I speak to you in the name of one God, Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. + Amen.
586 B.C.E….586 B.C.E. This year may not mean much to you, but to biblical scholars and theologians, hearing the year 586 B.C.E. would be like us hearing the years like 1492 or 2001—years in which events happened and the world changed forever. 586 B.C.E. was the year the temple was destroyed in Jerusalem. Knowing this year is important because when reading Hebrew texts, and especially the prophets, a key question you should ask yourself is “was this written before or after 586 B.C.?” Before the fall of the temple, the Israelites were located together in one place. Key worship took place in groups at the temple in Jerusalem, and biblical texts focused on the people’s expression of faith and appropriate ways to worship God. After 586 B.C., the Babylonians controlled the land and the people of Israel were scattered and no longer together. Many were taken to Babylon and there they lived in exile. A key part of the Hebrew people’s identity was that God lived and dwelt in the temple, and in the absence of temple, separated from their land, their people, and their God, the Israelites found themselves asking “where is our God?” “why is this happening?”
The author of our Old Testament lesson this morning is Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a prophet and priest and his career lasted 20 years. It began in 593 B.C. and ended sometime around 573 B.C. This is important because Ezekiel knew what life was like before, during, AND after the fall of Jerusalem.
In previous years, he would have known what it was like to live in the land of plenty—a land flowing with milk and honey. In previous years, he would have known what it was like to not have to worry about foreign invaders and threat of danger. In previous years, he would have known the grandeur of the temple—the feeling of the presence of God as fellow believers gathered together to worship.
The story we heard from Ezekiel this morning was not written during these previous years, dare I say the good ole days. The passage this morning was written while he and many others were in exile. During this time of exile, Ezekiel was keenly aware of the suffering that existed. The sense of isolation. The daily struggle to discover a sense of normalcy in a foreign and unfamiliar land. And especially knowing that the temple no longer existed, they were left wondering if the God they called Lord had been buried in the rumble. Without their God, their land, and their community, Ezekiel saw the hopelessness of the Hebrew people, and thankfully, so did God.
In our reading this morning, we hear of Ezekiel’s vision given to him by God. It is a vision that describes a valley full of dry bones. As we heard, “these bones represent the whole house of Israel—the people who say, ‘our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ And to this statement, Ezekiel prophesies hope to a hopeless people, and preaches about a God that offers life to a people who no longer believe God exists. Finally, Ezekiel tells the exiled how this will happen—God breathes life into the very dry, very dead bones, and God promises to put God’s spirit within them and they shall live. The same Spirit, the same breath that created the heavens and the earth—the same spirit that breathed life into humanity—that the same spirit is alive, and that spirit will resurrect you.
2020. 2020. This is another one of those years where I think it is safe to say that things have happened, and the world will forever be changed.
It may sound strange to hear, but in previous years, I’ve always enjoyed Lent. In previous years, I have taken Lent very seriously, and I would often take on difficult spiritual practices and disciplines, like reading massive amounts of scripture or keeping a strict and simple diet. In doing so, I would find myself growing spiritually. In previous years, I used Lent as a time to help me become more aware of my own shortcomings—my own sinfulness—and then I would happily welcome Saturday of Holy Week where I could experience the resurrection of Jesus at the Vigil and know all was well, and that death had once again been defeated. In previous years, I have thought of the 5th week of Lent as a kind of “hump day” of the season. Once we get past today, there is only more week until Palm Sunday, then Holy Week and before you know it, “He is risen!”
But this isn’t like previous years. Instead of feeling like I’m almost over the hump—like it’s a downhill journey from here—I’m feeling displaced, disoriented, and distant. My daily routine is drastically different, and at times it feels like my world has been turned upside down—almost like normalcy is a myth. We are a scattered people, and many of us are wondering the same questions that the Israelites asked while in exile— “where is our God?” and “why is this happening?”
Much of my days are spent talking with members of this community on the phone, and in hearing their stories I realize that All Saints’ is a microcosm of what is happening in the world at large. We have members who have the coronavirus—we have members who are ill. We have members who have been furloughed and members who have lost their jobs. We have members who struggle with mental health issues under the best of circumstances, but understandably now, are feeling more lost and alone than ever. We have families with children who aren’t in school and are concerned for their future intellectual health and their current emotional health. And we have members (many of them) who are among the front line—those helping professions that can’t stay home and who are putting their lives at risk to protect those most vulnerable and in need.
We are currently in a valley. “Why is this happening?” I don’t know, but in an address she made this week, the bishop of Washington D.C., Marianne Budde shared these words, “In the church we serve, the Episcopal Church, human suffering is not interpreted as an expression of God’s anger, and nor do we believe that God causes suffering. What we do believe is that God is present with us in the suffering, right here, and God is uniquely capable of bringing good out of our struggles—even capable of bringing life out of death.” “Where is God?” Right here with us.
Knowing that God is with us in the midst of suffering and believing it are two very different things. It is so hard, especially during times like these, to believe that this is true. But it is during times like these that I am eternally grateful to be part of a community of believers—a group of people whose collective faith is strong enough to hold us, and sometimes carry us as we wait to be reminded of God’s vision and promise—that even if we can’t see it, God’s spirit it at work.
We are in a valley. Some of us are dry bones and some of us are Ezekiels. Some feel hopeless and some can envision God’s spirit at work among us—all around us. Who we identify with might change from day to day, or even hour to hour. But in the midst of the valley, whether we can wrap our heads around it or not, God’s spirit is moving, and God is already transforming death to life.
Because of the pandemic, the Annual Ravenswood Run has been postponed and possibly canceled. In previous years, donations from this race gives thousands of dollars to Ravenswood Community Services and makes up a significant portion of their operating budget. This past Tuesday, our neighbors were fed as usual, but unlike in previous times, there were many new faces—new neighbors who have recently lost their jobs and are now in need of basic assistance. The question was raised, “how will we be able to meet the growing needs of our neighbors if we don’t have the basic resources we need?” Since then, the community has responded unlike ever before—we’ve received messages from parishioners, people who live on our street, foundations who we haven’t heard from in years, all saying “how can we help? We know your neighbors are more need than ever…” Even though what has been donated isn’t enough to offset the lack of funds, the inspirational work of feeding our neighbors in this difficult time is inspiring others to do what they can. God is with us in the valley, and through God’s spirit there will be resurrection.
Where is God? Right here. All around us. Why is this happening? I do not know, but what I do know is that God’s spirit is already at work transforming death into life.
In previous years, the journey through Lent was mainly an individual, internal path of spiritual discipline. This was done in hopes of personally dying to things that separated us from the love of God and finding a new and refreshed life. This year, in 2020, things are different. Our journey is a collective one. We are all in this together. We need each other. Here is my plea: if you can, if your bones aren’t too dry and still have marrow, be a reminder of hope—be a reminder of God’s promise. With every call you make, with every dollar you donate, with every shelf that is restocked, and with every ventilator that is tended to—God’s spirit is at work. If you can, let God’s spirit flow freely. If you can, be God’s agent in this world to defeat death and bring life to all those who desperately need it. Amen.