“From Dry Bones to New Wine: A Life-Giving Vision”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
May 20, 2018
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and God brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. God led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. God said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ Then God 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 God 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 God commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
Then God 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.’
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the church. As you might remember from sermons a few weeks ago, in the days after Jesus’ resurrection the disciples were a bit unmoored – not sure whether he was real, then not sure what to do with themselves as he prepared to physically leave them once again.
But now, on Pentecost – the 50th day after Easter and a major Jewish holiday – their new ministry gets off to a proper start. It’s a rather humorous scene. The disciples have gathered back in an upper room, praying, essentially hanging out, awaiting instructions. The Holy Spirit comes – lest we think it’s all angels and doves with the Spirit, it comes in a rush of violent wind – and suddenly the disciples are speaking in other languages – languages understood by the huge crowd of fellow Jews from all over who are in town for the festival. And then, as we humans are so wont to do when seeing God at work, some bystanders dismiss this miracle as the result of a far less supernatural phenomenon – apparently the disciples were really getting into the Pentecost celebrations.
Peter is quick to point out that it’s really too early to be drinking – what’s happened instead is an outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, the divine presence promised by Jesus to accompany the disciples in their work of spreading his mission and ministry. As God declared:
“I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.”
We come to church every Sunday, expecting – what? To sing some hymns, read some prayers, listen to a sermon, greet our friends. But on this, the church’s birthday, we’re reminded that something powerful is at work here. Something is at work in each and every one of us, not just the young and hip or the older and wise. And that something can change the world.
Do you remember during Lent when I asked you all to share with each other moments when being a part of Park Avenue has truly moved you? You all shared deeply powerful moments – the ways heaven and earth overlap when we celebrate in prayer with one another, when our children are baptized, when we feel God speaking straight into our hearts. That is the power of the Holy Spirit – the ability to transform ordinary elements, everyday moments into sacred experiences, experiences where we become aware of God’s presence and are immersed in the divine.
More than scripture or sermon, the Spirit’s presence among us is what makes this church. And when the Spirit is alive, moving among us, visions sprout forth and dreams begin to blossom.
Sometime romantic that I am, yesterday I was up early to catch the livestream of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. During the service I had the pleasure of listening to the homily given by The Most Reverend Michael Curry, the bishop of the Episcopal church. It was interesting to watch a cathedral full of staid, bemused British people trying to figure out how to respond to a lively, engaging sermon in the African-American tradition. But even more interesting was the vision the Bishop’s sermon cast:
“[L]ove [stronger than death]…is the way of Jesus. …[I]t’s a game changer. Imagine our homes and families when this way of love is the way. Imagine our neighborhoods and communities when love is the way. Imagine our governments and countries when love is the way. Imagine business and commerce when this love is the way. Imagine our world when love is the way. No child would go to bed hungry in such a world as that. Poverty would become history in such a world as that. The earth would be as a sanctuary in such a world as that. We would treat one another as children of God, regardless of differences. We would learn how to lay our swords and shields down by the riverside to study war no more. There would be a new heaven, a new earth, a new world. A new and beautiful human family.”
Later in the day I thought of Bishop Curry’s words as I read about yet another school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. Imagine schools where students don’t say to reporters after school shootings, “I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here, too.” Imagine schools when love, fierce love, has finally moved our country to choose our children over our love of guns.
I think about having to one day explain to my daughter Davie why she has to know what to do in a school shooting, and all I see is a valley of dry bones.
“There’s power in love…redemptive power,” preached Bishop Curry. God, let us hope so.
We live in an age of disconnection, among the worst symptoms of which are disaffected young people taking up arms against their classmates.
But as I’ve listened to your reasons for being a part of Park Avenue, as we’ve worked on articulating our Why – the reason for this church’s existence as a church, and the difference it compels us to make – I’ve noticed that more than any other reason, more than any other why, we come to church to be connected – with one another and with God. We come as a corrective to our culture of disconnection – to be plugged into God’s renewing, restorative love, to feel that vital sense of belonging and being valued without which life is at best one-dimensional, at worst despairing.
We come, in other words, for relationship, that most rich and powerful of human experiences, one that can return us to our own humanity and to the God who created us.
