SERMON PREACHED AT THE CATHEDRAL OF St JOHN THE EVANGELIST, WAIAPU
(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND: first cathedral to see the sun)
FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT (6th April) 2014
Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14
There are Sundays in which the readings are both a marathon and a feast of riches. Along with the infamous near-sacrifice of Isaac, the valley of dry bones has captured the hearts and imaginations of artists and other interpreters more than almost any other biblical passage, and for good reason. This story of the re-membering – and I used the word advisedly – of long dead and desiccated bones is vivid, timeless, and strangely playful, as God and prophet interact in interpretation of the visionary scene.
The passage is timeless, and for that very reason it can and must speak loudly to us today. It is timeless as we see our own Anglican communion dragged into the media not only here in New Zealand as the Ma Whea Report on same-gender relations is released, but throughout the world as we bog ourselves down with vitriolic sexuality debates. These debates bear weight especially when they impact as life or death questions for minority-sexualised groups in Africa and elsewhere; in East Africa as I speak one liberal bishop, Christopher Ssenyonjo, former Anglican Bishop of West Buganda, risks several years’ imprisonment for speaking out for justice on behalf of gays, who across the continent may be beaten to death for their sexual behaviour. Ma whea indeed: where to from here, what future now?
As the millennial generations grow up, admittedly in a culture of hedonism that we may not altogether endorse, they grow up wondering how a big and to them obscure institution like the Church can become so bogged down on issues that are for them just so passé. Yet in our valley of the dry bones of disconnection, we might ask if our sexual mores have to be driven either by majority opinion or by hedonist narratives. These are questions we must juggle – and I don’t pretend to intend to answer them here, merely to highlight the sad fact that we are more and more marginalised, more and more bull-dozed by inaction into our own valley of desiccated bones.
The vision of Ezekiel is timeless as we look around our own cathedral and see, while not exactly dry bones, nevertheless tired bones. It is timeless as we watch traditional family groupings dissolve into myriad matchings and re-matchings, as children grow up with deep instability in the family lives that surround them, as either the incidences or, less likely, the reporting of domestic violence and abuse against women and children escalates if not out of control at least far out of the desirable zero-occurrence that we would love to see in our society. The valley of dry bones is all around us, but I suspect if you feel anything like the way I feel, then our response is more akin to a possum in the headlights than to a prophet about to encounter the searing light of the Spirit of God.
Ultimately I suspect that as an institution we are like any organism, driven by the flight or fight instincts of self-preservation. We are like the possum in the headlights because we don’t know what to do with the unprecedented rate of change surrounding us. Changing sexual mores or perhaps sexual honesty, definitions of family, clashes of religious civilizations, climate change and rising sea levels, the resurgence of bacteria in our wards, threatened economic collapse, growing distrust of political and social and religious leadership: whether these matters are reality or not they are the perception thrust into our living room day after day as we sit transfixed by media transmitting their often jaundiced interpretations of the world. We are the dry bones.
Yet I suspect that it is at least to a large degree a case of that wonderful French saying plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same. If for no other reason than this timelessness, then the powerful narratives of our scriptures would be worth exploring. A story of the revivification of dry bones, stemming from a vision experienced by a prickly Judean poet and prophet, Ezekiel, was born at a time when the known world was devastated by military overthrow, by rape, pillage and the annihilation of social infrastructure. Ezekiel dares to see the destruction of his known world as the work of God, but dares too to see the restoration of his people’s hope as a promise soon to be fulfilled. You need not be a biblical scholar to realize that Ezekiel may not have been flavour of the month as he told his people that their doom was their fault, and that any hope of restoration dwelt entirely in the hands of the God who had allowed their destruction. It is no coincidence that in our psalm, Psalm 130, the psalmist cries with a depth of pain not dissimilar to that of Ezekiel: the psalmist and Ezekiel alike are in the depths of a Good Friday hell, and it is in that hell that they learn to cry out with integrity: “Lord, hear my voice.”
When Paul addresses the Romans, although more succinct than Ezekiel, he too is daring to address a faith-community that is sinking into the demise of bitter division and lifelessness, although he waits to the very end of his epistle, at Rom 16.17, to make that concern clear. Throughout his few years of writing ministry divisiveness and party-spirit was one of the most destructive forces he addressed, over and again in the embryonic churches. Like all destructive forces he called it a work of the flesh – unlike Ezekiel he is seeing “flesh” not as a sign of re-vivification but as that which is opposed to God. The outcome though is the same as that addressed by Ezekiel: a community that is forgetting the life-giving, compassion-bringing, justice-establishing works of God’s Spirit, that is obsessed by its own divisions and party-politics, is a community that is dying, no matter how august or magnificent its outward appearances. Shortly after our passage Paul will refer to the Romans living in a spirit of cowardice, frightened to embrace the future as God’s future. I suggest, too that whatever happened in the actualities of the life of Lazarus, that the resuscitation he experienced at the hands of Jesus had parabolic as well as any literal meaning, and that the life of a believer restricted into the incarceration of a tomb of future-phobia is more than enough to bring Jesus and the heart of God to tears.
We are at risk of becoming, if not already being, the dry bones. We are at risk of being Lazarus. We are at risk of being the Roman Christians of Paul or the Judean Hebrews of Ezekiel, frightened by a future that we dare not name as God’s future because we do not understand it. As a cathedral parish with dwindling numbers, as a diocese with dwindling resources, as a national and international church increasingly marginalised, we are haemorrhaging by our majoring in the minors, by party-spirit, by obsession with maintaining the letter of the past (that foreign country where things are done differently). It is not the time to discuss in depth questions of marriage reform and sexuality, despite Ma Whea, nor the politics of episcopal election, despite our diocesan vacancy, nor the cries of those who would see Jesus but who are turned away where we exercise a ministry of exclusion rather than embrace in our moral pronouncements (but also in our liturgy and music and teaching and preaching).
It is time though to note that, following the crie de cœur of Psalm 130 the canon introduces a new tone, the confession of sin and cry for forgiveness of Psalm 131. We cannot do a great deal about the international or national or even diocesan big picture issues of sexuality and justice, but we can as one tiny corner of the church of God ascertain what we are doing to be a welcoming, embracing, accessible, meaningful signpost to the Easter hope that we are called to be, and we can ask the Spirit of God to pour out on our tired and sometimes apprehensive if not frightened flesh and cause our dry bones to rise in a future that may be different but is nevertheless God’s future.
PS: I have been asked to include a bibliography of my sources. The primary sources for this week's reflection were Katheryn Pfister Darr, "Ezekiel", in the New Interpreter's Bible, Volume 6 (2001) and J. Clinton McCann's "Psalms", also New Interpreter's Bible, Volume 4 (1996). I'm not sure either scholar would own my findings and uses of their thoughts, though!