actions of a few destroy the lives of so many in Syria or when the bills pile up with no hope of enough income.   We are not the first to ask this question. 

 At the time of the prophet Ezekiel, the people of Israel were slaves in Babylon.  Jerusalem had fallen to this occupying force.  No longer the great nation they once were, they cry out ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’   The Spirit who would later come at Pentecost and stir up diverse life in the early Church, the same Spirit who hovered over the waters of creation, leads Ezekiel to a valley full of dry bones.  Perhaps it looked something like an oil spill site.  Or ground zero after 9/11.  Or the line for food at the Sandhills Coalition.  Or the moment after saying goodbye to someone we love as they leave this life.  It is a place where the body and soul feel desolate, dried up, deserted.

And this is where the Spirit chose to take Ezekiel!  Some vacation, that. 

He is asked this question, perhaps the first time it was ever uttered: ‘Mortal, can these bones live?”  Ezekiel essentially answers, “You’re God, right?  You tell me.”  God calls upon him to answer this existential question, leading him to prophesy to those brittle bones, promising that God will breathe life into them.  Life not just for some, but for their whole battered nation.

In true dramatic fashion, the prophesy takes shape as bones rattle together like a heavy summer rainstorm and the decay of death happens in reverse: bones join together with sinews and flesh grows and then skin covers it all.  But this re-creation is not yet complete.  After all, the Spirit was not after some sort of Frankenstein experiment: true life is what the Spirit was after.    

Again the prophet is called to prophesy (showing the role of us mere mortals in the midst of God’s divine work) and gather the same breath found in the icy northern wind and the warm southern breeze.  It turns out that the Spirit is in that creative, ordinary air and this cut off, hopeless people are alive again.  With that life comes the assurance that God’s Spirit has been put in them, that they will be placed on a land of their own and that the God who speaks also acts for their welfare.

Having read Ezekiel, the notion that the Spirit is only found in a “still, small voice” is somewhat limited, isn’t it?  Here we see that the Spirit is found in the winds of creation – even that evening breeze that comes in your window.  The Spirit is the breath of life within us that refuses to be stilled no matter what valley of desolation we may be in.  The Spirit is as close to us as the private moments when our breath is knocked out with grief, when we gulp for air and hope.  The Spirit is as imbedded in our lives as the sigh of relief after being tossed about by worry.  The Spirit is as loud as the laughter of a movie theater full of people and as quiet as the whisper of a baby’s sleeping breath…

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

With each breath we take we answer this question.  With each act of compassion and healing we bring to someone suffering with illness, with each prayer for our friends and enemies, with each tiny triumph of clinging to life by putting one foot in front of the other, we say – with the breath of the Spirit within us – a resounding yes!  These bones can live, even if we die, because we are never in a place completely cut off from God or one another.  We are never without hope. 

And so in the face of death and fear, in the face of illness and isolation, we must prophesy with our every breath that God has not abandoned us, and we must not abandon one another.  Enlivened by the Spirit, we join with the God who not only speaks like a swirling wind and calming breeze, but who acts: rushing into those places that seem most desolate and choosing to dwell there until all know the breath of life.  Amen.

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