If you remember, though, a “Why” statement has two parts – to _____, so that ______. To connect with God and our community, so that – what? What do we hope happens as a result of our being so vitally connected? What, in the words of the prophet Joel, is our dream, what is our vision? What new life, in the words of Ezekiel, do we pray for God to bring to our old, dried out bones?
During our Lenten series and our Eastertide conversations, this is what I heard you all say: we are a part of this faith community in order to impact our wider community. To act. To be helpers. To share the love of God we’ve so richly experienced here. One conversation in particular dove deep into the idea of what it means to be neighbors, in the strongest sense of the word, the Good Samaritan sense of the word – Jesus’ sense of the word: humans who have decided that there are no other people’s children, no other people’s elderly parents, no other people’s homeless folks or struggling neighbors or incarcerated relatives – humans who have decided that we belong to one another.
This is a simple thing to say, but in some ways it’s a daunting thing to do. Our culture has taught us all, to some extent, to view our own family and friends as our first priority, to defend those who are like us, and to think of those beyond our circle or tribe as distant seconds. When our neighbors are on our radar at all, it’s often as a passing thought or prayer before we cross the street or change the channel.
So it takes a powerful shift in perspective to start living as real neighbors – as those who see no one outside our immediate circle. Is it even possible to live as though all God’s children are our priorities, as real neighbors? We might quote Ezekiel: “Only you know, God.”
The good news, though, is that being part of a church is the perfect laboratory to learn this new way of being, to retrain our hearts. Church is where, just like the disciples, we learn to speak another language – to connect ourselves to those we’ve seen as “other,” whether because they look, act, or believe differently than we do. Think of that church person whose life perspective just doesn’t make sense to you, or whose politics you’re allergic to, or who just likes to talk a lot more (or less) than you do. And think about the times, despite those differences, when you’ve prayed for that person’s well being, or sent them a card, or had coffee together after worship. Those moments where, as we talked about last week, your hearts begin to overlap despite your differences.
I had two experiences this week which confirmed my suspicions that this kind of neighborliness is, indeed, possible.
The first happened one afternoon in Davis Square, while Davie and I were waiting for Chris to finish a meeting down the road. Suddenly, from across the street, I heard a gregarious “Davie, my baby!” and looked up to see Tommy, known to many of us as Debbie Lewis’ boyfriend, crossing over to greet us. We hugged and talked excitedly about what Davie was up to, what Tommy had been up to, and the beautiful weather. After we’d caught up, Tommy’s attention switched over to a cute toddler sitting with his mom at the next bench, someone he’d never met before. But he went right over and started to talk with this kiddo and his mom with all the vim and vigour of our conversation. Where cute kids are involved, Tommy knows no strangers – there is no one less deserving of his attention just because he hasn’t yet met them.
Later that afternoon, a family from down the street came to give us presents for the start of Ramadan. The holy month of fasting, giving to charity, and sharing with others began this past week, and preschoolers Zaki and Zayn and their mom had come by to share with us homemade crayons and delicious dates. We aren’t part of their religion, but from their point of view that was no reason not to treat us as real neighbors – people with whom they wanted to share their joy in the holiday season.
I could have dismissed these occurrences as common, ordinary, pedestrian – as unremarkable as drunken revelers at a party. But instead I followed Peter’s lead, seeing in them signs that the Spirit was knitting our hearts together with the hearts of people we could have had every reason to dismiss as strangers or as outside our circle of concern.
I believe that as a church, it’s our job to follow the examples of people like Tommy and Zaki and Zayn: to learn to see everyone as our neighbor – to act as if we belong to one another. I believe we can grow into neighborliness with the girls at Germaine Lawrence up the road, and with the people who will move into the planned affordable housing down the road, and with people on the other side of the political divide, and with people in our community who may not share our religion or our skin color or our gender identity but to whom we can belong.
Because only out of that connectedness – only out of that sense that we belong to one another – only out of the redemptive power of that kind of love – will come true, healing peace. A peace we desperately need.
So on this festive occasion, the birthday of the church, I’d like to propose a “Why” derived straight from our dreaming and visioning together.
To practice deep and fulfilling connection with God and each other, so that we can live as true neighbors, belonging to and caring for others as our own.
As with any “why,” it’s open to tweaks and adjustments, and in the weeks to come, I hope to hear from you all what you think of this Why statement so that we can refine it together and make it our own.
In the meantime, may we grow in connection and grow in our neighborliness, just as the early church did. May it be so. Amen.