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Sermon for Pentecost 2021

Updated: Jul 31, 2022

From St. Aidan's first hybrid worship, Pentecost, May 23, 2021

Feast of Pentecost

Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14

The Rev. Cameron Partridge

May 23, 2021

Newness of Life, Newness of Home

When I was a first-year college student, newly arrived for a week of orientation in August, I was nervous but excited, eagerly anticipating whole new galaxies of learning, new friends and activities, and a completely novel context in general on the other side of the country. My east coast and midwest-originating family members had me excited about the crisp fall with leaves that consistently turned various colors, and real winter cold with ice and snow, not to mention a dramatic spring with bulbs bursting with color. Truly, those seasons would remain my favorites the whole time I lived on the east coast-- basically 25 years. But oh my goodness, nobody told me-- really sat me down and warned me -- about the heat and humidity of Philadelphia in the summer. I lay in bed drenched in sweat that first night in my ancient dorm room, windows open, praying for wind, while a small, oscillating fan slightly stirred the air as it swept in my direction once every ten seconds. And then there were also these strange noises I had never heard before. No one else knew what I was talking about when I asked initially, so I started to wonder if I was imagining it, or if the heat had completely fried my brain before my coursework could. The best I can describe this noise is like a massive electronic lawn sprinkler broadcast through surround-sound. Everywhere I went I would hear it, especially near trees. A wave would crescendo and then dissipate while another would start up. I would actually stop and do a 180, looking for the lawn sprinkler. It had to be somewhere. At night I heard the sound through my windows as well, but muted and more slowly paced, as if broadcast from a slightly different frequency. I would ask my roommate-- there! That! Do you hear it? She would just look at me, perplexed. Finally, some days later she stared at me and said, “do you mean the cicadas?” The what? I had never heard the word before. I had definitely never heard their sounds, growing up in this area. When I finally saw one I truly wondered what planet I was on. And these were just annual cicadas. Never mind broods ten and fourteen that crawl out of the ground like a biblical horror show every seventeen or so years. I never lived anywhere home to their legendary emergence, which, according to news reports I read earlier this week, seems to be happening about now on the east coast-- or should be, if not for climate change. But what really stays with me to this day is the gentle, surreal quality of their sound, ushering me into a wave of new life chapters.

This memory came to me as I sat with our first reading this morning from the prophet Ezekiel, the famous vision of the dry bones. Ezekiel was writing to and among those who were exiled in Babylon, around the time the Babylonians destroyed the first temple in Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.[1] His community was in mourning, cut off from their home, the center of their worship, from the bedrock ordering of their life as they had known it. They wrestled with how and why they had lost so much, where God might be in the midst of it, what God might have to say about it. In the vision we heard, God takes Ezekiel to a valley riddled with death, people so long gone that their bones were stripped of former flesh, utterly dry. In this place of desolation, God addresses Ezekiel, “mortal,” linking the prophet to the dead, as if to say, these are your people. “Mortal, can these bones live?” I love Ezekiel’s response. I imagine him wondering if this is a trick question, a divine gotcha moment. You would be the one who could answer that question, he basically replies. And then God ushers Ezekiel in to the seemingly impossible. “Prophesy to the bones,” God tells him. To the bones? I imagine him wondering. Did I hear you right? Does one prophesy to inanimate objects? “Prophesy to these bones,” address them directly, by name, “and say to them [-- quote --] ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.’” Use formal prophetic language. Say, quote: “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.” Can these bones live? The answer is yes. How?? Step by step, layer by layer. Sinews on bone, muscles upon sinews, skin over muscles, and finally the entry of breath. These bodies will not simply breathe on their own. God will cause breath to enter them. But first, step by step.

Once Ezekiel has uttered this prophecy to the dry bones -- perhaps feeling ridiculous? Or terrified? Or some combination of the above? -- he begins to experience the effect of God’s words. What he experiences first is sound. He uses more than one word to describe it: “a noise, a rattling.” I imagine it sounded unearthly. Or perhaps actually very earthly, dried earth objects clacking against one another as they are collected into new life. Before Ezekiel’s very eyes the bones are covered step by step with sinews, flesh, skin. But once again, God asks him to proclaim, to speak forward God’s creative intervention. ““Prophesy to the breath,” God declares, calling Ezekiel “mortal” once more. “Prophesy, and say to the breath (quote) ‘Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’” And with that, the bodies become living beings once more. They stand on their own feet, a vast multitude.

