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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Valley of Dry Bones - 05/20/2018

I've had the very nice opportunity to spend time with a lot of different congregations in the last decade or so … there's Eden, this place I’ve been blessed to call my home congregation for nearly three years now. There’s also my Bethany family in Ishpeming; three different congregations in Chicago, another couple of congregations in Detroit that I enjoy when I go to visit my kids, and the five congregations that made up Winds of the Prairie Ministries where I did my internship.

And those are just ELCA congregations. I've had the chance to talk to and worship with people from other faith traditions too – people from Catholic, Methodist, Episcopalian, Baptist traditions, and people from Jewish and Islamic traditions too.

There are some definite differences in the practices and theologies of all these people, even within the ELCA, but it's what we have in common that is so essential. We are all called to glorify God and love neighbor. We all look to a future that is hopeful and transcends the trappings and heartbreak of living in this brutal and beautiful creation.

These days the “People of the Book,” as Christians, Jews and Muslims are collectively called sometimes, have something else in common too – It seems to me that people all over come to worship and wonder where everybody is. They talk about days when the worship space held so many more people. There's too much competing for those precious Saturday nights and Sunday mornings or other spaces of time we set aside for bible study or meetings or simply good fellowship. It all competes with things like school, work, sports, activities, exhaustion.

And it's here we have a very real and deep connection to the people Ezekiel was trying to reach. Ezekiel is thought to have been a priest at the temple in Jerusalem when it was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian exile began. That exile happened in waves and the Israelites were sent away from Judah – away from life centered around the temple at Jerusalem – and scattered throughout Babylon. Things had gotten a bit dodgy in exile. Without the temple to provide structure to the faithful Jewish life, the people started forgetting the law, forgetting worship and worst of all, putting other things above God. Things like the gods of the Babylonian people – who were their new neighbors. Things like money, power, possessions, and status. Things like self-serving ways or cynicism – the usual suspects.

The state of what we would call “the Church” was not a pretty picture. Ezekiel's prophesy to the Israelites treated their state of faithfulness with brutal honesty. He used jarring images like the one we hear today, in which he compares the Israelites to a valley of bones – lifeless, dry, hopeless.

God, through the prophet Ezekiel, was convicting the Israelites, but the messages were also filled with hope. Yes things were pretty bad … the people were scattered, the faith community of the temple had been irreversibly fractured. But in the hands of our God … the God who brought us up out of Egypt, provided manna and quails and water in the wilderness, brought us to the land and stays with us always … In the hands of that God, no challenge, or obstacle or evil is too big to be overtaken. It is the message at the heart of what God has Ezekiel say to the dry and hopeless bones.

“And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 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 ...” (Ez 37.13-14)

God did act. God acted through Ezekiel to be a messenger to the people, to prepare for the day when they would be released from Babylonian captivity. To urge them to remain faithful in the meantime. 

And God continues to act. Even in those places where old familiars have dried up and fallen away, God breathes new life – new ways to bring the wisdom of the past together with the innovation of the present, and prepare the way to a future God envisions.

Consider the young siblings in Christ we honor this Pentecost weekend. I – like many of you, I suspect – have been very caught up in the details of getting to this festival weekend and having everything in order to confirm Madeline, Matthew, Logan, Lori, Alex, Maddison and Skylar – as we welcome them from here on as full members of the church and all the privilege and responsibility that comes with.

I’ve been caught up in getting the details checked off my list, and pulling in others to help me, honor these high school graduates, Kelsey and Marissa, Christian, Paul and Van – to honor them in this place of grace that is always their home no matter where they go from here.

In fact the busyness of our worshiping life here at this time of year has brought on some flashbacks to when Larry and I were planning and hosting open houses for our graduating kids – or when we were scrambling to get Max to confirmation class on time.

We get caught up in this stuff so easily. Details consume us and I suggest they often blind us in a way. It’s not a bad thing – this tending to details is a sign of how much you are all loved by your family, friends and this faith community.

But it can be a not-seeing-the-forest-for-the-trees kind of situation too.

Maybe you hear this story from Ezekiel and its image of this lifeless, dried of valley of bones serves to represent the brokenness of our world, or when you look around at worship and wonder where everyone is, or even how you feel about your own relationship with God or your own sinful nature.

We might even look at this group of young people we celebrate this weekend and wonder – will they want to remain part of a faith community – this one or another? We sure hope so for the obvious reason, of course – we want you to take the unique gift of an intentional relationship with God and the teachings of Jesus into all that you do.

And also we hope that you will remain active in faith community because, frankly, we need you – all of you, and all the gifts God most certainly created in you. I was reminded of this truth again at Synod Assembly when the bishop from Texas was in a video about the Youth Gathering and said “We need the faith of our kids to help us move the church into the next generation.” Indeed.

So please, all of you, prayerfully consider remaining involved with a faith community because it’s not only that it is good for you – it’s that you are all good for us.

So we might look at this world and see fields of dry bones or we might look at these wonderful people here and fear they will end up in that lifeless valley too.

But maybe – just maybe – we cannot detect the activity of God’s Spirit in these places because all we can see are the details of dry bones. That’s what Ezekiel is here to remind us today – perhaps we cannot see the forest for the trees … we cannot detect the presence of the Holy Spirit for the bones.

Let me demonstrate …. Balloons

  1. Lifeless limp balloons. 2. We are born and through the miracle of creation, life is breathed into us (one or two breaths). 3. Baptism and we literally pray for the Holy Spirit to inhabit our bodies and God makes that happen (two or three more breaths). 4. And then throughout life, the Spirit continues to inhabit us, to breathe into us through Holy Communion, through the Word of God, through love between neighbors. (So now go ahead and finish blowing your balloon up and then hold it shut, don’t tie it off, and don’t let go … yet.

Did you notice that as you blew more air into the balloon, it resisted? The breathe wants to come out … the Spirit wants to overflow from out of you into the rest of the world and when this happens … do you think you know where your balloon is going to go or the exact path it’s going to take? Let’s see. Let ‘em go!

The Holy Spirit goes everywhere – in ways we can see and ways we cannot.  The Spirit continues to act in ways that we cannot predict and sometimes even detect. Even in those places where old familiars have dried up and fallen away, God breathes new life – new ways to bring the wisdom of the past together with the innovation of the present, and prepare the way to a future God envisions.

That's a big part of what it means to be the church … we walk together in faith that God is still creating and healing and upsetting the world around us. We walk together and look with hope to the future. We open our hearts to the work of God. God works through us as we gather here this Festival of Pentecost to worship together. God is working through us as we fret about and miss the presence of people we wish were sitting with us today. God bolsters our courage and stirs our imaginations to be followers of Christ and people of God in all our comings and goings beyond this gathering place.

And God works through us in ways and in capacities we cannot imagin, creating new things from old, good from broken, joyfulness in the midst of heartbreak.

I invite you to spend some time this week with this impossible story from Ezekiel of how God can bring life and promise and hope into a valley of dried up, lifeless bones.

And then envision the ways God is breathing dried up things into life all around us too – see it in the Spring that is bursting forth after a long winter. See it in these young citizens of the Kingdom we celebrate and bless today. Remember it when you hear a story of healing or have the opportunity to invite someone to this place for some respite from the dry valley they are experiencing. Spot it in the people you walk with this whole life and those you walk with for only few steps. And then begin to imagine that life breathed into all of the places you can only detect dry bones in your life – places God sees and impossible breathes dry bones into life. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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