Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Mighty Have Fallen -- Sermon for Pentecost 5B

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

On Friday afternoon, the President delivered the eulogy for Pastor Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine members of Emanuel AME Church who were gunned down the week before during Bible study. It is a powerful statement addressing the ills that confront our nation, including racism and violence. It is also a strong statement of the grace that redeems and heals. The President began his eulogy with these words: 
We are here today to remember a man of God who lived by faith. A man who believed in things not seen. A man who believed there were better days ahead, off in the distance. A man of service who persevered, knowing full well he would not receive all those things he was promised, because he believed his efforts would deliver a better life for those who followed.
After leading the congregation in singing “Amazing Grace,” the President intoned the names of those slain and called on the congregation and the nation to share in the grace that these nine had come to know:
Through the example of their lives, they've now passed it on to us. May we find ourselves worthy of that precious and extraordinary gift, as long as our lives endure. May grace now lead them home. May God continue to shed His grace on the United States of America.
The circumstances were different, but the message David delivered when the news came that Saul and his son Jonathan had been killed in battle, carries with it that same sense of grace found in the President’s remarks.   

Over the course of the past few weeks we’ve met Samuel the Prophet, who anointed Saul as king, even though neither God nor Samuel were thrilled with this prospect. Over time, Saul proved to be a less than reliable ruler, so God had Samuel anoint David as his replacement. In the lectionary reading we skipped due to last week’s celebration, David proved his mettle by facing down the champion of the Philistines – Goliath. While the lectionary readings don’t reveal how the relationship of Saul and David began to sour, even as David’s relationship with Saul’s son and heir, Jonathan, began to blossom, these stories lie behind the words that David shares with his community. 

When word came to David that Saul and Jonathan had died in battle, David knew that he was now the king. Although had been living in exile, waiting his turn, now he needed to rally the people of Israel. To do that he needed to reconcile himself with Saul’s supporters. This eulogy is meant to be that statement of reconciliation. David and Saul may have been rivals, but now that the mighty have fallen, the rivalry must give way to unity among the people.

Saul and Jonathan fell in battle with the Philistines. Unless the nation came together as one people they would be easy prey for the militarily stronger Philistines. If they sensed any sign of weakness, the Philistines could attack and destroy the kingdom. So, you can see why David wouldn’t want to let the Philistines gloat about their victory. This might be a time of sadness and uncertainty, but they couldn’t let the Philistines know. Israel needed to grieve the loss of these two mighty warriors, but it was politically expedient for David to draw the people’s attention to his words of praise for Saul and Jonathan. Saying it was politically expedient doesn’t mean that it wasn’t deeply felt.   

Three times in this song of lament, David declared that “the mighty have fallen.” Even if David and Saul were estranged from each other, David recognized that God had called Saul to be king, and he refused to touch God’s anointed one. As for Jonathan, he was David’s closest and dearest friend. Jonathan had been put in a difficult situation. He wanted to be loyal to his father, and David acknowledges that loyalty, but Jonathan also loved David and wanted to be loyal to him as well. Jonathan even seems to have recognized that David would be the next king, ceding his own inheritance to his friend. These two are the mighty ones, warriors who defended the nation, but even as they stood together in life, they also stood together in death. 

In our day, there is a sense that death is something to avoid. Over the years that I’ve served as a pastor, I’ve had conversations with funeral directors who have confirmed my own observations that we’re uncomfortable with our grief. Tom Long and Tom Lynch wrote a book titled The Good Funeral that makes this point. We often turn moments of grief into moments of celebration, so we don’t have to deal with the reality of our loss. This may be understandable, but maybe not helpful.

Eugene Peterson writes this of David’s song of lament: “A failure to lament is a failure to connect.” He adds that this song is part of a story, in fact David is part of Saul and Jonathan’s story. Being part of this story, Peterson suggests, “means that we mustn’t get ahead of the plot – skip the hard parts, erase the painful parts, detour the disappointments. Lament – making the most of our loss without getting bogged down in it – is a primary way of staying in the story” [Peterson, Leap Over a Wall : Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christiansp. 121].  

While we are often uncomfortable with our grief that doesn’t mean that it goes away. We may want to avoid dealing with difficult issues, because conflict, like that which divided Saul and David, upsets us. We like things to stay on an even keel, but of course life doesn’t always work out that way. In our families and in our church, we experience times of sadness and grief. We feel the need to offer words of lament, but society tells us to keep that proverbial “stiff upper lip.”

