Fifth Sunday in Lent
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
If you have been following the Wilderness Lenten Devotional booklet we provided Plymouth members, you may have already read the poem/prayer for this week by Sarah Are. It begins:
I used to think the wilderness would never end.
I called my mom and asked –
“Does time really heal all wounds?
Do the pieces ever fall back into place?
Does the wilderness go on forever?
So she told me about the horizon.
She said, “There is an edge,
Where the earth meets the sky
And when you’re there,
You will see daisies in the sidewalk
And the sun after the rain.”
I asked her to draw me a map
And she cried,
Because she knew this road was mine to walk,
But she promised to wait for me,
Day in and day out,
For as long as the wilderness raged.”
When we set out on this Lenten wilderness journey on Ash Wednesday, we had no idea what this year’s journey had in store for us…for our community, our country, our world. The phrases, “social distancing, lock-down, shelter in place, livestreaming worship, Zoom Sunday School and no toilet paper available,” were not yet in our vocabulary! Now here we are two weeks before Easter and we are deep into a kind of wilderness not experienced in this country for over a hundred years. This wilderness rages on…and will continue even as we celebrate Easter and resurrection. We do not yet see the horizon the poet’s mother describes…we are still early in this new kind of wilderness journey. How do we get our bearings? How do we stay the course?
In the 5th century BCE, the Hebrew prophet, Ezekiel, prophesied to his people who were in the wilderness of exile and oppression. They could not see, maybe even imagine, a horizon, a light at the end of the tunnel. The Hebrew people, the nation of Israel, had been divided and conquered.
Jerusalem had fallen under the Babylonian empire. Many of its inhabitants, including Ezekiel, had been taken into exile in Babylonia. Many executed as criminal enemies of the oppressor. They were in a strange land under strange rules and fearful for their lives, their way of life as Hebrew people and the people of Yahweh, the Holy ONE, their God. Sound a bit familiar? The part about a strange land with strange rules and fearful for life?
In the midst of it all, the prophet, Ezekiel is given the vision that Hal just read for us. In prayer or a dream, perhaps in a meditative trance, the hand and spirit of the Holy ONE transports Ezekiel to a dry and barren valley filled with dry bones. Have you ever seen pictures of ancient crypts where the bones of ancient ancestors have been sorted into piles – skulls over there, leg bones over this way, arm bones here – to make space for more burials. Like those pictures, this valley was a chilling sight...dry bones on dry land, perhaps, whitened by glaring sunlight.
The Holy ONE asks the prophet, “Mortal, Human One, can these bones live?” Ezekiel has the presence of mind to stammer, “Only you know, Holy God” instead of what I might say, “How –in the –How in God’s name – would I know?” Ezekiel seems highly aware of the power differential present. The prophet is aware that he is human in the presence of the Holy ONE, Creator of the entire Universe.
Now God could have just made the bones to live all by God’s Self. However, notice that God didn’t do that. God has a larger agenda in mind than just raising bones from the dead. The Holy ONE is also sharing the resurrection power with the human prophet through the power of prophesy and proclamation....”Prophesy to the bones, Human, that they may live! Tell the bones what I, Creator of All, will do for them! They will have flesh and breath and I will take them out of their graves, out of their oppression and bring them into their own land again, the Land of Promise I gave to them. And they shall be my people once again and will know that I am their God, the ONE, the Creator of the all humankind and all the earth.”
The human prophet prophesies in the power of the Spirit of God to the bones and they come together, stand up right, sinew and flesh grow upon them. The prophet prophesies to, calls out to, the Breath, the ruach, the breath of the living Spirit of God that brooded over unformed creation in the first verses of the Genesis creation account. When this Breath of the living Spirit of God comes into the bodies that were once dry bones…there is new life! They breathe! God and God’s prophet work together in this resurrection vision.
Scholars think that this ancient story could have been the originator of the resurrection of the body tradition held by the Pharisees of Jesus’ time. There is a midrash, which is an interpretive story told about a scripture story, from the Jewish Talmud that speaks specifically of the Jewish youth in exile who had been executed by the Babylonians. They are literally brought back to bodily life, resurrected, by Ezekiel’s vision. We can trust that this vision brought courage and imagination and hope to our ancient ancestors of faith.
Can we hear the hope of Ezekiel’s vision with new ears in our own time of exile, lockdown, quarantine and sheltering in place? Our Northern Colorado hospital ICUs are not yet at capacity with those with Covid-19. But we hear new reports each day of where this is happening now or very soon. Collectively we feel the oppression of this viral threat that has come over our whole world. We glimpse the fear and grief of people enslaved by an oppressor with no end date for deliverance. We are in exile from one another, from family across the country, across the world. Our wilderness journey rages on….
