This is the sermon the Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles of St. Stephen’s, Hurst, preached during the online worship service offered by the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 29, 2020, at St. Luke’s in the Meadow, Fort Worth.
The Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles
Lent 4A March 29, 2020
St Luke’s in the Meadow
Live Streamed during Covid19
It seems impossible, but Palm Sunday is only one week away. How has Holy Week drawn so close? It feels impossible that Easter can still come after such an unconventional Lent. I feel like I’ve been wandering in the wilderness of Zoom meetings and homeschooling our children for months and months and months. That should feel penitential, but instead it hasn’t felt like Lent at all. Our family’s participation in Lent Madness over breakfast and daily Lenten meditations read over dinner have been replaced by staggered breakfasts as family members sleepily roll out of bed and incessant whining about why we still have to give up sweets when we aren’t even going to church on Sunday morning. Haven’t we given up enough already? In our house, it truly feels as if we have failed Lent.
This is a season when we recognize our sinful behavior and how it leads to separation from God and other people. A season that calls us confront our limitations and mortality. Attempting to homeschool our third and fifth graders this week taught me enough about my limitations to last a lifetime. I also know that it’s easier than ever for me to consider my own mortality or that of friends and family during a time like this. When I stop and think about Lent and our current life, I realize we aren’t failing after all.
Our texts today seem to be handpicked for this occasion, each calling us to wonder what God has to say in the face of death, in the face of lost causes, worldwide pandemics, and hope that’s been destroyed. I want to focus on the prophet Ezekiel and his description of this fantastic vision in which the Spirit of the Lord places him in a valley of dry bones. God offers Ezekiel a tour and tells him that these bones are God’s people. But even though they are God’s chosen people, they don’t feel like it. They feel cut off from God. Ezekiel is tasked with telling them they are not forgotten. Telling them that God will open their graves and put God’s spirit within their bones. Life is not over.
The prophetic oracles and visions in the book of Ezekiel are addressed to a displaced people: people who have lost their land, their livelihood, and especially their faith. Their God, after all, promised them a prosperous life in a plentiful land. But instead they are living in exile as a people stuck in the wilderness. Unlike the first generations of Israelites wandering through the wilderness with Moses, these exiles are not on the way to a promised land. In fact – it’s just the opposite. They were taken away from the promised land and lost all hope living in exile. This latter section of the book of Ezekiel addresses whether or not this dire situation is as desperate as it feels. They ask God, how can we even continue living?
God responds with these words, “I will put my spirit within you.”
When Ezekiel writes this book, he chooses his Hebrew words carefully unfortunately the English translation doesn’t do it justice. In Hebrew the words for wind, breath and spirit are all the same word “ruach.” Ezekiel’s vision of God proclaiming, “I will put my spirit within you” can also mean “I will breathe my breath into you.” And this to me is crucial in understanding God’s love and power. Even when our hope is lost and when we feel disconnected from God – God is there, breathing life and spirit into our dry, dry bones.
The Spirit of God is the life and breath of creation. The Spirit of God is the vital spark that enlivens and sustains every creature. In Ezekiel’s vision the bones are sun-bleached and parched, beginning to crumble into dust. God breathes spirit into them, and there is life. God does not simply reverse the Israelites’ situation — God also meets the people where they are and then journeys with them onward back to the Promised Land. Through God’s breath and spirit, the people are given direction and hope.
It feels like we too are wandering through a valley of dry bones right now. A world struggling in the midst chaos, leaders choosing economic profits over life. Countries choosing nationalistic ideals over global concerns. Millions of people filing for unemployment. And that’s all in the secular world. I think the universal church has existed in a valley of dry bones for quite some time. In too many sacred spaces, the spirit dried up while we held fast to our traditions and comfortable ways of being Christians.
But now we have the coronavirus. This worldwide pandemic that’s taking the breath out of people we love, while at the same time, forcing the church and the world into a new way of living. This new way of living and way of being the church is really uncomfortable. Just as old brittle bones being filled with new sinew, skin and breath would have been uncomfortable.
Church is different now. The world is different now. And I know that God is here, breathing life and spirit into our dry, dry bones. I know God is here because instead of feeling hopeless, we are collectively living in new creative ways, nourishing our communities in unconventional ways we never would have tried before.
I know God is here when I learn just how many church leaders are taking time to call every person on their rolls. When I see us worshiping together through social media and other digital avenues … which felt weird at first but now I realize we get to hear God speak through preachers we’ve never heard before or beloved preachers we haven’t heard in years.
God is breathing new life into our communities, too. I see it in neighbors sipping coffee and catching up from in carefully spaced lawn chairs around a cul-de-sac on weekday morning. I see it in our leisurely family walks in the middle of the day and passing more people than ever before on colorful chalk colored sidewalks. I see it online when winning children’s authors offer daily lunchtime drawing lessons on YouTube and friends read stories over Facebook Live and FaceTime, all so parents can have a 20-minute break.
God’s promise to Ezekiel and the exiled Israelites is being lived out in real time. The breath of God, the Spirit of God is bringing new life to our church and the communities around us. God brought hope to the hopeless exiled, and God brings hope and calm to the chaos of today. Nothing is too dry or too dead to be beyond the life-giving reach of God’s Spirit and breath. God isn’t just breathing life into a valley of bones in Babylon or into Jesus’ friend Lazarus days after his death; God is at work redeeming us right now. God at work transforming us.
It’s been a weird Lent, but God is here, breathing new life into us. And I wonder what we will do with this new life. When mandated physical isolation finally ends, will we return to our pre-pandemic routines of unintentional social distancing – preferring the comfort of our homes rather than the company or our neighbors? Will we return to our traditional, comfortable ways of being the church? Or will we have the courage to be raised into something new? I don’t know what awaits us, but I do know that we will have a choice of how we live in relationship with one another and with Christ. What will you do with this new life