Pentecost 16 C
Rev. Dr. Mark Lee
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, CO
It was the worst of times. No, really the worst – it was 586 BC, and the trauma ripples through to this very day. Ask any Jew. Ask any Palestinian. The kingdom of Judah was being swallowed up by the Babylonian Empire. Armies surrounded Jerusalem. The ruling elites were split; some favored submitting to the Babylonians, others wanted to hold out, hoping for Egyptian intervention. People could come and go to a degree, but no equipment, food nor water could enter the city. Would God deliver them? Was this punishment for their sins? Who knew where God was in this? Hope was drying up faster than the last supplies of three year old grain. Hunger was spreading, desperate cannibalism was soon to come. Has your world ever totally fallen apart? Yeah, it was like that.
Jeremiah the prophet had been predicting this day for years. He saw how the royalty – the house of David, who claimed an eternal covenant of God’s favor and were supposed to be God’s good earthly ruler – how they squeezed the common people for every shekel, every bushel of grain, every acre of land. He saw the way the whole country turned from God to idols. Sure, the priests kept the Temple sacrifices running, but the temple had become a symbol of nationalistic political power rather than service to God. So it was easy to work other values into the program. They hadn’t yet heard Jesus’ teaching, “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” Jeremiah loudly pointed out that their path would doom them. His message is not unlike Greta Thunberg’s: staying on the present course will certainly mean disaster.
But people don’t want to hear that, they didn’t want to change. The king put Jeremiah under arrest in the barracks of his bodyguards. This is where this story takes place. Jeremiah hears the crazy, weird, unexpected word of God. Amid the shouts of, “Incoming!” as rocks and arrows came flying over the city walls, amid the scorn of the king and his court, amid his own depression and uncertainty, he thinks he hears God. “Your cousin Hanamel’s field is going into foreclosure. Buy it and bail him out.” Jeremiah was from a suburb of Jerusalem, Anathoth. He was the closest kinsman to Hanamel, and the law of redemption in Deuteronomy gave him the right and obligation to buy the field if Hanamel was in danger of losing it to creditors and it passing out of the family forever. Those of you from farming families might have that sense of ancestral connection to the land; it was built into the system in ancient Israel.
This is not a good deal. Jerusalem and the legal structure of the kingdom are doomed. The Babylonians already occupy Anathoth. Tragically, the modern Palestinian village is practically encircled by the Israeli separation wall. Hanamel’s offer is like buying beachfront property in the Bahamas just as hurricane Dorian was making landfall. Has God ever led you to do something that seemed to make zero sense? What then happened?
Hanamel shows up at Jeremiah’s prison, deed in hand. “And then I knew it was the word of the Lord,” Jeremiah says. That’s sometimes how God’s leading works – we have an intuitive, instinctual sense of something, and then the right person shows up and says the right thing, not knowing what has been going on in our minds and heart. So Jeremiah buys the field. At closing, everyone sees Jeremiah weighing out the silver, signing the deed, witnesses notarizing it, Jeremiah’s secretary Baruch filing one copy publicly and something unusual with another copy: putting another in a clay jar, a jar that can be hidden and preserved --- like the Dead Sea Scrolls were – until after the present disaster has passed.
What does this all mean? As a real estate investment, it’s the worst. The battering rams of the enemy army are at the gates. Really, what is Jeremiah doing? Crazy prophetic action. What is God doing?
Jeremiah lifts up his voice: “The Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, proclaims: Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.” “I will bring Israel back to this place to live securely. They will be my people and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one mind so that they may worship me all the days of their lives, for their own good and for the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them. I will put in their hearts a sense of awe for me so they won’t turn away from me. Fields will be bought, and deeds will be signed, sealed and witnessed. For I will bring them back from their captivity.” (Jer. 32:34-44, summarized).
Hope. Not a cocky-eyed optimism that things will get better. Not a surprising shift in the political scene. Not replacing a bad king with a good king. Hope isn’t denying reality. The Babylonians did destroy the city, temple, monarchy. As the psalmist says, do not hope in princes, in political events, in the invisible hand of the economy, but in God. Hope is rooted in God’s promise, God’s action, God’s love. As the apostle Paul said, “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
What does hope look like? That’s a great question, a question that invites us to look closely at the world, to become attentive to and aware of the often small sprouts of green breaking through the concrete. What is a situation you know that seems hopeless, yet you have seen people hope in God even in the midst of it?