Can this holy story bring us a new vision for our dry bones of fear and grief and loneliness....can our bones live again? What about the dry, tired bones of all our medical workers on the front lines of this pandemic, the tired bones of those who stock the grocery shelves, deliver the groceries and move supplies across the country? What about the tired bones of unemployed artists and musicians and actors and unemployed hospitality workers? The dry bones of all those furloughed or let go who are wondering how to pay the bills? Our poet tells us that in her wilderness she walked….”And it felt like forty days and it hurt like forty nights.” She could only wave to the people she passed in the wilderness.
“We tipped out hats to one another,
Silently, recognizing the weight we each carried.”
Just as the prophet, Ezekiel, was called to work with the power of the Holy ONE in prophesying to his people, through his story we hear the call of prophesy as we walk through the wilderness of pandemic. With help from the Spirit of the living God’s our eyes and hearts can be opened to recognize and acknowledge the weight that each one of us carries. Though we are separated by distance we can share the weight through prayer, through phone calls and Zoom calls, through staying home, washing our hands and using our hand sanitizer, through sharing our toilet paper. Through making masks as for those on the medical front lines as many in our prayer shawl knitting group are doing. Through home-schooling our children, for carrying on with jobs at home, through finishing a high school or college semester. Through delivering groceries to one to our cherished elders or those with underlying conditions who should not be out and about. Through paying forward for some services, such as house cleaning or massage or haircuts to help those out of work. All these seemingly mundane things that have become our daily lives can be with holy intention like the prophet’s cry in the wilderness! “Dry bones you can live again! You will live again! Hear the word of God’s holy and saving power of love.” Each prayer we pray and each small act of kindness we do and each time we keep putting one foot in front of the other in a time of fear is like the prophet’s cry: “Listen to the voice of your Creator bringing you vision and hope and the breath of God’s life! Stand up and breathe in the Spirit of God!”
My friends, we are called in this time to be prophets working with God’s power and light to bring hope to our family and friends, the checker in the grocery line, all those we may have occasion to tip our hats to in this wilderness.
One day like the poet we will approach the horizon and realize – ”The earth always kisses the sky and the wilderness has turned into a garden.” And we “have made it out alive.” Those we love, like the poet’s mother, will be there waiting for us. We will hug again there at the earth’s edge and whisper in one another’s ears “God was the gardener. We have nothing to fear.”
Be prophets, my friends! If someone asks you for a map in this wilderness – if you find yourself asking for that map – remember that God who dwells in the faith of each of us is our map. God, the holy gardener, is planting seeds, hoping to turn this wilderness into a garden. All of us are daily planting seeds through the power of God’s living Spirit. As long as the wilderness rages on, we are called as prophets to never stop looking for one another, to continue seeking the garden on the horizon, “where the earth kisses the sky.” Through our ancient prophet we hear the assurance of the Living God, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your home soil; then you shall know that I, have spoken and will act.” Share this good news! Be a prophet. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. May only be reprinted with permission.
1 The hand of the Holy ONE, came upon me, and brought me out by the spirit of the God and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 The Holy ONE led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, "O, Holy ONE, you know." 4 Then she said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Holy ONE. 5 Thus says the Creator of Universe to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 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 God, the Holy ONE."
7 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. 8 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. 9 Then I heard, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Holy ONE: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." 10 I prophesied as the Holy ONE commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11 Then God 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.' 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Holy ONE: 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. 13 And you shall know that I am God, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 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, have spoken and will act, says the Holy ONE, Creator of the Universe."
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Most of the world right now is finding itself in a strange and unexpected place. There are lots of unknowns, lots of fears, lots of needs for healing of our spirits, our minds … and for some of us, our bodies.
Healing is a main thrust of this story of Jesus healing blind man at the pool of Siloam. But the story begins with a question: “Who sinned? This man or his parents? For he was born blind.” The disciples try to blame the victim with that question, and Jesus turns the blame-game around. In the past, I have heard people say of others suffering from cancer or heart disease, “Well, did they smoke?” or “They didn’t have a very good diet,” and regardless of what a person may have done or neglected, that’s an unhelpful kind of remark. I even had a former parishioner in Maine who held the belief that we all do something to manifest the illnesses we have; try telling that to the parents of a three-year-old with leukemia. So, as we hear of more people who have contracted the virus, please don’t play the blame-game and guess whether they washed their hands thoroughly enough or whether they didn’t keep six feet away. Instead, let’s do what Jesus did and respond with compassion and with healing.
I know that we wonder about the literalness of miracles, like Jesus curing the blind man, and see if this helps:
Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit from India, told this story about a seeker and a spiritual master’s disciple: “A man traversed land and sea to check for himself the Master’s extraordinary fame. ‘What miracles has your Master worked?’ he said to a disciple. ‘Well, said the disciple, there are miracles … and then there are miracles. In your land it is regarded as a miracle if God does someone’s will. In our country it is regarded as a miracle if someone does the will of God.’” [Anthony de Mello, One Minute Wisdom, p. 4.]
