March 29, 2020

 “Finding Hope in the Valley of Dry Bones”

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11


Both my wife and I had a restless night last Monday. I think we were processing Governor Brown’s order to stay in our homes whenever possible, beginning at about 3:00 a.m. I think Paula was worrying about what lies ahead for Ashland Asante hospital. I did that for a while as well, but then found myself wandering into life at the church. Our session has been talking about closing the entire campus since last Sunday. We had several concerns about this action, however-What about AA groups? How would those folks cope with issues of substance abuse without being able to meet face to face? What about the unhoused and people in need who come to us for help with food vouchers, bus tokens, and other needs? By closing our campus, I felt as if we were turning away so many in need. I spent a good half hour or more beating myself up on that decision that needed to be made, in order to protect our community and hopefully save lives.


I started to doze off, but made it maybe to level one of sleep-when you sort of dream and sort of stay awake? My mind meandered, and then stuck on worrying about the worship service we live stream. What if at some point we cannot film it in the sanctuary anymore? Where else could we go? My mind began to “construct” a service that could be flexible and filmed anywhere. After tossing and turning, an hour later, I began to worry once again about closing our campus. When would we as a congregation be able to see each other face to face again and fellowship together? How do you provide fellowship and connection in the midst of social distancing?  Just in regards to closing our campus-so many things needed to be done to make sure things were in order. We had to cancel our garbage service, contact AA leaders, cancel our cleaning service, change the voice mail on our answering machine, get the word out to those in need through the OHRA Community Center, figuring out who was going to get mail, transfer mail to my home so that we could get and process bills, to do about bills, put up signs around campus, etc…. I was in a mind field-Every thought I had made me more worried, more paranoid, more afraid-mind blown about every 10 seconds. Finally, at about 5 something, I did drop off to sleep.


Today’s New Testament is about where to focus our minds, and I sure could have used it last Monday morning at 3 a.m. Paul believed that it was possible to get out of the Mind Field because there was a new reality for Christians. Paul believed that because of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, a life guided by the Spirit could help one live in a new reality.


In verse 9, Paul writes that we Christians can “Live in the Spirit.” This is a new reality, replacing the system of sin and death, which were all around those early Christians in the first century. There is an alternative reality, one structured by Christ. This alternative to the world of sin and death happens because Christians live “In Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)


Theologian L. Ann Jarvis writes, “Paul understands that believing in Jesus Christ means at the same time living in Christ Jesus. Our belief in Christ is our entrance into the being of Christ. We enter an alternate cosmos through our faith in Christ. That alternate reality is the reality of Christ and the Spirit. This is a vastly different place and way to live than when we lived in the flesh.”


The vehicle for finding this alternate reality is the mind. Paul says, “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:6) The Spirit is a gift from Christ and has the characteristics of Christ. The word for mind in Greek in verse 6, prhonema, phronema indicates what a person strives for, aims at, cares most about. So Paul is telling us living in the flesh is striving for, aiming for caring about the matters of the flesh. What are those things? They are the things of death, all that is against the love and breath of God.


We are surrounded, bombarded hourly by matters of the flesh, matters of death regarding the global pandemic of the Covid-19 virus. I will not quote current statistics, as we are all getting a regular dose of that from the news. It is so easy to strive for, aim for, and care about these statistics, yet behind the numbers are people-people suffering dying and mourning. This leads to our second passage for this morning from Ezekiel.


God gives Ezekiel this grisly, hopeless vision-a valley, stacked high with dry, human bones. These human bones are the house of Israel. Israel’s hope is dried up and lost (v.11). However, that is not the end of the story…


It does begin in hopelessness-That vision was tangible in Ezekiel’s day. The people of God had been living in exile in Babylon for decades, the capital city of Jerusalem destroyed, their culture all but gone. The people have suffered much, for many years. And yet, God is not done. This passage provides hope, as we hear about the gift of the Spirit. In fact, the word for God’s Spirit, which also means breath and wind, “Ruach” is repeated ten times in this passage Dennis read this morning. -- four times in the climactic verse 9 alone:


“Then he said to me, “Prophecy to the breath (Ruach), prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath (Ruach): Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds (Ruach plural), O breath (Ruach), and breathe upon these slain, that they may live” (Ezekiel 37:9).”