We often struggle to make sense of our grief. Part of us wants to let go and get on with life. There is a time and a place when we do need to let go and move on, but as David’s song reminds us, we must first address the cause of our grief. By doing this publicly, David reminds us that we don’t have to face our grief alone. We can face our challenges together as a community. 

I believe that David’s lament serves as an invitation to the community to embrace those moments when public sharing of grief is appropriate. When Peterson speaks of the importance of not skipping over the hard parts, I think he’s putting his finger on an important issue for us as individuals and as a church when it comes to death. 

When someone close to us dies, we will grieve. We need to grieve. It’s only natural.  Sometimes there is a desire to skip over the painful parts, but we can’t. Now in this song David doesn’t focus on the things that divided him from Saul. He simply remembered Saul and Jonathan as Israel’s mighty ones. He mourns for Saul, but he feels distress at Jonathan’s death. Saul’s death had made it possible for him to gain the throne, but Jonathan’s death struck at his soul. So, whatever joy he felt at that moment was overwhelmed by his grief at the loss of someone so close to him.

   We live in an age that seeks to avoid death. We work hard to prolong life, even when there is no real hope of recovery. We have the machines that can keep the body functioning, even if the brain is dead. But when the spirit is gone, all that remains is flesh. What is resurrected is not the flesh, but the spirit. Dealing with grief isn’t easy. It doesn’t go away over night. While a funeral service won’t resolve every issue, it does allow the community to come together and share in the grace of God that sustains us during the difficult moments ahead. So, when the mighty have fallen, we cry out to God, “take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.” 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost 5B

June 28, 2015

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Divine Criteria -- Sermon for Pentecost 3B

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

Do you know what it feels like to be the last person chosen for the team? Neither team captain really wants you, but you have to go somewhere. While it’s not fun being in that position, maybe you’ll surprise your doubters! 

Let’s consider, for example, the annual NFL draft.  Each year teams covet certain players because they’re sure they’re going to make a difference. Sometimes it works out; sometimes it doesn’t. I think most of us will agree that Matthew Stafford has worked out pretty well for the Lions, but Cleveland can’t say the same for last year’s first round choice of Johnny “Football” Manziel, who might already be on his way out of the league.  There are always first round picks who end up as flops, while players picked in the later rounds, or even as undrafted free agents, can go on to be stars. I know that the Michigan fans in the room will remember a guy named Tom Brady. He went to the New England Patriots in the sixth round of the 2000 draft. Six quarterbacks, none of whom did much of anything in the NFL, were drafted ahead of him. For some reason teams didn’t think that Tom Brady had much potential for greatness.  Who knew?

Last Sunday we met up with King Saul, who looked like a king. Unfortunately there was something missing on the inside. Several chapters later, with things in Israel going from bad to worse, both Samuel and God find themselves regretting the choice. Saul might have been a mistake, but surely God can fix things.

God did hatch a plan. Why not send Samuel on one last big assignment to find a suitable candidate in the town of Bethlehem?  Samuel wasn’t too sure about this new assignment, since if Saul found out he could end up dead. Not to worry. God has just the thing – a little ruse to fool Saul. God told Samuel to take a heifer with him and then invite Jesse of Bethlehem to join him in offering a sacrifice. Then, after that Samuel could identify and anoint the new king from among Jesse’s sons. 

After Samuel and Jesse offer the sacrifice, Samuel asks Jesse to bring his sons before him. I’m not sure whether Jesse had figured out what Samuel was up to, but he did as he was told. He lined up his sons so that Samuel could review them. Since this was a patriarchal culture, which assumed that power and privilege always goes to the oldest son, Jesse first presented his oldest son – Eliab – to the prophet. Samuel expected that this would be the one, after all, Eliab looked the part, but God said no.  Before you know it, Samuel has reviewed seven sons, and none of them meets with God’s approval. There’s nothing wrong with them.  They’re just not the right fit for the job.

Despite the cultural expectations, God isn’t impressed with this group of young men and God doesn’t seem to be bound by the assumption that the first born son gets the spoils. With a few modifications, including a change in British law that allows the first born child rather than the first born son to become heir to the throne, the British crown still goes to the oldest child of the current monarch. So, someday the throne of England should pass from Elizabeth to Charles, and then from Charles to William, and from William to George. If something happens to George, then Charlotte is next in line. Poor Harry, every time Will and Kate have a child he gets knocked down another peg. But, according to British law, this is the proper order of things.

