Lenten sermon series:, “Restore us, O God!” Sermon title: “Check Your Breath” The Scripture passages: Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 10:6-10.April 19, 2017
Lauren: Pew Projects are available this Sunday to go along with the sermon. They are a way to help children engage with the sermon. We them available in the back of the sanctuary for those who would like their children to participate.
Lauren: Prayer – (the one from the book we read and lifting up Lyllian travel to say farewell to a loved one, the loved ones of MJ and his colleagues, the Congolese drivers and translators, the many people around the world and in our community who suffering through a loss) Throughout our sermon we will be inviting you to take a breath. This may be new, and we invite you to participate. We invite you to ground yourself, put your feet on the floor. Take a breath in and exhale. (twice)
CTM: We titled our sermon for this morning “Check your breath” which at first glance may make some of us think of times we wished a family member or friend would have kindly and discreetly handed us a breath mint or a piece of gum. While we are going to be going to be talking about the quality and quantity of personal and collective breath this morning we will not be preaching about our need to make sure our breath is fresh.
Lauren:The season of Lent is a time for self examination and introspection. Similarly points of transition are natural times and invitation for taking stock, evaluating where we are as a congregation and in our own faith journey. This morning you will find that we have more questions than answers, which in some ways reflects where we are at in our season of transition as a congregation.
CTM: The passage we are reflecting on this morning describes a valley. It brought to mind the valley of the shadow of death mentioned in Ps 23:4. This valley described here would be a pretty gruesome place, a place of despair and loss, a lifeless place. We have been reflecting and invite you to reflect with us. Where are the valleys of dry bones in our congregation? Where is there no breath in our collective and individual lives?
Lauren: Take a breath in and exhale.
CTM: During Lent, I tend to focus on some difficult areas in my faith. For example, one Lenten season right after Maia and Sela were born I decided to for Lent to stop comparing myself. This was difficult as you could imagine but I knew that my spiritual and personal well being and growth was being held hostage in some ways by my constant practice of comparing myself to others. For me that meant I took a FB fast amongst other things. You have to have some awareness of what is happening in your spiritual life in order to identify where you need the breathe of God. If you look around you, our congregation looks relatively healthy. But I wonder how we can become aware of the valleys of dry bones that are present amongst us? Who is the pulse point in our congregation? For instance, let’s think about who comes and goes from our congregation but we don’t notice and we don’t wonder where they are and what happened? What we noticed is that there seems to be more transience in our congregation among marginalized populations: people of color, single parents, single people and those who experience socio-economic struggles.
Lauren: Take a breath in and exhale
CTM: If we looked at our brothers and sisters who for whatever reason are not as present or in some ways are invisible in our congregational life and used them as the measurement for our health as a congregation what would it tell us? I used to fly a lot more than I get to now that we have to purchase 5 tickets. Which frustrates me to no end since half the flights one or other of our children are sprawled across the seats and into our laps. In some ways I wish we they still counted as lap children, but they’re huge. If you have ever flown, you will have heard the flight attendants give their typical run down about safety and flight procedures. One of my favorite parts is when they calmly mention the possibility of a loss of cabin pressure but that we should stay calm and if we are traveling with or sitting next to children or those who need assistance, we should first put on our own oxygen masks and then assist others. In other words, make sure you can breathe but THEN we are supposed to assist others. CTM: I wonder if in our congregation – we make sure we can breathe but neglect to notice those who do not have the same capacity to breath in our church as we do? Those who show up in our spaces short of breath . They show up short of breath maybe because while we drove here they had to take two septa buses and walk a ways to get here? Maybe they’re short of breath because they stay awake at night wondering and worrying if their black and brown sons and daughters are going to make it back home safely ? Maybe they’re short of breath because they have to work 2 and 3 jobs to make ends meet and they show up here without much rest? Maybe they’re short of breath because they feel invisible and disposable in our world and they experience the same thing at church? If we fail to notice and attend to those around us who are struggling to breath in our spaces then that is a valley of dry bones.
