Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sermon for September 26, 2010

Profiting from the Prophets----Of Dry Bones Dancing
Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14
September 16, 2010
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo

Sometimes we read about things in the Bible and what you see is what you get.
Jesus turns what into wine and the story is about Jesus turning water into wine. We can discuss it and speculate as to the why's and the wherefore's, but ultimately the story is pretty straightforward.

Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and, again, it's about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

But then we have this very familiar passage from Ezekiel; the valley of the dry bones. God commands Ezekiel to preach unto the dry bones so that they might be reformed into bodies and then given life. And Ezekiel does what God has commanded him to do and the bones go back into bodies and become alive again.

The passage seems to indicate that these dry bones were very old; people who had died, probably in a huge battle many years earlier. If taken totally at face value they are brought back to life and Ezekiel is left standing there with a huge army in front of him; for no apparent reason. This would seem to indicate that this passage means something symbolic.

The trick is trying to determine what this actually does mean.

I read one person’s take on it. He said that it was a prophesy that Israel would be brought make to great might and have a great army, etc. He went on to indicate this is why American foreign policy must always favor Israel so that this prophesy would one day come to pass. Without getting too technical here, I can’t fathom why God would be giving Ezekiel a prophesy to determine American foreign policy in the 21st century. To me there had to be a deeper, more theological rationale.

To me the dry bones symbolize people of faith who keep the bones of religion alive, but lose everything else. From this perspective, I can see a great deal of this prophesy being played out over and over again.

The dry bones symbolized people of faith who keep the bones of religion alive and lose everything else.

There is a difference between faith and religion. Faith is our actual belief in God; religion is how we practice that belief. Faith is what we have in our hearts and minds and religion is the structure in which we live out that faith.

It can be said that faith without religion, or some sort of structure, is inclined toward chaos. Over the years I have heard numerous people make the statement that they don’t need the church to Worship God. Theoretically this is true, but I live by an adage that we really do need the church to grow in faith. It is very difficult to maintain the discipline and the presence of others to grow in faith.

But having said all that, the issue of the dry bones speaks of religion without faith.

One of the issues of ancient Judaism, an issue that was central to Jesus’ ongoing people with the Pharisees, was this very issue. It was a religion without faith. Judaism had been reduced from being a vital, faithful response to God into an organization of rules and laws. It had morphed into a religion without faith and Jesus was attempting to renew it.

It is, of course, easy to say that Judaism in Jesus’ day and age had difficulties, but it can be said of Christianity here and now. Christianity is, at its core, a movement, and not an institution. The biggest problem Christianity has had over the centuries has not been Jesus, has not been the message of Jesus, but has been the institutional church. Over the centuries on Church History there are stories that plague virtually every tradition within Christianity about something that the Christian Church was doing wrong.

In the Amish tradition the second most revered book of all, behind the Bible, is the Book of Martyrs. The Amish, who come out of the Anabaptist tradition, read about their forebears in faith persecuted and killed for their beliefs. And there are a lot of them; and mostly all of them were persecuted and killed by other Christians. The institutional church got in the way of faith. When we allow that to happen, the dry bones show up.

A second thing that leads to dry bones is when faith loses its heart. Unless we have a heart for God and a heart for God’s people, our faith drys up into dry bones.

Having heart is important.

One of my favorite stories is the story of two brothers, one very sensitive and one less so. The very sensitive brother went away and left his dog with his less than sensitive brother. After a few days he called home and asked his brother how the dog was.

The less than sensitive brother said, “The dog died.”

The very sensitive brother said to him, “Oh no. I’m crushed and you just made it worse! You need to learn to be more sensitive to give a person warning.”

The other brother said, “I don’t understand. What did you want me to do?”

Well first, the sensitive brother said, “When I ask how the dog is, you say, ‘Well, he’s not looking so good. I’m going to take it to the vet tomorrow.’”

“When I call back the next day, you say, ‘the vet kept the dog and said it’s not looking very good,’ then the next day you say, ‘The vet did everything he could, but the dog died.’”

“Okay,” said the other brother. “I’ll be more careful next time.”

