Standing Still

I Kings 19:9-18                             Standing Still                               August 10, 2014

Tradition holds that the cleft, or the cave where Elijah stands and experiences the wind and the earthquake and the fire…tradition holds that it’s the same spot where Moses stood in Exodus 33, to witness the passing by of God Himself. This is where God covers Moses’ eyes with his hand until He is passed, so that Moses could only see his back side, since nobody can see the face of God and live.

Isn’t that interesting?

But the story we’re looking at isn’t about Moses- it’s about Elijah.

What do we know about Elijah?

Elijah, the Tishbite, who was of the settlers of Gilead…this is the description we’re given…and if we did some homework and brushed up on our Hebrew, we might learn that his very name means “Yahweh is my God”, that he was likely from a town in northern Galilee, the town of Tishbe, which comes from the root of a word that means “captivity”.

And if we brushed up a little more on our Hebrew, we might also learn that the word for settlers is a word that can also be translated as ‘sojourner’, you know…one who makes their home for a time in a place that they understand isn’t truly their home.

Elijah, “Yahweh is my God”, the Tishbite, the captive one, who was one of the settlers, or sojourners, that is, one who chose to journey for a time in his temporary home of Gilead…Gilead, the rocky, mountainous, sparsely settled region East of the Jordan River.

We don’t know a whole lot about Elijah.

He first shows up on the pages of scripture straight up confronting King Ahab, who did more evil than all his predecessors.

He made his home in the rugged country, for a time being fed by the ravens.

This is a guy who doesn’t seem to fear much…he shows up confronting the king, he takes on something like 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah, he calls down fire from heaven, he outruns a horse and chariot in a dead sprint, he’s fed by ravens one time and by an everlasting jar of oil another time…he actually raises a kid from the dead…

And yet here it seems like he’s just flat out running scared because of one person’s threat.

It’s never made sense to me.

His reaction to a threat made by Jezebel–it seems like she’s gotten to him in a way that’s uncharacteristic for this fearless, mountain-dwelling prophet of God.

But then I read this story after coming through a year of talking about homosexuality…specifically after a couple months of trying to have the conversation right here in this church, and within our conference….

And I think I understand his reaction a little more clearly now!

See, people get to you more easily when you’re at the end of your rope.

We’ve been really busy lately. We’ve been working pretty hard…even though sometimes it doesn’t feel like a whole lot is getting done.

But we’ve been so busy with church-work, so busy facilitating conversations, talking, listening, writing, responding, thinking, reacting…we’ve been so busy trying to be about God’s business (or at least the things we feel are God’s business), that we haven’t really let ourselves stop.

You know?

Read the few chapters before this story, and I wonder if Elijah was at that place, too.

You can get so busy–with good things, and also with heavy, burdensome things–you can just get so busy that you get to the end of your rope, and one woman’s threat can send you into a tailspin of despair.

The world is filled with noise, as it always has been.

And the temptation is to look for God within the wind and the earthquakes and the fire. It’s easy to think there must be something else to do. Or hear. Or Say.

After all, this wind, this fire, this earthquake…it has to mean something. There has to be more for us to do. The thinking goes that We have to help God be God, otherwise we’re not being faithful.

That’s how I feel when I helplessly gaze upon images from Gaza, images from Iraq, images from Afghanistan. It’s how I feel when tragedy strikes in the form of Hurricanes like Katrina, Rita, and Sandy or Earthquakes like the one that hit Haiti.

On a deeper level it’s how I feel when I consider the shifting landscape of the church and the world as we navigate the sexual revolution of our time; wind and earthquakes and fire. Indeed.

In the past I’ve always read this story as teaching that God is in the silence rather than these other things. That may be…but this week I started to see that God isn’t necessarily in the silence any more or any less than He is in the noise.

It’s rather that the silence creates the space in which we can hear God speak.

When Elijah, hears the silence, he covers his face. Perhaps he had Moses in his mind, the way God ensured his safety by covering his eyes…He prepares himself, in the silence, to hear the voice of God.

We are loud people in a louder world. We are filled with all manner of noise. We are a fearful people who run as if our lives depended on it, and work like there’s no tomorrow, trying to help God be God.

We live in such a manner that silence–true silence–is rare, unsettling, and somewhat uncomfortable.

Then we wonder why we often don’t hear the whisper of God, or why we don’t often feel the gentle nudge of the Holy Spirit.

In Matthew 11, Jesus offers an invitation, saying “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

I don’t know about you…but I’m weary and burdened…and the rest that Jesus offers, the easy yoke and the light burden…that sounds pretty good.  

I didn’t come up with this idea until pretty late in the game this week, but I’d like to offer a chance to you this morning to leave your burdens at the cross.  

Elijah was running in fear until finding the silence where God could speak.

And each of us is on the run, too. I’m convinced of that much.

My invitation this morning is to stop running, lay down your burden, and let God do the heavy lifting in your life. He doesn’t need our help in being God.

So I’d like to invite you to come to the cross this morning. (have ushers pass out rocks).

The ushers are going to pass around baskets of rocks this morning.

I invite you to take a few minutes in silence (it will be uncomfortable, and that’s ok)…use the time to think about the burden you carry, the Jezebel you’re running away from…and in your time, come up front, up to the cross.

These rocks can symbolize whatever you need them to symbolize…take one and place it at the foot of the cross as a symbol of giving your burden to Jesus, who’s burden is easy and whose yoke is light.

The God of Jacob is our God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who lived and who died and who conquered death by rising again…and he bids you come, offer your burdens to God

Come

What did they hear?

Matthew 14:13-21                                                                August 3, 2014

This is a story that most of us know pretty well…at least I know this isn’t the first time I’ve preached on it.

And like all good stories, every time I read it, I come away with something different, if I let myself.

It begins with Jesus withdrawing, in a boat, to a deserted place, by himself.

It’s an image I can relate to. It’s an image maybe most of us can relate to.

There’s nothing I would like better, especially on a Sunday afternoon, than to withdraw, in a boat, to a deserted place, by myself.

And I have a feeling I’m not the only one!

I have to believe that each of us, sometimes each of us reach a point where, like Jesus in the story we’re looking at today, you just want to withdraw, in a boat, to a deserted place, by yourself.

This desire to get away sometimes, to retreat, it’s just part of our human nature, isn’t it?

Even the most extroverted person in the world…I have to think even they, at some point in their life, they get enough of ‘people’, and just need some space.

Would you agree?

Jesus himself made a habit of carving out time away from the crowds, places where he could be alone.

We all need space. We all need time.

We all come to the end of our ropes and find that the hem on our life is beginning to fray.

We all risk coming apart if and when we don’t find some solitude sometimes, to pull ourselves back together in the presence of God the master quilter who stitches together the patchwork rags of our experiences, forming a thing of useful beauty.

It’s easy to read this story in that manner.