Lauren: Take a breath in and exhale Lauren: How do we identify valleys of dry bones in our church if you are someone like me? I came to OCMC as a straight, married white woman who grew up in a white mennonite church not far from here. My world view growing up as a mennonite was influenced by my understanding of Mennonites as an oppressed people, a persecuted people. We have a whole book called the Martyr’s mirror. It influenced who I saw myself as in all the stories in the New AND the Old Testament. In Drew Hart’s book (Trouble I’ve Seen) he lists continuing steps for churches and individuals in the work of racial justice. One step is adjusting our worldview to seeing the world from below. In the past few years I came to a startling realization that in today’s context and reality in our country and in our church I breathe freer than most. I breathe deeper than most. These spaces are safer for me. The fact that I can say that acknowledges that there are dry bones. There are is a need for the breath of God.
CTM: Take a breath in and exhale Lauren: Jesus did not take on the worldview of those in power or even the religious elite instead he took the worldview from both His heavenly Creator and those who saw the world from below. He was intentional in having his worldview shaped by and oriented to those on the margins of his society. Matthew 15:21-28 tells how a woman on the margin was able to influence Jesus’ actions and we think also his worldview. CTM: 21 Then Jesus left Galilee and went north to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Gentile [a] woman who lived there came to him, pleading, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! For my daughter is possessed by a demon that torments her severely.” 23 But Jesus gave her no reply, not even a word. Then his disciples urged him to send her away. “Tell her to go away,” they said. “She is bothering us with all her begging.” 24 Then Jesus said to the woman, “I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep—the people of Israel.” 25 But she came and worshiped him, pleading again, “Lord, help me!” 26 Jesus responded, “It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She replied, “That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters’ table.” 28 “Dear woman,” Jesus said to her, “your faith is great. Your request is granted.” And her daughter was instantly healed.
Lauren: Ada Maria Asis-Diaz, one of the founding mothers of mujerista theology, writes about those on the margins of our society having epistemological privilege “because they can see and understand what the rich and privileged cannot. It is not that the poor and oppressed are morally superior. Their epistemological privilege is based on the fact that, because their point of view is not distorted by power and riches, they can see differently.” She goes on to quote José Miguez Bonino, “‘The point of view of the poor, . . . pierced by suffering and attracted by hope, allows them, in their struggles, to conceive another reality. Because the poor suffer the weight of alienation, they can conceive a different project of hope and provide dynamism to a new way of organizing human life for all.’” To follow Christ is to view the landscape through the eyes of the oppressed so that our valleys of dry bones become visible to us all.
CTM: Take a breath in and exhale Lauren: So, once we become aware of our collective and individual valleys of dry bones how do we lament them? When I read the text in Ezekiel I had a surprising lack of curiosity about the bones Ezekiel discovers in the valley with God. When we first read about the bones there isn’t a story connected with them, they were simply bones. But then God says, “these bones are the house of Israel.” These bones are the people to whom God made their first covenant. And they died. Why did they die? What can we learn? First, we have to recognize these valleys in our lives and in our church and we need to ask how they came to be? I think about the loss of MJ Sharp and the valley of dry bones that those who are connected to him are experiencing right now. And I think about how I didn’t even know there was a conflict in the Congo in the first place. The valley of dry bones where 400 people have been killed and over 225,000 have been displaced. I know I can’t be aware of every valley but when I am aware of them my lament needs to be real. (http://mennoworld.org/2017/03/28/news/bodies-found-in-congo-u-n-worker-feared-dead/) Ignoring valleys or being ignorant of them does not make them disappear or lessen their impact. CTM: Take a breath in and exhale. I didn’t used to see the valleys in my own life. I didn’t recognize the way my humanity was suffering because I did not see the suffering of those around me. But I started to see and ask how did we get here where I have no meaningful relationships with people who are different from me? People who look different from me. People who believe differently than I do. People whose gender identity is non-conforming. And once I saw the valley I was in, I started seeing these valleys of bones everywhere. In my neighborhood. In my church. In myself. And I started to have an urgent curiosity about how they came to be and how I was complicit.
