a sermon preached at the First Church UCC, Middletown CT on March 21, 2021
SCRIPTURE READING: Ezekiel 37:11-14
Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 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,” says the Lord.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Maybe you, like me, remember when Richard Farina died. If you do, you probably know more about him and his work than I ever did – I was in my country music stage in those days, but I was at least aware of Joan Baez and that Richard Farina was her brother-in-law. I only heard of him when he died in a tragic motorcycle accident and probably the only reason I remember him at all is the title to his only book: “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me”. And, truthfully, I’ve never read the book. The title was enough. I’d been down often enough to understand the truth of the words: been down so long it looks like up to me.
I don’t know about you, but seems to me that there’s a sort of truth there, and it points towards something really important. Most of us get through childhood before we discover that there’s going to be tough spots in life. But whether we learn it in a childhood spent in the foster-care system, or when a sibling dies – or we don’t learn it until we’re adults and thanking God we got on at the Tampax factory, or discover that our PhD won’t get us the job of our dreams –or in some other way, we discover that life is not perfect. Not by a long shot.
The smartest, happiest, most blessed kid in the youth group is struggling with her identity. Dad has a drinking problem. I can’t seem to get out of debt. Well, I don’t imagine I need to go on. We all know it, or suspect it – life is full of hard stuff, and it doesn’t all turn out right.
The question isn’t, does this happen; the question is where is God in all this? And that leads me to this morning’s lesson, from Ezekiel. The lesson is part of the story of the valley of dry bones; a place where Ezekiel experiences God bringing back life to what the people think is dead. “[the whole house of Israel believes]. . .our bones are dried up and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely. .”
Well, I don’t know about you, but that sure describes my own experiences when the world is going wrong. Left out, let down, losing everything important, alone, everything important gone in some way or another. My bones are dried up and my hope is lost.
But Ezekiel doesn’t stop the story there; he re-tells God’s promise: “Oh my people I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live. .” Live, live with God. But live in a way eternally changed by all that’s happened.
My sister died when I was three. I never met her; she died the day after she was born. And yet her life, and her death, continue to be a part of my life, decades later. God did not bring her back; God didn’t – in my opinion – even give us much comfort in the days following her death. Not that people didn’t try; it just wasn’t much help. We all, each in our own way, turned away from God for a long time, and we didn’t all come back. But as time went on, I began to understand God’s presence in our world and the ways that line could be true. I don’t think that, at the time, it would have been comforting if Jesus himself had knocked at our door to comfort my parents. And I sure would have been confused.
What helped me “get” how God comforts us? As I grew older (remember, I was three when this happened) I saw that we weren’t the only folks this had happened to – my father’s parents had lost two of their five children. I won’t bore you with the details but it was clear that they’d dealt with a number of disasters, and it was God who had brought them through. They were in church every week; they sang the songs, served on Boards and Committees, made most of their friends there; and they found something there which kept them going.
I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that Frederick Buechner in his comments about Job in today’s bulletin has the right of it. There’s more going on than we’ll ever understand. It’s not the understanding that’s the strength of our relationship with God – it’s the companionship that really matters. In the depths of crisis, we’re probably not going to be able to perceive God’s presence, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The story’s told that when he was deeply depressed, Martin Luther, the great Reformer, used to remind himself, “I am baptized.” so that he could remember that in baptism, God had promised to be with him forever. Baptism is the outward and visible sign of God’s promise to be with us forever, good times and bad.
Our hope is that we will be prepared with a faith in God that can endure the toughest times; but remember, even those who knew Jesus gave him a hard time when Lazarus died. The best among us doubt when the worst happens. If, when those bad times come, you cannot perceive God, you are not alone. God is still with you.
We are never alone. God is always with us.