Mortal

Ezekiel 37.1-14

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. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 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.” 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. 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. Then he 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.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he 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.’ 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. 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,” says the Lord. 

In this strange new time I keep referring to as Coronatide, we have been physically separated by orders of law and state, but we are still bound to one another through the Lord. And yet, it has become apparent with every Facebook post calling on people to answer questions in order to learn more about one another that we really don’t know much about each other at all. 

Well, knowing that we don’t know what we don’t know, I’m going to share something that you do know about me, no matter who you are, and something I know about you, no matter who you are.

We’re all going to die.

What a way to start a sermon!

Or, as it is written in one of my favorite books, “In the world according to Garp, we’re all terminal cases.”

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That’s what we were affirming on Ash Wednesday, which now feels like an eternity ago, and it’s what Lent reminds us at every turn: In the midst of life we are in death. And, frankly, we didn’t need the Coronavirus to remind us. We didn’t need the empty supermarkets, and the abandoned jungle gyms, and the vacant school parking lots to remind us that no one makes it out of this life alive.

Though plenty of us love believing the contrary. We are suckers for the advertisements of products that promise youthful glows, and smoothed wrinkles, and tighter waistlines. We use tomorrow’s money to finance today’s void. We even check the updates on how fast the virus is spreading in certain places and think, “Well surely, it won’t happen like that to me.”

But then it does.

Or, to put it another way, a few weeks ago, before everything really ramped up, I took my 3 year old son out for lunch at a local Chic-fil-a. We ate our waffle fries in beatific silence, smiling as the ketchup smudged our cheeks, and then my boy gave me a look that said, “Dad. Bathroom time.” We quickly cleaned off our messy hands and faces, and bee-lined for the restrooms. After business was taken care of, a man walked in, used the stall next to us, and walked out. To which my son shouted, “Uh, Dad, that guy didn’t wash his hands.”

And I, being the great parent I am, said, “Elijah, say it louder next time.”

In ways both simple and profound, we like to pretend like the one universal truth is actually a lie.

But it’s not.

Ezekiel, contrary to our dispositions, knew the truth of our finitude. Should you have any extra time on your hands while social distancing, go read through the book of Ezekiel, there’s some wild stuff inside. But for today, we get to see, through Zeke’s eyes, the valley of the dry bones. 

It must’ve been a particularly striking and relevant image for the bizarre prophet considering his own life situation. Prior to this text, we learn that Ezekiel has been on somewhat of a rampage against God’s people, indicting them for all the had done and left undone. The people God chose to change the world, the people with whom God had covenanted, the people God loved with reckless abandon had abandoned the Lord – they had given themselves over to idolatry.

Idolatry, for the people in the back, is believing and acting as if anything or anyone can give us what only God can give.

Idolatry is believing wealth says more about who a person is than the fact they were made in the image of God.

Idolatry is looking out for our own interests at the expense of the marginalized.

Idolatry is assuming that we can save ourselves.

The people of God worshiped whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, the ignored the plight of the needy, and they believed they were entirely in control of their destines.

And the Lord spoke into their midst and said, “You want idolatry? I’ll give you idolatry!”

They were dragged off as captives to become strangers in a strange land: Babylon. A foreign place where the land was dominated by colossal statues and overwhelming debauchery. In short: a place totally at odds with what the worship and love of God is supposed to look like.

And it’s from this place of exile, maybe something a few of us can identify with right now, that Ezekiel speaks of his vision.

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The Lord drags Ezekiel out to a graveyard, that stretches as far as the eye can see, and all his eyes can see are bones piled upon bones, and they’re all dry. And the Lord says, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel replies, “Lord, only you know.” And the Lord says, “Tell this to the bones: O dry bones the Lord will give you life! The Lord will breathe upon you and the sinews and the flesh will string together and you will live because God is God!”

Ezekiel does what the Lord commanded, and the earth trembles beneath his feet, and like a scene befitting a horror film, Ezekiel watches as bones come together, and tendons and muscles are stretched and skin forms until a vast multitude stands on their feet and they are alive.

“Look” says the Lord, “these bones are the whole of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ But look what I did for them! I will bring you back and you shall know that I am the Lord!”

This is strange stuff, even for the Bible. 

The Lord promises to reconstitute the very people who had given up on the Lord.

God breathes life into the bones of those who destroyed life time and time again.

God makes a way where there was no way.

And the bones live.

Contrary to how so many of us speak about church or hear about church, this confounding moment in the valley of the dry bones has not one thing to do with us and whatever it is we think we bring to the table. 

Notice: The people of God have done less than nothing to restore God’s faith in them. They died and were buried in their sins and in the trespasses and God says, “Ok, time to make something new.” 