It’s easy to find, within this story, a Jesus seeking some solitude, a Jesus whom the crowds chase down because of his magnetism and his charisma, a Jesus who’s unwilling to let their needs go unmet, who gives in and heals their sick in spite of his own need for solitude.

It’s easy to find the Jesus we need in this story…the Jesus who runs on fumes, giving beyond his limit and then requiring his disciples to do the same as they are given an impossible task; feeding the multitude with five loaves and two fish.

Indeed, I find this Jesus and his scandalous concern for these crowds to constantly stand in judgment on my own ministry…my own life and my need for solitude…my need to turn church “off” sometimes.

It’s easy to compare myself to Jesus in this story and feel quite inferior.

But the truth of the matter is, I think I’ve misunderstood this story for quite some time.

(and I don’t think the NIV translation that I grew up reading has helped me).

See, the story doesn’t start with Jesus getting into the boat to get away.

It starts by telling us that Jesus had heard that something had happened.

And if we were reading the book of Matthew as one long narrative, from beginning to end, we would know that what he had heard was pretty disturbing.

What he had heard was that John the baptist, his friend, his coworker, the prophet who prepared the way for him…had been killed. His head had been severed, and presented to the daughter of Herod’s mistress on a silver platter.

It’s sickening, shocking news to hear.

So it’s no wonder Jesus felt the need to get away: who wouldn’t?

But that wasn’t all of it.

Because Herod had heard reports about Jesus…and started to think that Jesus was actually John, come back from the dead.

Herod wasn’t a kind man.

He wasn’t generous.

He was a mean old codger, a ruthless tyrant who would stop at nothing to protect his power.

So not only did Jesus have to digest this news that his friend had met an awful end…he also had to come to terms with the fact that Herod had heard of him…and Herod was at least a little bit afraid of him.

It was not a good thing for Herod to fear you.

It meant you would be dealt with.

Can you see how this puts Jesus “withdrawing” in a little different light?

“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”

This isn’t a simple retreat to recharge his batteries.

This is more like a grieving, a taking stock…it’s more like seeking some calm before a storm that you know is just around the corner.

And it’s at this point that I think the NIV makes a choice that isn’t the most helpful. I don’t have anything against the NIV…one of my favorite Bibles is an NIV…but the translators of the NIV made a choice here that I don’t think is the most helpful.

The NIV says “Hearing of this, (that is, Jesus leaving), the crowds followed him on foot from the towns.” It’s like they can’t get enough of him and chase him down so he could continue healing their sick and ministering to them. It’s like they can’t let him rest…they can’t get enough of this miracle worker.

But the Greek doesn’t make it that clear.

What the crowds hear is a little more ambiguous in the Greek…so the NRSV and even the old  King James leave a little more of the ambiguity.

They say “But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot”.

Which means they might have simply heard that Jesus was heading out by himself and wanted to chase him down because they couldn’t get enough…but it also means they might have heard the same news that Jesus heard…that John had met a grisly end, and that Herod was gunning for Jesus next.

I can almost hear you asking what difference this could possibly make in the grand scheme of things…(go ahead, ask)!

See, if the crowds simply wanted more of what Jesus had to offer…then they become something like parasites, draining Jesus to the last drop and being rewarded for it by enjoying a miraculous amount of food from an impossibly scarce source.

And if that’s the case, the often unspoken assumption we take with us, is that Jesus is there to give us what we want, when we want it, and that there are no limits to the goods we can expect to receive from his hand, or from the hands of his followers.

But…if they heard the same thing Jesus heard, that is, that John had been brutally murdered and that their beloved Jesus was most likely next on Herod’s hit-list, then I would suggest the take-away is something drastically different.

Because then their following him turns into an act of solidarity and support.

Their wilderness rendezvous becomes an act of truly caring about this man who means so much to them, this miracle worker they think might be the Christ, the militant Messiah they’re expecting: the one who will usher in an age of prosperity and peace and overthrow the yoke of Roman oppression.

See; a Messiah needs an army. This was the thinking.

So, these people coming out to him, in his hour of need, out in this deserted place…it sends a clear signal to Jesus that he’s got an army at the ready; 5,000 men strong, able, and willing to follow him into battle (maybe that’s why the women and children aren’t included in the count).

5,000 men is a force to be reckoned with. They weren’t there because they wanted to hear more of his teaching, though I’m sure they wouldn’t have minded that. They weren’t there expecting to be healed…though again, I’m sure they didn’t mind that, either.

They weren’t there because they thought they’d gain a free meal…though the fact that this story has survived 2,000 years of telling shows that they appreciated that very much.

All those things are part of the nature of Jesus…but I have a feeling these are not the things that drew this particular crowd.

I think they were looking for a fight.

They were looking to Jesus to lead them, finally, into the battle they were looking for, the epic Messianic battle that would set the world right, that would finally usher in the golden age, the battle that would establish, for good, the Kingdom of God in all its splendor.

They were looking to Jesus to help them in their struggle against Rome.

And it seems clear in Matthew, that the crowds constantly misunderstand Jesus, and that the disciples themselves often misunderstand their rabbi.

But he’s a gracious, patient teacher who lets them keep following him anyway, right?

So it seems like everybody keeps missing the point…and it could be that even his disciples were under the impression that at some point, Jesus was going to utilize his fame and his following to enact a violent overthrow of the existing order.

So it makes sense, when it gets late and the crowds are getting hungry and restless, that the disciples urge him to send them away so they can get some food for themselves.

Enacting a rebellion is going to be hard work. They’re going to need their energy.

But when Jesus responds, he basically tells them, through his actions, that the Kingdom of God is not yet to come…the Kingdom of God is already here!

It’s known not by the winning of battles or the vanquishing of enemies…but rather in the in the breaking of bread and the healing of the sick.

The kingdom of God turns scarcity–five loaves and two fish–into an abundance with twelve baskets left over; twelve tribes overflowing with the goodness that only God can provide and Jesus, the Christ, enacting the role of the Jewish head of this new family; breaking the bread and giving thanks for the abundant provision of God even in the midst of our perceived lack.

There are a couple of questions I’d like to leave you with today.

One is, what kind of Messiah are you looking for when you look to Christ?

The kind that keeps on giving you what you want, when you want it?

Or the kind you’re willing to lay down your life for?

 

The other question I have is whether we have enough trust, today, to give our Lord even the most meager resources at our disposal, trusting him to abundantly bless all who seek to follow him and to know his will above our own.

All were fed with 12 baskets left over.

That doesn’t happen by the disciples only giving Jesus the leftovers.

It’s our job to give it all, and then trust God to do what God does best…turn scarcity into abundance, enacting the Kingdom in spite of our best efforts to control the outcome.

 

I’d like to close this morning with a simple blessing and a challenge.

Beloved Children of God, the day is passing, and it is growing late. The crowds around us are restless and heavy with bad news. They hunger for hope.

May you hear, as the disciples did so many years ago, the voice of Jesus, continuing to defy your highest expectations, calling to you “You, give them something to eat.”

