Pentecost, Year B
The Rev. Elizabeth A. B. Tesi
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 104: 25-35,37;
Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15.
In this era, when we hear dark news on every front about the end of traditional marriage, the death of the church, the 20/30 generation’s dying faith and apathy, and the destruction of our society in general, I spent yesterday with a group of people actively practicing and accepting spirituality while they participated in one of life’s solemn rituals. Yesterday, it was my real privilege and delight to officiate at the wedding of Sharon Voss and Eric Redjou. They make their home in Beaverton, but her mom is a member here at St. Mary’s. The wedding was a classic Episcopal wedding. And I truly believe it was the best sort of modern weddings: a wedding held at the family home, with some guests who attend different traditions and some who attend no church at all. Yet the couple truly wanted their wedding grounded in faith. They wanted to hear the words of faith and the traditional vows and prayers surrounding them on that important day. And one of the things I’ll remember the most about that wedding, in addition to how lovely and sweet the couple is, how comfortable and trusting they are with each other, and how friendly and kind their friends are, is how hopeful that entire wedding felt. It was a day of great hope, for them and for this church of St. Mary’s that is honored to be part of their life.
I do love weddings. And I hope I will not creep you out too much if I confess that I find the funeral service to be the most theologically perfect service we have in the Episcopal church. I find it beautiful because it allows space for mourning, and it acknowledges that human grief is a blessed and Christian feeling. Yet it also insists on a hope that comes from beyond us, to hold us up even in the times of great sorrow. We have this anthem in that service, that asks God to give rest to his servants, with his saints, where sorrow and pain are no more. The song goes on to declare that “we are mortal, formed of earth, and to earth we shall return. All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave, we make our song”. The anthem finishes with repeating Alleluias. The service concludes with the dust of our bodies being laid to rest in hope.
On this day of Pentecost, we come forward into a church hung with bright banners and flush with the flames of life and hope. The days of Easter conclude with the rushing wind of god’s Holy Spirit thundering into our lives, joining with humanity forever. Thanks be to God, within around, around us, beside us.
The prophet Ezekiel speaks of the Valley of Dry Bones. I will freely confess that this is one of my favorite stories in the bible. With apologies to Jesus and all the great miracles enacted by our Lord and Savior, the Valley of Dry Bones just captures my imagination. It’s such a visual story. The prophet is taken by the spirit of God into a great valley, of bones that were very dry. There was no marrow in them. They were so dry they’d fallen apart from each other. If an archeologist were to have taken the bones, would they have ever been matched up bone to bone? It would seem as if we face a valley of no hope. The bones are so far gone, lying in a valley that itself is dry and barren. Not only is this valley filled with death, but it would seem that no life has ever lived there. But God commands the prophet to prophesy to the bones: “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord… I will put breath in you, and you will live.” And a bone comes together, and sinew covers them once more, and the prophet calls to the Breath of God which enters the bodies, and a great multitude is reborn. Life triumphantly returns to a valley of death. God’s work triumphs to bring life out of the impossibly dead. Dry bones is a story of hope to a grieving people in exile.
I believe that one of the great gifts of the church, one of our great charges as a people of God, is to continually prophesy hope. Even in our greatest helplessness, humanity wants to hear proclaimed that God knows of our sorrow, and cares for our pain. As the church, we proclaim that and continue on in the eternal hope that God will put God’s own breath into our sorrowing, sighing bodies. We want to hear a promise that there is something more than dry death waiting for us. In the Valley of Dry Bones, God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel, rather coyly, replies, “Oh, God, you know!” In Ezekiel’s time, the people lived in exile. They couldn’t bury their dead in their homeland. They were kept away from home. For the people of Israel, they were convinced that God had abandoned them. Ezekiel is commanded by God to prophesy to the breath, to come fill the dry hopeless shells of the people of God. God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the people: God sees you, numbers you, knows you… and fills you with life in all times, in all places. Today, our world is changing dramatically. As we redefine what “church” means and looks like for each of us, people return at the touchstone moments of their lives: in sorrowful times, at funerals, in hopeful times like weddings, in joyful times like baptisms. When people feel strong emotions: grief, love, joy, when we see the face of a beloved lying still in death, or lit up with happiness and draped in a wedding veil, they look to God. And I believe that each of us is closer to the role of prophet than we might believe. Our great gift as a people of God in the church, our great command as a people of God in the church, is to hear that call to be a people of hope, filled with God’s own spirit.
When I speak of hope, I’m not promising the televangelist type of prosperity- believe in God and he will give you good things now, tit for tat. I am not promising that if we only believe hard enough, that good things will happen. To me, that would suggest that you are right now shells of humanity and you need God to come dwell within you. But that is not the truth. I know you, people of St. Mary’s. And you are already faithful, active people. You feed the hungry on Saturday mornings. You knit shawls for the sick and the newborns and the candidates for baptism. You stitch quilts and use the money to support this parish. You create coffee hours, receptions, and take meals to each other. You teach each other, in all ages, different parts of our faith. You carry crosses, recite the prayers, chant the psalms, bring forth the music, preach the word, join together in the prayers. You are already a people filled with God’s spirit. I’m not offering a “here is God, come and get it”. I’m calling you to acknowledge the Divine spark that already lives in you.
The Valley of Dry bones speaks to us of a hope that spans the ages. It tells us a story of God’s own breath and spirit filling us and giving us a life beyond the temporal existence. God’s breath breaks down all barriers of time and space and reason to fill us and mold us.
That is why this day of Pentecost, this story of the Valley of Dry Bones, this story of the flames of fire, this church of ours with its ceremonies of marriage and rituals of farewell in a funeral, calls us all. This is the day when we celebrate that we are all filled with the breath of God, enlivened by the Divine. It’s the breath that fills us all, the Divine that drives our souls, and this breath that unifies us. Our church is called to be a people of hope.