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Prophesy to the Breath

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Stephanie Hamilton
Day of Pentecost (May 20, 2018)
Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Acts 2:1-21 – “Prophesy to the Breath” 

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. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 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.”

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. 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. 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.” 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.’ 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. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 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. 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. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

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. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘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.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Today’s scripture couldn’t come at a better time, personally speaking. I am finding it increasingly hard these days to stay informed and engaged with the events happening in the world. My perspective is like an accordion swelling with worry, fear, and pain stemming from the national and global news provoking feelings of dis-empowerment and then collapsing as my focus shifts to local events where I feel as though I have some control thus bringing relief as I witness forces at work causing change. It is tiresome this tune I play in my thoughts: despair, hope, despair, hope. And here we are on Pentecost Sunday, the end of the Easter season. Easter, when we celebrated the power of God’s love in the resurrected Christ. I felt it that Sunday, down to my bones, that life giving, life redeeming, LOVE. Love that even death could not, cannot overcome. I thought I would burst because I felt so full of love. And yet, today, I need to be reminded of God’s deep life filling, life giving love. In her book She Who Is, Professor Elizabeth Johnson writes, “[Because] Brokenness and sin are everywhere, renewal is an ever present need.” (pg. 135)

This week there has been a steady buzz surrounding the royal wedding of Prince Harry and actress Meghan Markle. I saw a few Facebook posts Friday evening of friends who were setting alarms so they would wake up in time to watch the events of the day and the ceremony. I didn’t give it much thought as I knew I needed the extra sleep and planned accordingly. And then as I was scrolling through Facebook yesterday morning, post after post referenced bits and pieces of the Most Reverend Michael Curry’s homily. Curiosity getting the better of me, I found myself googling the event and watching the live taping of his sermon. It did not disappoint. He began his sermon with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. stating, “We must discover the power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world.” And the sermon took off from there. Rev. Curry had much to say about the power of love and what the world would look like when love is the way of the world. It was thirteen minutes of pure inspiration.

Both of the texts from today’s Lectionary paint such a vivid picture of the power of God’s love through the Holy Spirit–we are given images of breath, wind, and fire. And once the Spirit has begun her work, it results in life from dried bones remade into humans and understanding from a cacophony of languages. These stories both evoke such rich imagery illustrating for us the scope and potency of a God who always chooses to be God with us. Growing up, it was easy to understand the bi-relational part of the trinity in God the creator and Jesus the savior. The work and person of these two somehow made sense in my brain and despite growing up in a church whose roots were in the holiness tradition, I had no real concept of the Holy Spirit or the relational aspect of a Trinitarian theology. As an adult, I studied, questioned, and read, and it became apparent to me that the Holy Spirit is in all of life and the work of the Spirit can be seen in life giving experiences. I have formed a theory that words which begin with re–are what I like to call evidence words of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Words like renewal, refine, restore, re-birth, revive, and reform for example. All these things are God at work through the Spirit transforming and giving life where it is found lacking.

Our text in Ezekiel illustrates so clearly, the work and power of the Spirit. The prophet is brought to a valley filled with bones. Actually, we are told that they are dried bones, meaning they’ve been there awhile. I imagine them a white-ish gray, baked and bleached from the sun. This vision that the prophet sees is one of desolation. A valley full of death. And yet, he is told that these bones will live and he is to call them to life. He will be the one to call upon the Spirit of God to bring to life a valley of dried bones. This vision is a reminder and a promise for the children of Judah, that God’s love is powerful enough to create life where none seems visible. The prophet is shown a valley and he sees dried bones; God sees bones with tendons and muscles covered in skin. Together, prophet and God, they call upon the Spirit to give life to the reassembled bones. I wonder what God sees when she sees her creation now? Our text calls us to see the places where God’s power is at work, especially in those places unexpected. Our text calls us to partner with God in speaking the words that bring life; to call upon the breath of God to fill with love those places devoid of it.