Among the souvenirs of my trips to Israel and Palestine have been different websites to follow. One is called “The Good Shepherd Collective.” It is a tough page to follow, for practically every day, there is some new encroachment documented. In just the last couple of weeks, an access road from Palestinian villages to their fields has been trenched and destroyed, a shepherd’s goat herd shagged and scattered, homes searched in the middle of the night, water tanks punctured, and I don’t know how many houses demolished. The reasons given are variations on the theme that the Palestinians lack deeds, travel documents or building permits, and that Israeli colonists need land, roads and water. While many places in the world experience oppressive situations, Palestine is one I’ve seen first hand, and weighs on my heart. So I was surprised to read from them:
“In the aftermath of a day like today, when the Israeli military utterly dismantled large sections of the South Hebron Hills, homes were razed, people were beaten and arrested, children traumatized - we are challenged to maintain hope in the face of darkness. People ask us: How do you keep the faith that a better tomorrow is waiting upon the horizon?
“We have enough humility to maintain hope. This is crucial. Far too often, people confuse being hopeful for being naive. We fully understand the matrix of control Israel has methodically constructed around us; after all, it is the corrosive thread shot through the fabric of our lives. But we also understand the movement rising up around us. We see diverse movements of justice joining in solidarity in ways that weren't happening decades ago. Black and brown voices are pushing the plight of Palestinians onto the main stage. Our Jewish friends are taking real risks and making real sacrifices to usher in a new future of liberation. We see all of this because we choose to have hope. We don't let cynicism creep in and masquerade as wisdom. We don't minimize the efforts of those around us. We are courageous enough to have hope. We don't worry that people will think that we are silly or misguided for knowing that a better tomorrow awaits us. Good Shepherd Collective September 11 at 2:29 PM · “
What is your hopeless situation? Political cynicism, overload or despair? Whatever the doctor told you at that visit you had? The negative balance in your checkbook? The cold cup of coffee from the friend who walked away, not crying? Bulldozers flattening your home? Babylonians battering down your gates and burning your temple?
Take courage, God sees you. Grasp your neighbor’s hands, for God will use them to buttress your heart. Don’t curl up in fear, but open yourself to all the tiny signs of God’s faithfulness to you: food on your table, an apology tendered, a gorgeous sunset, a demonstration supporting asylum seekers, a friendly face greeting you in the fellowship hall, a wrong made right, a satisfying grade on an exam, another day of sobriety or a courageous vote. File these signs away, build up a stock in your heart. Share them with others, and file away the ones they share with you. Use them as the building blocks for a future world where peace is normal, caring is public policy, and love binds neighbors and strangers together through God.
Call to worship (from Ps. 91)
Leader: Living in the Most High’s shelter, camping in the Almighty’s shade, I say to the Lord:
People: “You are my refuge, my stronghold! You are my God – the One I trust!”
Leader: God will save you from the hunter’s trap, snares for your soul and body,
People: God’s faithfulness is a protective shield, guarding us like a hen guards her chicks. God will protect us with his feathers, we’ll find refuge under God’s wings.
Leader: Don’t be afraid of terrors at night, or arrows that fly in daylight; monsters that prowl in the dark, or destruction that ravages at noontime.
People: God tells us, “Because you are devoted to me, I’ll rescue you. I’ll protect you, because you honor my name. Whenever you cry out to me, I’ll answer.”
Leader: Hear, O people, the help of our God:
People: “I’ll be with you in troubling times. I’ll save and glorify you, even through your old age. I will forever show you my salvation!”
You have gathered us, gathered us to you, O God, in the midst of a world that seems to have gone crazy. So often, the news of oppression against your children, of destruction of our environment, of corruption in high places, of wars and rumors of war, weighs hard on us. We come to this place seeking quiet from the din; we come to one another seeking a warm heart of comfort; we come to you seeking meaning and hope for the future. Though your grace, grant us peace for today and hope for tomorrow. Amen.
Prayer of thanksgiving and dedication
Thank you, God, for giving us hope when all seems hopeless! Thank you for being faithful even when everyone around falls away! Thank you for being with us in our darkest nights, our deepest pits, our loneliest deserts! Thank you for drawing us together as your people in this time and place. In gratefulness, we offer our selves and our work, trusting you to do amazing things through all of us. Amen.
Mark brings a passion for Christian education that bears fruit in social justice. He has had a lifelong fascination with theology, with a particular emphasis on how Biblical hermeneutics shape personal and political action. Prior to coming to Plymouth, Mark served as pastor for Metropolitan Community Churches in Fort Collins, Cheyenne, and Rapid City. Read more.