Lauren: In my lament, I first had to put myself in a position to see my valleys of dry bones but then I needed to do the deeper work. This work for me entailed looking at the choices I get to make. I get to make a choice to live pretty much wherever I want. We chose to live here in Oxford Circle. Choosing to live in an economically struggling community doesn’t make me a good person, or even a good Christian. While it is one way of “putting your treasure where you want your heart to go” (a message Leonard preached in the past), it is also a demonstration of my privilege. Choosing to move into the neighborhood is something we often celebrate without recognizing that white and middle class people have more freedom to move around. This work for me also entailed seeking truth and stories from people whose experiences were vastly different than my own. Experiences with the police. Experiences looking for work. Experiences getting a new hairstyle. Experiences being in our church.
CTM: Take a breath in and exhale. A lot of the learning that I did in broadening my awareness I did by reading. As I’ve started to understand asking people of color to educate me is exhausting for them. Their daily experiences already are very exhausting. So I sought to educatE myself from sources that were readily available to me. I just had never looked for them before. And I began to grieve. I began to grieve these experiences. To gain a better understanding of the privilege that I have and how it skews my sense of normalcy. This grief allowed me to have genuine friendships with people who are different from myself. This place of grief, and recognizing my own brokenness and complicity creates space for growth. The valley holds my bones that needed to be breathed into by the Spirit of God. Maybe some of you can see yourself in my story. Will we allow God to give us eyes to see from below?. As we sit with these questions today and see with new eyes our valleys of dry bones in our church and in our own lives we are called to lament them. We need to grieve these valleys. CTM: Take a breath in and exhale. CTM: Some folks may be exhausted by the idea of more lament. Because of the body you live in as a person of color – you quite possibly, like me, feel that you have had too many opportunities to lament. But part of our lament is holding out hope for the breath of heaven to blow new life in our valleys of dry bones. On reading the passage in Ezekiel a few things give me hope: – God was aware of the location of the dry bones, They led Ezekiel to the valley (v.1) – Which means that God is aware of our valleys of dry bones…They know our pains, sorrows and loss. – God invites us into the work of restoration (v. 4, 9 and 12) Ezekiel was given words and steps to bring the healing work of God into that valley of death. Which means that the Spirit of God is going to be there to guide us in this work. She does not leave us nor forsake us. – God’s restoration work is a process. In the passage there were stages: dry bones, bones with tendons, then flesh, then breath. (v. 7-10) Which means we don’t have to get there over-night (but soon!). – And In the New Testament we see Jesus taking this vision of God,breathing new life, one step further than this Ezekiel passage by assuring us in John 10 that His arrival signals something more than just barely breathing kind of life but abundant life – Shalom – wholeness – Beloved Community – all that good stuff! (This is good news people!) Lauren: Take a breath in and exhale.
Lauren: When the breath of God blows through our valleys of dry bones there should be evidence. In the few verses of our scripture passage God provides the evidence for the people of Israel that the breath of God was blowing in new life over their valley of dry bones. READ:Ez.37:12-14. I have been trying to teach Araminta how to blow her nose since the first time she got a cold in her first year of life. It’s never too early to learn that skill. She is now almost four and we haven’t mastered it. I’ve tried all the tricks. One particular one that had some effect was holding a tissue in front of her face, and having her try to blow through her nose ONLY. We would know if there was success, if breath came out, if the tissue moved. We are still working on this. In a valley of dry bones there is no breath. There is no ability to breathe because bones simply don’t have that capacity. When we breathe, we inhale and exhale. the evidence should not just be audible. It should be visible. There should be fruit born from that breath. Something should move. We should see us moving towards becoming more of the Beloved Community. There should be evidence of abundant life – not prosperity Gospel abundance – but the upside down Kingdom abundance.
CTM: Take a breath in and exhale. CTM: So we invite you now, Oxford Circle Mennonite Church, sisters and brothers, to take some time to reflect on our congregation and ask the Spirit of God to show you the valleys of dry bones – the places that are not yet experienced as abundant life for all people. Where some of us are struggling to breathe. Reflect on your own lives and hearts, what areas of dry bones need to be named? Where is there no breath? In a moment we are going to invite you to prophesy to those bones and speak out your need for our Creator to put us back together and breathe the Spirit into us. And this a noisy process, not a beautiful seamless effortless transformation. This transformative move of the Spirit amongst us and in us is a work we do together. SPACE TO REFLECT We invite the worship team to forward and as they play take this time to lift up those valleys of dry bones, to prophesy the breath of God to those place