New Life in the Desert

Sermon for 5 Lent; April 2, 2017

 Wow. That is a loooooong Gospel. And this comes after a series of long Gospel readings: 37 verses a couple of weeks ago, 41 verses last week, and now 45 this week! I have started to wonder if these ever-growing Gospel readings are a not-so-subtle reminder that we are in Lent just by virtue of their length! Little endurance tests for us. Probably not, but sometimes I wonder... Our lectionary is designed, however, to take us into the Lenten desert, though probably not through the length of the readings as much as it may feel that way to me at times. Our lectionary takes us into the desert through the stories. This Lent, our lectionary has had us head out into the desert with Abraham, leaving behind all that he knew to head off for someplace unknown. Our lectionary had us wander through the desert with the Israelites, feeling their deprivation. Our lectionary had the Holy Spirit lead us into the desert with Jesus to face temptation. And this week, we are plucked up with Ezekiel, and we are plopped down in the desert of the valley of the dry bones. Another desert journey. This is not a literal journey for Ezekiel. Rather this is a vision that God gave him, a metaphor for something greater. 

 When I imagine this scene, I picture it a bit like the Elephant's Graveyard scene from the Lion King. Simba disobeys his father's orders and goes into the land he was told to avoid. It is dark in the Elephant's Graveyard: the sun does not shine on this place. It is a barren wasteland where perhaps some life - the hyenas - scrape by, but life itself does not thrive. And there in this place, he discovers the skeletal remains of numerous elephants. And there, surrounded by all of this death, he ends up confronting the possibility of his own death. And he confronts true fear and regret and shame for the first time, foreshadowing major themes of the rest of the movie.

 Here in the Valley of the Dry Bones, Ezekiel is placed in a dry, desolate place. Not a desert of uncertainty like Abraham stepped into. Not a desert of deprivation like the Israelites wandered through. Not a desert of temptation like Jesus was led into. But a desert of death and destruction, and all of the grief, pain, and fear encountered there. Surrounded by bones - the bones of his ancestors, the bones of his friends, the bones of his people - he is confronted with death - their death, his own death. He is confronted by death. Death, that thing that we try so hard to avoid, But here in the Valley of the Dry Bones, there is no hiding. God puts Ezekiel right in the midst of it all, and makes him confront it. God puts us right in the midst of it all, and makes us confront it.

 "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return," we said as we began our Lenten journey before heading out here to the desert. "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return," as dust was placed on our foreheads in the sign of the cross, a sign of that death and destruction. "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Here in the Valley of the Dry Bones, we again have to confront that dust. And confront our own anxieties about that dust. "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return." This is not what we are trained to do. We do not know how to sit with sorrow. We do not know how to sit in the dust, confronting our own mortality, confronting our own grief, confronting our own pain, confronting this remembrance: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

 "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return" is not the end of the story though. This line that we say on Ash Wednesday evokes our creation, evokes the creation story when God made Adam out of the dust. "Remember that you are dust." Remember that story when God made Adam by gathering the dirt of the ground together to form this human. But as you remember, earth wasn't the only element in that story, there was also wind, as the breath of God was blown into Adam to bring life up out of the dust. And here, in the Valley of the Dry Bones, as Ezekiel is starkly reminded of the dust from which we all come, the wind makes an appearance again, as God again breathes new life into these bones. "Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 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."

 In this barren wasteland, in this desert, God reminds Ezekiel of hope. God reminds Ezekiel that death does not get the final word: resurrection does. This is the same reminder that Jesus offers Mary and Martha when Lazarus is brought up out of the tomb. Ezekiel's vision. Lazarus' raising. These are just little tastes of the ultimate resurrection in the one who says "I am the resurrection." These aren't Easter stories, these are Lenten stories, because they are just reminders along the journey. We are not yet to the resurrection; we are still in the wilderness. But just as God provided water to the Israelites in their thirst in the desert, and just as God provided angels to tend Jesus in his desert experience, God provides us hope. God reminds us to not just look at the death and destruction that surround us on every side here in the Valley of the Dry Bones, but to look to the horizon of hope so that we can keep putting one foot in front of the other. Look to the horizon of hope so that we can keep moving forward through life's Lent toward the new life of Easter in Jesus Christ. Remember that God will breath new life into our old dry bones and we shall live. Amen.

