Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Lent 5A -- April 6, 2013


Guest Preacher -- Alan Olson
Ezekiel 37:1-14
The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” Then he 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 he 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 he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
            Then he 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.

            The prophet Ezekiel offers us a very rich text this morning. Both of this morning’s lessons speak to God’s powers of restoration and renewal. And if all you take away from this passage in Ezekiel is that God can transform anyone or anything, you wouldn’t be wrong. But there is so much more going on in Chapter Thirty-seven of Ezekiel.
            Ezekiel is what we call an exilic prophet—that is, Ezekiel was one of the prophets who spoke to the people of Israel who were in captivity in Babylon. This is really important. I know, I know, sometimes us seminarians and clergy folk, we use big, exotic words because, well, we really like to. Sometimes you just have to forgive us for this. However, there are times when those fancy seminary words tell us something really important about a biblical figure or a text. This is one of those times.
            In the year 597 BCE, the Babylonian army laid siege to Jerusalem. The Babylonians took the king, King Jehoiachin, into captivity, ransacked the temple, and looted Jerusalem. The Babylonians then appointed the next king, Zedekiah. He did as the Babylonians commanded—for a little while—and then he decided to flex his muscles and stand up to Babylon. Of course, the Babylonians didn’t like this and their reprisal was swift and certain. In 587, the Babylonian army again laid siege to Jerusalem. The city fell in 586. This time, the Babylonians destroyed the temple, executed the king, and took thousands of hostages from among the Jerusalem elites: people of noble birth, officials of the royal court, and all of the priests of the temple. They also took all of those young men who were training to be priests. So clearly, some people have had a more difficult experience in the seminary than me.
            All joking aside, you cannot overstate the magnitude of what just happened to the people of Israel. When Moses and the Israelites wandered through the Sinai, they worshipped God at the Tabernacle, a portable shrine. Even after the Israelites entered the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, they worshipped at the Tabernacle, until King Solomon built the First Temple. If the Tabernacle was a sign of impermanence, then Solomon’s temple was a sign of permanence. The Temple was where Yahweh resided; it meant that the people of Israel had a permanent home. It was the place for the proper worship of God.
            The prophet Ezekiel was probably training to be a priest when he was taken into captivity by the Babylonians. Imagine, with me, the exile community that Ezekiel was speaking to: they are in a foreign land, they have no king, and no place to worship. They are alone, cut off from the land of their birth.
            In the vision that Ezekiel relates to us, the prophet is standing in the Valley of Dry Bones. The bones represent several different things. On a literal level, the bones are the bones of the dead soldiers and civilians who were killed by the Babylonian invaders. In the ancient world it was not uncommon for fighting to pause so that the bodies of the slain could be removed from the field of battle and buried. This would have been an act of great humiliation; it would have robbed the dignity of every person who died in the defense of Jerusalem. On a broader level, the bones represent “the whole house of Israel,” and they say to Ezekiel, “Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” And into this reality, Ezekiel is offering a vision of hope, a vision of restoration.
            Now that I’ve laid a bunch of seminary knowledge on you, I have to confess, I didn’t always enjoy my classes. In the seminary you get truckloads of information dumped on you on a daily basis. At times, it’s difficult to sift through all that knowledge. Even worse, when you’re suffering from information overload, it’s easy to lose sight of God, or to lose touch with the Holy Spirit. It is a draining experience.
            One of the ways that I found renewal during my studies was to go on mission trips. Through a group called World Mission Initiative, the seminary offers a wide variety of mission travel. In my time at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, I have participated in mission trips to Israel and Palestine, the US-Mexico border, Bolivia, and this summer, after I graduate, I’m going to South Africa and Lesotho. I have to say, I’m more than a little bit excited about going to South Africa.
            These trips have afforded me the opportunity to see what God is doing in other corners of the world. When I get back from one of these trips, it also helps me to see my own corner of the world with fresh eyes. This enables me to see problems around me in new ways; it also gives me a chance to interpret the Bible in light of what I’ve seen and done on these trips.
