Monday, May 28, 2012

Bones, . . Seriously?

a good story to image. . .

Ezekiel 37:1-14, “Bones, Seriously?” Pentecost B 5/27/12
  Seeing beyond the Bible story is often hard. We tend to hear the stories like we did as children. It takes a conscious effort to listen beyond the words. Like any good story worth re-telling, the biblical record has meaning beyond the literal if we can get there.   
And this is the perfect story to dive into.
Today's story is one of the stranger ones. Rather than immediately looking for metaphors, let's 1st enter into the story and see what we can learn as we try to see & feel Ezekiel's vision.
            I had forgotten most of Ezekiel’s story and that he was taken into exile in 597 BCE. One scholar, Dave Garber, describe Ezekiel’s situation like this:
            He was a priest who heard reports of his religious institution being corrupted without the proper oversight of the priesthood who had been exiled to Babylon.
            His own status had been reduced from a prominent position in Jerusalem to that of a temple-less priest in exile.  (The book tells many of these traumas.) We forget the death of Ezekiel’s wife and God's command for him not to mourn her as an example for the exilic community not to mourn the loss of the Temple (24:16-24).  

            Most of all, we forget the historical trauma that accompanied this exile. We forget that the Babylonians tortured the inhabitants of Jerusalem with siege warfare that lasted almost two years, leading to famine, disease, and despair (2 Kings 25:3). We forget how these invaders destroyed the city of Jerusalem, razed the temple to the ground, killed many of its inhabitants, and forced the rest to migrate to Babylon.
            Over and over again, in the texts we (seldom or never) read from the book of Ezekiel, the prophet offers imagery that testifies to and metaphorically represents the multiple traumas that the community faced under the realities of ancient Near Eastern warfare.[i]

This is the background that leads us to Ezekiel’s vision. Unlike some biblical stories, it is clear this is a vision – given for a purpose. Which makes it easier for us to see the metaphor w/o feeling like we are 'not believing’ something. Instead we are trusting in a real message from God.

This vision was certainly given to Ezekiel for the entire nation of Israel. The symbolism is that of an Israel whose hope has died, and for whom there is no future. The dry bones themselves are portrayed as ‘dead as dead’ could possibly be (v. 2). As Ezekiel looks at them, he sees no possibility of a return to life. He must prophecy to the dry bones, which are clearly symbolic of his defeated people.
            The people’s perception of their present situation is overwhelming. But the word that the prophet is given to say to them is equally powerful. Life can only be experienced again if it comes from God.
Since this is clearly a message for exiled Israel of 600 BC, how do we find our place in the story?
click for original website for image

Some would say it is here, in the Christian church of 2012, where there is nothing left but dry bones, rattling together every Sunday morning.
“. . .polls, surveys, denominational questionnaires all indicate the inherited religious identities like ‘protestant’ catholic’ ‘Jewish’ [even ‘brethren’] are in a state of flux” says Diana Butler Bass (In "Christianity After Religion")
“Attendance at weekly religious services is significantly down, people mix and switch religions more easily than in the past, traditional religious institutions are in a sustained decline and even general belief in God has eroded over the last 30 years.”
Click for website for image and another sermon
            “Many individual congregations are successful, but the overall picture for religious life in the US is not terribly encouraging, especially for Christians.”

            In addition, some people are angry about religion and see only the fighting between faiths. Others are wounded, many people “are just bored.
They are bored with church-as-usual, church as club, church as entertainment, or church as work,” Bass writes. The truth is, “on Sunday, other things are more interesting” or at least more compelling.[ii]

Are we sitting in the valley of disconnected dry bones?
            Have you ever felt like you had nothing left to give and the faith in which you grew up, is no longer connected to your life?
website here

I hope not, but since I have questioned the church’s future, I’m going to guess I’m not alone in at least wondering what will come next for the church based on the Jesus’ Way.
If we trust, that God's Spirit can makes these Dry Bones live, what would new life look like?
Can you see an image of new flesh on these bones?
            Imagine for a moment. . .
Original site here

Do you see people walking into church, children in hand, filling the sidewalks outside this building and others like it?
            When I see that image in my head, the women have on hats and gloves, the men are in dark suits, little girls have frilly dresses, and the little boys are in shirts and ties. In fact, I’m so sure it’s a historic image that I see it in B&W. – It is an image of the past, the 1950-60s, the time when this building was first built.
            I don’t think those old bones can live. But I do believe God’s Spirit is blowing something new all around us.

The Holy Spirit may have to work on our imagination first.

