Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sermon from May 27, 2012--"Can These Bones Live?"

Can These Bones Live?
Pentecost Sunday: May 26-27, 2012

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God, a breath from God, a spirit from God, the Hebrew word ruach, swept over the face of the waters.

Hovering with it was an unspoken question. Is this all there is? Will the earth be just a lifeless void? Does darkness have the final say? Can this earth live? This skeleton of creation, this deathly dark chaos, can there be life here?

“Can these bones live?”

And God spoke. “Let there be light! Let there be stars, and the sun, and water, plants, and animals. Let there be humankind, made in my very own image. Let there be order out of the chaos, let newness arise out of darkness, let there be life out of nothingness.”
And the wind from God, the breath from God, the Spirit from God, the Hebrew word ruach, in all its creative power, swept through creation. From one end of the cosmos to the other, from the tiniest particle to the largest planet, in the trees, the animals, the fish, the waters, the skies, through it all God breathed life and vitality. And God called it good.

Time passed. Countless years. God made promises to God’s people, promises of land, promises of descendants as numerous as the stars, but most of all, promises that through God’s people, the whole world would be blessed. Through Abraham, through Isaac, through Jacob, from one generation to the next, the promises were passed—through slavery in Egypt, through the deliverance of the Exodus, through 40 years of wandering in the desert, through the entrance to the Promised Land. And the wind from God, the breath from God, the Spirit from God, the Hebrew word ruach, blew through it all, filling the lungs of the prophets with the power and the courage to speak truth to the people, bringing comfort when needed, bringing discomfort when needed, bringing the presence and the power of God into human history.

There finally came a time about 2,600 years ago, when a mighty army came from the north, from a land called Babylon, in what is present-day Iraq. Their king, Nebuchadnezzar, was set on conquering the known world, and in 597 BC his armies overran Jerusalem. The temple was destroyed, and the people were forced into exile, where they stayed for 70 years. One of those brought into exile in Babylon was a young man named Ezekiel. He heard the pain of his people, he experienced their hopelessness, he saw their questions as they wondered how they could ever worship God without what had been the center of it all, the temple, the place in the Holy of Holies where God dwelled. Where was God now? Had they been abandoned forever?  In despair, they cried out to God, saying, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

One day, Ezekiel saw a vision from God. It was an enormous valley, filled with dried up bones, bones that had seemingly been abandoned by whatever army they had been a part of, left forever alone to bleach in the hot sun. It didn’t take much imagination for Ezekiel to know what he was seeing.  These bones were the hopes and the dreams and the prayers of his people. Each skeleton represented the death of hope itself, the growing despair that God had forever left God’s people behind, that all of God’s promises in the past were in vain, that there was no future left. The land was gone. The numerous descendants, all exiled. And the possibility that the whole world might be blessed? Not a chance.

And in the vision, God asked Ezekiel a question. “Can these bones live?” These hopes, these dreams, these prayers, these promises, do you believe they are dead, dried up, gone? And Ezekiel answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

God said to Ezekiel, “Speak.  Speak my words.  Speak words of life, of light, of promise, of a future.” And as Ezekiel did, the wind from God, the breath from God, the Spirit from God, the Hebrew word ruach, swept through the valley.  The bones came together, they were covered with muscle, and skin, and with a final word from Ezekiel, that very wind, breath, Spirit, ruach, entered the bones themselves and suddenly there was life.  There was light, there was promise, there was a future for God’s people.

True to the vision, God’s people eventually returned out of exile to the land God had given them. But they were taken over by another foreign power, this time the Roman Empire, which once more had aspirations to rule the known world. And once more, the people experienced the darkness of despair, the chaos of their hopelessness. They prayed for deliverance, for freedom from their occupying regime, but as time went by their hope began to fade.

Until one day, a man came to the Jordan River to be baptized. He was from Galilee, up north, but had been born in Bethlehem, the city of the great king David, down not far from Jerusalem. When John baptized this man, the heavens tore open and the wind from God, the breath from God, the Spirit from God, the Hebrew word ruach, came down like a dove. A voice thundered, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.” And then amazing things began to happen. This man healed this sick. He gave sight to the blind. He fed thousands, turned water into wine.  And then he began to turn everything the people thought they knew about God upside down. He invited the outcasts, the sinners, back into relationship with society. He reinterpreted the law, placing a premium on its commands of mercy and grace and justice. People began to notice. People began to follow him. People began to wonder if he really was different, if he might be the messiah, God’s anointed one, the king, the person who would deliver Israel into a new era of freedom from the hand of its oppressor.

