No Going Back
The First United Presbyterian Church of Loveland
“No Going Back”
Rev. Amy Morgan
May 23, 2021
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.
2 He 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 Lord GOD, you know."
4 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5 Thus says the Lord GOD 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 LORD."
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 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."
10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11 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.'
12 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. 13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, 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, the LORD, have spoken and will act, says the LORD."
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power."
12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" 13 But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 'In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'
It was supposed to be a surprise. My friend, John was having a big birthday, and his wife made a valiant attempt to throw him a surprise party. All the guests showed up early and parked their cars on an adjacent street. When John arrived home with his friend Adam, everyone hid behind couches and around corners.
But the second John walked in the door, we knew he wasn’t surprised. He tried his best to feign shock and excitement, but it was clear he’d been tipped off. Several side comments and suspicious behaviors had led John to ask Adam if he was going home to a surprise party. And Adam couldn’t lie to his best friend. The party was still fun, but it was no surprise.
Surprise birthday parties are tough to pull off. Because it’s not like people don’t know when their birthday is coming up. It’s the same day, every year. We know exactly when to expect them. Birthdays are kind of like death and taxes – one of life’s few certainties.
But while we can, for the most part, reliably count on our annual birthdays to come around each year, our actual birth day was likely at least somewhat of a surprise. As good as doctors have become at predicting birth dates, most babies don’t arrive exactly on-time. Our son was a good 10 days early, and I’ve heard of babies coming weeks early or weeks late.
The birthday of the church was no different. Jesus had told the disciples that the Holy Spirit was coming, and they should wait in Jerusalem for it to arrive. But they had no idea how long that wait would be. They may have been fairly certain Jesus’s promise would be delivered, but there was a lot of uncertainty as to when the birth day of that promise would be.
Uncertainty is nothing new to the church. Even death is not the certainty that the adage about death and taxes proclaims. In the 4th chapter of Genesis, the murdered Abel does not stay silent. God hears his blood crying out from the ground. And the end of John’s Revelation declares that death is no more. In between these bookends of scripture, there are numerous stories of people speaking from beyond the grave and the dead being raised.
And then there’s Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones. This is not a literal event, of course, but a prophetic vision employing a metaphor depicting Israel as long-ago slain warriors. “Them rattling bones” represent Israel’s utter hopelessness during the Babylonian exile and the destruction of Jerusalem. The first half of Ezekiel’s prophesy is totally devastating. He is naming the truth of Israel’s painful situation. God has abandoned them, literally left the building, the temple in Jerusalem. They have lost their land, their identity, possibly even their covenant relationship with God. Everything about their lives is uncertain and hopeless. They are like a battlefield of slain corpses. They are on the losing side of history. Anything recognizable about them has long since rotted away.
But Ezekiel is instructed to prophesy to the bones. What an absurd command! I did a lot of speaking into cameras this last year, not knowing if anyone was really listening. But to talk to dry bones? That’s a challenge.
But the word of God, as it comes through Ezekiel to these bones, undermines all our certainty about death. This prophesy proclaims the restoration of a whole people, not just the resurrection of an individual. It assures us that even in the most hopeless of all situations, God can accomplish what we can’t even imagine.
We are all well acquainted with uncertainty these days. Even before the pandemic and wildfires and movements for racial justice and political division of the last year, we were, and the Christian church in particular was, in the midst of a tidal wave of uncertainty and change. The number of books about adaptive change published in the last 25 years is staggering.
My friend, Susan Beaumont, had been working on a book for churches in liminal seasons, those uncertain in-between times, for several years. She told me that it started as a guide for churches undergoing leadership transitions or growing pains, but the more she thought about it, the more she realized that every church in the wester world is in a liminal season as we navigate through these major social developments. Her book, “How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going,” was published in September 2019, six months before the pandemic hit. I think it’s become very popular.
Beaumont asserts that a true liminal condition, what she calls “pure liminality,” occurs only when everything falls apart at once, when the old order completely collapses. We can manage gradual and consistent change. But when the floor falls out from under us while the roof caves in on us and it’s raining and there’s a mudslide – well, now we know we’re not going back to what once normal, but we also can’t comprehend what to do next.
