June 4, 2017 - Pentecost
The 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. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I 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.”
7 So 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.
8 I 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. 9 Then God 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.” 10 I prophesied as God commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 11 Then the Lord 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.’
12 Therefore 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. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I 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: “You Shall Live”
I’m not sure anything is as terrifying as not being able to breathe. I was 26 years old, a seminary senior and on a trip with fellow students to Jamaica to study the church there. There had been a malaria outbreak in Kingston, so we all needed anti-malarial meds. They made me very sick to my stomach. Eventually, we decided I needed to see a local doctor, and we did. He prescribed an anti-nausea medicine (one that is not prescribed in the States due to the prevalence of allergic reactions).
After a few days of taking this, with an increasingly tight throat, it got bad. It was actually during our last night’s dinner with the president of the seminary we were visiting. During his prayer at the start of our meal, my tongue swelled, and my throat began to close. I got to the hospital in time, thank God it was just across in street, but I’ll never forget it. I was traumatized for weeks after that about not being able to breathe.
Fast forward to last Thanksgiving. I was in Texas with my family and eating a bowl of fruit for breakfast. Suddenly, my whole mouth went itchy and, again, my tongue started swelling. My mind went straight back to Jamaica and I was terrified. Thankfully Benadryl did its job, and I was okay.
I saw an allergist as soon as I got back to NC, and though I tested positive for grape allergy, she was sure it was a fluke, and my reaction was caused by some environmental allergen instead (since I am allergic to so many things). I wasn’t convinced. Even grape juice at communion Christmas Eve gave me a rash. It wasn’t until April that I got tested again and confirmed that I do in fact have a grape allergy. I was given an Epipen that I must keep with me always. Because there’s nothing as scary for me as not being able to breathe. (I now only take the bread at communion, just to be safe. Joanna Hipp and I joke that, with her avoiding the bread because of her allergy and me avoiding the juice, we make a full communion together.)
Right in the midst of all my anxiety surrounding this, I went to Credo in March; that wonderful conference aimed at creating healthier pastors, and thus healthier churches. They packed us full of things: consultations, conversations, worship, visioning. And then, abruptly, they stopped. We had 4 whole hours to just sit, pray, and meditate, in total silence. Some in our group dubbed it “Introverts Revenge.”
And so I plopped down in an old recliner by the window of our retreat center with my Bible and journal. And I waited. It didn’t take long for my health-related anxieties to surface in the silence. Instead of running from them, or indulging them, I just examined them, as objectively as possible. What was I truly afraid of? The answer hit me as immediately as God’s response to it. I was afraid of not breathing. And God had an answer for me: Ezekiel 37. It came to mind in the unbidden way the Spirit often speaks.
“Mortal, can these bones live?”
The bewildered response: “Surely you know, God!” (with its subtext “I hope you know!”)
The patient promise to a bare-bones faith: “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.”
Of course, God wasn’t just promising oxygen. God knows we can be breathing but not really living.
God used a different word: ruah. Breath, wind, spirit.
I will cause spirit to enter you, and you shall live.
As I sat in my comfy old recliner by that window, I realized that I didn’t just need breath in terms of oxygen. I needed God’s breath, God’s Spirit, to fill my anxious spirit with hope.
If Pentecost is the promise of anything, I believe it’s the promise of that. That God’s Spirit meets our bare-bones anxious spirits, again and again, refusing to abandon us to the dry valleys of fear.
Now, I’ll be honest: I’m still, at times, in the irrational workings of anxiety, terrified that I’ll not be able to breathe. I know where my Epipen is at all times, even as I speak to you now.
But I also, with the help of a wonderful, faithful therapist, carry an emotional and spiritual Epipen at all times. And it is these words: “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.”
Maybe on this Pentecost day, you need the Spirit to come like a blazing tongue of fire. And if you do, I hope She comes like that for you.
But maybe, like me, you instead need the Spirit to come like your next deep, calming breath, and the one after that, and the one after that, until you forget to worry so much, and breathing itself becomes a peaceful prayer.
Sometimes, like in Ezekiel’s case, that Breath, that Spirit, wants a little help. “Prophesy to the breath,” he was told. He bade that Breath to come from the East and the West, the North and the South, and it did. An entire people were brought back to life.
Who does that for you, I wonder? Who’s your prophet? Who is that person who dares to speak life to you?
And for whom are you called to be that prophet? To remind them of God’s powerful Spirit when their faith is nothing but bare bones?
Like I said in the beginning, maybe there’s nothing as terrifying as not being able to breathe. But that being said, maybe there’s nothing as celebratory as a single breath; as holy, as joyful, as resilient as a single breath.
We may not always have easy moments, but we do have this breath, and the next, and the next, as many as God gives us. The Breath of God within us, working life in us from the inside out. That is God’s Pentecost promise to this world. And, even on our hardest days, isn’t that worth celebrating? God’s Spirit is with us all, through those prophets who dare to gather holy breath from the most far-flung corners of the earth. We can breathe. We shall live. Thanks be to God! Amen.