Monday, April 7, 2014

Dry Bones & Burial Bindings


In the 1960’s, the Presbyterian Church where I grew up was typical of many mainline Christian churches of that era.  Within its congregational membership were two groups – each with a distinctive approach to living out the Christian faith.  I suspect that at first neither group knew these differences existed.  Certainly they did not perceive the ramifications that would become evident in a few short years.  It took the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and Watergate to bring them to the surface of community life.

Let me describe each approach to you and while I will make broad, sweeping generalizations that don’t hold true in every specific instance, hopefully the big picture will be quite accurate and may even illuminate what those of you at St. Paul’s in that era experienced, or what you may have experienced in whatever church you attended at the time.

One distinctive approach to the Christian life was championed by a group that came to be known as ‘evangelicals’.  These folks experienced Christianity as a personal relationship with Jesus initiated by a conversation experience inaugurating a personal commitment to Christ.  For these folks, Christianity was primarily concerned with the individual’s relationship to God.  Jesus’ primary mission was to help individuals be reconciled with the Father.  My youth minister began his spiritual journey years earlier with a conversion experience at a Billy Graham rally.  Evangelicals like him wanted to help people like me to understand the personal consequences of my sins and to convict me of my need to be saved.  Salvation brought with it the gift of new life through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  This newfound power enabled converts to lead better and more holy lives that were pleasing to God.

The other approach to the Christian faith and life was championed by a group of people who came to be dubbed ‘social activists’ or ‘liberals’.  These folks were more focused on how the faith got played out at a communal level; often passionately focused on national and world events.  For them, God was concerned primarily with society’s injustices and oppressive structures.  Followers of Christ, from their perspective, were called to make this world a better place; a place more in keeping with Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God.  A leading figure in this movement was Dr. Martin Luther King.  To the degree that God is concerned about the individual, it is that you and I be good people and good citizens who lead basically good moral lives and convert our faith into social action.  Civil Rights, protesting war and nuclear proliferation, and advocating for social policies designed to address the concerns of the most needy in our society became passionate, Christian concerns for this group.

In my experience at the church where I grew up, fissures began to appear between these two approaches in the late 60’s.  A struggle for the congregation’s identity emerged in the mid 70’s.  By the early 80’s, the evangelicals in the church left to become part of a newly formed non-denominational church in town; one that saw its population swell into the thousands as like-minded Christians from other congregations and other denominations felt the need to gather with their own and apart from the civil activists with whom they had done battle in a local church.  For their part, the liberals were more than happy with this parting of the ways because it ratcheted down the level of theological conflict in the congregation.

I recount this history for two reasons.  First, so that you might think how the same issues and dynamics played out either here at St. Paul’s or in the congregations you have attended, and second, because our two principle readings this morning split in their focus in very similar ways.

The gospel reading details Jesus’ discussion with two sisters and his concern for their brother – his friend – who has died.  In the end, Jesus calls Lazarus back from the dead and instructs that he be unbound of his burial cloths.  It is, in many ways, a quintessential evangelical story.  Jesus’ focus and attention is directed to specific individuals who respond to him in faith and receive tangible blessings for their actions.

The other reading focuses on one of seven visions recorded by the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel.  Along with approximately 3,000 other Jewish exiles, he lived in Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 586 BC.  We can scarcely imagine today the struggle it was to keep alive the Jewish culture and faith.  As I mentioned in my sermon on Wednesday, countless other societies were forced into exile and never heard from again. 

In this particular vision, God shows Ezekiel a valley of dry bones, which are then called back to life in dramatic fashion.  This is not the assurance of personal resurrection Jesus demonstrates by raising Lazarus.  This resurrection is communal and it affirms God’s deep concern for the restoration of a way of life embodied by a people of faith.  It is a dramatic demonstration of God’s concern for society as a whole.

The pairing of these two readings reminds all Christians of our need for each other and how imperative it is we work for a way to integrate our distinctive approaches the Christian faith.  As individuals, our lives do need to be changed.  We need to be committed to the Christian faith and empowered to live out the vows and promises we make through Baptism and Confirmation.  Each of us needs to know that God seeks our deepest healing and calls us to a life of stewardship where we devote our time, our talent, and our treasure to God’s work in the world.  But our vision is something far bigger than just ‘winning souls’, it is nothing short of a world where all people live in right relationship with God, with each other, and with this fragile earth our island home.  Our vision is to usher in a Kingdom where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. 

We began our Lenten journey with an Old Testament reading represented by apples and figs leaves recalling a time when all creation lived in harmony with God’s dream.  We end our Sunday’s in Lent with a vision of dry bones where that dream is restored.  That restoration will come through Jesus’ death on a cross; a death that will have implications both personal and communal.

When I think back to the church where I grew up I realize that some opposites in life that do not conform to a simple categories of right and wrong where one is helpful and the other destructive.  There are some tensions that are polarities that must be managed so as not to go too far toward one extreme or the other.  Each polarity offers something that is beneficial but the exclusion of the other would be disastrous.  A classic polarity involves breathing.  Imagine if, as a society or as a congregation, we divided between inhalers and exhalers.  This is a tension where you do not want a winner and a loser.  In order to thrive – even to live – we have to embrace the insights and benefits both of breathing in and breathing out.

A focus on the individual verses a focus on the community is another fundamental polarity.  Any business, organization, movement, society, or religion that emphasizes one at the exclusion (or diminishment) of the other is doomed.  Our readings this morning call on us to integrate something our society as a whole has struggled to blend and the Christian church has toiled with it as well.  We are a people who, following the stories of our sacred texts, seek to redeem each and every person while at the same time working to make this world a better place for everyone.  We are a people guided by bones and burial bindings – the restoration of dry bones littering a valley and calling forth a specific person from the dead – both in desperate need of new life.