While patriarchy still ruled, some traditions weren’t so sacred that Yahweh couldn’t change the rules. Of course, it’s good to remember that monarchy wasn’t God’s idea in the first place. So, if God wants to mess with it, who is going to object? 

But why did God pass over Eliab and the other six sons of Jesse? When Samuel raised the question, God replied:  “Have no regard for his appearance or stature, because I haven’t selected him. God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the Lord sees into the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7 CEB). God isn’t going make the same mistake twice. This time it’s heart over appearance.

What is interesting about the biblical story is that God often goes against the grain. Remember how God honored Abel’s offering over Cain’s, even though Cain was the oldest. God chose Jacob rather than Esau, even though Esau was the older brother. God does strange things. Part of this story has to do with the very choice of Israel. Israel was never a major power. It was always caught in between the intrigues of the larger empires – Egypt on one side and the Assyrians and then the Babylonians on the other. God could have chosen the mighty and the powerful, but that’s not the way God works. 

In fact, that seems to be Luke’s point in placing Jesus’ birth in a stable. The one whom God sent into the world to redeem it, isn’t born in a palace, but is instead born out among the animals. So it shouldn’t surprise us if God continues to change the rules set in place by our culture.   

Back to the story at hand, Samuel is clearly frustrated. Jesse had presented his sons, and none of them fit the bill. So finally, he asks Jesse if there’s anyone else. A bit embarrassed perhaps, Jesse confesses that there’s another son, but he’s out tending the sheep. Someone had to do it, and usually that means the youngest child, who is, after all, expendable. 

When I was reading this, I thought about what happens during the President’s State of the Union Address. All of the President’s cabinet members are in attendance — everyone except one cabinet secretary, who stays behind just in case somebody takes out the government. Now usually the person who stays behind heads up one of the “lesser departments.” You know the one whom no one would miss at the party! That’s David in this story, and yet he is the one whom God chooses to anoint in place of Saul. 

Now there is a bit of hitch in this story. Did you notice how the narrator describes David’s appearance? The translators of the New Living Translation put it this way: He’s “dark and handsome, with beautiful eyes” (1 Sam. 16:12 NLT). Aren’t we back where we started, with a focus on the externals? David might be the youngest, but he still looks like a king – and as we learned last week: “It’s good to be the king,” unless of course you’re Saul!  But could that be the point, no matter what you look like on the outside, what counts is what is on the inside?   

Now, it’s good to remember that David isn’t without his faults. He’s as human as Saul, but something is different about him. That difference is David’s loyalty to Yahweh. Unlike Saul and unlike most of his successors, David tries not to do what is right in his own eyes. So, when Samuel anoints him as the next king, the “spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Sam. 16:13).  In other words, Yahweh was with him and would stay with him, through thick and thin.

There’s a connection between this passage and the parable Jesus tells in Mark 4 about the sower who scatters seed on the ground, but finds it a mystery why these little seeds become grains of wheat. The sower can only see what’s happening on the surface, but not what’s going on below. It’s easy to rely on externals to make decisions, but that might not be the best way. Apparently, that’s not the way God works either.

Maybe you were the last player chosen, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not a person of value or that you don’t have gifts to share. Everyone here has value. As Paul told the Corinthians, every part of the body is important. Every gift is important. David had the qualities that God was looking for in a king. He wasn’t perfect – as we’ll see as the journey continues – but he had a heart for God. As a result, when Samuel anointed him, the Spirit came upon him with power.

May we learn to follow the lead of God and look not on the surface, but seek to discern what lies behind and beneath the surface, so that the realm of God might make itself known in our midst.  
Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost 3B
June 14, 2015

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Christ and Culture -- Sermon for Pentecost 2B

1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20

The Elders of Israel went to Samuel the prophet and judge, and told him it was time for a change in leadership. Yes, it was time to retire, and since his sons weren’t up to the job of leading them, they wanted a king, so they could be like all the other nations.  Apparently Samuel wasn’t thrilled with their request and so he complained to Yahweh. Yahweh told Samuel that the Elders weren’t rejecting Samuel’s leadership; they were rejecting Yahweh’s kingship.  While Samuel might have hoped for more backing from God, Yahweh told him to give the people what they wanted.  But, Yahweh told Samuel to warn the people about the downside of having a king.