They didn’t deserve it and they certainly didn’t earn it. 

Notice: God doesn’t tell Ezekiel to go out and give the bones a ten-step process on how to get their lives sorted out. God doesn’t tell the people to pray three times a day in order to earn their salvation. God doesn’t wait for the people to memorize their favorite book of the Bible before the bones starting coming back together.

God raises the bones to life because that’s what God does!

I hope you hear that as a hopeful word. Because even at our best, we’re not very good.

When we hear about the valley of the dry bones, if we hear about it at all, we are often so caught up with the striking physical details that we don’t take a moment to really think about it. We have the benefit, if you want to think about it that way, of knowing whose bones we’re walking on whenever we go through a cemetery. But Ezekiel could only see bones upon bones.

But who did they belong to?

Scripture answer the question for us, of course. The Lord says to Ezekiel, “These bones are the whole house of Israel?” But even a statement like that warrants further reflection. Because if the bones are the whole house of Israel, that means that some of those bones belong to Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Saul and David, the elect and the reject. It means that buried among that pile of bones are the good and the bad, the sinners and the saints, the first and the last.

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I don’t know what you all have been up to these last few weeks, but I’ve seen and heard countless stories about people going above and beyond to help people in need. Distilleries shutting down production of their whiskey in order to reformat their facilities to produce hand sanitizer. Businesses donating medical masks to hospitals in need. Neighbors picking up groceries for the most vulnerable. Basically, stories of saints.

But for every positive story there’s plenty of stories that demonstrate the opposite.

Individuals hoarding up precious supplies and equipment only to price gouge individuals and business who really need them. Corporations calling on furloughed workers to start GoFundMe campaigns for medical expenses rather than offering financial assistance. And countless politicians using our present crisis as an opportunity to shore up votes for the next election cycle.

And that’s not to mention the great number of pastors who have, foolishly, assured their respective congregations that they can keep worshipping together or going out in public because the Lord will protect them in all of their comings and goings.

Basically, stories of sinners.

In the end, we’re all just a bunch of dry bones sitting in the bottom of a valley. Even the best of us cannot prevent the bell that tolls for us with our perfect spirituality or magnificent morality. Even the worst of us cannot so take advantage of others to stop the inevitability of our own demise.  

Remember, in the time of Jesus, it was all of the so-called “good” institutions, both the religious and the secular, following all of the proper protocols, and calling for a vote, people like you and me joined together to crucify Jesus of Nazareth. In all of our goodness and our badness we nailed that man to a cross and hung him up for the world to see. 

Stories end in graveyards. I’ve been in enough of them with the dirt in my hands laying it over the bodies of the dead to know it is true. I’ve seen enough tears spilt upon the tombstones of the familiar and the stranger to know that the one thing we all truly share is our death. I’ve listened to enough conversations and met with enough people to know that is our deaths that frighten us the most even if we do everything in our power to convince ourselves otherwise.

The disciples knew it too. That’s why they abandoned the Lord the closer he got to death, it’s why they avoided him on the cross, and it’s why they only trudged up to his grave three days later.

And yet, one of the greatest messages of scripture, a message as plain as day in the story of Ezekiel and the dry bones, is that in the end it’s not up to us to save ourselves. We will be buried among saints and sinners, our bones will dry and scatter, and only God, Father of the Incarnate Word, is the one who raises the dead. 

If you find yourself thinking, “My life is all dried up, I’m stuck in the confines of my home unsure of what tomorrow will bring, I have nothing to hope for, I feel completely cut off” then you are in good company. God can work with that. Amen. 

Comforted?

Devotional:

Psalm 23.4

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me.

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I love and loathe the 23rd Psalm. I love it because it brings a sense of peace whenever I read it and I loathe it because it is, by far, the most overused psalm from the entirety of the Psalter. 

When I visit folk in the hospital and ask if they would like me to read some scripture, they invariably ask for Psalm 23. When I meet with families to prepare funeral services they request a read of Psalm 23. If you’re with a group of Christians and someone says, “The Lord is my…” there’s a better than good chance that the room will finish the sentence and keep on going to the very end.

Now, to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it being the most popular psalm, but it does mean that we know it without really knowing it. 

When was the last time you thought about how the Lord prepares a table for you, in the presence of your enemies? For many that would strike a sense of fear, rather than comfort. Or, when was the last time you thought about dwelling in the house of the Lord your entire life? I know some of you love church, but to dwell in the house of the Lord for the rest of your life would have to mean that you really love church.

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But today, the bit that sticks out the most to me is the psalmist declaration that the rod and the staff of the Lord are a comfort. This sticks out to me because the rod and the staff are tools used by shepherds to keep their wandering sheep in check. 