            Let me share a story with you, about imagination:

Click here for blog and image
“A rich industrialist from the North was horrified to find a Southern fisherman lying leisurely beside his boat. ‘Why aren’t you fishing?’ the industrialist asked.
‘Because I have caught enough fish for the day,’ said the fisherman.
‘Why don’t you catch some more?’ the 1st man asked.
‘What would I do with them?’ said the fisherman
Fisherman w/net IMAGE
‘You could earn more money,’ was the reply. ‘With that, you could fix a motor to your boat, go into deeper waters and catch MORE fish. Then you would make enough money to buy nylon nets. These would bring you more fish and more money. Soon you would have enough money to own two boats …maybe even a fleet of boats. Then you would be a rich man like me.’
‘What would I do then?’ the fisherman asked.
‘Then you could really enjoy life.’
‘What do you think I am doing right now?’ said the fisherman.”[iii] . . .
Web site for free images

There are many ways for new life to grow – ways that we have yet to imagine.

Something wonderful happened when Ezekiel spoke to the people who felt as dry as old bones. They began debating the details. Walter Wink reminded me that “some even disagreed with Ezekiel, suggesting alternatives.
Everyone got so involved in the specifics of new temple life that they didn’t notice that they had all accepted as a FACT that this new life was going to happen. Vision had become expectation. Hope had become anticipation. The unimaginable had been imagined – all by the divine creative act that began with a vision of old bones.
History is made this way, by envisioning new alternatives and acting on them as if they were inevitable. This is how despair is overcome; by prophesying a course of action God is conspiring to bring to pass.[iv]

There are many ways to for new life to grow.
The church of the future may not be based on the Corporate Model of today. It might be more like the early church, a key model for Brethren, where bigger is NOT better.

The early church’s life was based on 1:1 relationships.
            Image how it was: Followers of the Jesus’ way, brought their families to hear about the Christ and then their friends.
            When someone needed help, they didn’t ask the Board or the Pastor to design a new program, they walked over to their home to see what they could do.
Eventually they grew large enough to deal with poverty and inequity on a larger scale, but even then the need was answered with people. (We might label it a deacon program, but the reality was they lived their faith - people to people.)

NEW LIFE can come when the Spirit blows. Perhaps it will look completely different than anything we have imagined. Or perhaps it will look a lot like a few old bones connecting to other bones and becoming covered with new flesh.

The people we already know and those whom the Spirit sends to our door are in need of relationship with other people.
            Relationship is the typical quest, not classrooms full of adults and children, gathered around their Bibles and doing fancy arts and crafts. – people are looking for people who welcome them and say, “We’d LOVE to have you come again and be part of us.”
“Imagine that! People meeting people, 1 on 1.
Why don’t we trust that God’s spirit is already blowing in here and imagine the bone connecting to bone image. We make the vision a reality.
Take ONE person this month, (someone you already know) and be present to them, call, contact, visit, offer one's self as listener, not as fixer, just be part of their life for one month and see what Holy Winds blow into the mix.
Then during the month take on 1 practice that will renew and sustain your own spirit by keeping you connected to the Holy Spirit all month long. (prayer, scripture, meditation, time spent with God’s Spirit that renews your spirit)
 “One to One to One”
1 person, 1 practice, 1 Spirit - connecting us to other ‘boney’ humans in relationships where the Spirit thrives; a simple action that can turn what we imagine into reality.
            Perhaps it is a simple vision of connected people – bone to bone - THAT IS the future of Christ’s church and
Web Clip Art

These bones can live!

[i] David Garber, 4/10/11 (text slightly adapted)
[ii] Diana Butler Bass Christianity After Religion (San Fran:Harper One, 2012) 246-7
[iii] Anthony de Mello, Indian priest shared in Common PRAYER. for Ordinary radicals Claiborne, Wilson-Hartgrove, Okoro, eds. (Grand Rapids:Zondervan, 2010) 293
[iv] Walter Wink “These bones shall live” Source: Christian Century; 5/11/94, Vol. 111 Issue 16, p491, 1p

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Contemplation on a big birthday - hope for the church?

reflecting on death of the church and . .  .
Perhaps my favorite birthday gift today is this study day that I scheduled merely by NOT scheduling anything else today. No appointments, just sermon prep, devotional reading, generalized work-related reading, a trip to the gym, and Tiramasu Pops with my coffee. (Thanks Mel!)

I just finished reading the Messenger magazine, our denominational (Church of the Brethren) for April 2012. For some reason I get my copy in the first week of the following month. It was great to see an article on our, Arlington congregation's involvement in the local food bank, Arlington Food Assistance Center, written by Robyn Reals. (Go Girl) I was also saddened and challenged by Mike McKeever's article, "Bearing Witness for Peace in a Distracted Society".  I was thinking I want to echo it in a sermon, but by the time I was through reading, I realized how depressing a sermon would be that spoke to the number of dead and injured in our recently concluded war on Iraq. (In 2005 he organized a round-the-clock reading of American dead that took 30 hours. If he were to organize a remembrance for Iraqis killed in the war, it would take two years to read all the names! Messenger p. 10) - Sigh

I found myself in McKeever's description of students content to wait for him in a darkened classroom. Puzzled he discovered they preferred the dark so smart phone screens, tablets, and computers were more visible. They choose to access on-line rather than talk to each other. - again a sigh - I admit I am part of the 'they' in his classroom, grabbing every opportunity to check in on Twitter. Maybe I'd share an Andy Borowitz laugh with someone...verbally?

