(Ezekiel 37: 1-14)
Put yourself in Ezekiel’s shoes, if you dare. The hand of the Lord came upon me, and brought me out by the Spirit. And the Spirit set me down in a valley, and it was full of bones.
A valley is where God takes him. The valley is where one feels vulnerable, exposed, alone. Good things rarely happen in the valley. Remember the Psalmist’s refrain: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, he said.
The valley of death is precisely where God takes Ezekiel, made quite obvious in the bones that surround him. Two things strike Ezekiel about these bones: first, the sheer number of them. They are everywhere. And second, how dry they all are. Which means they’ve been bones for some time, segregated from moist flesh and baked endlessly by the hot sun.
A valley full of innumerable and dry bones. No wonder God had to take Ezekiel there. He would’ve never gone own his own. Would you?
And even though scripture doesn’t say how long it was before God finally spoke to him, I have to think it was longer than the blink of an eye it takes for us to read from one verse to the next. I think Ezekiel had to have space to soak in that scene, the vastness and vulnerability of the valley, the devastation and dryness of all those bones.
So when the time was right, God then asks Ezekiel: Mortal (that’s how God addresses the prophet), Mortal, can these bones live?
It must have seemed to Ezekiel a perplexing question. Perhaps even a little snarky. Was this a trick of some sort? Was God trying to be cute?
Can these bones live?
Which is why I love Ezekiel’s response: O Lord, you….know. A little snark of his own. Or a profound statement of faith. Maybe both.
What happens next in the vision, we all know. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the dry bones, and they rattle and come together, and then encased with flesh. But that’s not the end of it. So God tells Ezekiel again to prophesy to the bones, and this time breath – ruach is the Hebrew word – breath comes into these bony fleshy bodies, because bodies are not really alive unless God’s spirit is in them.
That Hebrew word for “prophesy” used over and over again in this passage, it’s naba. Naba. It means to speak in an ecstatic religious state. But it can also mean – and I find this fascinating – it can also mean to sing. Think about that. God commands Ezekiel to sing those bones back to life.
And this mass of enfleshed and spirited bodies, this sung-together assembly, we are told, is the house of Israel. I will put my spirit within you, God speaks. It is as much fact as promise: I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.
We call the first fourteen verses of the 37th chapter of Ezekiel a vision. We call it a vision because it didn’t actually happen, or didn’t happen in the way that’s recounted in history books and human timelines. No, this vision Ezekiel experienced happened in the hearts of the people – a revitalization, a renewal.
We also call it a vision because it is not the way things are now but the way things can become, the way God wants them to be. And this vision requires two things: one, letting God take us to the valley so we can see things they way they are; and two, garnering the scandalous courage to sing God’s life into being.
For a while now, I have felt called as your pastor to share with you a song. A song created, in many ways, by you – by your deep love for each other and our community, by your commitment to “grow together and welcome all on Providence,” and by your persistent desire, in all kinds of ways, to be what I have taken to calling an “indispensable community presence.”
But a song, like beauty itself, can often go unseen, unheard. And I don’t know why that is. Maybe we’re too close to it. Or maybe we’ve got other tunes rolling around in our heads. I, for one, am trying to lean into God’s song for us, and do what I can to help others hear it as well.
A few weeks ago I had someone in the community – not a Trinity member – approach me and ask about all the stuff going on around our campus. It was obvious they knew who I was, even though I didn’t know them. He asked what we were doing, and before I could respond he went on to say – and I couldn’t tell if he was trying to be funny or not – he said, It looks like you all are building a burial mound out there.
Now I am a person who doesn’t offend easily, but I have to admit, for this total stranger to come and say this to me, I was a bit perturbed. I’m also someone who possesses a tremendous knack for thinking of the perfect retort and response………hours after the moment has passed!
But on that day, by the grace of God, I was able to turn to that man and say in the moment, Well, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a little bit of a resurrection going on at Trinity these days!
It’s true. There is a beautiful song being sung here. The sound of it, filling up this space and meandering down our hallways and into our rooms and all around this campus and into our very hearts. Can you hear it?
I mentioned earlier that our church is seeking to become an “indispensable community presence.” I want to tell you how that expression came to me. Back nearly two years ago, when our associate pastor nominating committee was hard at work finding Grace, before they started interviewing people, they met with a friend of mine, Erika Funk, who serves as the Associate Pastor for Missions at First Presbyterian Uptown. They wanted her to help them know how to best convey the heart of Trinity to a mission-minded pastor.
