Year A, Lent 5
As most of you know, this church (both the worshipping community and the building) have been through a lot in the last 404 years. Many of us know the dramatic story of its burning in the Civil War; but the Civil War was not the first war that it witnessed. This structure stood through both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. It would be easy to assume that it was the wars that led to the deterioration of the building and the worshipping community. However, it was more than that. A contributing factor was a shift in the way the church was perceived in the culture as a whole. The church was no longer supported by the government and no one knew how to support a church without the British Empire or the Church of England.
The War of 1812 was the final straw. The British troops used the church as a barracks and left it almost destroyed. For the 10 years after the War of 1812, nothing was done to restore the church. However there were still a few people who maintained hope for St. John’s. One of them was Richard Servant. He found inspiration in a rather unlikely place. He told a story of visiting the graves of ancestors near the ruined church with a friend named Jane. As she stood at the dilapidated door of the church she said, “Cousin, if I were a man I would have these walls built up.” In a letter he wrote “her words were like electricity, and from that moment my determination was fixed.” Within 4 years, people were worshipping in the restored church once more.
Ezekiel lived about 600 years before Christ. He was a prophet who was exiled to Babylon with many of the Hebrew people. His writings contain visions which prophesy the destruction of Jerusalem and the holy temple. Most of the Hebrew people believed that Jerusalem would never fall because God protected it. They believed that the temple was God’s home and therefore it would always stand. While Ezekiel’s prophesies were not appreciated, they were accurate. The Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem as well as the temple. Most of the people were exiled to a foreign land where they were left for generations. After the destruction of the temple, one of Ezekiel’s missions was to restore hope to a battered and beaten people. The temple was more than just a beautiful place that people worshipped, it was where God resided. For many of the people, it was not only the temple that was destroyed, it was their faith in God.
The vision that we heard today described Ezekiel being set down in the middle of a valley that was full of bones. Many people have surmised that this was a battlefield. This would make sense since there was a massive battle to defend Jerusalem from the Babylonians and many people died. Most of the people who survived were sent to Babylon. I suspect the city itself looked a little like Hampton after it was burned in the Civil War. There was nothing left. Thus it is not hard to imagine a valley littered with bones. But let’s remember that this was a vision. This was God trying to teach Ezekiel something in a very dramatic way.
The vision is near the end of the Book of Ezekiel. The exile had probably lasted far longer than any of the Hebrew people expected. The temple remained in ruins. So perhaps it was not the dead who God was worried about—who God was trying to speak to. What if the bones represented not the dead, but the living? If you were to read this text in Hebrew, you would see one word used nine times. It is ruach and is translated to three different English words in these fourteen verses: breath, wind and God’s Spirit. The word ruach appears all over the Old Testament, even in the creation story when God’s spirit moved over the waters. The essence of the word is life giving force. In Ezekiel’s vision (even after the bones came together, the muscles and tendons were added, and the skin covered all the necessary parts) —even after all of that–there was still no life. It was not until God breathed into these empty bodies were they truly alive.
The people of Israel, even those who had lived through the exile, were missing something. They were missing the breath of God because they felt cut off from God. They felt as though God had deserted them. We hear that in the Psalm for today, “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord hear my voice…” With the temple destroyed and being displaced from their home, they did not even know where to look for God. There was no hope because the source of their hope had deserted them. At least, that is what they thought.
The Hebrew people thought that if only they were not exiled and their temple was still glorious and powerful, then they would know God was with them. They would feel his presence. The people of St. John’s (200 years ago) might have thought if only they still had the support of the government, then their church would stand tall again. I find in my life that it is really easy to make excuses and to use those excuses not to take risks. Believing in God is a risk, especially when we don’t have a strong establishment or government supporting us…especially when all we are looking at rubble or bones.
One commentator wrote that it would be far easier to prophesy after the bones came to life. Yet God asked Ezekiel to prophesy to a valley full of lifeless bones. If I were Ezekiel I would have been mortified. What would be the point? But obviously there was life in them, or they never would have heard the prophesy. There was something there that was just waiting for those words, God’s words. I think that often, even when we feel that all hope is lost, really it is only we who are lost. Our souls are hibernating waiting for that infusion of breath. Hope, that was the last name of Jane, the person who challenged others to rebuild the walls of St. John’s. She was standing among graves when she said it and I bet she felt like she was just talking to a valley of bones. But there was one person there, one person just waiting for the opportunity, the spark that would electrify the community into action.
While we are undergoing a little renovation now, our building is in pretty good shape. We don’t have to build it up again, but that does not mean that we do not have a mission. We are not talking to the graves…but we are living in the midst of a community that doesn’t care much about what we are saying as the Church of Christ. When some people look at us, all they see is a graveyard. And we might not be able to change many people’s hearts and minds, but I bet (like Jane Hope) we can change one. And that one might just be the spark we need, the spark that could electrify the community and to provide that life giving spirit that we all so desperately need. So prophesy. Prophesy when it seems all hope is lost, because that is when we need it the most.
Tormey, James. How Firm a Foundation. Pages 73-76