Amen

Can We Talk about Human Sexuality

Sermon

July 20, 2014

Matthew 14:22-33

Written and Preached by Patrick and Christine Nafziger

(Christine)

Sit back and get comfortable, because we have a lot to say this morning! 🙂

 

We have a hard task…not just this morning. We’ve been given a hard task over the past several months as we’ve broached the topic of homosexuality within this congregation.

We feel the exhaustion from it. We are drained. We are spent emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

 

We hope that you are willing and able to let down your defenses this morning and be open to what the Holy Spirit wants to say to you through our sermon. We have sought the Spirit’s guidance in our preparation, and we seek to be faithful to pastoring you in the way God is leading us. But we are not perfect. And so we ask for you to extend God’s grace to us.  

 

We’re going to start by following the format we used on Wednesday evening, sharing some of our experiences, stories, and thoughts about homosexuality.

 

One experience I remember from my early 20’s took place at a Christian ranch I was volunteering at in CO. There was a game of football going on, and all I remember is that the man who was one of our leaders made some joke about homosexuals. I remember that it bothered me. I have always had (for lack of a better term) a “traditional” understanding of homosexual behavior (believing what the church has traditionally believed), but I felt that this person’s comment was not Christ-like and it was a bad example for those of us who were part of the staff there.

 

When I was in seminary, there were many conversations about homosexuality between Christians who believed differently from one another. I was part of a human sexuality class where we discussed this as well. One of the professors for that class was Mark Thiessen Nation, whose commitment to the scriptures and to God have led me to deeply respect him.  Mark believes that the most faithful interpretation of scripture does not support homosexual behavior as part of Christian discipleship. But for Mark, that was not the end of the conversation. He would express the struggle he knew that his homosexual friends lived with, and the need for us as Christians to offer an alternative for fulfilling relationships to those Christians who are homosexual. He acknowledged how we fall short of that in the church. I was made more aware of the struggles that homosexuals deal with and the complexities within it.

 

I remember sitting through a debate between Mark T. Nation and Ted Grimsrud, who was a professor of mine from undergrad at Eastern Mennonite University. They are both theologians whom I respect, and they both have a high regard for scripture, but they come out at different places on this topic.  While I respect both of these men, the interpretation of scripture and understanding Ted and others like him come to is not one that is convincing to me. My understanding of what the scriptures say, the context of various scripture passages and the overarching message of the Bible lead me to the conclusion that homosexual behavior is not congruent with Christian discipleship. (By this, I’m not saying that those who engage in homosexual behavior cannot be Christian. While I see this behavior as sinful, I recognize that every single one of us engages in sinful behavior in our lives.)

 

But the conversation cannot stop here. “It’s sinful and so that’s that.” There is so much more to this conversation. I have a friend who has a close family member who is in a same-sex committed relationship. And I have learned a lot from sitting with her and listening to her story.

 

The struggle that Christian homosexuals face is agonizing. They experience great confusion and a war within themselves. The messages they have received from the Church have not been messages of Christ’s love, but messages of condemnation. They feel ashamed about who they are, and I don’t know the statistics, but my friend told me that the percentage of Christian homosexuals who commit suicide is higher than in the secular world.

 

That tells me that the Church has been failing our brothers and sisters who are homosexual.

 

Towards the end of our time in seminary, one of our classmates had been asked by the professor I referred to earlier (Mark T.N.) to share her story. She is a lesbian who had been married to her husband for many years, hiding her same sex attraction and having raised three children with him.

 

After sharing in class, she approached Patrick and me, expressing a desire to share her story with us. We sat in a coffee shop with her and listened as she shared her struggle with homosexuality and her journey with God in the midst of that.

 

I believe that we as the Church need to create a safe space for people to be honest about their sexuality. I’ve heard story after story about people who are homosexual and try to become heterosexual or commit in marriage to a heterosexual relationship, all the while living a divided life within themselves (as Patrick talked about last week) because they cannot name the honest truth about this area of their lives.  

 

I do not understand the complexities of biology, or why some people are born homosexual, or how much of it is biology and how much is related to environment, experiences and culture. But the church has too long preached a damaging message of hate and shame and simple solutions. And we have been too quick to demonize homosexuality as the worst of sins, all the while not recognizing the log in our own eye.

 

Each one of us is broken and sinful, and each one of us is called by Jesus to give our lives to him and to be made whole.

(Patrick)

My story is slightly different than Christine’s…but we’ve arrived at a similar place.

Let me begin by just saying if you know my dad…then you know he’s not the most conservative guy you’ll ever meet. He was a social worker for something like 27 years in a school system in southeast Iowa, so he’s seen a lot of brokenness, and he’s had to navigate his own set of challenges because of his work.

 

Don’t get me wrong…he seldom talked about his work at home. In fact it was just a year or two ago when I think I heard him tell one of the only stories I can remember him telling about his work. All that to say, I inherited a more liberal bias on social issues such as homosexual relationships.

 

I’ll confess I made the same jokes about homosexual people that probably most males in my age group made during my junior high and high school years…but I never really connected the jokes to the people, because I didn’t know anyone who was homosexual, or at least openly homosexual.

 

That began to change in college and in Seminary. During those years, the pattern seemed to be that I would hear about someone I had known who would “come out” after our lives had gone separate ways.

 

I started to think the issue was a little more complex than simply naming it a sin, or simply accepting the reality and blessing homosexual unions as if there was no difference between a homosexual and a heterosexual couple.

 

Like Christine mentioned, our friend from Seminary (and no, Theda Good, the pastor who was recently licensed by Mountain States is not this particular friend…we’re talking about someone else) shared with us a heartbreaking reality. She was in her 50s, married with adult children, but her whole life had been organized around hiding the fact that she had always been physically attracted to other women.

 

I wonder how her life might have looked, had she had a place to acknowledge her same sex attraction, and receive encouragement and support to live a celibate lifestyle rather than trying to cover it up through marriage and bearing children. Sadly, I’ve come to learn that her story is not that uncommon.

 

The homosexual people I’ve gotten to know in recent years…they are just as broken as anyone else in this room, and just as beautiful, if not more isolated, lonely, and wounded.

I’m not at the point where I feel I can exchange the traditional teaching of the church.

I’m not compelled by arguments that reinterpret the scriptures to allow for the church’s blessing upon homosexual behavior.

 

But I sure think we need to do more than simply calling it sin and thinking our job is done.

I don’t think same-sex attraction is a choice. I don’t think anyone would choose to experience the kind of stories I’ve heard from people who are attracted to their same sex.

They are stories of isolation, pain, and being made the targets of the cruelest jokes.

In my high school years, I participated in those jokes, and I think I was wrong to do so.

I didn’t understand homosexual orientation then, and I still don’t.

 

The difference is that today I’m willing to learn. I’m willing to stay in the room and hear their stories, their perspectives, and I’m even willing to hear their interpretation of the biblical story and their understanding of God.