            This morning, I’d like to share with you one of the most profound experiences I’ve had. It was last year, on a trip to the US-Mexico border. We coordinated with Frontera de Cristo, a mission agency of the PC (USA). We were there to learn about migration and life along each side of the border.
            We learned about the economic realities that drove so many people from Mexico to seek better opportunities. We learned about our broken system of immigration—what the laws are and how they’re enforced. We walked through the desert of Sonora, Mexico to see that paths that the migrants traveled and we sat down at table with migrants who had been repatriated to Mexico. We heard their stories; we heard their pain. We learned just how dangerous it is to cross the desert into the United States. Every migrant who starts the journey north is risking his or her life.
            We stayed in a city called Agua Prieta. Dark Water. This is just across the border from Douglas, Arizona. Just inside the border fence, on the Mexico side, there’s a cross dedicated to all the migrants who died trying to make it to the US. Between 2004, when the first fence went up, and 2012, when the cross was placed in Agua Prieta, 127 migrants lost their lives, and that’s just in the area near Agua Prieta. Along the entire border, 3,058 people died. Of course, these weren’t just statistics, these were people.
            One afternoon, we went back across the border to Douglas, to participate in a prayer vigil to honor the migrants who had died attempting to gain entrance to the US. The vigil began in a park about a mile north of the border. There we grabbed a handful of crosses, each cross bearing the name of a migrant who had died trying to cross the border, and also that person’s date of death and birth date, if known. There were at least 127 crosses. We formed a line and headed south along the Pan-American Highway.
            The first person held a cross in the air and announced the name on the cross: Miguel Angel Mendoza Orozco. Then everyone else would shout, “¡Presente!” As if to say, “I am still here. I have a name.” Then the next person in line would walk past, hold her cross aloft, and shout, “Rafael Alberto Palma Salas!” “¡Presente!” I carried a cross that read, “Mujer No Identificado,” woman, no identification. “¡Presente!
            As we walked south, I took a second look at the crosses I was carrying. I noticed that one of the women whose name was on a cross had the same birth date as my aunt. Another one had the same birth date as my grandmother. One of the crosses bore the name David; another one bore the name Ernesto. My father’s given name was David Ernest. I was beginning to see connections and realize relationships. I also wondered how they died. Did they suffer? Were they in pain? Did they wonder if they would ever see their homes again? Did they think that God had abandoned them?
            The demonstration proceeded until we got close to the border. We stopped at a little patch of grass. Mark Adams, the pastor who led the vigil, asked us to pray over some of the crosses, and then he gathered us together and led the group in prayer. He took one of the crosses and said, “Miguel Angel Mendoza Orozco. He was somebody’s son. Perhaps somebody’s brother. Perhaps a husband, perhaps a father. Miguel Angel has gone to be with God.” Then he took another cross, saying: “Mujer No Identificada. Her name is known only to God. She was somebody’s daughter, perhaps she was a sister, a wife, a mother.”
            In that vigil, we were asked to identify with the other. To see those faceless—and sometimes nameless—migrants as who they really were, children of God, people who mattered to God and also to the families they may have left behind. Their names, their identities, and their dignity were restored to them.
            In the same way, the prophet Ezekiel spoke to the exile community in Babylon. He told the people of Israel that their land and their dignity would be restored to them. He told them they didn’t have to live in Jerusalem to worship God. He told them that they mattered so much to God that they would be restored to their birthright, even though that must have seemed utterly impossible—like bringing dead, dry bones back to life.
            Now we didn’t raise any of the dead, as Jesus raised Lazarus, but we did roll the stones away from our own eyes. We gave names and dignity to the dead; they were no longer statistics. Friends, this message isn’t about politics—it is about identifying with those who have suffered. This is what Jesus did in this morning’s lesson from the Gospel of John. Jesus identified with the suffering of Mary and Martha, so he raised their brother Lazarus. This message is also about our true identities, which we find in Christ, who loves us, restores us, makes us whole, and calls us to be in communion with one another—Jesus is the resurrection and the life! Finally, this message is about:
·      Miguel Angel Mendoza Orozco: ¡Presente!
·      Rafael Alberto Palma Salas: ¡Presente!
·      Mujer No Identificada: ¡Presente!

God knows each one of us by name. God loves us completely and unconditionally. And through Jesus, we are reconciled to God, where we have our true home. Thanks be to God! Amen!