Ezekiel 37: 1-14
April 2, 2017
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth UCC, Fort Collins, Colorado
Will you pray with me? Lord God, rattle our bones and bring us to life. Shake our understanding and our hopelessness from slumber and transform it into your wondrous love. May this sermon and our togetherness today bring us new hope and love, Oh God who is our rock, our life-maker, life-restorer, and our life-keeper through love. Amen.
Today, God brings Ezekiel to the Valley of Bones (a place full of dead and decomposed bodies) where they are then reanimated into living people again. I always thought that today’s lectionary passage should fall at the same time as Halloween—it has a Zombie movie sort of a tone to it, don’t you think?
At the beginning of the story, before we get to the bones walking around again, God brings the prophet to this valley of death, right? And then God asks a weird rhetorical question… or is it a trick question? April Fools? It is hard to tell. “Mortal, can these bones live?” I [Ezekiel] answered, “O Lord God, you know.”
You know IMMEDIATELY that something wild, weird, and possibly dangerous is about to happen whenever God addresses you by the ONE title that all humans throughout all of history and time share in common, “Mortal.” This title and address means, “a being that will die and cease to exist, or one with a finite lifespan.” We know that God is up to something big when we are addressed by the fact that we are temporary— “O Mortal, can these bones live?” This is the question God asks Ezekiel.
Even stranger perhaps is Ezekiel’s headstrong, somewhat flippant, and almost exasperated response: “O Lord God, you know.” I picture him saying this with a valley accent. Why are you making me look at the reality of the situation for the house of Israel, God? Why have you brought me all the way to face this place of tragedy and loss only to ask me about the impossible and the hopelessness found here, God? We both already know the answer to this silly question- “O Lord God, you know!” Ezekiel doesn’t need a reminder that things are tough for his people and his calling as a priest.
So who was this prophet Ezekiel with such a direct and confrontational form of communication with the Divine?
One of my favorite scholars, Michael Coogan seems to be a big fan of Ezekiel and this passage in particular. According to this scholar, Ezekiel is a special prophet for a couple of important reasons. The first is that he was the first prophet in the Bible to be called to the work of being a prophet outside of the Holy Land. He is a prophet in exile who started his ministry while far away from home. He only received his call once already far away from Jerusalem in an unfamiliar context. While his contemporary, Jeremiah, saw the destruction of the temple in person before being exiled to Babylon, Ezekiel was taken to Babylonia in 597 and only learned of the destruction of the temple secondhand, through what others told him while already in exile as a priest far from his sacred spaces to which he was called as a priest. So Ezekiel has to rely on imagination and stories to survive in ministry.
Secondly, Ezekiel speaks in the first person and offers one of the most orderly and linear accounts of any prophet in the Bible. This makes Ezekiel the favorite prophet of all of us who came out of the Presbyterian tradition- all in good order indeed. This is important because the story we are hearing, near the end of the Ezekiel narrative is the culmination of a life of prophecy—and it ends, linearly and purposefully, in hope rather than despair. Nothing is accidental or chaotic with Ezekiel—our Presbyterian-like prophet.
Lastly, Ezekiel is a prophet who has nothing left to lose. He has lost his home, his calling as a temple priest, and never even got to say goodbye. Coogan says something that sheds light on this prophet’s text and Valley of Dry Bones when he writes that, “[This] passage is symbolic and does not mean actual resurrection of the dead, a concept that will not develop for several centuries.”1 So when conservative Christians misread this text as having something to do with Jesus and resurrection, it is a blatant misreading of the story. Ezekiel is a surrealist operating from a place of profound metaphor for a renewal of hope in a time of exile from power and complete and total despair. This vision is a symbol of hope for Israel in a time when all seems lost and despair prevails.
Verse 11 and following: “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.”
We are living in a time where the bodies are piling up in the valley.
The body of our work in environmental stewardship and climate change awareness for God’s environmental justice is before us today in the Valley of Bones. We feel the pain of the decay and what feels like death as progress is reversed and the planet and leadership itself seems to be running now boldly towards peril and ecological and climate collapse. The body of environmental stewardship is at our feet.
The body of our work in socially sustainable and just communities, affordable housing, homelessness advocacy, and fair housing policy is piling up body upon body upon body upon body upon body with every new news cycle in the valley of bones.
