It is so good to be back. I had a wonderful time in Pittsburgh. I went to a conference hosted by the Metro Urban Institute at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, which is where I went to seminary. One of my best friends in the whole world is the director of the Metro Urban Institute. The conference was about Reimagining Faith and Community Collaboration in the 21st Century. Two weeks ago I talked about how we are transformed by Christ and therefore we are called to work with God to bring transformation into the world. That is what the conference was about. I heard lots of inspiring stories and I want to share one with you.
Trinity United Church of Christ is located in the South Side of Chicago. It is an African American Congregation located in a predominantly African American neighbourhood that is very run down. They are focusing on three issues in their community collaboration: Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, and Mass Incarceration. What does this look like? Well, for example, they needed to do renovations on their building. They decided to spend extra money and take extra time to do green renovations, environmentally friendly renovations. They chose to only employ returning citizens, people who were returning to the community from prison. It’s very difficult for those people to find jobs, for example, if you have a criminal record in Illinois you can’t even be a roofer. So, Trinity only employed returning citizens, which then gave those people an advantage when they applied for jobs afterward because now they had training and experience in doing green or environmentally friendly renovations.
Another thing they did during these renovations was to create a pond that served to collect rainwater. The area where the church is located is prone to flooding. This pond collects rainwater and then slowly disperses it into the sewer system so that it doesn’t get overwhelmed. This has reduced the flooding in the neighbourhood, which has increased the value of the homes. It was very inspiring to see how they used these foci to guide their decision-making and how they worked with God to bring transformation into their community. Now the church has a reputation for having a positive impact for Christ in their community. I am hoping to start a process of discerning who we are and what the needs in our community are and how we might reimagine faith and community collaboration here in Beaconsfield and in the West Island.
This leads me to our Ezekiel passage for this morning. Today is Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. In this passage from Ezekiel, God sends Ezekiel out to prophesy to the dry bones and the Holy Spirit fills them and brings them new life. When the Holy Spirit is poured out or breathed on us, it is always a sign of creation, or new life, or transformation. In Ezekiel 37:9, the Holy Spirit is breathed on the dry bones and they come to life. It says, “Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath,” and the Hebrew word there is Ruah, which means spirit; this is the Holy Spirit. Verse 9 continues, “and breathe upon these slain, that they may live” - new life. And in verse 10-11 it continues, “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.”’”
What I would like to talk about now is how the whole house of Israel became dry bones. Being dry bones is a metaphor for being spiritually dead. We have to look in Ezekiel 36 to find out how this happened. Essentially, the whole house of Israel did the opposite of what Trinity United Church of Christ is doing. Whereas Trinity is known for bringing God’s transforming new life to their community, at the time of Ezekiel 36, the whole house of Israel had given God a bad reputation. It says in Ezekiel 36:18 that they had been killing people and worshipping idols. This is how they became spiritually dead, dry bones.
But God plans to restore them, however God says this about the restoration in Ezekiel 36:32, “It is not for your sake that I will act, says the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and dismayed for your ways, O house of Israel.” The whole house of Israel became dry bones by worshipping idols and committing murder and this made God angry.
I always thought, Oh yeah, the house of Israel, worshipping idols and murdering people, what were they thinking? But, as an American living in Canada, I have had the unique opportunity to look at my country from an outsider’s perspective. And I see a whole lot of similarities with what happened at the time of Ezekiel and the spiritual death that led them to become dry bones. When I look at the United States from outside of it, I see idolatry and murder. There is a whole culture of Christian theology in the U.S. that is all about wealth and power. But people call it Jesus. There is a huge population of Christians in the United States who worship wealth and power, but they don’t realize that they are worshipping idols and not God. Jim Wallis from Sojourners recently wrote an excellent article about this if you are interested in learning more. (https://sojo.net/articles/american-christianity-has-failed?fbclid=IwAR1URoXd__qzBxGW3-kQPXrKEUE7mBB9UYppLtFFs0rfGxk4uiYNAJHz-mI)
The other thing that’s happening in the United States is that people are being murdered all the time. As we all know, access to guns is too easy and the government won’t do anything about it. We hear about mass shootings all the time. And there are intentional and accidental shootings everyday in the U.S. As well as tensions between visible minorities and the police. That is no joke and it is very scary.