That is the kind of uncertainty Israel is experiencing during Ezekiel’s tenure as prophet. That is the kind of uncertainty the disciples are experiencing as Pentecost approaches.
And that is the kind of uncertainty the church had been moving toward for some time and was launched into headlong last year. Even as we talk about returning to “normal,” we’re hopefully aware that there is no normal anymore. To try to go back to business as usual would feel anachronistic.
Ezekiel’s vision is part of a larger section of prophesy about Israel’s eventual return to and rebuilding of Jerusalem. God returns to the temple in the end and restores the covenant relationship with Israel. But this is not a return to “normal,” a return to what was. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Because before the exile, there were serious problems. The first part of Ezekiel’s prophesy outlines all the abuses and sinfulness of God’s people, all the ways they were getting it wrong. When they are brought back from exile, they are given new hearts and renewed spirits to be faithful to God and loving to their neighbors and attentive to God’s law.
My hope is that things won’t go back to “normal,” in the church and in our society, because in a lot of ways, we were getting it wrong. We were deaf to cries for justice, apathetic about inequality, complacent about connecting with our neighbors. Churches understood their mission to be primarily for those who were physically present in our buildings and negligent in sharing our love and resources and energy with people who live in a digital world and experience church buildings as a foreign land.
We have the opportunity right now, today, to experience the restoration of a whole people. We have the opportunity, right now, today, to experience Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is on the move, friends, and I hope you can feel it as much as I can.
Our church community and leadership has been exploring all kinds of new possibilities. They’ve been imagining creative ways we can be the church beyond this building just as the disciples burst out of their upper room to proclaim the gospel in ways all kinds of different people could understand. They are discerning how our building can better serve our mission, inviting the community to bring the activities and relationships that are sacred to them into this sacred space. They are dreaming up ways to continue enhancing our ministry in the digital world even as we practice new ways of being together physically. This is such an exciting time, such a Pentecost moment.
But there will be a temptation to drift back toward what we know, what we’re comfortable with. We might sneer at some of these ideas, claiming that only people who were high or drunk would think them up. As much as it was miraculous and awe-inspiring for each person to hear the disciples speaking in their native language, it was also surely noisy and disorienting. It was not decent or orderly. It was maybe a little bit like our end-of-worship dance parties we’ve been having through Easter. Some people loved it, and some people are glad they haven’t come back to church in-person.
Susan Beaumont writes that “We must trust [in liminal seasons] that something important will be given to us that is worth the risk of letting go.” We have experienced tremendous loss, not just in the last year, but for decades before that. Loss of membership and resources, loss of traditions and activities, loss of loved ones and leaders. It is difficult and painful to let go of those things. It is natural to want them back, and to do all we can to get them back.
But there is no going back. And if we trust in the promise of Ezekiel’s visions, and in the promise of Pentecost, we won’t want to go back. Because what will be given to us by God’s Spirit – renewal, restoration, resurrection – will be worth the risk of letting go.
Each of you here in person today was given a little origami flame. If you are worshipping with us at home, I would invite you to grab a slip of paper. Maybe later on, you can decorate it like a fame. I invite you to take a few minutes now to pray about what you might need to let go of to allow yourself to participate in this Pentecost moment we are in. What uncertainties of this time unnerve you? What things feel safe and normal that you long to go back to? Which of those things might be holding you back from renewal and restoration? What do you need to risk letting go of?
As you think and pray and write about this, you can write a word or phrase on your flame or paper that reminds you to let go, to be open to surprise, and to embrace uncertainty. You can talk with the people around you or share your response in the chat on YouTube, and in a few minutes, I’ll invite you to share your word or phrase if you’re willing to do so.
Holy Spirit, Giver and Renewer of life,
We praise you for your power to equip us for mission and ministry
In new and life-giving ways, in this time and in all times.
Help us to let go of those things that are draining us of life and energy,
Patterns and behaviors and activities that no longer serve your redemptive purposes,
Even if at one time they did so.
Help us to live in the uncertainty of these liminal times with wonder and joyful anticipation, open to your movement in our lives, in your church, and in the world around us. Amen.