 

I wish homosexual people could find the church to be a place where they could finally be open about their same sex attraction, lose the need for secrecy, but also to be called and held as accountable as any of us are for the ethical choices we make.

 

As your pastors, we are doing our best to be faithful to the calling God has given us to minister alongside you. But what I’ve learned is, position statements do very little to foster the kind of conversation where transformation of any kind can actually happen. In fact, it’s been more my experience that position statements lead to entrenching, because it puts people who differ from the position being stated on the defensive.

 

Position statements tend to set up sides and can stem from a place of anxiety. If only I know your position on this topic, then I know whether I can trust you or not.

Positional statements have a tendency to stem from a place of fear. And I want to be clear that I am not talking solely to people on one end of this debate. I am speaking about everyone—those who see homosexual behavior as sin and those who don’t believe homosexual behavior is a sin. I hear people from both these places expressing their desire for statements to be made and stands to be taken.

 

But starting by defining our position on a topic, especially this topic during this present time in our denomination, divides the body of Christ even further. It’s a way of “taking sides.”  So here we are taking up so much precious time and energy fighting against each other within the body of Christ, when really we are on the same team and ought to be using our energy to fight against the Evil One of this world, the powers of darkness. We are the bride of Christ and we are to be offering healing and hope to the world and here we are chewing each other up and spitting each other out. God forgive us.

(Christine)

I have noticed that when the church has difficult conversations where there are differing beliefs and strongly held beliefs and high anxieties, that the seeds of distrust grow very rapidly.

 

We who are brothers and sisters in Christ, and all a part of Christ’s one body, we begin to distrust each other, and this distrust leads to misunderstandings and wrong assumptions.

Perhaps most importantly, distrust of each other leads us to not being able to truly SEE each other. We become suspicious of one another and all of the sudden, we begin to question the heart and mind of people we’ve known for years.

 

We quickly forget who we’ve known them to be and we begin making judgments that are not true.

 

This distrust comes from fear. Fear that this person may not really be who we thought they were. Fear that they may not believe what we believe so strongly. Fear that decisions will be made that are out of our control and different than the way we believe things should go.

 

Fear is what the disciples faced as they were in the boat, being battered by the waves and the wind. All of the sudden they saw a figure walking toward them. They were terrified, the scripture tells us. Filled with terror. They thought it was a ghost coming at them. And they cried out in fear.

 

Jesus, coming to them in the storm, sees their fear, and he responds, telling them that it is him.

 

They do not need to be afraid.

 

But that was not enough for them. Peter apparently was not convinced. He answered Jesus, saying, “Lord, if it is you…”

 

  •  

    By this time the disciples had heard Jesus teach about what it means to follow God, including topics from adultery to divorce to judging others to being salt and light to loving enemies.

     

    They had heard Jesus proclaim the good news of the kingdom and watched him heal the sick, the blind, and the lame.

     

    They had already been with him through one storm where they learned that even the winds and waves obey him.

     

    They had even watched him raise a young girl from the dead.

     

    Yet the disciples fear was what guided them instead of who they knew Jesus to be. Their fear skewed their perspective so that they could not see clearly.

     

    This is what these conversations on homosexuality have done to all of us. Instead of relating to one another within the reality of who we know each other to be, we have let fear distort our images of each other. We are not truly seeing each other. (both here at Millersburg Mennonite and across the larger denomination).

     

    We have served among you now for 7 years. Seven LONG years. (just kidding! 🙂 …although certain times feel longer than others.

     

    We have noticed your trust in us grow. Trust is never immediate. It takes time and it takes opening ourselves up to each other and it takes caring for each other. We are grateful for the trust this congregation has put in us.

    (Patrick)

    But for some of you, this difficult time of conversing about homosexuality has caused some of you to begin losing trust in us because (until today) you have not heard us make a “position statement” on homosexuality.

     

    The Elders and Christine and I had intentional conversations about the process we would go through here at Millersburg Mennonite to talk about this topic in the short amount of time we have (because of the impending resolution that needs to be voted on). I’m going to share briefly what we had in mind, in hopes that it brings clarification to some of the misunderstandings that have come to light.

     

    We decided together to first have the adult S.S. classes study the document “Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love” as a foundation for more in depth conversations in July. For the first 3 Sundays of July, we would do a three part series during S.S. and worship called “Can We Talk?”, which was a resource offered from Ohio Conference and which we thought looked like a helpful way to approach things. The themes would be “Can we talk about the Bible?,” “Can we talk about healing divisions?,” and “Can we talk about human sexuality?” We would also offer a Wednesday evening gathering for people to share the stories of the experiences they’ve had that have informed what they believe about homosexuality, and then end with a July 27 after church meeting to gain a sense of how we felt about the resolution.

     

    We did our best to keep the congregation informed about all these things through bulletin announcements, verbal announcements, and the phone tree.

    (Christine)

    So this Sunday, July 20 would be the Sunday we would focus specifically on speaking about homosexuality and sharing what we as your pastors believe.

    Unfortunately, some of you did not give us the chance to get to this point. You assumed that because we did not yet say what we believe, that we were not planning to.

     

    I don’t say all this to point the finger. It’s merely an example of the difficulty Patrick and I feel with this congregation at times. You all are a diverse group of people! Very diverse. And that’s a real strength of this congregation. The fact that many of you think very differently from one another, and yet you have been able to remain in fellowship with each other. It is a beautiful example of the body of Christ.

     

    But because of your diversity, there are times when we feel pressure to lead in a certain way. And there are times when we feel like you don’t allow us to lead.

     

    So there are times when we feel our leadership is being distrusted because we are not leading in the specific way some of you have in mind. And there are other times when we feel as if it is not recognized by some of you that we have something valuable to offer as the pastors of this congregation.

     

    You are a difficult group to lead! But you are an exceptional group to lead as well!

     

    These are difficult times in the Church (with a capital “C”).

     

    And in the midst of these difficult times, the church’s trust in God has wavered. We have become unable to see God as he is. We grasp for control, any type of control we can get over this chaotic situation. We are the disciples in the boat, being battered around by the waves and the wind, and we are scared. And we have forgotten that Jesus sees us, he sees our fear and he is walking towards us on the water, coming to us. We are like Peter, walking toward Jesus, seeking proof that this person walking toward us is truly who he says he is. But the wind has picked up and we have become frightened, and have taken our eyes off Jesus.

     

    We need to cry out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” “Lord, save us!” Because he’s the only one who can.

     

    We at Millersburg Mennonite are not alone. Neither is MCUSA alone.

     

    For Jesus is with us, walking alongside us as we navigate these stormy seas, this time of chaos and fear.

     

    And our hope must be in God alone.

     

    I am not afraid of what may happen in our denomination, because the Church is Christ’s body.

     

    I am not the Savior. Our conference and denominational leaders are not the Savior. You are not the Savior.