My point is that the United States today is doing exactly what the whole house of Israel was doing back in the days of Ezekiel 36: Worshipping idols and committing murder. What struck me is how easy it is not to realize that we are dying spiritually until we are just a pile of dry bones. If it can happen to the whole house of Israel back then and to the United States today, it can happen to us. Are we dying spiritually?
It can happen to anyone, any group. That’s why it is always important to remember the cross.
You might be wondering what does the cross have to do with Pentecost? It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to turn to Jesus when we have turned away from Him. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us the strength to take up our cross and follow Jesus. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us the strength and courage to let go of our idols, whatever they might be, so that we can really worship God. And it’s the Holy Spirit who wants to work through us to bring new life in Christ to the world.
This bring us to Ezekiel 37. At the beginning of Ezekiel 37, God leads Ezekiel around the valley of the dry bones, and in verse 3, God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” God knows the answer to the question, but God asks Ezekiel because God wants to work through us, in relationship with us. And God sends Ezekiel to do the work with the Holy Spirit. God says in verse 4, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘God will breathe the Holy Spirit in you and bring you new life.’” So Ezekiel goes and prophesies to them. Through his ministry of speaking God’s transforming new life to the dry bones of death all around him, God covers the bones with flesh and brings them back to life, the Holy Spirit fills them.
You can see here that God wants to work through us to bring new life into the world. It’s not Ezekiel who asks God if the bones can live. It’s God who asks Ezekiel. Then God sends Ezekiel to prophesy and through Ezekiel speaking, God brings the bones back to life. On Pentecost, this is hopeful and an inspiring reminder of how the Holy Spirit wants to work in us and through us in the world. What we learn from the dry bones is that the coming of the Holy Spirit means that we should always expect the unexpected - that the dry bones can come back to life - and that God wants to work through us to do that.
This leads us to our Acts passage this morning. We learn a lot from this Pentecost passage about how God intends to work through us in the world. And we can learn about how to reimagine faith and community collaboration from this passage. In Acts 2:17, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel when God says, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” And we saw the first glimpse of this earlier in the Acts passage in 2:6, when it says, “...the crowd...was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” In the book of Acts, God, through the Holy Spirit, is doing amazing and unexpected things all the time. And the whole book is about the Jewish Christians being challenged by God to include more people than they ever imagined in the family of God. There is a lot of discernment in the book of Acts because of all the changes that God is making.
When each one hears them speaking in their own native language at Pentecost, this gives us a clue about how God wants us to engage with our community so that God can work through us to bring dry bones back to life. This is the opposite of the Tower of Babel. In the Tower of Babel, everyone was enabled to speak the language of those in charge. God quickly put a stop to that. Building community it not about making everyone the same. It’s not about making others more like us. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit enables those in charge to speak the languages of everyone else. What this means is that God gives voice to the voiceless. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit and sent out, God will draw us out of our comfort zones so that we can understand those around us.
“When we follow the Holy Spirit, God does not draw our neighbours closer to us so they are more like us, but God draws us out of our comfort zones and closer to our neighbours to build community together” (From Alison Lanza on the YCW Preach the RCL secret Facebook Group).
Just as God sent Ezekiel out to prophesy new life, so we are sent out to talk about new life in Christ. But, in order to actually speak about new life in Christ in a way that will be heard as new life, we must speak the languages of those around us. At Pentecost, each heard the message in their own language. As people of Pentecost, sent out by the Holy Spirit, we must learn about the people who we speak to. Maybe we can’t learn so many different actual languages, but we can learn cultural languages. We can learn where people are coming from, what they are thinking about, where they are hurting, where they need hope. Once we know this, then we can speak as Ezekiel spoke, about the new life that God has for the dry bones all around us. Once we know our neighbours, and are drawn out of our comfort zones, then we can speak in the spirit of Pentecost, in a way that others will understand. In a way that others will hear the transformational new life in Christ as actual good news.
So let us go out as people of Pentecost, turning to Jesus so we that we don’t become dry bones. Let us go out as a people of Pentecost, empowered by the Holy Spirit to prophesy to the dry bones in our world. Let us go out as a people of Pentecost, building relationships in our community so we can reimagine faith and community collaboration in the 21st century.