The Land of Unlikeness: God Crossing Boundaries

A sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, March 19, 2017 by the Rev. Bingham Powell.  Sermon refers to hymns 463 and 464 in the 1982 Hymnal.

I’m going to take a risk this morning. I have a sermon written out, but as I was listening to the reading of the Gospel, another sermon came to my mind. I think after ten years I can try this once. If it’s an absolute failure, then I won’t do it again for another ten years.

Jesus comes from a particular place. He is from Galilee, raised in Nazareth, and eventually moves to Capernaum when he is a little bit older. That place is a marginal place; socio-economically marginal with not much wealth. Jesus is marginal in his teaching and thinking, in that it doesn’t match any strain or denomination of Judaism. It picks up some parts, but he does his own thing, also. Jesus is also marginal in what he chooses to do: he doesn’t continue his life as a carpenter, raise a family, and do all those sorts of good normal things. He travelled around. “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head”. He has no home as he travels.

And he crosses boundaries or borders in what he does. He touches the leper, which is something you wouldn’t have done in that time. He goes to places that are crossing boundaries, from Galilee to Judea; from Galilee to Samaria, which is where we find him in today’s Gospel, crossing a border into enemy territory since the Samaritans and the Jews are enemies. He crosses this boundary into a place where he doesn’t belong, and encounters a Samaritan woman. You can hear in their conversation how odd this is for her. Why are you, a Jew, asking me, a Samaritan, this thing? He’s crossing a border, a boundary, of what is acceptable. He also crosses the boundary from a man to a woman by a well, which means, Biblically, that something is about to happen, usually wedding bells. He goes into that space and engages in conversation about water, about water in a well, and living water. He quickly crosses the boundary from physical need to spiritual need. Jesus is crossing all of these boundaries in the Gospel today, in his ministry, and in his life.

He’s doing that because that’s what God does. God moves from where we expect God to where we don’t expect God. Which is the same thing the Israelites discover in the desert in today’s first reading. In the desert, where there is no water, God is able to bring it out from a rock. In the preceding chapter, when they are in the desert where there is no food, they are able to find manna. God is in the places where we don’t expect God to be.

This past week, we lost three of our parishioners to death. I had to go to the hospital to be with each one of them. And in that place there was God: in the hospital room, in the ICU, there was God, crossing the boundary into the place that makes us uncomfortable; crossing the boundary into the places where we do not want to go. In the desert, in death, in life, there is God offering living water to the people.

We are right now in the season of Lent, moving towards Easter. We think of Easter as the place where God is: in the resurrection. We’re a resurrection people, we’re a resurrection faith. But these forty days in the wilderness remind us that God is not only there in the empty tomb, but God is also there on the cross. And God is also here in the desert wilderness, crossing into this boundary away from the temple in Jerusalem, where we try to put him in a box; here in the church where we try and contain God. But God is breaking out and going to those places of wilderness.

There is a hymn in the hymnal, a W.H. Auden poem, and it begins like this:

“He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.”

“Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness.” This Jesus, who crosses boundaries and crosses borders, has invited us to go with him. So the question I have for all of us together as a community, and for each of us individually, is: What is this Land of Unlikeness that Jesus is taking you into? It’s going to be desert-like, it’s going to be uncomfortable, it’s going to be uncertain, but that’s where Jesus is taking us. For there we “will see rare beasts and have unique adventures”.

Auden goes on to say that there we will find an occasion to dance for joy, if we’re willing to go out in that Land of Unlikeness, into that uncertainty, into that marginal place where Jesus is: away from our comforts, moving through the discomfort of the desert. There we will discover the living water. That living water that is so strong and powerful that we will not thirst again.

We have a choice: it is quite comfortable here in the Willamette Valley. We’ve got plenty of water. But Jesus says we have to keep drinking that water over and over and over again, but he can show us the way of living water. And that living water is only available where we follow Jesus.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, follow Him. We don’t know exactly where it is he is leading us, but follow him wherever he takes you. When you begin to feel that bit of discomfort, I suspect that means you’re on the right path, into the Land of Unlikeness, into the place of living water.