     

    Jesus is our Savior. And I choose to trust in God, in Jesus, and in the Holy Spirit to do more than we can ask or imagine.

    (Patrick)

    Our prayer for each of you remains the same as Paul for the Philippians, “ this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

     

    Can We Talk about Healing Divisions?

    July 13, 2014                Can We Talk about Healing Divisions?             Ephesians 2:13-16

    There was one summer when I was, I don’t know…maybe 7 or 8 years old…when my family took a trip out east from Iowa to Pennsylvania to visit my relatives; my mom’s twin sister and her family.

    My aunt and uncle have two kids who are roughly the same age as me and my middle brother, so we always looked forward to being with them.

    Well, on this particular trip, we ended up going to the beach or something, and on the boardwalk, there was something like a ride that you could take through a haunted house or something.

    I don’t remember the location, or the specific attraction that this ride had…but I remember me and my cousin really wanted to go on this ride. We badgered our dads (I don’t think our moms were around at that point) until they gave us the money…I’m not even sure they knew what it was for….and we bought our tickets and got into the little car that would take us on tracks, through this house of terror or something like that.

    I can’t speak for my cousin, but I can tell you, the rest of what I remember consists of sheer terror.

    After the first few minutes, I wanted nothing more than for the ride to be over. I thought I was going to die!

    The problem was, I was with my cousin and I didn’t want him to know I was scared.

    So I tried to put on a brave face…and eventually I just closed my eyes.

    He wasn’t looking at me, he was busy taking it all in himself. So I figured if I just closed my eyes and stayed quiet, he wouldn’t think I was a chicken. 🙂

    My strategy worked.

    Once I closed my eyes, the ride wasn’t nearly as scary…it was just a series of bumps and jerks and noises and puffs of air.

    But you know what I remember even more clearly than the terror that I felt?

    I remember the one portion of the ride where my cousin kept saying “look!” “Look!”

    I was torn…I wanted to open my eyes and look at what he was pointing out…but I was also so frightened, that it was all I could do to stay in the car!

    I’d like to suggest this morning that we’re all taking a similar ride.

    Our lives are full of similar ghosts and terrors that haunt us as we bump and jerk our way along in the company of other people who’s opinions we care about.

    When we’re young, it’s easier to cry out in fear or disbelief.

    It doesn’t take us long to learn how to simply close our eyes to get through the rough spots.

    But the ride we’re on stretches into a lifetime, and the monstrosities that surround us, they exist within us as well, don’t they?

    And as we as we grow older, we begin learn an even more insidious trick: we learn to close our eyes to the horrors that lie within, don’t we?

    We learn to give our ghosts their space within us. We learn to tip-toe past the rooms they inhabit within our souls, and we come to act like they’re not even there.

    It’s a coping mechanism we develop…after all, if we are to ignore our ghosts, they must be given space of their own.

    Wounds we’ve suffered, abusive personalities we’ve endured, overbearing parents, over distant parents, betrayals, greed, misguided sexual appetites, addictions…all these and more wander the hallways of these temples we inhabit…and the less willing we are to acknowledge them, the more they grow in their power over us.

    As time goes on, we might not even realize how often we shrink away from certain dark corners within our souls where these ghosts reside.

    We lock our fears, our ghosts, our demons inside certain rooms and we try to forget they exist.

    So we become accustomed to living partial lives, all the while professing that it is whole and it is good.

    And here’s the thing…the truest perversion of Christianity is the one that allows us to continue this charade as if our partial lives were really whole.

    Look, this morning we’re talking about Healing Divisions.

    Of course I know that in the back of all of our minds, when we talk about divisions in the church, most of us are thinking about the unfolding drama concerning Mountain States Mennonite Conference and the divisions within the denomination that are coming to a head surrounding the issue of same-sex attraction and sexual behavior within the church.

    But would you believe I really don’t think that’s the issue?

    Would you believe I think the true source of our division goes much deeper than that?

    We prefer division to true unity, because our willingness to cut-off from unseemly people, scary ideas, and different thoughts somehow supports our own false narrative that our partial lives are actually whole.

    See, it’s like we’re on this scary ride together, right?

    All along the way, there are terrible things that happen, things we’d like to avoid, things that make us close our eyes tight.

    But then someone says “Look! Look!”.

    And after years of avoiding the sight of these ghastly terrors, we cannot find the courage to open our eyes.

    Instead, we demonize the one telling us to look…or at the very least, we ignore them and pretend like the terrors really aren’t that terrifying.

    We cut them off, not because our differences are so large or they make us so angry…we cut them off because we need the divisions within us to be reflected back to us in order to maintain the sense of peace that comes from a partial life.

    *It’s easier to avoid other people than it is to look at what they’re pointing out and confront ourselves.

    It’s easier to continue pretending that we’re whole than it is to face our own darkness and name our fears.

    Paul writes to the Ephesians, and here in chapter two, he makes this elegant argument about Christ making the two groups one, destroying the dividing wall of hostility, creating in himself one new humanity out of the two.

    It’s tempting to think of these two groups that we’re reading about in light of the distinction between those who are open and affirming of homosexual behavior in the church, and those who are not.

    That’s one temptation that I think we always have to be aware of as we read the Bible…the temptation to read into the text things that really, rightfully have no place there simply because they’re part and parcel of our contemporary situation.

    Paul wasn’t talking about homosexuality when he wrote this passage.

    He was talking about circumcision.

    Or, more to the point, the ‘two groups’ he was talking about were “the circumcision”, and “the uncircumcision”. You can look back and read starting in verse 11 if you don’t believe me.

    He’s writing to the Gentiles…Ephesians is a letter written to a Gentile church.

    And here in chapter 2, Paul is addressing these “Gentiles” directly, and explaining to them how Christ has reconciled them in his body, into one new humanity rather than the two former groups of humanity.

    Gentile is an interesting word.

    The Greek behind it is Ethein, and when translated into Latin we get the word “Gentes”, which the Spanish speakers among us will recognize as the word for “people” “Gente” right?

    It’s a word that’s translated various ways in the New Testament…mostly as “Gentiles”, about half as often it’s translated “Nations”, and a handful of times it’s translated as “heathen” or “pagans”.

    My point is this…in the Biblical story, the overarching flow of the story, speaking as broadly as possible, there are three main characters.

    First, “God”, Second, “the Nations (or the Gentiles)”, and third, “Israel”.

    And what God strives to do throughout this story, is reconcile his creation, or all nations (including Israel), to Himself.

    To do this reconciling work, he chose a people, he formed one nation to be separate, to be sacred…’sacred’ is a word that means “set apart”, did you know that?

    He formed one nation, calling them to be separate from the many nations, and the aim of their existence was to be a blessing to the others, to show the other nations the face of the One God who created all things.

    But you know, you can’t be reconciled to God until you’re aware that the division exists.

    Now, I don’t want to get too philosophical this morning…but I’m a pretty firm believer that we organize our outward lives in ways that reflect back and support our inner realities.