Another way to encounter the verse would be like this: “Even though I’m going through some tough stuff, I’m not going to be afraid, because God is with me and knocking me around until this stuff really starts to sink in.”

These are uncertain times – the numbers of confirmed Coronavirus cases in Virginia keep going up day after day, schools are closed for at least another 3 weeks, and local grocery stores are starting to shift around their operating hours to help mitigate the rate of exposure. 

And yet, strangely, the psalmist reminds us that, even though we are sequestered into our homes and are limiting our interactions with others, are not alone. God in Christ has come to dwell among us, to be present in our prayers, to be revealed in the reading of the Word, and even to rest in the silence with us that we otherwise try to avoid. 

Sometimes it takes a lifetime of Sundays before the Gospel message finally hits home. Sometimes it takes a pandemic to remind us of our fragility in a world that keep foolishly promising us that we’re invincible. Sometimes it takes reading the most popular Psalm for the thousandth time before we can start to see the most beautiful aspect of it: the fact that its true. 

Thirst Trap

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Lent [A] (Exodus 17.1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5.1-11, John 4.5-42). Alan is a United Methodist pastor serving First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including scriptural introductions, Christian Twitter, Old Testament preaching, the wilderness of Sin, the “back in Egypt” committee, MewithoutYou, the best parts of the communion liturgy, faith vs. faithfulness, the living water on the cross, and secret snacks. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Thirst Trap

https://www.spreaker.com/user/crackersandgrapejuice/lent-3a

Make The Good News Good Again

Devotional:

Psalm 119.1

Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord. Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways.

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Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus said that.

And he meant it.

Or so I, and countless Christians, have been told over and over again. We Christians must hold ourselves to a higher standard! How else will the rest of the world know how badly they need to repent and turn their lives back to the Lord?

When I was in college, those statements covered much of what I heard about the church. While classmates were off doing whatever it was they did on the weekends (whether I joined them or not) I was made to feel guilty or ashamed for the choices I was making because, I was told, I would be happier if I was “walking in the law of the Lord.”

The same comments about the church were made while I was in seminary, and I’m sure that for a while in the beginning of my ministry I made the same points.

But they never really made me feel happy, no matter how well behaved I was. I was caught in a conundrum – Either be perfect and unhappy, or let my guard down and feel guilty. 

It took me a long time to realize that when Jesus calls his disciples to be perfect as God is perfect, he does so knowing that we won’t be able to do it. That’s kind of the whole point of the gospel – God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

But does that mean we shouldn’t try? Of course not. But if the gospel is only about how we have to constantly do better all the time, then we will walk away from church without the Good News sounding like good news.

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Karl Barth put it likes this:

“Basically, the gospel is a very simple thing. The gospel is no system of this or that truth, no theory on life in time and eternity, no metaphysics or the like, but simply the sign that God has blessed the world, this poor world in which we live, with all its difficulties, with all its misery, with this whole ocean of death. And in this world we dare to live in the knowledge that God loves us, but not only us Christians who believe that God loves the whole world. Every person, even the most miserable, even the most evil, is loved by God. This is the privilege: to be commissioned and enabled as a Christian to proclaim that.” (Barth in Conversation – Volume II. Interview with George Casalis on November 7th, 1963.)

It is a rather radical proposition and yet it is precisely what makes the Good News so good.

Look At Jesus

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Isaiah 65.17-25, 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13, Luke 21.5-19). Alan serves at First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including what its like to preach against the text, hiding in the lectionary, the truth, Revelation in the Old Testament, endless patience, unthinkable peace, throwing the skunk on the table, and being stuck in time. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Look At Jesus

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Annie Dillard Was Wrong

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Haggai 1.15b-2.9, Psalm 145.1-5, 17-21, 2 Thessalonians 2.1-5, 13-17, Luke 20.27-38). Jason is the senior pastor at Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Thanksgiving without a turkey, Hauerwas teeshirts, the Donald Trump of the Old Testament, burying church programs, meditation, looking at the cross, the enemies of God, explaining Christianity, and marriage in heaven. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Annie Dillard Was Wrong

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The (Christian) Problem with The Death Penalty or: Why “An Eye For An Eye” Leaves Everyone Blind

For the first time in nearly two decades, the federal government will resume executions and, effectively, reinstate the federal death penalty. The announcement was made by Attorney General William Barr last week while indicating that five men convicted of murdering children will, themselves, be put to death in December of this year. Additional executions will be scheduled at a later time.

While public support for capital punishment has decreased, it is still advocated for in the Christian church and this is a problem.

Though denominations like the United Methodist Church have opinions against the death penalty clearly spelled out in governing documents like the Social Principles (“We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings.”) the day to day experience and support for the death penalty is felt and experienced differently throughout the American church.

