Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fifth Sunday of Lent, Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral, Springfield, MA
This week my journeys take me to the "home office" - to Christ Church Cathedral. (The diocesan offices are located on the second floor of the cathedral.) The readings for this fifth Sunday of Lent can be found here. CCC records sermons, so an audio version of this sermon can be found here.

It was my privilege to begin this Lenten journey right here in this cathedral as the preacher and celebrant at the noon Ash Wednesday liturgy.  Today as we come to the fifth Sunday of Lent, it is an honor to have again made that long, arduous journey downstairs to be with you all today. I appreciate the dean’s gracious invitation on behalf of all of you. 

Let’s begin at the beginning. Let’s see if we can do a history of the Old Testament in the next two minutes. It will not be thorough. But here goes: in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And it was good. And God created male and female, in God’s own image, God created them. And God saw that they were very good. And then God rested.

And then things began to unravel. Adam and Eve trust the serpent more than they trust their Creator and eat of the forbidden fruit. Brother kills brother. Flood and then rainbow. (Apparently there is a new film out starring Russell Crowe about that part of the story.) At the end though not much has changed; same old stuff from human beings. And so God says to Abram and Sarai: Go. Go to a land I will show you. You will have descendents numbering like the stars. And they go, and Abraham and Sarah have a child, Isaac who marries Rachel and they have Esau and Jacob, and Jacob has a whole bunch of kids by four different mothers and one of those kids is Joseph, whose brothers sell him to a group of Midianite traders and tell old Jacob that his favorite son is dead. And that is how the people end up in Egypt.

How am I doing on that two-minute history? We have made it through the Book of Genesis. So maybe we need to pick up the pace. Passover, Exodus, manna and water in the wilderness, Torah on Mt. Sinai, four decades pass and then a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. God says “don’t forget where you came from” but – well, people being people they do forget. They forget God and they forget their neighbor. They start to say things like “I worked hard for this, it’s mine” even though the whole point of the book of Deuteronomy is that we are called to be stewards of God’s abundance. And so God sends prophets to say, “care for the widow and the orphan.” But it turns out denial is not just a river in Egypt. The people decide they want to be like all the other nations: “give us a king,” they say. And so they get King Saul, King David, King Solomon, a whole bunch of less famous and less faithful kings, divided kingdom, the fall of the northern kingdom.

Alright, this is where we needed to get: six hundred years before the birth of Jesus. A people who have a long history, a God who has been faithful. Promises made and renewed on God’s side; promises made and broken on Israel’s side. In the midst of the ups and downs a holy city claimed by King David and a Temple built by his son, King Solomon. The place where God’s people could come and know that they were loved. Kind of a like a cathedral. But more than that even. More even than a place like the Vatican. A holy place for a holy people, a place for sacrifice, a place to encounter the living God. A place where you knew who you were.

And then the Iraqi army comes marching in—the Bible calls them Babylonians but that’s where they come from. The Babylonians come in and destroy the Temple and cart off the bishop and the dean and the canons and the clergy and the wardens and the choirs and take them all to Babylon, where they lay up their harps and weep. For how could they possibly sing the Lord’s song in a strange and foreign land? How can you sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” when your life is a mess, when the bottom has fallen out, when your hope is gone, when you are cut off from the Temple—when there isn’t even a Temple and there isn’t even an organ? (Or a harp as the case may be.)

There have been dark times in human history. I commute a couple of days a week on the Mass Pike from Worcester, and one of the things I do while driving is to read books, which is better than texting. I don’t really read; I listen. Recently I listened to a thirty-three disk book on George Washington. I was reminded again as when I have read about John Adams or Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin that the people fighting for freedom in the latter part of the eighteenth century didn’t know how it was going to end. At Valley Forge it was touch and go, but if you were a betting person (if you are don’t tell the bishop!) you would probably not put the smart money on that rag tag group of soldiers trying to survive the winter without shoes.

Part of what happens in such times, or during the Civil War, or maybe to some extent in this decade or so since 9/11, is that people get disconnected from each other and polarized and cut off from the One who means for us to just do two simple things: Love God and love neighbor. In such times as maybe also in the midst of our own personal losses and tragedies – the death of a loved one or a parent who is battling against dementia, or a child who is struggling with addiction—we understand something of what it feels like to lose hope. They say, `Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.' 

So in a very real sense, all of Biblical faith hinges on this moment in the Babylonian exile. Is it the end of the story, or a new beginning? The truth is that it is the Old Testament version of Good Friday only it last a lot longer – like decades. But here is the thing. And that is the set up for today’s reading from Ezekiel: a people who have spent decades in exile, a people who aren’t sure that they even have a future and if they do, what that future will look like. A people who are bone tired. To that weary people, God speaks through a visionary, this strange prophet-priest of the exile, Ezekiel. He offers an image that seems to be a kind of premonition of St. Paul’s language that the faith community is like a body; like the Body of Christ. Only in this case the Body is dead—nothing more than dried up bones.

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.

Notice the writer is clear: this is a vision. It’s not literal. But it’s like Dr. King’s ‘I have a dream” speech; it’s about hoping for what is yet unseen, because if you can hope it then you can dare to speak of it and if you can dare to speak of it, then you can, by God’s grace, start to live toward it one day at a time. So this is powerful stuff.

Ezekiel reminds us and every generation of believers that faith communities need the breath of God to live. We need renewed hope, and vision, and courage. This vision of the valley of dry bones is about how the living God really is the antidote to isolation and death—it is God who makes the Body alive and renews the Covenant. It is God who brings them home. It is God who enlivens once again the body politic and towns and cities where people can breathe and listen and work together.

The Church’s primary vocation, as I understand it, is to be a kind of icon that this is possible, to be an image of abundant life animated by God’s Holy Spirit. This cathedral exists in the city of Springfield so that people who have lost hope and feel cut off might believe that God can be trusted for guidance, and wisdom, and comfort and a Spirit of new life. Jesus put it more poetically: to be salt, and light, and yeast. That is a noble calling.

So we gather here today and we gather across this diocese on this fifth Sunday of Lent: we gather to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest these strange old texts. We encounter this living Word and we then we break the bread. Simple stuff, really. I’ve been in twenty-six different congregations over the past ten months. They don’t all do it the same. Very few of them have a music program like this cathedral does. But each in their own way gets out of bed on a Sunday morning and tries to make a joyful noise to the Lord. And during the week they feed the hungry as you do here. They send missionaries out to places like El Salvador and to places much closer to home. They organize to speak up against the powers that be and say no casinos in our city because they are not good for the poor and we are a people who speak up for those on the margins. It’s hard to be the Church, for sure and it’s easy to get nostalgic for the leeks and melons of the 1950s. But it’s also easy to mis-remember the 1950s, which were not the good old days for everyone.

Can these old bones live? Not on their own: only then and only now by the Spirit of the living God. Only by coming together, bone upon bone, sinew upon sinew, flesh upon flesh. Only by being One Bread, and One Body are we made alive and raised to Easter life, and then called to serve the world in the name of the One who is already risen—the One who even on the Fifth Sunday of Lent is alive and who has sent the Holy Spirit to vivify us and enliven us to do the work that God has given us to do, for the sake of the world. 

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