    Hence, when we shut our eyes to the monsters we see outside, we’re simply responding to the locked doors we have within our own souls.

    And one reason sexuality is such a passionate subject today, is because sexuality has to do, intimately, with that inner region.

    We can talk about things like divorce and remarriage, because they are easier to talk about objectively…they has to do with people’s actions, commitments they’ve made and commitments they may need to break.

    We can talk about things like divorce and remarriage, because those are things we can keep on the outside, even if and when we participate.

    But sexuality resides within, and it permeates how we relate to everyone we encounter.

    Add to that reality, that each of us inherits a broken understanding of sexuality from our earliest breath, that we’re reared in brokenness throughout our childhood, and that we persist in brokenness for most if not all of our lives…it creates a fairly volatile situation.

    Especially when we claim only part of our interior house and leave the rest to the ghosts.

    See, Shalom…that’s the Hebrew word for Peace, you know?

    Shalom…it’s a word that means something more like wholeness, or Complete-ness.

    And the way you make something whole, or complete, when it’s broken or wounded…it needs to heal.

    Shalom begins at home. Healing divisions begins by confronting the ghosts or the demons that haunt your own soul…allowing the blood of Christ, that is, allowing the scandal of the cross, to fill the gap between who you are and who you were meant to be, relying on God’s grace to continue to draw you nearer and nearer.

    Do you want a whole life? It begins by gathering enough courage to open your eyes.

    You who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

    For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations.

    His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

    Can We Talk about the Bible? July 6, 2014

    Hebrews 1:1-4                   About the Bible?                          July 6, 2014

    A couple of weeks ago, Christine mentioned during a sharing time that we had a run-in with the law when we traveled to Florida back in May…and she hinted that you just might hear more about it in one of my upcoming sermons.

    Well, Today is your lucky day! 🙂

    So, you might remember that Christine and I drove down to Florida to meet the birth mother of our child for the first time.

    We were looking forward to meeting her in person, even if it meant spending two days driving to do it.

    We left after church on a Sunday and drove to South Carolina. We spent that night at a hotel, then drove all day the following Monday down to the southern edge of Florida…right around Fort Lauderdale.

    Don’t get me wrong, it was a really good trip. We enjoyed a goodie bag that Sandy and Beth had arranged for us, and a friend had loaned us a GPS to use that came in really handy, especially in the cities we were in.

    We pulled into our destination city around 7 or 7:30 on Monday night, after two full days of driving. We found our hotel and dropped off our things, then we wanted to find somewhere to eat.
    By this point on our trip, we were tired of driving, we were hungry, and our minds were preoccupied with the meeting we were going to have the next day.

    So we got into the car, Christine started looking at the GPS to find restaurants that were nearby, and I started driving.

    We had picked a hotel that was close to our adoption agency, so on our way, I pulled into the agency just to have a look at the building. We did a lap through the parking lot, then I pulled back out onto the main road, ready to go straight through an intersection.

    Just as the light turned green, Christine, who was looking at the GPS, told me to turn right because there were a bunch of restaurants down that road.

    I quickly checked the lane beside me, swung over, made the turn and we were on our way.
    (We did a lot of those last minute turns in Florida). 

    Within a block, a police car pulled up behind me like we were in a race with his lights flashing.
    “Oh, great…just what we need…1700 miles of driving over two days, and really, now we’re getting pulled over?”

    I pull over, the officer came to the window and asked for both of our licenses, which we gave him.

    He gave me no reason for pulling us over. He didn’t greet me.

    He was abrasive and to the point.

    Then he had me get out of the car.

    That’s never happened to me before.

    He took me back to his car, where we stood between our vehicles while he proceeded to interrogate me while his partner ran checks on our licenses.

    He wanted to know what we were doing in Florida, and where we were going.

    I still had no idea what I had done wrong.

    I explained about our adoption, and how we were there to meet the birthmother the next day.

    “That’s a long way to drive for a lunch” was all he said. (I should have said “don’t I know it!?)

    I put my hands in my pockets…that’s something I tend to do without thinking about it.

    He told me to remove my hands from my pockets since he didn’t know what I had in them.

    By this point I was pretty sure he had mistaken me for someone else.

    His questions turned a little less polite…did I have anything illegal in the car?

    Now I was pretty sure he thought I was someone else, but it still sounded like such a strange question that I hesitated before I answered…I wanted to be sure he was really asking what I thought he was asking.

    Was I sure I don’t have anything illegal in the car? he wanted to know.

    Yes, I was sure.

    Had I ever been arrested before? he asked.

    Wait a minute…arrested before?

    That’s when I just got a little bit mad. No! I’ve never been arrested. No! I don’t have anything illegal in the car!

    Would I mind if he’d take a look?

    At that point I made a move to open the trunk and the doors and let this guy search the car.

    I just wanted to get on with my evening.

    He called me back and told me he didn’t want to search it yet…then he told me to wait while he went and got Christine out of the car, took her to the other end, and made sure our stories lined up.

    Eventually, he was satisfied that our stories were legitimate and that we had nothing to hide.

    It took some work, but I was finally able to get him to explain why he pulled us over.

    Apparently the hotel we had chosen didn’t have the best reputation (though we thought it was fine).

    But in his mind, he saw us pull out of a seedy hotel, then he saw us pull into an empty parking lot and take a slow loop through it in an older model car from out of state.

    When I made a last-minute lane change and turned right, he thought I had seen him, and he thought I was trying to get away.

    Eventually he let us go.

    I even got him to give us a restaurant recommendation even though by the time we finally got there we weren’t really in the mood to eat anymore.

    By the end of the encounter, we felt harassed and unwelcome, and the temptation for me was to judge the whole state by our encounter with one police officer who was having an off night.

    Contrast that with our experience the next day, when we drove again to a restaurant, where we were going to meet the birth mother of our child for lunch.

    It’s a unique experience…we were about to meet someone for the first time, but she was already a pretty important part of our family.

    We had never met her, but we had already made a big commitment to her, and she to us.

    We went into that meeting…curious.

    We were curious about what she looked like. We were curious about the color of her eyes, how she would talk, what mannerisms she had.

    We were curious about what food she would order, and whether it would be an awkward and difficult conversation, or if it would be easy.

    Do you get what I’m saying?

    We wanted her to like us…and we wanted to like her…but regardless of any of that, we had already made this life-changing commitment to her, and she to us.

    The commitment came first.

    Sure, there were awkward moments, times when the conversation lagged…but we were looking for what we had in common. We weren’t interrogating her…we were getting to know her, and we were building a relationship.

    So really, I’ve described two situations for you this morning as we talk about how we read the Bible.

    In the first, suspicion and judgment were the foundation.

    The police officer needed to judge whether or not we were up to no good.

