29 May 2012

Come, Creator Spirit! Come!

Ezekiel 37: 1-14 & John 15: 26-27, 16:4b-14

Pentecost/ 27th May 2012

“Come from the four winds, O breath, [O spirit], and breathe upon these slain that they may live.”  When we think of the Holy Spirit, we think of wind and flame and breath. When I think of Pentecost, I think of wind and flame and breath.  And we think of life.

There’s something about this verse that took me back to a special Pentecost four years ago when I was on sabbatical.  I was spending several days at Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine monastery situated deep in the canyon of the Chama River, in the high desert near Ghost Ranch, about an hour north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It takes about an hour to drive the ten miles to get there from the main road because you’re driving on clay and gravel at 10 mph.  It’s extremely remote and desolate and stunningly beautiful.  I planned to be there exactly at that time, hoping that worship on Pentecost there would be especially moving.  It was a powerful, memorable service as the monks sang the ancient 9th century plainsong prayer, Veni, Creator Spiritus.  Come, Creator Spirit.[1]  (You might have heard the story on NPR this morning about the monks of Christ in the Desert talk about the release of a new album of Gregorian chant.[2])  But it was over the weekend that the intensity, power, the full force of Pentecost became real as the four winds, ferocious and fierce, blew through the canyon all day Saturday into Sunday.  And then Pentecost morning I awoke with an extraordinary sense of a presence – but more about that another time.

            Today, we have a text from Ezekiel that’s all about wind, breath, spirit – the ruach of God.   In Hebrew, the same word, ruach, is used for wind, breath, spirit, and mind.  And here in Ezekiel it’s used interchangeably.  It’s also the same word used in Genesis to describe the divine spirit, breath, wind that moved over the chaos and void and the waters just before God spoke said, “Let there be light.”  As in Genesis, this ruach does something, it causes something to be, it calls things into being, it moves and influences, it shapes and forms, it creates.  That’s what the ruach of God always does and that’s exactly what the prophet Ezekiel wants Israel to know.

            This is a remarkable story – gruesome and gothic, evocative.  The valley of dry bones – very dry, Ezekiel says – represents the people Israel who have abandoned hope in God, given up on the thought that they will ever see home again, they are exiles in Babylon who think their best days are behind them, back in Israel.  They are exiles stuck in the moment, cut off from the future; they are as good as dead.  They are dead – dead bones, dry bones, very dry bones, implying that they’ve been dead for a very long time. Their imaginations are dead because they can’t imagine any other future for them.

            “Very dry” means there’s no life left in them.  It also means that whatever future “dem bones” are going to have it won’t be the result of anything they can do.[3]  They can’t do anything.  They have nothing left.  They’re dead.  “Very dry” prepares us to see that what God is about to do here is nothing short of revolutionary and radical.  In fact, this is one of the earliest accounts in Israel’s imagination of something akin to the notion of resurrection – of death yielding life through the power of the Spirit of God.

            God commands Ezekiel to prophesy – preach – to the bones, preach to death, preach to nothingness, to hopelessness.  Command death to listen and know,  “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 God.”  Preach to the bones.  Preach till they begin to shake and rattle and stir with life.  And as he preached the bones began to rattle and shake and move together, bone connecting to bone.  And as he preached with the divine speech soon the sinew of flesh covered the bones, and then skin, and then, as it was at the beginning when God breathed God’s ruach into the flesh of humanity, they came to life. And they stood on their feet – a vast multitude of people.

            “…and you shall live; and you shall know that I am God.”  And you shall live. And you shall live.  You shall come to life.  That’s God’s message to Ezekiel, that’s the Word of the Lord, it’s also the gospel.  Isn’t this what Jesus came to teach us?  Isn’t this what he came to show us?  Isn’t this what he came to give us and give us – life! You shall live.  While this story anticipates Jesus’ resurrection, Ezekiel isn’t talking here about an afterlife.  He’s talking about the recreation for creation, the granting of new life for this life, the promise of a return home to Israel, the creation of a future in this life.  Jesus promised the same thing.  “I have come that you have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).  That is, meaningful life, a life of depth and purpose.  Jesus said that he would send an advocate, someone to help us, someone to lead us and teach us.  The one who said, “I am the way, I am truth, I am life” (John 14:6), now says the Spirit will come upon us and help us glorify the work of Christ, “because he will take what is mine,” Jesus said,” and declare it to you” (John 16:15).  Christ’s life brings us to life through the power of the Spirit who is deep at work in us – right now.

            “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,… I, the LORD, have spoken and will act.”

