You may think it’s creepy, but the lesson from the Book of Ezekiel which we heard as part of our lessons for today, the day of Pentecost, is one of my favorite passages of the Bible. Dem dry bones. What a visual! A whole valley filled with dry bones that rattle as they are restored to life!
Of course I also can’t help remembering the song “Dem dry bones” whenever I hear this lesson.
Ezekiel cried, “Dem dry bones!”
Ezekiel cried, “Dem dry bones!”
Ezekiel cried, “Dem dry bones!”
“Oh hear the word of the Lord!”
And then we have the piece about how the foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone, and so on, all the way up to the head bone – I won’t do that piece right now, especially because there are some funky key changes involved – but then, there is the most important message of this song, and the prophecy of Ezekiel:
Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around…oh hear the word of the Lord!
God has the power to bring life to what is or at least seems dead, hallelujah! And, if you pay close attention to the passage from Ezekiel, you will notice what the crucial thing is, which actually gives life: God’s breath. Breath is life! Now the Book of Ezekiel and all of what we call the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, and in Hebrew the word for breath, which is used here, is ‘ruach’. And, by the way, ‘ruach’ is a feminine word. God’s ‘ruach’ is a ‘she’. As so often in the Hebrew language, where words have more than one meaning, the word ‘ruach’ actually is much more than ‘breath’. It could also be translated as ‘wind’. And, in the very beginning of creation, God’s ‘ruach’ was over the waters, which we translate as ‘God’s Spirit’. Aha, now we are getting closer to Pentecost! But be it breath, wind, Spirit, I think we get the idea of what ‘ruach’ is in essence: it is – she is – God’s life force: present from the very beginning of time, Adam receives the very first kiss of life, and it is blown into the valley of the dry bones.
Today’s festival of Pentecost is all about this life force. Most of us are probably quite familiar with the story from the Book of Acts: how, 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection and 10 days after his Ascension, this very same breath, wind, Spirit of God stirs up the followers of Jesus, blows them out of their retreat, and reenergizes them to continue where Jesus Christ left off – and to go out and preach, teach, to heal and to work for justice, in short: to bring good news and to be good news to the world. Now talk about another dynamic story of the Bible – wind, fire, power, movement. Life.
And even though today’s gospel is not quite as dramatic as the other lessons for today, even here we get the idea of God’s Spirit as a powerful, albeit more subtle, life force. In the gospel of John, Jesus calls the Spirit the ‘advocate’, someone who speak for us and acts on our behalf – someone who is by our side, when the world around us goes crazy; when we are in danger of buying into the values of this world, which so often contradict the values Jesus Christ modeled for us; when we feel discouraged and are ready to give up. Jesus promises his followers of all times and all circumstances that they – that we will never be alone, but have this Spirit by our side, in us, and around us. The Spirit is the advocate for life. In this sense, the coming of God’s Holy Spirit, God’s stubborn life force, is like the exclamation mark on the resurrection of Christ and the confirmation of the events on Easter Day. God has the power to overcome death. God has the power to give hope to the hopeless. God has the power to turn things around. “Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around…”
You may have heard that Pentecost is called the ‘birthday of the church’, since it is on this day, that the followers of Christ are moved, moved out of the safety of their four walls, moved among the people to be Christ’s presence in this world. Pentecost was the start of the movement that would take the world by storm, a movement that would spread like wildfire. It would only take some 300 years before Christianity was the prevalent faith in the Western world. The church was born that day, birthed by God’s ‘ruach’, the Holy Spirit, the amazing life force.
But is seems that, the older the church gets, the less people want to celebrate. Just look around you today. It’s quite an intimate party we’re having here today, isn’t it? And sure enough, there are folks out there who say the church, or Christianity, is doomed – at least in the Northern hemisphere. Plenty of folks still somehow consider themselves Christian, but don’t see purpose in being part of a church body. Many consider themselves ‘spiritual, but not religious’, and draw strength from a highly individualized relationship with the Divine.
Here in the U.S., the fastest growing faith group is the group of the so called ‘nons’ – people, who don’t affiliate with any faith or place of worship. Europe went through this development a couple of decades ago already. Many don’t trust the old institutions anymore. And I don’t say this is a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just the way it is.
The church as the center of local and individual life has seized to exist in many places. And there are many factors that contribute to this phenomenon – a better lifestyle, recreational opportunities, the opportunity to create other forms of community, and in this day and age even in a virtual way. Many don’t experience the need be part of a community of faith anymore, many don’t experience the need to be saved anymore.
So this church, St. Matthew’s, is not the only church that struggles. We, of course, have our very own set of challenges, as a church of German heritage and a strong Lutheran tradition in a neighborhood that long seized to be German or German speaking and that is anything but traditional. And there are folks who may look at us and think, ‘Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.’
But if I have experienced one thing in this congregation, it is the almost stubborn will to be alive. Good for you! Good for us! Good for the world! God’s Spirit, the ‘ruach’, the breath, the life force, is still at work among us. Now the results of the work of the Spirit may not be as flashy as in congregations where people are literally moved by the Holy Spirit and lift their hands or show other stages of ecstasy or speak in tongues. That’s not our thing, and it doesn’t have to be. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t Pentecostal! One of the beautiful things about the Spirit, that her gifts are manifold and come in different shapes and sizes. The Spirit causes us to dream dreams and have visions, as the old prophecy from Joel says. And don’t we need this is this day and age: dreams? Visions? Excitement about opportunities? The Spirit moreover moves us to pray, to sing, to make thoughtful decisions, to party, to fix up things, to seek understanding, to rejoice in and to support the arts, to give for the benefit of the less fortunate, plus many more things. Life can be affirmed in so many ways. Life needs to be affirmed in so many ways.
And let me tell you, I probably wouldn’t have accepted the call as your pastor this past year, if I wasn’t hopeful – if I didn’t believe in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, if I didn’t believe in God’s power to renew and give birth and give new life. I am a strong believer in the exclamation mark, the strong yes God says to God’s church, the yes God says to us on the Day of Pentecost. The yes God says to life.
God’s Spirit, God’s life force, continues to be at work among us. We are alive because God’s breath is still in our lungs and hearts and souls. We are people of the Spirit – empowered to live Christ’s legacy, with the gifts we have been given, and to make a difference. That’s what we celebrate today. The Spirit may move us, maybe in directions that are unfamiliar or even uncomfortable – but we are not on our own as we are ‘out there’. We are not alone. God’s Spirit is with us – always.
And because God’s Spirit, God’s life force, is with us, we can sing with confidence: “Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around, o hear the word of the Lord!”
This post is also available in: German