    If they had a king, the king would want to control their lives. A king would draft their sons to serve in the military, take their crops and flocks, and essentially make them slaves.  Yes, as Louis XVI put it in Mel Brooks’s History of the World, Part 1: “It’s good to be the king!”  

Sunday, May 31, 2015

We Are Children of God -- Sermon for Trinity Sunday, Year B

Romans 8:12-17

I’m not a fan of reality TV, so I don’t ordinarily keep up with the Duggars or the Kardashians. Of course, they’re hard to ignore when they break into the regular news cycles.  While none of us are participants in reality TV, many of us share snippets of family life with the broader public on social media. Sometimes we might even share too much information about our family life with the public! But, whether or not we share the contents of family life with the world by way of Facebook or Instagram, isn’t family life fun? 

It’s good to remember that families come in all shapes and sizes, so that in some way we’re all part of a family of some kind! 

Some people dream of being part of the perfect family. It’s probably not the kind of family we see portrayed on reality TV, but it could be the Cleavers or the Huxtables.  I realize I’m dating myself by mentioning these two TV families of yesteryear, but they do live on in reruns. In many ways Cliff and Ward aren’t that different. They’re the wise fathers who know what’s best for their not always perfect, but generally happy children. As for June and Clair, while they might be very different kinds of women, they provide family stability. For many people these two families projected an almost perfect picture of family life, which many of us dreamed about growing up.  

Of course even on TV there were families that didn’t fit the “normative” nuclear family model. Think about Andy Taylor and his son Opie. In that family, Opie doesn’t have a mother but Aunt Bea comes in and takes care of things. On My Three Sons. Steve Douglas didn’t have a wife either, at least for the first several seasons, but he did have Uncle Charlie to help him raise his three sons, one of whom – Ernie –  appears to have been adopted. I’m not sure whether you would call the Simpsons a perfect traditional family, but there’s a lot of love in that picture.  There are actually lots of different kinds of families on TV.  

Whether our real life families are perfect or not, and many are far from perfect, they help form our identity – for good or for bad. I am who I am, in part because of my own family background. That includes both my relationship with my father, which was never close, and with my mother, with whom I remain very close. How I related to my father has influenced how I relate to Cheryl and to Brett.  Yes, we are products of our families. Maybe that’s why so many people are interested in tracing their genealogies. We want to know where we come from. 

While some TV families seem nearly perfect, there aren’t many such families in the biblical story. Most biblical families have as much dysfunction to them as does ours, and maybe even a lot more. Just think about the children of Adam and Eve, or Isaac and Rebecca. Life in Jacob’s house wasn’t perfect either, but maybe having four wives didn’t help the situation.  Even Jesus seems to have had some problems with his family. Remember when his mother and siblings came to get him because they thought he was crazy? (Mark 3:31-35).

When we think about family, is the church family? After all, Jesus said of his followers: “here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34-35). If we’re part of Jesus’ family then does this family help form our identities? 

What does Paul mean when he says:  “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” Now, it’s clear that we’re not God’s biological children. We don’t have any divine DNA within us. Paul does say, however, that we are God’s children by adoption, and according to Roman law, being adopted was as good as being the biological child of a family. Therefore, we get to call God Abba! Father!  This Aramaic word Abba is probably best translated as “Daddy.” It’s the most personal and intimate form of address a child can use for a father.  

Not being adopted, I don’t have a full understanding of what it means to be adopted. I know that some adopted children struggle with their sense of identity. They want to know where they come from and maybe even why their birth mothers gave them up. That’s understandable, but at the same time most parents love their adopted children as if they were their biological children. Steve Douglas didn’t treat Ernie any differently than he did Chip or Rob. 

In Roman society it was important that families produced an heir. If you didn’t have a child of your own to inherit your property then you would adopt a child, even if this child was an adult. According to Roman law an adopted child had all the legal rights accorded to biological children. So, when the Emperor Augustus needed an heir, and his own descendants were either dead or disinherited, he adopted Tiberius as his son and heir even though Tiberius was already 46. When Augustus died, Tiberius succeeded him.  

Paul drew on this Roman legal system when he penned this part of his letter to the Romans. He wanted them to know what it meant to live by the Spirit and not by the flesh. Living in the Spirit is life-giving, but it is also identity forming. To be a child of God meant, according to Paul, that you would be one of God’s heirs. Since God already had a child – Jesus the Christ – our adoption means we’re brothers and sisters of Jesus, and we’re also joint heirs with Jesus of God’s bounty. Therefore, as joint heirs with Christ, even though we are adopted into the family, we too can call God Abba, Father. So, if you’ve ever thought about what it would be like to be part of a royal family, this would seem to be even better!

