Message for April 26, 2009

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Scripture reading:  Ezekiel 37 1- 14

    In 2003, I was plucked out of a Pastoral Charge in Ontario where I had been student minister for almost three years.  The Church required that I fulfill an 8-month internship, and I couldn’t do it where I had been in ministry – I was to learn ministry in a different place.  I was sent to St. Andrew’s U. C. in Truro, and arrived there about 3 weeks before Hurricane Juan.  In December, I was required to report to my Education and Students’ Committee in Ontario about my progress.  This report was also to include a reflection on a scripture passage.  I chose the Ezekiel passage.  Even though I was surrounded by wonderful people and challenging work, I felt adrift in a foreign landscape – I felt somewhat like an exile.
There are changes in our culture and the economy today are shifting the ground that we have walked on for many decades.  Businesses are closing, our churches are losing members to long-term care facilities, or to a culture that no longer relies on organized religion as its moral compass.  Our children are experiencing lives that can be filled with busy-ness and demands that leave them feeling tired and dispirited.  We too feel like exiles in a strange land.
This week I heard from friends in Ontario that a couple – both of them veterinarians – are being forced to sell their house because the bills for their business and their children’s university costs are putting them close to bankruptcy.  And then on Tuesday night at Presbytery I was in discussion with other ministers and lay people and find that the survival of MANY pastoral charges in the Valley are also in doubt...some will close within a year or two, others may limp along for another 5 or 6.  In addition to declining attendance, and members who are aging and limited in their ability to donate more, the investments that are relied upon for helping churches get through the tight spots have diminished greatly in value, leaving the treasurers continually juggling resources to pay the bills.
    During this past week, at our prayer circle, I happened upon, once again, the Ezekiel passage as its basis.  But this time I found the passage about the dry bones was a soothing lotion for me.  The passage from Ezekiel comes from the six centuries before Jesus...the scene is Babylon.  In those days, there were kingdoms rising and falling; as there always are. There were nations that abused power; as there always are. And the skinny little strip of land that was Israel always seemed to be directly in the path of these strong, expanding nations that surrounded it.  First the Assyrians gobbled up the northern kingdom of Israel in one voracious bite, spewing out refugees across the then-known world.  One hundred years later, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, did a power dance on the border of the southern kingdom, called Judah, creating terror and extorting heavy reparation payments in return for security.  Then he invaded anyway.  He and his army forces marched the leaders – religious, political, and cultural – across the barren wastes into Babylon which is modern-day Iraq.  Ezekiel was a young priest who was carried off in the first wave of captives in 587 BCE.  It was while he was in exile that he received his call to be a prophet.  Biblical prophecy is not so much about foretelling the future, but more about reading the signs of the times and speaking God’s truth into the situation.  A year later, Ezekiel heard that Jerusalem had been captured and the temple was in ashes. More exiles from Jerusalem were herded into Babylon.  This news plunged the exiles into deep despair and hopelessness.  Already they were uprooted, strangers in a strange land. Their religious, economic and cultural life was over.  To many, it felt like a reverse exodus from freedom to slavery.
    So the Ezekiel story begins in spiritual death.  The despair is named and honoured, as the exiles cry, “Our bones are dry, our thread of life is snapped, our web is severed from the loom.”  Beneath it lurks the groan: “Is there any hope?”  “Can these bones live?”  This is a hard place to be; and end-of-the rope place to be.
    Friends, the end-of-the-rope place has come to my veterinarian friends in Oshawa, it looms large in Valley Presbytery’s meetings, and it faces many churches throughout Canada...and not just United Churches, you can be sure of that.
    We are in a time of exile. Exile happens when the familiar place where we belonged and knew the rules is no longer possible, but you haven’t yet found a new way to make your way.  Exile is a place where how we identified ourselves and understood ourselves no longer works...and we are forced to reinvent ourselves and figure out who we are in this new world.  Exile is also where we recognize that our own resources, our own abilities to control our situation have reached their limits, and where we are forced to rely on the radical freedom of God’s spirit.  Exile is where the people of God were re-formed, re-created, and where faith and theology take new directions.
    Exile is not something you fix, using problem-solving tools, which we are so good at doing in the church. It is a whole new ball game, where we have to learn new things, new ways to live, and to be open to the Spirit’s leading.  The is the only way we are going to pass through it.
    In the story from Ezekiel, God gives him a vision, and this vision helps Ezekiel capture the essence of the condition of his people; to see them as a valley of dried out, disconnected bones, dislocated, lifeless, with no energy, no power, no capacity to relate or connect.  In the vision Ezekiel sees God bringing new life to the people; life beyond how things are now.  But this re-creation doesn’t happen right away...the bones have to come together, to rattle and struggle up against each other. They make a terrific racket while they are doing this in the story.  And the bones themselves are not enough. There needs to be sinew to bind them together, and muscles. There needs to be some hard, painful work before the breath of life can come upon them “that they may live.”
But the promise is clear that God’s life-making Spirit will take their deadness, their dryness, their brittleness, and bring new life.
    And so we look at today’s gospel message from Luke.  It comes immediately after the story of meeting the stranger on the road to Emmaus...and recognizing Jesus in the breaking of the bread.  “As they we talking about all this, there he was; standing among them”. (24:36) For myself, I am not in the least concerned about these sightings of the post-resurrection Jesus: whether they were real, imagined, or some kind of ghostly apparition. For me, the disciples simply “recognized” that Jesus was with them still, in spite of his earthly death.  The ancient writers translated that into a bodily resuscitation as seen in today’s reading – Jesus eating fish before their eyes. 
    Can you see the similarity between these two revelations of God’s compassion and caring for people?  The continuity of God’s presence with those in exile is a reassurance that we are not alone...no matter what exile or deprivation or difficult time we are in.  And so, in today’s predicament, “recognizing” Jesus takes the form of having our minds opened and our hearts moved by the presence of the Sacred with us.  As with the disciples, in Emmaus, and in the room in Jerusalem, and sitting here in Waterville or Berwick, we can recognize Jesus in God’s word from scriptures, and in the response of kindness and sharing of the people of God in those first Christian communities, and in the generosity of the people of our own communities when they give of their energies and their resources to keep the Body of Christ – the faith family – the Church going through tough times.
    I think particularly of the small rural churches where 20 or 30 long-time friends and neighbours gather each Sunday for worship knowing that they can no longer reasonably expect hoards of young people to arrive one Sunday and want to belong. One woman said at Presbytery that they were in the middle of a discussion about how to die with dignity. But I want to tell you of their courage and their compassion as they decide to leave their surplus funds to the other congregations with the trust that these resources will seed a new life for the presence of the United Church in the Annapolis Valley.
    I think particularly of the discussions going on in Presbytery and in Cluster groups about organizing more cluster worship events so that we can draw strength and hope from each other while at the same time searching for ways that the United Church presence in the Annapolis Valley can become stronger.  It is difficult work, and one can almost hear the racket of dissention that could result.  But there is also a strong feeling that the Spirit is at work among us...breathing new possibilities for life into the discussions.
    And so I look on these passages as prophecies of the great and generous compassion of the Holy One for us.  The way ahead will call forth from us strength like sinews and a perseverance like teeth and bone.  We will develop agility and insight as we work together to bring about a new way of being.  And the Living Christ – not a figment of our imagination, but a source of love and support in our lives that we recognize in many ways – the Living Christ guides us on these paths – walks with us, breaks bread with us, counsels us, teaches us, and most importantly stays with us while we work all of this out.

I invite you to find #918 – and to stand and repeat our “New Creed” together.  In invite you to draw from it the sense of God’s continuing presence and to take sustenance from the words.