The body of healthcare for all, equality and access in medicine, HIV/AIDS research funding, access to insurance, falls slowly at our feet in the valley of bones. 1
The bones and vestiges of the body of civil discourse and the marketplace of ideas, and democracy itself seems to teeter on the edge of a cliff overlooking this valley of bones. Are they too about to be pickings for vultures of commerce and greed.
We see the bones of our work to end racism and to start sacred conversations on race… bones of education as school funding is stripped and curricula are replaced with convenient alternative facts… bones, bones, bones, bones,…bones of LGBTQ and especially Transgender equality and access to safe spaces and restrooms that match gender identity… bones of elder services… bones of Christian love… bones of mental healthcare…. “The Lord set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said, “Mortal, can these bones live? I answered… Lord God, you know” the answer to that question. Why this torment?
This is a passage, a symbolic, surrealist image (sort of a Salvador Dali painting), that draws every lost generation and people and place and time back in because… while called the Valley of Bones… really it is better understood as the Valley of Hope, the Valley of Renewal, the Valley of God’s power to change hearts and minds… the Valley of Empowerment… and especially the Valley of Love.
I had my own vision of sorts based out of this Scripture passage. The past two summers I have driven down to a place for continuing education which has a name that sounds about as comforting and hopeful as “Valley of Bones”—a sacred, thin place called Ghost Ranch in Northern New Mexico in the land of the Shining Stone Land Grant between Chama and Santa Fe. This is the land that captured the heart and person of Georgia O’Keiffe, a place that has seen legends of evil, a dark history of fratricide, crime, and murder… but that place of legends and ghosts has been transformed by the Presbyterians who inherited it in the 1950’s into a desert place of renewal, hope, learning, and peace.
One dry clear morning, this past summer 2016, I sat alone on a mesa called The Kitchen overlooking desert openness, colors, and the mountains that Georgia O’Keiffe loved. I was reflecting on the pain and deserted place in the world, the fear of the ongoing election cycle, and also the beauty of this planet and hope for renewal I found in Christ and Christian fellowship. I remembered that even in the when things are bleakest; rays of sun and experiences of deep hope and love can change everything! I remembered, as I do now, that what makes Christian faith unique is our stubborn attachment to hope… stubborn, indignant, unyielding, unrelenting, irrevocable hope that love conquers hatred, ignorance, and oppression.
Suddenly I burst into a song I didn’t even know I knew (have you ever started humming something without knowing what it is?) It came from somewhere in my soul, overlooking that desert of Ghost Ranch… the Valley of Bones… I heard myself utter the first couple of words… [SING CAUTIOUSLY] “What wondrous love is this, O my soul! O my soul! What wondrous love is this, O my soul! What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the heavy cross for my soul… for my soul… to bear the heavy cross for my soul!” I feel the same way looking out at you this morning… what wondrous love!
That hymn has been my anthem in these dark times when our beloved projects, departments, and beliefs seem to be stripped down to their bones- and I think connects us to that vision of dry bones some 2,600 years ago in the deserts of Ezekiel’s Babylonia.
What wondrous love is this that caused a community to rally and be present and show-up to support our neighbors at the Islamic Center in a matter of hours after a violent gesture threatened their community—over a 1,000 of us showed-up in love and care and pure humanity. Dry Bones were covered again with flesh.
What wondrous love is this that will be present this afternoon as many from around the community gather to the ordination of my colleague Sean at the Unitarian Church to ministry. Dry Bones are covered again with flesh.
What wondrous love is this that shows-up when Fort Collins strategizes together from ALL traditions and background to build 48 new Habitat for Humanity homes in the next couple of years at Harmony and Taft? Dry Bones are covered again with flesh.
What wondrous love is this in the morning when we look-up and see that God has given us a new day and we see the light of the sun reflecting back… winking at us from the rock faces of Horsetooth and Long’s Peak! Dry Bones are covered again with flesh.
What wondrous love is this when Plymouth hosts a civil, polite, and constructive conversation with council and mayoral candidates in our local election as part of our Forums? Dry Bones are covered again with flesh.
What wondrous love is this as our denomination partners with the Disciples of Christ to bring relief efforts to those around the world in need of help and support. Dry Bones are covered with flesh.
What wondrous love is this… oh my soul… oh my soul… Can these bones live, asks God? YES! Yes, God they can and they will and they must—our faith and our love—and our hope demands it. We see the beginnings of the bone rattling and waking again!
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… 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. Amen.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
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