The people cried, hosanna, which means “save us!” But not long after, they were crying, “Crucify him!” as he was betrayed and executed like a common criminal who had posed a threat to those who were in political and religious power.  And as he breathed his final breath, ruach, as he committed his spirit, ruach, into God’s hands, the heavens tore open once more, and the curtain in the temple that separated God from the people tore in two.

God asked, “Can these bones live?”

And three days later, the wind from God, the breath from God, the Spirit from God, the Hebrew word ruach, swept through the tomb.  The bones came together, they were covered with muscle, and skin, and that very wind, breath, Spirit, ruach, entered the bones themselves and suddenly there was life.  There was light, there was promise, there was a future for God’s people.  The people had been delivered from their oppressor—though that oppressor wasn’t the Roman Empire.  It was the power of death itself. It was the power of sin. Just as God had done in the original creation story, once more for God’s people God had brought order out of the chaos, newness had arisen out of darkness, and life had come out of nothingness.

But it didn’t end there. The Jewish Festival of Weeks came later, which was also known as Pentecost because it celebrated the giving of the law on Mount Sinai fifty days after the Exodus. It was a huge festival, where Jewish people from all over would descend on Jerusalem. 
The disciples had been unsure of what to do, of how to act, of how to live, now that they no longer had Jesus right there to show them. They had started out in hiding, in fear, even after being commanded to be witnesses to what Jesus had done in Jerusalem, in Samaria, and throughout the world.

God asked, “Can these bones live?”

Suddenly, the wind from God, the breath from God, the Spirit from God, the Hebrew word ruach, swept through the crowd gathered in Jerusalem that day. There were tongues of fire and the good news of God’s love for the world shown through the death and resurrection of Jesus was preached, and amazingly even though there were people there from all over the known world, they all heard what was said in their own language. And that began the movement outward, the living out of God’s gospel of grace through the cross and the resurrection.

More time passed.  2,000 years went by. And now, here we are today.  In a very real sense, we are living out our own exile. The church is no longer the center of American society as it once was. In many ways, it has been pushed to the outside, to the edges, to the margins. We see shrinking attendance across the country, and try to do ministry with shrinking budgets.
And God asks, “Can these bones live?”

Can this church live?

My friends, the wind from God, the breath from God, the Spirit from God, the Hebrew word ruach, is right here among us today, sweeping through our assembly. The Holy Spirit is here, and it calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us with its gifts, sanctifies and keeps us in the true faith; even as it calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth.  Through the work of the Holy Spirit, God has throughout history brought light out of darkness, order out of chaos, life out of death. In baptism, we receive the Holy Spirit, dying to ourselves and rising again with Christ. In Holy Communion, the Holy Spirit invites us, bringing us into an encounter with the living Christ and allowing us to participate in a foretaste of the feast to come, when all of creation celebrates together, with no more pain, no more tears, no more dividing walls that keep us separated from each other.

And the Holy Spirit calls us out. Is the church on the margins of society?  Then we are called to the margins of society, to continue Christ’s work of healing, of feeding, of bringing in the outcast and reminding the world around us of the premium God places on mercy and grace and justice. We are called to point to the cross, to proclaim the empty tomb, to be swept along in the Spirit’s whirlwind of fire and creation and life and hope for all the world.  Darkness leads to light. Despair leads to hope. Exile leads to restoration. Sin leads to forgiveness.

And death leads to resurrection. New life. Eternal life.

Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Sermon for 4-29-2012: Living Love in Truth and Action

Living Love in Truth and Action
Easter 4B: April 29, 2012

For a number of years now, I’ve been a member of an online community made up of Nebraska football fans from all around the country. There’s a part of the website where people can go to discuss stuff not related to sports—a lot of it ends up being politics or religion, but there’s also conversations about music or family matters…quite often people will post prayer requests if there’s something going on, and will be assured of having folks from all over and from all sorts of religious or non-religious backgrounds praying for them or sending them good thoughts.

There’s a guy who posts fairly regularly who goes by the name of Pops. Pops is a Vietnam veteran, a recovering heroin addict, and a biker who lives in Texas. He’s also one of the kindest souls you’ll ever know. He has devoted his life to two causes—working with heroin addicts, and helping abused kids, and the man wears his love for those causes on his sleeve like nothing else. He’s a founding member of his city’s chapter of Bikers Against Child Abuse and has told countless stories of the lives that he’s come into contact with. One of his mottoes is, “You never stand so tall as when you stoop to help a child.”

A few days ago, Pops posted a picture showing a quotation by Cory Booker, who is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey. Here’s what it said: “Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people; before you tell me how much you love your God, show me in how much you love all His children; before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I'm not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as in how you choose to live and give.”

Oh, I almost forgot to mention. Pops is also an atheist.