Ezekiel discovers divine grace, through the gift of the Spirit of God, the divine breath. God initiated the whole human enterprise by making humans from dust and breathing into them the breath, Ruach, of life (Genesis 2:7). God likewise initiated the entire Israelite project, choosing to take slaves from Egypt, giving them God’s own law, and bringing them to a good land -- and doing this with minimal cooperation (Ezekiel 20:5-14). Now, Ezekiel says, God will take the initiative yet again: God’s spirit will bring new life to a people dead as stone, hopeless for decades, lifeless as dry bones.


Fast forward to today. It certainly feels as if we are in the Valley of Dry Bones rather than the Rogue Valley right now. Life on the streets of Ashland is basically nonexistent. Meetings are no longer face to face, but instead on line. No live theater, as we have just learned OSF has canceled all performances until October-what a blow to the actors, businesses and local community. In addition, there are no live sports on television to over obsess and focus upon to distract us Baseball season, one of my most sacred but secular seasons, is slated to begin MAYBE sometime in June or July. My goodness, I found myself so desperate for any afternoon sports last Sunday after church, I was watching an old broadcast of a NASCAR event from 1986…for almost 20 minutes before I got ahold of myself… I know. That is just sad… It is not hard to see ourselves in the valley of dry bones, people dead as stone, hopeless for decades, lifeless as dry bones.


And yet, both of today’s passages point towards hope, even in the midst of life and death as we experience living in this valley of dry bones, offering us some light against the dark horrors that are around us. The Spirit breathes life, through the presence of Christ, guiding our thoughts into the thoughts of Christ-drawing near to God through time of prayer, acts of mercy, justice, love, peace, and service to others. Theologian Elizabeth Shively writes, To be in Christ is to take Christ’s form, dying and rising with him and living in conformity with the Spirit. Taking the form of Jesus is the very essence of who we are as individuals and a community, both now and in the future.” The Spirit, the very breath of God is active in this scary valley, breathing the Ruach of God into places of death. We will in time get through this crisis, and God’s Spirit will be IN us and guide us in the midst of it, providing moments of light, hope, and faith.


We are now on the 5th Sunday of Lent. At this point, that season will be much longer than 6 Sundays, as we as a church have decided to hold off celebrating Easter until we can all be together again, face to face. (We have not as of yet determined that you cannot consume chocolate bunnies and eggs, however, on April 12. I think that tradition is okJ ) Unbeknownst to me, I have learned that this Sunday in Lent in Catholic and Episcopalian traditions is known as Laetare Sunday, from the Latin, meaning to “Rejoice.” What is “Rejoice Sunday” doing in the midst of the somber season of Lent, a time when we as a church are to keep away from even uttering the word, “Alleluia”? It is a reminder that there is more to the church year than a time of repentance and suffering. It is a reminder to rejoice even in the long journey through the valley of dry bones, to rejoice and give thanks for new life, hope and promise of resurrection that will soon be with us.


Sisters and brothers who are in the Spirit of Christ, this is a Sunday to rejoice and to remember that Easter will come, and nothing- nothing- will stop God’s power to bring new life out of despair and death.  Even though we are in the valley of dry bones, even though we walk through that dark valley, we need not fear evil, for rest assured, God is not finished with us! God is with us! Jesus weeps with us, accompanies us in these difficult times, and through his Spirit will guide our minds into a stubborn hope, a hope that does not give up, helping us to share Christ’s justice, mercy, love in serving others. So, in the meantime, may we weep with those who weep, mourn the dead, pray for the helpers, and call out to God. Thanks be to God! Thanks be Jesus the Son! And thanks be to the Spirit! Rejoice! Alleluia! Amen.

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