There is a reason why this passage appears as part of today’s Trinity Sunday lectionary readings. Even though it doesn’t offer an explicit Trinitarian formula, all the elements of that formula are present. Here we encounter God the Father, God’s son the Christ, and the Spirit. Through the actions of God, who is made known to us in Christ and witnessed to by the Spirit, we are welcomed into God’s family through the act of adoption.  

Now, there are two things to know about when it comes to being joint heirs with Jesus. First, since he suffered, so will we.  Since he was glorified, we get to share in that glory.  I think Paul wants us to understand that being a child of God doesn’t exempt us from suffering. We don’t get to hang out in the palace surrounded by servants. Where Jesus goes, we go. When Jesus suffers, we suffer. But, when Jesus is glorified, we share in that glory.

Being adopted as God’s child and heir changes our status in life. Paul writes that because we have the spirit of adoption we’re no longer bound by the spirit of slavery. That means we no longer need to live in fear. This is good news because we live at a time when fear is rampant. Our society seems to be enslaved by fear, and politicians, creators of consumer goods, and even religious groups use this fear to enslave us.  The good news is that we’re not subject to that fear. We’re God’s children, and so we don’t live in fear.  Yes, it’s good to be prudent, but not fearful.

I think many of us like to watch Leave it to Beaver and the Andy Griffith Show, because they seem to hearken back to a simpler time. Wouldn’t be nice to go back to the way things were in the 1950s and early 1960s? Of course, reality isn’t quite so simple. Father didn’t always know best and society was often less than just. That vision is tempting, but it’s life-giving.

The good news is that we can live life with boldness because we’re children of God, and children of God don’t live in fear. Yes, there might be suffering along the way, but suffering doesn’t have the final word.  When we think of the Christian story, we shouldn’t stop with the cross. We need to move on to the Resurrection. As for this family thing – no matter what our family background is, we are God’s children and therefore, we’re joint heirs with Jesus of God’s grace and love. This promise is what forms our lives so we can embrace life in all its fullness.  

So, don’t live in fear. Live in hope because you are a child of God who can cry out Abba! Father!  

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Trinity Sunday
May 31, 2015

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Living Bones -- Sermon for Pentecost Sunday B

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Do you need a vacation?  Is life pressing in on you? Do your bones feel dry and lifeless? It’s a holiday weekend, the sun is out, summer is near at hand, shouldn’t we all be sitting by a lake enjoying a bit of sunshine and relaxation instead of sitting here listening to the preacher talk about dry bones? Don’t answer that last question!!

There’s a song from my childhood that goes like this:  
“When you're weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all; I'm on your side.”
The words of this song echo those of Jesus: 
28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30).
 So, when you’re struggling with a heavy load and tears are in your eyes, do you hear Jesus calling out? “I’m on your side.” 

This is a holiday weekend when we are invited to remember those who have died in service to their country. It’s also Pentecost Sunday and we’ve come to celebrate the coming of the Spirit upon the church, empowering it to share the good news of Jesus with the world. 

When the Spirit came upon Jesus’ followers that Pentecost Sunday, they were a bit weary and unsure of their future. They were like dry bones scattered across a valley.  Yes, they stood in need of the breath of God’s Spirit so that their souls and their bodies might be revived.

God called on the prophet Ezekiel to speak a word of hope to the people of Israel who had lived as strangers in a strange land for decades. Many of these exiles had given up hope of ever returning home. The children and grand children of those who were sent into exile had never set foot in the land of their ancestors. This was the only land they knew and many had begun to settle in for the long haul. Besides, even if they did return, things would never be the same as they were before the end of the monarchy and the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. Yes, Israel was little more than a collection of dry bones scattered across the valley floor. God set Ezekiel down in the middle of this valley, and then asked Ezekiel:  “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel answered as we might answer: “O Lord God, you know.” Ezekiel can’t fathom how this might take place, so only God could know for sure.    

Maybe you you’ve heard that American churches are in decline. Many think that the best days of the church in America are in the past.  The only group that appears to be  growing is the one known as the “Nones” or the “Non-affiliated,” who don’t belong to anything. This cohort, which is strongest among the young, likely believes in God. They might even think that “Jesus is just all right with me.”  They just don’t think that the church is relevant to their lives. These statistics can be a bit disheartening. You might feel like the things you’ve invested your life in no longer matter.  You wonder about the future and what it holds for you and those who will come after you.