When I first got to know him 6 or so years ago, he was an angry atheist. He had been hurt by the church, and he had seen the church hurt others, and so not only did he not believe in God, but he would’ve been just fine if those who followed God just up and disappeared. And he wasn’t afraid to let Christians know exactly how he felt, either. Pops isn’t one to mince words.

Six years ago, Pops never would have in his wildest dreams considered posting a quotation about God and ministry and faith. But over those six years, he and I have had a number of conversations. He’s heard about the FEAST ministry. He’s heard about the Table. He’s heard about this congregation’s ministry in Tanzania, in Louisiana, in Pine Ridge.

Pops still doesn’t believe in God. But where his heart was hard, it has been softened. Where once there was animosity, there is now openness and respect. Why? Because he’s had the chance to see faith in action. He’s had the chance to know that there really are faith communities out there who serve with no ulterior motive, who love God’s children simply because they are God’s children and not because they expect anything in return or because they’re trying to live up to some sort of standard or to score brownie points with God. I like to tweak him a little bit and call him a minister, tell him that he’s doing God’s work, call what he does with addicts and with kids ministry. I do it in fun, but I also do it because it’s the truth.

Pops knows a thing or two about the kind of living out the words of the quotation he posted from Cory Booker, and I think he knows a thing or two about living out the words we hear today from the writer of 1 John.

He writes, “We know love by this, that he(Jesus) laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

Jesus laid down his life for us. Today in the church is known as Good Shepherd Sunday—we heard Jesus tell us, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” What we get in this picture of Jesus as shepherd is not this storybook picture of a freshly scrubbed Jesus surrounded by cute, fluffy sheep. Rather, it’s the picture of a person who is so committed to the care and the wellbeing of these sheep that he is willing to throw himself in the face of danger, sacrifice even his very life to save those sheep from destruction. God didn’t just stop at telling the world, “I love you.” It wasn’t just word or speech, but God became LIVING Word, embodied word, word made flesh, in the person of Jesus. In truth and in action Jesus lived, he healed, he raised the dead, he forgave, he befriended those who were on the edges or on the outside of society—people like lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes—people who were supposed to be untouchable. But he didn’t stop there—he proclaimed God’s love for us in every step toward the cross, in every hammering of the nails into his hands and his feet, in the emptying of himself to take on the powers of sin and death. And he didn’t stop at martyrdom—he rose, and because he now lives we know that we too have been given newness of life and freedom to live not for ourselves, but for others. This was true love, not just word or speech, but love that was lived in truth, spoken through action.

As those who claim to follow Christ, we are called to follow that same path of self-giving for the sake of the other. Christ was given much—he was, after all, God made flesh, but he emptied himself in loving service. And that’s what the author of 1 John is proclaiming for our lives, too. Laying down our lives for one another. Realizing that we have been given much—the NRSV translates verse 17 as asking how someone can have the world’s goods and refuse to help, but if you were to look at the actual Greek, the literal translation is not “the world’s goods” but “the life of the world.” So we’re not just talking about material goods, but anything that we have been given that can be of service to anyone in any kind of need. Have you been given the gift of education? Of listening? Of organization? Of being great with kids? Of compassion? Of being a leader? Of being good at following directions and working behind the scenes? Or of wealth? Of power? Of being put in positions of possible influence?

True love, the love that Jesus shows for us and that the author of 1 John wishes for us to show the world, is love in action. It is making the conscious decision that what I have been given is a gift that doesn’t end with me. Instead, it is a gift that flows through me, goes out beyond me, speaks the truth of the gospel loudly not through words that are spoken but through deeds that bring life and healing, that break down walls and build up those who have been broken down by the world. We don’t just say love. We don’t just proclaim love. We do love. Love is an action. Love is a verb. Love is what gets us out of our heads, gets us out of the trap of thinking that the church should only be about the business of purely spiritual matters, and stay away from the messiness of social issues. Love is when our social issues, the things we see in the world around us, BECOME spiritual issues that we are called to confront and act on. It is our witness to the world that Easter makes a difference not only after we die but also right now, that the cross and Jesus’ resurrection have transformed us into a people who live to bring life out of death, to bring light out of the dark places in the world, to follow Jesus into the pain and the brokenness around us in God’s work of transformation and reconciliation, as God works to make all things new.

Love is following the example of my friend Pops, the atheist who does ministry, who does God’s work, living love for “the least of these” in society. Love is following the example of Jesus the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life to give us new life. Love does not stop at word and speech, but is truth that is embodied in action. Through this kind of love, we most clearly speak the hope of the resurrection, the truth of God’s power, the abundant life that is the Kingdom of God for all creation.

Matt Schur
Our Saviour's Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE