Sunday, May 24, 2015

Living Bones -- A 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
May 24, 2015

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Church -- the invisible in the visible.

You might say that Pentecost was an event. Something happened that caught the attention of the people in Jerusalem (Acts 2).  The Spirit opened the doors and the windows and got things going.  And here we are, today, centuries later, wondering what actually the church is.  Is it people or a building, a community or an institution?

I've been reading a book entitled Karl Barth's Christological Ecclesiology(Cascade, 2013).  It's a scholarly work that helps us understand the development of Barth's understanding of the church. As I was reading I encountered a chapter entitled "The Origin of the Church as the Fellowship of the Spirit." Those who have read Barth know that his is a dialectical theology, in which he seeks balance between two seemingly opposite points. Thus, for Barth the church is both visible and invisible. In exploring this dialectic, Barth avers that church is event. As Kimlyn Bender, author of this book suggests, for Barth "the real church is not to be sought apart from, nor even behind, its historical manifestation, but only within its historical form. Only by looking at what is seen, the visible church even in the midst of its imperfection and sin, do we perceive (by faith!) that which cannot be seen, the invisible power of the church" (p. 171).  I quote here from Bender, who summarizes Barth, because there is the belief held by many that the only church we need to engage is that which is invisible. But, according to Bender we cannot engage that church without engaging the historical manifestation. Choosing one pole over the other leads either to the heresy of docetism or that of the Ebionites.

The church may be a human institution on one level, but it is also a church that is created and empowered by the Spirit.  Here's a quote from Barth:

It is clear however, that to see and understand that which is effected by God, the Church, in its true reality, we have not to lose sight even momentarily or incidentally of the occurrence of the divine operation, and therefore concretely of the divine work of upbuilding the community by Jesus Christ. The Church is, of course, a human, earthly-historical construct, whose history involves from the very first, and always well involve, human action. But it is this human construct, the christian Church, because and as God is at work in it by His Holy Spirit. [CD IV.2, 617, quoted in Bender, note 18, p. 172].

So, as we celebrate Pentecost let us remember that the Spirit has come to empower a church to bear witness to the Gospel.  It will do so in visible form, even if the Spirit is not always visible!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Children and Gifts - Excerpt from Unfettered Spirit

Note:  With Pentecost on the horizon, and in light of a conversation with Bruce Epperly earlier this week focusing on the Spirit and Ministry, I wanted to share a few paragraphs from a section of my book dealing with children and gifts. 


When the disciples sought to push the children away, Jesus asked that they be brought to him. To such persons as these, belonged the kingdom of God (Mk 10:13-16; Mt. 19:13-15; Lk. 18:15-17). Children are often spoken of as the future of the church, but they’re more than the future, they’re gifted members of the body whose place in the body needs to be recognized.

Congregations have a responsibility to provide spiritual nurture and care to children, and to pass on to them the traditions of the faith. Churches, whatever the form and timing of their baptismal practices, face the issue of when a child truly becomes a member of the community in their own right and not simply as an extension of their family. Is it at Baptism or Confirmation (depending on tradition)? If so, then children in believer baptism communities find themselves in a different situation than those in infant-baptism communities.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Pentecost and Ministry - A Conversation

Pentecost is at hand. Jesus has ascended (Acts 1) and the people of God are waiting to know what comes next. Are we open to what God is about to do? If the Spirit is unfettered and the story of Acts is transforming, what does that mean for us today. Could we be entering a New Great Awakening as Diana Butler Bass (Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening) suggests? These are the kinds of questions that Bruce Epperly and I talked about in an Energion Google Hangout.  Bruce and I speak specifically to our more liberal and progressive Christian compatriots who struggle with the idea of the Spirit and spiritual experience.

Our conversation centers on two books that deal with these issues.  The first is Bruce's book Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel and my book Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, both of which come from Energion Publications.  So, as we move toward the coming of the Spirit, may this conversation prove to be a blessing.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Rightist Critics of Pope Francis -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Pope Francis and I don't see eye to eye on everything, but overall I'm a fan. He has given attention to poverty, climate change, violence and war. He is truly pro-life in the broadest sense of the word.  He does have his detractors, both within and without the Roman Catholic Church.  His fiercest critics might be right wing Catholics who dislike his political and economic positions. They disdain his outreach to persons like Gustavo Gutierrez and many on the right want him to "stay out of politics." He's been accused by politicians of not knowing his Bible, because most assuredly Jesus didn't tell us to help the poor. Well, enough of my introduction. Martin Marty takes a look at the Rightist critique and what it means for the church.  Take a read, won't you? 

Rightist Critics of Pope Francis 
By MARTIN E. MARTY   MAY 18, 2015
Cliff Kincaid, Director of the AIM Center for Investigative Journalism       Screenshot: YouTube video
NOTESightings has a new comment policy. When you email a comment to, if you would like it to be added to the article archived on the Marty Center's website, please provide your full name in the body of the email and indicate in the subject line: POST COMMENT TO [title of Sightings piece].

Pope Francis enjoys universal acclaim. Almost.

While the pontiff is building bridges to Communists in Cuba, nuns who had been under suspicion, Muslims, Jews, Protestants and even people outside the faith, two dissenting groups stand out: Catholics on the Left, in whose eyes he is not moving fast enough with respect to church laws, policies, and theology to effect the changes which they regard as urgent, and Catholics on the Right, who are displeased by almost everything this pope says and does.