Are you expecting the kind of miracle that happens if God does your will…or would it be miraculous if we did God’s will?
Where are the miracles in our midst? Where do we see ourselves and others doing God’s will? Would it be a miracle if you saw someone in Safeway offering the last package of toilet paper on the shelf to another shopper, even though it meant going without themselves? Would it be a miracle if we witnessed an outpouring of generosity to keep essential nonprofit organizations funded fully? Would it be a miracle if you heard that Plymouth is continuing to pay its childcare staff, even though we have no in-person work for them to do?
So, there is a literal sense in which this story is about Jesus restoring the sight of the man born blind. And I’ll bet that the newly sighted man never again saw things in quite the same way. I wonder if he saw everything in a new light. Imagine yourself as that man, trying to live without the aid of vision and then having your eyes opened because of your faith in Jesus. The blue sky and the orange sunset stand out in their beauty, but then again, you also see the suffering of those around you.
In the Buddhist tradition, the story of Siddhartha Gautama’s enlightenment goes like this: the young man who would become the Buddha was a wealthy aristocrat, whose father did not want him to see the suffering of humankind, so he kept him within the palace walls, sheltered from witnessing the ravages of human existence: disease, poverty, death. One day, the young man escaped the confines of the palace and saw the suffering of human existence, which spurred him on to seek enlightenment. Siddhartha’s eyes were opened to the world around him. He saw the world in a new light.
Have you ever had that kind of experience? I remember traveling in West Africa before Cameron and Chris were born, being approached by legless beggars who rolled up to us on plywood platforms with casters on the bottom. It was a real eye-opener. But, the other thing that opened my eyes on that trip were the experiences of seeing tight extended families as the center of life and also seeing dozens of children share with their friends the pieces of candy that we shared with them. Would American kids do that? It was an aha! moment that I had not expected to see.
Sometimes, we’re unwilling or unable to see things because they are unpleasant and we’d rather not see them. At other times, we don’t see things because we haven’t had the opportunity to look at them carefully and closely. And sometimes we are not given a choice.
Have you ever had that happen? Has there been something that you’ve had to re-examine in your life, based on a new vision? Something that’s caused you to respond by saying, “Oh…now I see!”
You probably know the story of John Newton, the Anglican curate who wrote “Amazing Grace.” Newton had been a naval deserter, slave trader, a self-described “wretch,” and who had a phenomenal transformation in his life, becoming one of the great voices in Britain for the abolition of the slave trade. You know his words: “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”
So, while I don’t doubt that Jesus had the ability to perform healings that we typify as miraculous, I think there is an amazing metaphorical dimension, a depth to this story, that we are apt to miss, unless we look more closely.
The trust of the blind man in Jesus — the trust that we have in Jesus — can give us is a new vision: the ability to see the divine, ourselves, and God’s world in a new light.
“Taste and see that God is good,” sings the Psalmist, “Taste and SEE…”
Do you see that God is good? If not, look around you! Look at the miracle of life within yourself! The fact that you are sitting here and that the presence of the holy is within you – within each of us – is nothing short of miraculous. In the midst of this pandemic, look around and see those who are acting with compassion and courage and commitment to serve others. SEE that God is good!
How have your eyes been opened, and how do you respond? How is Christ’s compassion envisioned through you? Is it because you know that many people in Ft. Collins live on the economic margin, so you volunteer with our Homelessness Prevention Initiative? Is it because you know that exclusion of LGBTQ folks is a real injustice, so you joined an Open and Affirming Church? Is it because you helped an elderly neighbor with errands or getting their computer hooked up last week, because you know they need to stay connected during this strange time?
I wonder if you have encountered any of your own blind spots in these past few weeks. I’m not necessarily talking about finding fault with yourself, but perhaps finding delight in something that you hadn’t allowed yourself to experience for a while. Maybe you haven’t baked homemade bread for years, and you have seen the joy of bread-baking in a new light. Others of you might be finding solace in meditation or another spiritual practice that you haven’t found the time for until this week, and you’re seeing your own sense of spirituality and God’s presence in a new light.
For me, one of the flashes of new light has been the visceral realization that we are all one people, whether we are princes or homeless, whether we are Italian or Mozambican, whether we are gay or straight or bi or trans, male or female or nonbinary…we are all inextricably bound together by the strange bond of being susceptible to Covid-19. Wouldn’t it be a miracle if this virus helped us see that we are all in this together with one another?
My prayer for God’s world is that we learn to see each other as fellow pilgrims on this amazing planet, that we catch a glimpse of our unity in the midst of tragedy, and that we act with compassion with one another.
Many of you know the wonderful book, The Little Prince, by Antoine de St.-Exupéry, written while he was pilot during World War II. The little prince shares with us this secret: that “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
What might you see this coming week, when you open your heart to others, to your community, to your family, to yourself, and to God? It could result in a miracle!
May it be so! Amen.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact Hal for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
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