I think Ezekiel understands our concerns. He understands that we carry a heavy burden, feeling like the world around us is spinning out of control. It’s changing so fast that we can’t seem to keep up. What worked yesterday, doesn’t work today. When this happens we’re tempted to give up, hunker down, and just try to survive a little longer. That is probably how the Jewish exiles felt, living so far from the land they called home.  Once they were a people to contend with and players on the world scene. Now all that was gone. At best they would return home as vassals of a foreign state to a land that was devastated and had no hope of future glory.  Surely God had abandoned them. This is the people about whom the Lord inquired of Ezekiel: “Can these dry bones live?”  

So, God said to Ezekiel: “prophesy to these bones,” and say to them: “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live.”  Ezekiel did as God commanded. He prophesied to the bones, telling them that God would breathe life back into them. Then in a scene best pictured through Disney animation, with a full orchestral score reminiscent of Fantasia, we begin hearing the rattling of bones. Then we watch as bones begin to connect to bones – the knee bone connected to the shin bone and on it goes. But this isn’t just about putting skeletons back together. Soon sinew and flesh and skin are added to the bones. These dry bones had become bodies, but they still lacked one thing. There’s no breath in these bodies. And so God told Ezekiel – prophesy and command the winds to come and fill the bodies so that they might live. And the great winds came out of the four corners of the earth, and breath came to these bodies so that they would live once more.  Yes, life returned to Israel, and with it hope for a new day. God wasn’t finished with this people, so God said to this people who were filled with the Spirit of God: “I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken to you.”

Getting back to Pentecost, that group gathered in the Upper Room was a bit like dry bones scattered across the valley floor. They too were feeling uncertain about the future. Yes, they’d received a promise that the Spirit would come and empower them to share the good news beginning in Jerusalem and going on to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), but they weren’t really sure what all this meant for them. Just then, like a mighty wind the Spirit filled the house and the people gathered there, empowering them to share the good news of Jesus and his kingdom with the world gathered around them (Acts 2:1-13). 

We may feel like we’re living in exile, our bones dry and our spirits weary. We’re not sure about the future. It’s unlikely we’ll return to the glory years. Our influence on the community might not be quite as large as before. But still there’s this question posed to Ezekiel, to Peter, and to us: “Can these bones live?” 

Although Israel never again counted itself among the great powers of the earth, they did discover that God was present with them. They learned to depend on God and they gathered together scriptures that spoke to this relationship. They also grew less dependent on Temples and monarchs, and more dependent on God. Jesus emerged out of just such a context centuries after the end of the exile. Israel answered the question of “can these bones live” by living in partnership with God. On the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit fell on the church like a mighty wind, it took up its calling to be God’s people in the world, witnessing to God’s love present in Jesus. The dry bones became a living church.

From the day of Pentecost on until today, when the church is living in the Spirit of Pentecost, it bears witness to God’s power and God’s love for the world. Beginning in Jerusalem that day, the church moved out into the world until it reached the ends of the earth. There was quite a harvest of people that first Pentecost Sunday – about three thousand in all were baptized, according to Luke. But that was only the beginning. A man named Philip took up a ministry of preaching in Samaria and baptized a group of them, welcoming them into the church. Then God picked him up and dropped him out in the middle of nowhere, so that he could preach to an Ethiopian Eunuch, baptizing him in the name of Jesus (Acts 8:4-40). Even Peter got into the act, going to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile and a soldier, to preach. He did this after receiving a vision from God that opened the door to sharing the Gospel with those living outside the spiritual boundaries of Israel. When he did this, the Spirit came upon them as it had come on the Day of Pentecost, so what else could Peter do but baptize them and welcome them into the family, which was also becoming increasingly diverse (Acts 10). As Bruce Epperly put it in our online conversation Tuesday evening, it was like they were making it up as they were going along.  

The message of Ezekiel and of Pentecost would seem to be this: The Spirit can bring dry bones to life. Even when it seems as if there’s no more hope available, the Spirit can breathe life into our bones, inspiring us and empowering us to continue the journey across the “Bridge over Troubled Waters,” and on into a new land of opportunity and hope. May this be true for us as well.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost Sunday, Year B
May 24, 2015