If ever there was a time when I understood the life giving power of breath, it was at the birth of my son Gavin. My first born, Aidan, came out like an exposed nerve–hands in the air, shaking rapidly, with mouth wide open and crying loudly. He was definitely full of life. In contrast, my Gavin came out, gave a small soft cry and stopped breathing. I had heard the cry and then silence. Truth be told I don’t remember much detail from that moment, I simply remember listening, waiting for his cries. And then I heard the nurses calling for oxygen and the neonatologist. After what seemed like an eternity of silence, I remember turning to my doula and asking her if I needed to be worried. She assured me my boy was in the safest place possible and that the nurses had it all under control. I wasn’t so sure I believed her, because I was still listening for the sound of my newborn son’s voice. Derek tells me that Gavin’s body was blue and limp like a rag doll. He said the nurses were rubbing Gavin’s body vigorously to stimulate his circulation and had placed an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth forcing air into his lungs. Finally, eight minutes later, Gavin responded to the attention and came to life, emitting a series of cries breathing in before and exhaling with each one. Breath, it does a body good. Just ask my boy and those dried bones.

Once those bones have been assembled with all that is necessary to become a body of flesh and given life through the breath of God, the prophet is told that the bones represent the whole body of Israel–not just the southern kingdom of Judah, but the northern kingdom as well. They will all be brought back together and given life, declares God. I think things were pretty bleak for Judah at this point in her history; Babylon has taken over and the northern Kingdom of Israel has long since been destroyed and dispersed. For God to mention that the bones represent the WHOLE house of Israel is a promise of God’s faithful love and a testament to that love’s power. It is powerful enough to resurrect a conquered and dispersed people.

Wednesday night I was lucky enough to be invited to the graduation ceremony of a program called JobPath. JobPath is a workforce development program that provides opportunities for underserved Pima County adult residents to achieve financial independence through improved education and training in local, high-demand areas that lead to high wage careers. This year there were 126 graduates from the program–the biggest class yet. In order to highlight the impact of this program, four of the students were asked to speak at the graduation ceremony. One story in particular stood out and this student received a standing ovation when she finished speaking. She grew up on the Navajo Reservation in Pinon, Arizona, the daughter of parents who struggled with alcohol and drug addiction and in an environment of violence and abuse. Because I spent my childhood years on the Navajo reservation, I know firsthand the extraordinary challenges she faced being born into what I would consider a valley of dried bones. At an early age, both her parents died and she was raised by her grandmother. She completed high school and began her first year of college. It was after that first year of college that she lost her way and became a victim to the disease of addiction as well. After several years of a downward spiral and in the bed of a rehab facility she cried out to God and pleaded for help. By this time she had a young son and she did not want to abandon him. Upon completion of her rehab, she was connected to JobPath and began the journey of becoming a dental assistant. On Wednesday, she received her certification and announced her employment. Her story was not lost on the people in the room. Most of us were wiping tears off of our faces as we stood to express our admiration for what she had accomplished and our gratitude for her vulnerable testimony. JobPath was created to help give people, who otherwise would not have access to, the opportunity for education, training, and the support necessary to enter the workforce in high wage employment. The average salary jump for JobPath graduates is an average of over $34,000 a year! All of this made possible 20 years ago by the vision of Pima County Interfaith and a joint effort of Pima Community College and the business community. These organizations, collectively, are like the prophet calling for the breath of God, that life giving, powerful breath of God.

It is a hard thing to witness those places and things we would deem a valley of dried bones. I am tempted to begin a list. It is not necessary. We know the places where power is abused, people are disenfranchised, silenced, and oppressed. And we know where hope is hard to find and where God’s light and love seem nonexistent. Thanks be to God that she sees dried bones as opportunities to make us partners in bearing witness to and calling for God’s Spirit to bring renewal. God always chooses to be God with us. May we choose to share God’s powerful, life giving, life changing love. Look for the bones encased in flesh and prophesy to the breath!

Featured image: Gustave Doré, Ezekiel’s Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, Doré’s English Bible (1866)