    And I can appreciate (now) him playing his role. I can understand why he may have arrived at the conclusions that he did, given what he saw in our behavior, and some of the things I’m sure he’s seen in his job. We were strangers who had no commitments to each other…and so he treated us like suspects.

    However, in the second example, there was a commitment there that came prior to the encounter.

    Do you see the difference?

    You approach someone completely differently when you’ve already made a commitment to them.
    It doesn’t mean we agree on everything. It doesn’t mean we’re supportive of everything they do, or that they have a blank check on our trust.

    But it does mean we treat them like the family that they are, because I believe commitment has more to do with relationships than emotions ever will.

    OK…so what’s this got to do with how we read the Bible?

    Look.

    I’ll be the first to say I think we need to interrogate our beliefs from time to time.

    But when it comes to people, especially when it comes to the church…we’ve all made a commitment to each other that comes first.

    We’ve already made the biggest commitment that can be made to other people when we join the family of God…and therefore we should approach each other in a much different way, with a certain humility, a measure of grace, and an eagerness to build the relationship.

    See, strong relationships can withstand interrogations.

    Strong relationships kind of ‘expect’ to bear the weight of mutual care.

    They’re not one-sided, and the focus is more on knowing the other, rather than simply being known for what you believe or stand for.

    The series that we’re beginning this week is an invitation to a conversation.
    (I can’t remember what I said here to close). 🙂

    What Does This Mean?

    June 8, 2014                                                                  I Corinthians 12:3-26

    Have you ever thought about the fact that all of us in this room, every single one…has been surrounded by enough air to keep us living, our whole lives long?

    Most of the time, I’m willing to guess, we don’t even think about it.

    We simply get up in the morning and go about our business without a thought given to the air that we breathe.

    We tend to take air for granted, even though without it, our life expectancy shrinks to minutes.

    We depend on air to live. Yet we don’t really think about it until it begins to move, right?

    There’s nothing as refreshing as a gentle breeze on a hot and humid day.

    At the same time, I can testify that few things are as terrifying as driving through Missouri on a summer evening, virtually dodging one tornado after another with other cautious drivers on the road.

    Simple air; it can be refreshing like a breeze, but it can also terrify us with its power.

    I could say all the same things about the Holy Spirit.

    It’s all-encompassing like the air we breathe.

    It moves something like the wind, sometimes inspiring us, other times provoking us to respond to its movement.

    When we see the Spirit moving, I would suggest there are two basic, human responses.

    We find them both in the story of the first Pentecost in Acts chapter 2.

    You might know the story…the earliest followers of Christ were gathered together on the day of Pentecost, gathered together in one place when suddenly there came the sound like the rush of a violent wind.

    It filled the house where they had gathered, and tongues as of fire appeared among the people, and these tongues of flame came to rest upon each of them who were gathered.

    They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak, each one in a language they presumably did not know, presumably for the benefit of the onlookers, who heard their words, each one in their own native tongue.

    We’re not told the content of what they spoke…only that they spoke of “God’s deeds of power”.

    Towards the end, we are told that some of the onlookers turn to each other and ask, concerning this mystery “What does this mean?”.

    Others proclaim with certainty “They are filled with new wine” (which is a first century way of saying “they’re drunk”).

    One seeks to discern the meaning of this strange event, recognizing the potential for a life-changing discovery and enlisting the help of others who are witnessing the same event to help them in their understanding. “What does this mean?” they ask…and you get the sense that they mean it.

    The other response seeks to dismiss the strangeness as well as the Spirit behind it, writing the whole thing off with the phrase “They’re filled with new wine”.

    It’s not a question, actually it’s an explanation, isn’t it? And behind it is desire to walk away unaffected, to keep things as they are and to rely more upon the individuals own reasoning than allowing other people and their perspectives to influence their thinking and their lives.

    We are meant to construct meaning, not just in our isolated bubbles, not just with like-minded family and friends who share our point of view, but with all who are experiencing the same phenomenon, all who ask the same question “What does this mean?”

    This question is a hallmark of those seeking the Kingdom of God, those who tend to their own response before the Holy Spirit before trying to influence the response of other people.

    I would like to suggest this morning, that asking questions first is how we honor each other as members of the One Body of Christ, as Paul gets at in I Corinthians 12.

    One way we honor each member of the body is by showing interest in them and in their perspective, not in offering explanations, making statements, or jumping to conclusions based on our own experience.

    Unfortunately we live in a time where questions are seen as threatening. This makes conversation difficult, if neither, or only one party is willing to truly listen, and truly ask “What does this mean?”

    Discernment takes two to listen, not just on the issue of same-sex relationships, but on all issues that carry theological weight…all of the issues where we seek the Holy Spirit to move us deeper into understanding and action. It takes a willingness to enter a very dark place, to leave our biases and our assumptions and the conclusions we’ve already made, leave all that at the door and dwell in the mystery of the moment with people we might not even like very much…intent on hearing them, intent on waiting to hear something from the lips of God, very often spoken through the mouthpiece of the “other”.

    Anything less might be called democracy, but it’s not Christian discernment, and it does not produce the spiritual fruit that Paul mentions in Galatians, or the spiritual gifts that he talks about in 1 Corinthians 12.

    There are a variety of gifts, but only one Spirit that gives them. The church to a body consisting of many members, all of whom need the others to honor and respect them.

    So a big problem that I see, according to the vision given by Paul, and our current ways of doing church is that we’ve stopped needing each other. We surround ourselves with like-minded people in a similar socio-economic plane, people who more or less look like us, smell like us, and think like us, and we call it church!

    We have become members unto ourselves. Sure, we’re not all or eyes, or ears, or mouths…but look under the hood of any one congregation and I’m guessing you’ll find more ‘heads’ or more ‘hearts’ than complete, healthy, full bodies complete with feet and hands…and unmentionables that should be honored above the rest.

    Can we dare to hear each other? Can we dare to seek to understand more than to be understood? Can we practice the patience of God as we pay attention to the Spirit’s work among us?

    I’m going to be honest with you. I care more this morning about how we hold our beliefs than I do about which particular beliefs we actually hold.

    Even a belief in peace can be used as a weapon if you hold it right…and I’ve spoken with a few retired military personnel who are far from pacifists, who seem to me more interested in Shalom (that is, God’s peace), than many pacifists I’ve known.

    We can become so intent on being ‘right’ that we fail to be loving, respectful, hopeful, or kind.

    It’s interesting to me, that when you read I Corinthians chapter 12, Paul talks a lot about spiritual gifts, and the exercise of those gifts for the benefit of the community, or the whole body.

    He talks about each member honoring every other member, about the impossibility of the foot saying “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body.” We all have a function within the body, and so we all have the responsibility to respect and even honor the stories, the experiences, and the perspectives that we bring.

    Paul closes the chapter by instructing the reader to “strive for the greater gifts”, which in some circles has come to mean striving for certain expressions of the Spirit’s work, things like the gift of speaking in tongues.