In this moment of new life, God tells Ezekiel who this people is: the whole house of Israel, exiled, lost, filled with grief. Now God translates their words to Ezekiel: “‘Our bones are dried up,” they say, “and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” This is the lived reality of Ezekiel’s community. They are a people who cannot even imagine the new reality into which God is calling them. They cannot fathom what their life could look like, so far behind them does their earlier life feel. They may be alive now, but they need to be shown hope. They need to be assured that God is with them to lead them into new life. And so God asks Ezekiel once more to prophesy, to say “Thus says the Lord God (quote) ‘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 place from which you have been exiled. They would not simply live, but they would return. They would receive once again the promise God had long before offered them. God would lead them from their very graves into newness of life, to newness of home. They would know that God was with them -- “that I am the Lord” when their very graves would be opened, when they would be brought up from their graves, “O my people,” God calls them. My people, God claims them once again. God would be with them as they made their way out of that vast, dry desolate place.

And here we stand today, ambiguously located. Our world stands in a moment of precarity as the pandemic rages in parts of the world-- particularly India -- while in other parts of the world, such as our own, the vaccine has helped us turn a major corner and to begin to step cautiously toward post-pandemic life. In Israel / Palestine a ceasefire holds for the time being, as the disproportionate loss of Palestinian life is mourned, and a just, peaceful path forward is very much yet to be determined. Our country approaches one year since the murder of George Floyd and reckons with the journey ahead of us to achieve the deep structural and spiritual change necessary to eradicate racism in the systems and hearts of our country. In the midst of all this, re-opening or re-gathering is happening in various ways, in various places-- such as we are doing this morning. I don’t know about you, but to me it feels both welcome and uncertain-- this is not a simple flipping of the switch, but a stepping out into terrain that is as new as it is old. It feels especially fitting that we are trying this experimental, one-off, hybrid-worship step on Pentecost, the day when we celebrate the church birthed into new being, breathed into new life modalities and chapters it could not yet imagine, even when the risen Christ had been walking among them. I am so grateful to be in this space with many of you this morning, soon celebrating the Eucharist here at this altar for the first time in over a year, and looking forward to when all of us can be gathered here in this space, without masks, without worrying about congregational singing or contact tracing, able to drink from the common cup as we wish, even as we are grateful today for the little communion cups lent to us by Lutheran friends. There is joy among us this morning, dear friends, joy that carries the realities of loss, joy that does not fully know the way forward but trusts in the God who promises to walk with us always, leading us step by step. Hear the strange rattling of new life, dear friends. Feel yourself surrounded by cosmic waves of singing alien bugs with protruding red eyes, friends, crawling up from deep down in the earth, preparing for new life high up in the trees. What does new life look like? God knows, we have no idea! But God promises to show us, to walk us along, acknowledging where we have been, seeking repair, seeking justice, seeking life in all its glorious fullness.

I leave you with a final image of such life: On the altar stands a large Communion set. It was given to me by Kateri’s parents for my priestly ordination in 2005. Along the way the chalice broke. These things happen! But we kept the pieces, as I often try to do when something in my life breaks. Sometime before the pandemic, Kateri gave me a Kintsukuroi kit-- a Japanese term and practice, “repairing with gold.” About a year ago, she mended the chalice with it. It isn’t simply mended, good as new. It’s better than new, because now you can see the broken places in it. Step by step, life has been breathed back into it. It shines now in a way that it didn’t before, for all that it has gone through. It looks forward to holding communion wine this morning, for the first time in a while-- for the first time ever in its new form. Yet a further step remains for it beyond today. When we are fully re-gathered, O my people, we may drink from this cup together. Today may we look upon it with eyes ready to be awakened to the new things into which God is leading us, ears ready to hear strange new calls. May the rush of the Spirit flow through us here at 101 Gold Mine Drive and in the places where you are right now. Together may we be strengthened, encouraged, filled with new hope, and indeed with new wine, in the days to come. Amen.

[1] Robert Wilson, “Ezekiel” in The HarperCollins Bible Commentary (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988, 2000), 619-620.

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