Capital punishment, killing someone in response to a crime, is as old as civilization itself. Some of the earliest archaeological discoveries of law codes contain the ramifications for shedding blood or taking someone’s life and, more often than not, it comes down to “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a limb for a limb, a life for a life.” It’s there in Hammurabi’s code from ancient Babylon, and it is present in the Christian Bible.

The Death Penalty has been around for a very long time, and it is still employed for a lot of reasons, though not recently for Federal crimes. Some advocate for the death penalty because it is the only way to guarantee that someone will never recommit a violent crime, others claim that it helps as a deterrent to influence other away from committing similar crimes, and still yet others say it brings closure to families who grieve the loss of someone murdered. 

There are roughly 2,600 people on death row right now in the United States. And the state of Virginia, where I live, has executed more prisoners than almost any other state.

And again, for Christians, this is a problem because Jesus was killed by the Death Penalty.

The main reasons that people use to justify the death penalty can just as easily be used from a different perspective. Deterrence? In the south, where 80% of all death penalty convictions occur is the only part of the country where crime rates continue to increase. Closure? Statistics has shown that there is benefit for the families in the short term, but in the loan term they tend to experience bouts of depression and grief from another person’s death. 

And, since 1976, about 1 in every 9 death row inmates have been exonerated, usually after decades of living in a prison cell. 

And even among these statistic and facts, for Christians it is inconceivable to support the death penalty when the Lord we worship was killed by the same means.

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Christians love crosses. We put them up in our sanctuaries and in our living rooms, we tattoo them on our skins and wear them around our necks. But many of us have become desensitized to what the cross means: death.

Let me put it this way: If Jesus died 100 years ago, Christians would be wearing nooses around our necks. If Jesus died 50 years ago, Christians would bow before electric chairs in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings. If Jesus died today, Christians would hang hypodermic needles in our living rooms.

The cross was the electric chair for the Romans. The cross is like the hangman’s nooses of lynching mobs. The cross is like the lethal injections in modern prisons. It is the way people were killed by the state as a punishment for their crimes.

And, I’ll admit it, there are scriptures in the Bible that justify the practice of capital punishment. But there are also people in the Bible who committed capital crimes and God still used them for the kingdom.

We like the think about Moses talking to the burning bush, and leading God’s people to the Promised Land, but we don’t like to think about the fact that Moses murdered an Egyptian in cold blood before he met God in the wilderness.

We like to think about David defeating Goliath, and dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that David ordered one of his soldiers to die so that he could sleep rape his wife.

We like to think about Paul being knocked to the ground on the road to Damascus, and writing his letters to the churches by candlelight, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Paul murdered Christians before his conversion.

One of the tenants of Christian theology is that nothing is impossible for God. But when we kill people for killing people, then we effectively remove all possibility of change in that person’s life. If we Christians really believe in the resurrection of Christ and the possibility of reconciliation coming through repentance, then the death penalty is a denial of that belief.

The beginning and the end of theology is that with God’s help and grace all things are possible. An alcoholic can kick the bottle, an atheist can discover faith, and a sinner can receive forgiveness. Why then do we keep slinging our nooses? Who do we keep sending people to the electric chair? Why do we strap people down for lethal injections? Why do we keep nailing people to crosses?

The message of Jesus’ ministry, of the cross, is mercy. And mercy triumphs over judgment.

That doesn’t mean that people who commit horrendous crimes get to walk away scot-free, nor does it mean that we should break down the walls of our prisons and let everyone run wild, but it does require us to fundamentally reshape our imagination regarding the so-called justice system. 

For centuries the death penalty was something that took place in public – crosses on a hill, nooses in a tree. The state used the death penalty to publicly frighten potential criminals from committing crimes. But now capital punishment takes place in hidden rooms with minimal witnesses. It has retreated from the public arena and can happen without disrupting our daily lives such that when the recent announcement was made by the Attorney General it was merely a blip on the radar in terms of our collective response.

But we are murdering people for murder.

Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Interestingly, President Trumps has made it known on more than one occasion that this is his favorite verse from the Bible. But Jesus doesn’t stop there: “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone trikes you on the right cheek turn the other also.”

Violence only begets violence.

An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. 

God sent God’s son into the world to transform the world. Not with the ways of the world, not with power and prestige, nor with armies and aggression, but with mercy and sacrifice.

God in Christ ministered to the last, least, lost, little – people like those who are waiting for the end of their days on death row.

And Jesus carried death on his back to the top of a hill to die so that we might live.

So long as we employ the death penalty, we will deny the power of God to redeem, restore, and transform all of us. As long as we sling our nooses, and prepare our needles, we will prevent grace from making new life in those who have sinned. As long as we murder murderers, we will never give God the chance to make the impossible possible.