    But in the same verse, he continues, saying “And I will show you a still more excellent way”. So opens one of the more well-known chapters in the Bible, the “love” chapter, with it’s reminder that “faith, hope, and love abide, and the greatest of these is love”.

    The Holy Spirit and the gifts that it offers, lead us deeper into faith, hope, and love. Not just individually, but together as a church body.

     

    Life

    Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45                           April 6, 2014

    “In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up–then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

    “And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
    The creation story is a story of life, right? From the beginning, God is intent on creating the perfect environment for things to grow. He wants life to take root in this creation of his.

    To this end He shapes the formless void, he sculpts the darkness of the deep by merely speaking.

    A word from God, and the formless void is filled with color, with light, with life and meaning.

    God took the man from the dust of the earth, and he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. He is set down in God’s first garden; to tend it, to keep it, to see to the growing of all the good things God had made.

    Later, much later in this story, God takes a different man and sets him down in a very different place.

    Ezekiel testifies not to a garden filled with life, but rather to a valley filled with death.

    In this valley there are bones…lots and lots of bones.

    Dry bones…not moist ones. These are bones from which the flesh and the blood and the marrow are gone…long gone.

    They’re people. Skeletons. Lots and lots of skeletons.

    It was a blessing for Ezekiel that they were notably dry, for that way there wasn’t a stench, and there weren’t scavengers poking around.

    The Spirit of God takes him on a tour of this valley, maybe it was the scene of an ancient battle. Maybe it was something like a mass grave after a plague of some kind.

    We’ll never know exactly what it was, but I can’t help but imagine God walking with Ezekiel in that valley, not unlike God walked with Adam in the original garden.

    In both places, God is present. In both places Life bursts forth, not by human effort, but rather by the Spirit of God breathing the breath of life where it was notably absent.

    God alone does this work of growing life in impossible places.

    But the question he asks Ezekiel gives the opportunity for him to respond in faith.

    Faith in what?

    Faith in God.

    It’s interesting to me that Ezekiel doesn’t let himself get hemmed in by the possibilities that he can see.

    The question is a yes or no question, isn’t it? “Can these bones live?”

    Yes they can, or No, they can’t.

    But as a Priest and a Prophet, Ezekiel understands something about the character of God that’s easy to overlook.

    That is, when God asks you a yes or no question, he’s probably not looking for a yes or no answer.

    He’s looking for faith.

    The kind of faith I’m talking about is more than just saying “yes” to God, or “no” to sin.

    The kind of faith I see in this passage is the kind that says “O Lord GOD, you know!”

    It’s a way of relating to God and the world that refuses to be too sure, or too certain of our perceptions.

    Don’t be too sure of your perceptions when faced with an impossible situation in a valley filled with death.

    But at the same time, be willing to speak what God gives you to speak.

    God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones…tell them to hear the word of the Lord! he says…

    He goes on to speak of breath and life and sinews and flesh and skin…all things these bones had known at one point (but no longer).

    These bones needed to hear this word; these structures that once supported life had fallen into decay and no longer served a purpose.

    That’s what prophecy is! It’s speaking life to structures that have failed to support the life they were designed to support!!

    This is a story of renewal and resurrection. It’s a story of the impossible becoming possible!

    “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.” God goes on to explain to Ezekiel.

    And I say this morning that we the church are the new Israel! We are the people of God, grafted in, adopted into His house…

    We are these dried up bones in need of this prophetic renewal.

    But first it needs to be spoken. (by all of us…I’m no Ezekiel)

    We need to hear it…the voice of the prophet speaking the words of God, saying “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act”.

    Now, we heard another story this morning, the story of Lazarus being raised from his tomb.

    It’s a similar theme…He’s been dead four days.

    What’s more, his sisters (Mary and Martha) seem to blame Jesus at least somewhat for his death. After all, they both say “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

    And it’s true…they sent him word that Lazarus wasn’t doing well, and Jesus stayed where he was for two more days before going to see him.

    Wouldn’t we all prefer a Messiah who came when we called him?

    I could preach another whole sermon, or even a series on this story…but the one thing I’d like to lift out this morning is something interesting that Jesus says to Martha in verses 25 and 26. At this point in the story, Jesus had been called, he lingered where he was, he got back to Bethany in time to find out that Lazarus had died and had been in the tomb for four days, long enough for his body to begin decomposing.

    His bones weren’t dry yet, but his flesh had begun the process.

    So he gets there, and Martha, a sister of the dead man, runs out to meet him, and she confronts him.

    This passage gives us permission to confront Jesus! (I don’t know about you, but I find that encouraging). 🙂

    But that’s not the part I wanted to talk about.

    See, Jesus says to Martha, he says “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

    Up to this point, all they had was a relationship. A friendship. They had shared life together and Jesus had done a lot of pretty incredible things…but He hadn’t yet died, and He hadn’t yet risen.

    Yet here he was, claiming to be the resurrection and the life…not only that, he was also basically telling Martha that that belief leads to life… eternal life!!

    Now, let’s go back to Ezekiel in that valley for just a moment.

    When he answers God, saying “O Lord God, only you know”, and then God gives him words to speak, what did Ezekiel do?

    He spoke the words. He prophesied just like God told him to prophesy.

    I don’t know what he believed about those bones coming back together…but he believed God enough to trust and obey the word he had heard.

    See the difference?

    I don’t think Ezekiel’s faith would have been shattered if nothing would have happened, because his focus was more on God and being faithful to God than it was on the bones that surrounded him.

    Jesus tells Martha that believing in him; right then, with no miracle, in the midst of her deep disappointment in his performance to that point, in the midst of the impossible situation she was facing, in the midst of her grief…believing in the failure of a Jesus she saw standing before her…that belief is life!!!

    And the question he asks her in verse 26 is the crucial question that each of us still must answer…”Do you believe this?”

    Do you believe that the Jesus who shows up four days late for his dear friend’s funeral…the Jesus who had the power to heal him but obviously didn’t…do you believe that he is the resurrection and the life?

    Do you believe that this Jesus offers a life that will never die?

    “O Mortal, can these bones live?”

    Martha answers in the affirmative…she believes without knowing the end of the story!

    “Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

    So what’s our excuse?

    Jesus called Lazarus back from the dead…Ezekiel prophesied to a whole valley of bones…we have both the resurrection of Christ and Lazarus to testify to the power and the grace of God, and yet we still question our worth and our place in the Kingdom.

    We still cling to our grave clothes, those old ways of living that no longer make sense in the light of resurrection.

    I invite you to lay it down again…this Lenten season. Our God grows life in this garden of a world…yet sin still grows like weeds.

    Will you pray with me as I close?

    …God, you are life, your breath sustains us, renews us, allows us to live in the resurrection even before the grave. Give us eyes to see your Kingdom and hearts to tend the lives you’ve given us. We want to follow you, we want to believe, yet we know that sin is always close at hand, binding us to the ways of death.
    Forgive us Lord, for our unbelief.
    Amen.