Year A, Lent 5 Ezekiel 37:1-14
Some of you may know that our lectionary rotates on a cycle. That means that our readings repeat every three years. So the readings we heard today were last heard in March of 2020. Now this will shock you, but I don’t usually remember what I preached three years ago. Sometimes I don’t remember what I preached 2 weeks ago. But when I looked at this reading from Ezekiel, I thought, I definitely preached this three years ago. I didn’t remember it word for word, but I remembered those dry bones.
When I preached the Ezekiel sermon 3 years ago, it was to a mostly empty church and a video camera. We were about 2 weeks into our national quarantine. I think it was around the time we realized this was going to last more than 2 weeks, but we had no idea we would be dealing with this for years. I reread the sermon from 3 years ago as I was preparing today’s and I thought, man, that was kind of depressing. In my defense, it was a depressing time. It’s amazing how different these words from Ezekiel look three years later.
Ezekiel was a priest and prophet who lived about 500 years before Jesus was born. He lived in a critical time— when the majority of the Hebrew people were forcibly exiled to Babylon. He was one of the people exiled. The primary audience for the reading we heard today were the people who were displaced, cut off from their homeland for generations. They were people who would not live to see their homes. They would die in a foreign land. Some of their descendants might return, but many would not. The exile lasted approximately 70 years.
When I preached this text 3 years ago, I identified with those displaced people. At the time, we all knew what it was to be cut off from family, friends and our faith community. I identified with the bones who spoke near the end of our reading. They said, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” But here is the thing about this dramatic and vivid reading. It’s not about the bones or even about what the bones represent—which is the Hebrew people who were displaced. It’s not even about the prophet Ezekiel. It’s about what God can do for these bones.
What God can do for these bones is the impossible, or at least the thing that should be impossible. God can bring new life to these dried up, displaced, utterly hopeless bones. God will not only give them new life, God will bring them back to Israel, back to their home. This reading isn’t just about new life, it’s about homecoming and how closely homecoming and life is connected.
One of the things that initially drew me to St. John’s was the history, primality through the lens of one our historians Jim Tormey. We know that this church was founded in 1610 and some assume that there was a fairly smooth trajectory from then to now. Of course that’s not true. There were some rocky times in the 1600s and 1700s, but I want to talk mostly about the period between 1780 and 1880.
After the American Revolution, the church faced significant financial hardship as the British were no longer supporting us financially. We could not even afford a minister. By the time the War of 1812 came, the church was in a free fall and the building had deteriorated. Unfortunately the British then took up residence in the church during the Battle of Hampton and by the time they left, the church was intact, but barely. It was virtually ruined. Fortunately the people of the church rallied and rebuilt. By 1830 they were whole again. By 1840, they had 30 communicants and that doubled by 1860.
However, it was short reprieve because the Civil War had a huge impact on the church. The rector reported in 1861, “Congregation broken up, some families are gone, we fear, to return no more.” That was three months before the whole town was burned. It would be 10 years before the church was habitable again. Between 1780 and 1880, there were 3 periods of near hopelessness within and outside these walls, 3 periods of time that people were convinced the church would never survive—after the revolution, after the War of 1812, and after the Civil War. 3 times when the church was a pile of stones, dry bones. Yet each time, the people rallied and rebuilt. They met in different buildings, often without a priest. They never gave up. In 1890, 20 years after they rebuilt the church for the 2nd time, there were 230 communicants, which is pretty close to what we have now.
I could point you to about 100 articles on what COVID has done to our churches. Many people have hypothesized that churches will never recover from this. And there are moments, I feel this too. But then I remember the story of St. John’s Church and the story of the whole Christian Church. I remember what God told Ezekiel at the end of our reading: “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.”
I bet this story from Ezekiel would have worked just as well if there was just one skeleton rather than a valley of bones. I mean, just brining one skeleton to life would have made the point that God can do whatever God wants. So why a valley? Was it purely for dramatic purposes? No. There was a valley of bones because this story isn’t about how God breathes new life into individuals, it’s about how an entire community can be resurrected.
Today the buildings and grounds of St. John’s are in great shape, thanks to volunteers, staff, the generosity of each of you, and our endowments. However, that doesn’t mean that our community doesn’t need God’s spirit. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have rebuilding to do. And it’s not just because of the pandemic, it’s because the church as a whole has become complacent and comfortable. The pandemic accelerated what was already happening. The church has been declining since the 1970s. But it’s only become obvious in the last 10-20 years. We can blame the decline on any number of things, but I think what it comes down to is that people who don’t know the church don’t perceive it as relevant. To them, it’s just a bag of dead bones. It’s dead.
It’s up to us, to convince them that it’s not dead—that we are still alive. And we can’t do that by trying the latest greatest fad. I think it’s quite simple actually. We need to start believing what we say on Sundays. We need to believe that if God can resurrect a valley of dry bones, if Jesus Christ can rise from the dead after 3 days, if this church can live through three wars and still thrive…then we too can claim that the spirit of God lives in this place. Because that spirit of God never left us, not once. But the spirit of God needs the people of God to rise up and not just reclaim what we had, but claim what we have never had, bring new life into this beautiful old church.
If you are wondering how that happens, it’s all about participation, not just in worship, but it a lot of different parts of the church. Soon we will be looking for volunteers for an initiative called Invite, Welcome and Connect—which is all about bringing new life into the church. If this church can recover from 3 wars in its church yard, surely we can rise up and claim the spirit once again.
*All historical information about the church from How Firm a Foundation by Jim Tormey.