            One of the major currents running through the Bible, one of the primary messages we’re given is that God is the God of life, who grants life, sustains life, encourages life, and struggles, even wrestles with everything in the universe and the dark caverns of the soul that wages a war against life, and restores life and resurrects life, especially in those situations when all hope is lost; just when death thinks it has finally triumphed, life has the last word.  This is the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection – this is the core of the Christian gospel and the Jewish gospel because it’s God’s gospel to us.  And on this day when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, we’re really saying that the power of God expressed in Ezekiel’s sermon is directly related to Jesus’ many sermons is directly related to this sermon and any and every sermon, whenever the divine speech breathes through us and resurrecting power of God brings us up out from our graves, then we have evidence that the Spirit of God is among us with power and with fire.  And nothing can stand in the way of God’s life.

            God calls us out from our graves.  You know what they are – all the places that no longer yield life.  God calls us to life.  God grants us a future.  The Spirit is at work in the world, working in and with the dead bones, working even in death in order for it to yield life.  No thing, no one, no circumstance or situation is beyond hope when God is involved.

            This means that if God is at work in a person’s life, he or she is never without hope.  This means that if God is at work in the Church, the church is never without hope.  This means that if God is at work in the world, the world is never without hope. The God who is life, yields life.

            In my home church on Pentecost we always had a birthday cake during fellowship hour.  Pentecost is often viewed as the birthday of the Church.  The Spirit is associated with the forming of the Church.  While it’s probably correct to say the Church existed before Pentecost, it’s important for us to realize that in order for the Church to be the Church, in order for the Church to remain the Church, in order for the Church to become what God needs the Church to become, it cannot do any of the above without the life-giving breath of the Spirit.  You might say, well, given the state of the Church these days – membership decline, denominational factionalism, young people giving up on the Church, abuse, exclusionary practices, the list is long – that the Spirit has been kind of absent.  There are some who are giving up on the Church, walking away from the Presbyterian Church. But how does one give up on what God can do?  How does one walk away from what God can do?

            Maybe we are dry bones, and maybe getting drier.  But God has a habit of breathing new life into dead bones.  Maybe it will take realizing how dry we have become for us to realize that the future of this church or any church is not dependent upon the gifts and skills of the preacher or the choir or the leadership or all the members of the congregation combined.  The future is granted and guaranteed by the one who offers us life.  It’s the Spirit of the Resurrected Christ who can take our dry bones and breathe new life into them.  God wants us to live, God wants us to thrive, to grow, to flourish – not necessarily in numbers, but to grow in depth, grow in faithfulness, grow in commitment, in trust, in courage, in service, in faith.  This is what the Church has always needed.  And we fail and will fail and end up faithless when we rely upon our own wills, resources, agendas, and fears. It’s not about us. The Church is not about us. It doesn’t exist to extend our egos or meet all our needs.  We’re called into being by the Spirit, formed into a people, into the beloved community of God’s people to do the work of God.  To say we believe in Jesus means that we open ourselves up to the Spirit who wants to take us where we need to go. And this happens when we’re open to Spirit moving through us and working on us and even surprising us.

            The Spirit loves to surprise us, like this.  You’ll remember that on Good Friday this year we had a three-hour prayer vigil here in the sanctuary.  People signed up for fifteen-minute intervals from noon until 3:00 p.m.  I wanted to be at the church just before noon to light the single pillar candle that was placed in front of the cross on the Communion table, but I was running late. I knew someone was in the sanctuary praying and I didn’t want to be a distraction. So I entered through one of the doors behind the pulpit.  I walked down the steps with the box of matches, struck a match, lit the candle, and then walked out.  It was Keith Glennan who was there first on that Friday. I didn’t say hello to him because I didn’t want to disturb him, but I did notice that he was looking at me in an odd, even startled sort of way.  What I didn’t know was that at that moment he was been praying with his iPod on, with eyes open looking at the cross, listening to a Taizé piece with these words:  “Holy Spirit, come to us.  Kindle in us the fire of your love.” He was a little stunned when I walked in, struck the match, and lit the candle, and left.  Synchronicity?  Holy Spirit?  Surprised. There’s always more going around us and in us than meets the eye. There’s always more going around us and in us than meets the eye.

            So let us pray with the Church, Veni, Creator Spiritus. Come, Creator Spirit. Come.  Call us to life, breathe new life within us, create us and recreate us all for God’s glory.  Alleluia!  Amen.

[1]The hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus is attributed to Rabanus Maurus (c.780-856) in the ninth century. The full text may be found here: http://www.preces-latinae.org/thesaurus/Hymni/VeniCreator.html.  Here is a recording of the plainsong chant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fnfv1LUMaBA&feature=topics.  The text was used in the first movement of Gustav Mahler’s (1860-1911) majestic and immensely moving Eight Symphony (1910).
[3] “Dem bones” is allusion to the African-American spiritual written by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) based on Ezekiel 37.

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