So Erika led the group in a little hypothetical exercise. Imagine, Erika said, that one day you found out that the government was going to acquire Trinity’s property by eminent domain, in order to build a much-needed interstate that just happened to cut right through the heart of your campus. Most everything you’ve come to know about Trinity for the past 65 years – your beautiful sanctuary and buildings, your gorgeous campus and open space – would soon be no more.
Imagine then, she said, that two public hearings on two consecutive nights were scheduled, so people could air grievances and plead their case to try and have the decision reversed. But each night would have its own audience. The first night, only Trinity members were allowed to attend – only people on the rolls of the church. The second night, however, would be non-Trinity folks exclusively. Anyone in the community not a member of the church – neighborhood people, other Presbyterians, whoever – but again, no one from Trinity.
Now Erika surmised, and I would agree, that we could probably guess what the first night would look like. The place packed. Two, maybe three generations of Trinity represented, people taking off work and rearranging schedules to be there. Kids holding up poster board signs they made with markers: We Heart Trinity! And long lines leading to the microphone, where people would say things like: I was baptized in that church, and I’ve watched my kids get baptized. Our children love the youth group, I’ve sung in the choir for decades, our sanctuary is second-to-none, I’ve been a member since the early 60’s, I’m new and want to raise my family there. Impassioned pleas from impassioned members – would you agree? Of course.
The real question, Erika said, is what would happen on the second night. The second night, when no Trinity members are present. Who shows up, and what do they say? Who shows up, and what do they say? We can imagine a few: a couple Weekday School and Philips Academy parents, the lovely lady who walks her dog around our campus. There are others; members of groups that meet here; but honestly, they could meet at any church, there’s nothing special about our church when it comes to meeting place. Who would come that night to plead for the unique value and vision of this great church?
I remember Erika saying, that’s the kind of thing you need to be able to convey – not how you have beautiful buildings, which you do; or great programs, which you do; or very nice people, which you do. Those things speak for themselves. You need to be able to convey with absolute certainty and conviction why this church matters – and not just to you but to the world. Why it is so unique and special that its absence would be a terrible loss, felt by not just its membership but everyone else. Why your church is an indispensable community presence.
That is vision, my friends. That’s the song we are called to sing. A vision and song that, like God’s very breath, breathes new life into our weary world, the very life of God put within us. So that, with God’s help, we become that indispensable community presence that our neighborhood and Cotswold and the city of Charlotte and certainly each one of us simply could not do without.
And that is why I want to share with you this morning that, through the work of your pastors, your session and the Long Range Planning Task Force appointed by session back in February, our church has begun to do the hard and rewarding work of discerning what our vision will be; what tune we are called to sing to the world. It is a vision built solidly on the longstanding foundations of our church; it is a song whose melody is both comfortingly familiar and refreshingly new.
It is called the 2020 Vision, and it was approved at our June session meeting and shared with the College of Elders at our September dinner. And today, on this Christ the King Sunday, the December 31st of our liturgical year, and in great anticipation of the new year to come, I am thrilled to finally get to share with you the five key pillars of our 2020 vision. The text of which can be found in the bulletin announcements; feel free to read along with me if you’d like:
These five pillars will be the foundational melody of our collective song for the next few years, my friends. There is more to come from this – a session retreat in January where our elders will dive deep into what this means for our ministry teams. A sermon series Grace and I are preparing to preach in the near year. There is work to be done.
And make no mistake, my friends – nothing about this vision will be easy. It never is. I know budgets are tight, I know we have a lot going on. I know people are tired. We certainly have our challenges. We know we have hard decisions to make.
But if there is one thing I know, Trinity Presbyterian, it is this: our community and our city and our world need this church. Need the absolute best that Trinity has to offer. For there is discord in our discourse, there is fear of what might become, there is division and divisiveness everywhere we turn, there are people seeking the life-giving water from the well that Grace spoke of so eloquently in her sermon last week.
I am but one pastor, y’all, just one pastor; but I want you to know that this one pastor believes with all his heart that Trinity has something unique to offer this world, a song no other community of faith can sing but us. And if Ezekiel can be dropped in a dry and desolate valley and sing, with God’s breath, God’s very people back to life again, then surely God can bring God’s vision to fruition here. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a little bit of a resurrection going on at Trinity these days!
So may we become, over the next four years and beyond, that indispensable community presence God longs for us to be. Our song, singing this world back to life again!
In the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.