Sunday, April 10, 2011

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Ezekiel 37
1 The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’”
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’”

Tell me again what happened on May 24, 1738 at 8.45 pm?

Yes, of course, John Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed. Here, in our near-cathedral of Methodism, 190 years after a few rough-hewn logs were piled one atop the other to create a place of worship, we can know with some certainty that the story of Wesley’s conversion has come up more than a few times.

I like to pair it with confirmation. And this year’s class, a small but mighty group of three confirmands, isn’t even here to hear it. Over the last few weeks they have been back there with Taye, learning, discussing, and preparing to make a profession of faith.

Today the group is in an undisclosed location somewhere near Fergus. Undisclosed only to me of course, because I haven’t asked for directions yet. It’s a guy thing.

It seems I have been summoned to Bob and Barb’s to put the finishing touches on their preparation, and so, immediately after the service Jenny and I will travel to Fergus and complete this important work. I’m not sure where the conversation will lead, but I’m certain May 24, 1738 at 8.45 pm will come up.

John Wesley, you see, was a prophet in the biblical tradition, filled with the Spirit and empowered to speak for God. He traveled a quarter-million mile on horseback, it is recorded, bringing a new vision of Christianity to a tired religion. It has even been suggested that he saved the United Kingdom from the experience of revolutionary France, addressing the inequality that existed before it came to an armed revolt.

And like the prophets of the bible, there is the sense that this is not the life Wesley chose, rather the Spirit decided that he would become the prophet needed at a particular time and place. The life he chose, that of parish priest, was a path of quiet comfort and obscurity. Without the intervention of the Spirit, we likely wouldn’t even know his name.

In Wesley’s time, eighteenth-century England, the role of minister was very different from today. In his time, young men of some means would attend college and “read theology,” accept ordination, and settle into a parish under the patronage of some other person of means. Leading services of divine worship was the extent of the job, which meant there was lots of time leftover to pursue other interests.

Indeed, many of the names we do know from the eighteenth and nineteenth century such as the author Jonathan Swift and the early social scientist Thomas Malthus were priests with extra time on their hands to write and study the world around them. Even Charles Darwin was headed for the life of a parish priest until he got sidetracked on the Galapagos Islands.

All that ended for Wesley on May 24, 1738. His relationship with God had become troubled and confused, filled with fear and the abiding sense that he was on the wrong path. His conversion, the feeling of having his heart strangely warmed, was a reboot, a timely intervention that gave Wesley a certainty of purpose and a new worldview. Everything changed.

Our other prophet of the day, Ezekiel, has much in common with our friend John Wesley. He is a biblical prophet and comes from a background that finds parallels in another century.

The first thing we learn about Ezekiel is that he lives in exile. Carried off from the land of Israel, Ezekiel was part of a group of exiles forced to settle in Babylon. They settled in, some dreamed of return, but most simply got on with their lives.

Before we take a closer look at Ezekiel, there are a few things about the exile to consider. First, we know that some time around 587 BC the Kingdom of Judah was defeated, and the people that mattered were carried off to Babylon. There is lots of debate about who and how many ended up in exile, but we know for certain that the most learned and the most connected were taken away.

There is a sense, when we speak of exile, to imagine the life of dislocated peoples in our time. Poverty and violence usually mark this type of dislocation. Ezekiel’s exile, however, was different insofar as the exiles were useful to their captors and settled in to a life of relative comfort. The Jewish exiles were literate and worldly, having lived at the conjunction of a few trade routes and noted for reading the law.

And we know from the story of other famous exiles, like Daniel, that the life of a young exile in the court of a foreign king could be exciting and profitable. We learn that Ezekiel lived on the banks of the Chebar River among other wealthy exiles, and that even though he came from a priestly lineage, he likely didn’t spend much time thinking about his religion.

So like our friend John Wesley, he has a life of relative ease, he has somewhat meaningful work, and he has a relationship with God about the change. Ezekiel gives us his moment, in his own words:

I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north—an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was human, 6 but each of them had four faces and four wings. (1.4-5)

This vision continues on for a few paragraphs, getting more and more intense, until God speaks:

“Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says.’ (2.3-4)

Once again, we are struck by the parallels between two disconnected times. Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy to disobedient people, based on the assumption that that the exile was the result of their failure and that even in exile they continued to follow their own way. Wesley’s setting is equally troubling: think of the dark, satanic mills described by Blake and later Dickens, and think of the social decay described by Samuel Pepys in his famous diary.

And all of this leads to chapter 37, the crowning moment in Ezekiel’s ministry:

Then the LORD said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’” (37.4-6)

The Lord has shown Ezekiel an entire valley filled with dry bones, a multitude that was once a great nation, now reduced to near dust. The command is to prophesy, to preach the word of the Lord, and trust that they will live once more, that flesh will return, that Spirit will descend, that these bone will live and return to the Lord. He does, and they do.

So we’ve covered Ezekiel and his century, and we’ve covered Wesley and his century, so what about our own, what about the century that belongs to the young people we will confirm in just a few short weeks from now? Exiles enjoyed Babylon too much, Georgian Britons saw the growing divide between rich and poor, so what about today?

Setting aside to obvious ones, like global warming and unrest throughout the world, what will these young people face here, in Canada and in the culture that surrounds us from south of the border?

Recently there were three songs on the list of top ten most popular songs that had the f-word in the title. In the title. I don’t even know what to say about that. A study discovered that fully fifty-percent of young people has experienced some sort of “digital abuse,” defined as bullying, teasing, or some form of inappropriate contact. And don’t even get me started on the income gap. Forbes revealed that in the US there are 400 individuals that control wealth equal to the lowest 60 percent of the population. Let me restate that: 400 people, who could all fit in this sanctuary, control wealth equal to nearly 200 million people. This is the century that the kids live in, the century that is also turning away from religion in droves.

Now I’m not going to suggest that confirmation is a going to somehow save them from the sometimes scary world outside our doors. I’m not suggesting that confirmation will save them from the anxiety and the uncertainty that every young person faces. I will suggest, however, that confirmation, and the time they are spending in preparation, and the relationship they have formed with their mentors, will give them two things: a new vision and a sense of the Spirit.

The new vision is the very same vision that Ezekiel was shown and the same vision that Wesley saw, a candid vision of both the problem and the potential of human life. They will receive a sense that the world is troubled but they belong to a community that is attempting, with God’s help, to do something about it. They will receive the understanding that this is God’s world, and that we accept together the gift and the responsibility of living in this world and trust that God is present to us.

So follows the gift of the Spirit. Together, on May 1st, we will confirm these young people, and together we will lay hands on them and together transmit the gift of the Spirit that we received when we made the same profession of faith. We will remind them that they stand in a long tradition, that the faith we pass on to them is the faith we received from other saints and prophets, and live in the hope that they will someday pass it on too.

And we trust that dry bones will live again. We trust that they will understand the place of God in their lives, that God loves and forgives them, that God has a plan for their lives, and that God seeks to act through them for a world made new. May it always be so, Amen.


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