“Great,” said the sensitive brother. “So how’s Mom?”

“Well,” the other brother said, “She’s not looking so good, so I’m going to take her to the doctor tomorrow.”

You probably get the point. Sensitivity and heart are important. And they really are! If a people of faith have no heart, we miss the heart of God.

We begin each Worship Service with the words, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” In theory, those words are easy to say. In theory, every church since the beginning of time believes they say those words. We all want to, deep down, say those words.

But when we say those words we open ourselves up to saying ‘yes,’ to everyone. And everyone is a lot of different types of people.

St. Marks has attempted, over the years, to be a ‘yes’ kind of church. When this church was founded over 170 years ago everyone was German and the Worship Service was in German. At some point, in this church’s history, in order to welcome people who weren’t German, they had to stop doing the Worship Service in German. They did.

When we started to do the Soup Kitchen and later, the Clothes Closet, it meant opening our doors to a lot of different folks. It was a big ‘yes.’ A lot of churches don’t want those folks in their building. They’d never tell you that, of course, like we wouldn’t have said it years ago. But when you open the building you open your hearts and say ‘yes’ to people very different from most of us most of the time.

The United Church of Christ and St. Marks made intentional efforts to welcome people who are gay as they are. Every church welcomes gay people, but a lot of churches escort gay folks to classes where they are going to get ‘cured’ from being gay as if it were a disease which needed to be cured. Everyone is welcome, as long as they are willing to be ‘fixed,’ even if they didn’t consider themselves broken. Even if God doesn’t consider them as broken.

The United Church of Christ was the first mainline Christian denomination to determine that ‘gay’ was not a disease and people who are gay are welcome. We, as a denomination, and then as a church, decided to say ‘yes,’ to everyone, and welcome everyone as they are. There are no distinctions between any person here. We say ‘yes’ to everyone. That is having heart.

The last thing is equally crucial. We become dry bones when we no longer see our intellect as an important component to our faith.

Michael Jinkins, the new President of the Presbyterian Seminary in Louisville recently gave a convocation address entitled, “The Life of the Mind in the Service of God: Why a Thinking Faith Still Matters.” He begins by citing the columnist Nicholas Kristof who bemoaned a loss of an intellectually rigorous faith. Kristof makes the observation that “The heart is a wonderful organ; but so is the brain.”

Jinkins cites Thomas Long, a preaching professor, who made the observation that the greatest heresy of modern day Christianity is not atheism, but superficiality.

In recent years there has been a resurgence in atheism. Most of the arguments made for atheism are about how superficial and illogical Christianity is.

People like Bill Maher made the movie Religulous, in which he interviewed religious people and made fun of them. Christopher Hitchens wrote the best selling God is Not Great in which he blamed virtually every ill in the world on people who believe in God. God, he argues, is not real.

Both authors, and many others like them, do the same thing. They take the most simplistic arguments made by Christians and Christianity and put holes in them. They attack the most superficial arguments and use their own superficial arguments to refute people of faith.

Interestingly enough, Maher and Hitchens do the same exact thing as they people they are critical of. They use superficial examples and interview superficial people who give them superficial answers. They attack a shallow faith with their own shallow arguments.

But Christianity, at its core, is not a superficial faith. Actually, no world religion really is superficial. Any religion is at its best when it is vigorous intellectually and challenges the minds of people. Jinkins makes a great statement when he overses that the greatest antidote to such people as Maher and Hitchens is not retrenching ourselves against their ideas, but engaging their overly simplified and often silly statements with far more sophisticated, self-searching, and even self-critical observations.

A non-thinking critical faith is a superficial faith, and a faith that leads to dry bones.

The philosopher Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It can easily be said that an unexamined faith is not worthy of God.

This passage from Ezekiel is a passage that challenges us deeply. We are either a living, vital people, living a living and vital faith filled with heart and mind; or we are dry bones. There is no happy medium on this. God created us to be a people of faith; and so we are challenged to have that faith. And God gave us hearts and minds and challenges to use both in celebration and faithfulness.


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