I liked reading about Sgt. Corey Gray's success at becoming a CO even after having enlisted in the Marines and discovering how much the Marine 'mission' was against his belief in life. (I was particularly struck by the Marine optometry motto he quoted, "If you can't see them, you can't kill them." It kinda says it all.)

I felt challenged by Josh Brockway's, "Where have all the prophets gone?" recalling Dawn O. Wilhelm's work in that vein of prophetic preaching while realizing it is not just preaching that needs to be prophetic, it's our living.

Then I found two articles that almost seem to conflict. 1- "God's door left open" by David Young about church renewal and the other, "Who are the young adults?" by Gimbiya Kettering, who I just bumped into in a restaurant on Saturday.
  • 1- "Transformation continues as we discover and implement a renewal plan. The plan often calls for strengthening the very basic ministries of the church like youth, Sunday school, or midweek ministry." says David Young
  • 2- Gimbiya writes about two books  that "consider college students on different ends of the religious spectrum, and reflects the diversity of faith among emerging adults i the CoB."
Maybe its because I'm reading Diane Butler Bass' Christianity After Religion that I'm continually aware of the challenges facing today's church. Make that yesterday's church that still meets today.  Aside from the house churches and newer forming groups, called 'church plants', I see churches today following some variation of the 1950 or 1960 church. We meet in buildings built or renovated in the 60's or for some in the 70's. We sit in pews or semi-circled chairs facing forward. We listen to music performed and we sing either hymns hundreds of years old (in many cases) or some newer tunes when a congregation is willing to vary its music from organ to other instruments. And in most cases, we listen to a sermon, preached from a pulpit which at times (if one is lucky) is accompanied by a few visuals that try to capture wandering attentions for 15-20 minutes. Even I, the preacher, begin to see the 'checkered flag' about 11:50 and have to restrain a bolt for the door. (true confession time?) Is there any doubt that this model has to change?

When I read further into the Messenger I see denominational budget shortfalls, decline in giving to the denomination, districts, and churches. (A rise in giving to specific relief ministries, though!) Then I read the Letters to the Editor, which for the past several years have reflected the internal battle in the CoB, as in many other denominations over sexuality and relatedly, interpretation of scripture and tradition. - Bigger sigh -

The Annual Conference ballot review again shows two women on the ballot for Moderator - and we remember what happened last year, right? (#cobac2011 - a man nominated from the floor was elected.) While our moderator-elect writes in this issue reflecting on racism that remains in America  even after a rich history of sacrifice to move away from it, I wonder about sexism, still so predominate in the CoB. Then I remember the comment from the pew behind me at District Conference, "It's not a matter of equality (women in leadership), it's a matter of theology!" (Biblical interpretation that prohibits women in leadership) - Insert whatever is bigger than a sigh, here.

It leaves me not even wanting to attend conference. Although I know if I don't go, and others like me, it 'leaves' the denomination to those with whom I disagree. It's like voting in an election - if you don't vote, then you don't get to complain at the outcome.

My hope comes from the assurance that God isn't through with us yet. (Although my 'reading through the Bible' had me just read the ch. 26 of Leviticus and what God will do if God's people do not obey God's commands....) I am just seriously wondering of God IS through with the church - at least as we know it. I realize I am writing myself out of a job, but think the time is coming. Perhaps it is time to focus on praying for all seminary graduates - that they find ways to faithfully help God's people enter the 22nd century and listen to the prophetic words of Jesus. That young adults will find ways of faithfully expressing their belief in the Jesus' Way and that these ways will not exclude the folks still gathered by the grave of Sunday School each week, and still attending the memorial service of the 1960-church at 11 a.m. on Sunday. If only the new ideas (to which our Arlington congregation is very open) could include the "old" church, perhaps there could be a transition. . .

I suspect though, the transition will be more like Jesus' than we are prepared to experience - first a death - and only THEN a resurrection. 
"So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day." 2 Corinthians 4:16
"Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. . .But God gives it a body as God has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body." 1 Corinthians 15:36, 38
Maybe it's just the way I translate and interpret scripture. . but I still find some hope in Paul's words. Perhaps this is the most appropriate reflection on the day I turn 60 years old - hope beyond death - for the church and all its people.