Saturday, April 5, 2014

Dem Bones, Sermon for Lent 5A, St. Clement's Episcopal Church

All week the Spiritual, Dem Bones dem bones dem dry bones has been stuck in my head.  Composed by African American author and songwriter James Weldon Johnson, this particular song lists the bones from toe to head and head to toe--each connected to each and each responding to the word of God.  

"Ezekiel connected dem dry bones, Ezekiel connected dem dry bones, Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones, Now hear the word of the Lord."

Structurally, the book of Prophet and Priest Ezekiel, confronts the Israelites--both those living in Judah and Jerusalem and those living in exile in Babylon--with judgment.  Ezekiel is clear that ritual impurity and idolatrous behaviour are to be swiftly condemned and topical headings include such gems as: the siege of Jerusalem; a sword against Jerusalem; Judgment on idolatrous Israel; Impending disaster; Slaughter; disaster; and judgment.

I'm not sure Ezekiel received many invites back to preach...

Yet, what Ezekiel expresses throughout these pages of scripture is that actions have consequences.  Further, the actions of the individual held consequences for the individual alone.

In short, Ezekiel is conducting a vendetta against sin.  Now, we don't discuss sin often in the Episcopal Church--but a google search on "sin in the Episcopal church" turned up some doozies (and I don't necessarily recommend googling the phrase "sin in the Episcopal Church!)--most of the search findings were not particularly helpful to the writing of this sermon...

But, as we continue through Lent and approach it's culmination in our Holy Week observances, reflecting on sin bares some pertinence.  In fact, the liturgy that begins our journey through Lent invites participation with the following:  
"Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of
notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful
were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to
the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation
was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set
forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all
Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith."

While I am not aware of notorious sin that has separated the body of the faithful in this particular body...I am aware that part of our understanding of our life of prayer, our liturgy and our God is that we all sin.  The catechism of the Episcopal Church, as found on page 848 of the Book of Common Prayer, teaches that “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” Yet, in the midst of sin we are invited again and again and again to reconciliation.  We confess and receive absolution each week and we do so because we are the church.

And, because we are the church and not God, our body can and does break.  And it is the broken body to which Ezekiel speaks in the midst of his castigation of the Israelites.  

The Toe bone connected to the foot bone
Foot bone connected to the heel bone
Heel bone connected to the ankle bone
Now hear the word of the Lord.

God calls us to wholeness and when the dry, broken bones are all that is left, God continues to repair and restore us from that which is left.  And, even when the connections between us are most tenuous, when they are so fragile that the wind can scatter us, the Word of the Lord can breathe life back into us--the broken body made whole once more.  

Central to our identity as Christians, as discerned through scripture and enacted in our liturgy with confession, absolution and reconciliation each week, is this invitation to wholeness.  At its core, Lent is about the broken becoming whole.  Lent’s purpose is the preparation of a people for resurrection and our appointed readings have pointed towards that purpose--In the restoration of sight, living water and new birth--the broken have been healed again and again--and in the breaking there is always hope for the healing.   

A few weeks ago I prepared a presentation on prayer in scripture for the adult forum.  One of the commentators on the psalms of lamentation was clear in his explication that we must lament--because in lamentation we express our dissatisfaction with the status quo and our reliance on and hope for the healing grace of God.  

This understanding of the importance of Lamention, of despair and anger expressed through prayer,  emerges out of our fragility and brokenness.  Lamentation hinges on the truth that we NEED God.   

And, throughout scripture we see God responding again and again to our pain and suffering with healing, wholeness and the constant invitation to reconciliation.

So, when I hear Mary and Martha in their despair and anger, their pain and frustration, I hear lamentation but I also hear an invitation to a life of faith that pins its hopes on new life in Christ.  

Now, I struggle with the narratives describing miraculous healing--I was a hospital chaplain and I have seen the hurt and harm these narratives can cause when taken literally and when a family’s prayers for physical healing seem unanswered.  So, when I turn my attention to these narratives I find myself looking beyond the literal and into the metaphorical--because metaphor allows us to move away from a story bound by time and into a truth that time cannot contain.  

In this story of resurrection, God hears us in the midst of our suffering.  God sees our brokenness and remains in relationship with us in our anger.  God weeps with us in our sorrows and rejoices with our rejoicings.  God loves deeply each of us and shares our grief.  And, even when all hope seems lost, the stone will be rolled away and all that is left will be life.  

Scripture teaches that neither death nor life can separate us from the love of God.  So in our living and in our dying we are participants in a body that is not bound by death--”unbind him and let him go” he says.    

So, here we are, in this Lenten time--members of the body of Christ and surrounded by the communion of saints and cloud of witnesses.  And, the truth is, we are broken.  The other truth is that even at the last the stone will roll away and the breath of God will breathe upon us.  As Paul writes, “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death”.  

Let us be participants in reconciliation and in that participation let us come closer to the day when the entirety of creation finds healing and bones are knit together into the shape that is the body of Christ contained within the unending kingdom of God’s love.  

Dem bones, dem bones gonna rise again.
Dem bones, dem bones gonna rise again.
Dem bones, dem bones gonna rise again.
Now hear the word of the Lord.

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