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A couple years ago in one of the youth Sunday School classes I was teaching, we were learning about Pentecost and talking about experiences of the Holy Spirit, which prompted one of my all time favorite questions from an inquisitive middle schooler: “how do you know the difference between the Holy Spirit and heartburn?”
We laugh. But if we’re honest with ourselves, I’m guessing we all struggle to put words on our own experiences of the Spirit. Partly because we’re Presbyterians and my hunch is that many of us are more comfortable talking about matters of the mind than the heart. But also, it’s the very nature of the Spirit of God to be beyond description, unpredictable, always on the move and never the size of the small boxes we would prefer to contain it in. The old cliché gets it right: describing the Holy Spirit is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.
So this morning, on Pentecost Sunday, we join the Prophet Ezekiel, and with him stand in wonder at the vision God gave him of the Spirit’s life-giving power.
Our passage this morning is Ezekiel 37:1-14
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath[a] to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath[b] in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath:[c] Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath,[d] and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11 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.’ 12 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. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 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.”
A recent series on the podcast Radiolab told the story of an anthropologist who shortly after beginning his career, burnt out in academia and was in search of a new direction for his life. Having been moved by a book he’d read about the struggles of migrants in this country, he traveled to Tuscan to learn more about what’s going on at our southern border.
There, he met the director of an NGO who didn’t hold anything back in his introduction to the situation. They hiked through the hot Sonoran desert, through unforgiving sun, red sand, sagebrush and cactus, out to the very middle of nowhere on the Arizona border. Making it to the top of a bluff, he looked out over the plain below and was astonished to see the barren landscape littered with the belongings of people who had attempted this crossing – he looked and he saw clothing, empty food containers, backpacks, baby bottles, pictures of loved ones. The kind of belongings that people take with them in a desperate and dangerous attempt at safety and a better life. But then he got closer and looked around, and to his horror, saw that scattered among the discarded belongings in the valley were also bones. Very dry bones. Bones that can no longer be identified. Humans whose stories have been erased, disconnected from home and family.
I imagine that when Ezekiel looked out over the valley in his vision, he saw something like this. I imagine he felt something like this.
For Ezekiel, this valley of death reflected the horrors of the battlefield fresh in his mind, memories of violent Babylonians on chariots, of families separated, of communities scattered and the hopelessness of exile 900 miles away from everything cherished and familiar. The valley in Ezekiel’s vision represented the ones who had died in the violence, their bones never to be gathered with their ancestors, but the valley here also reflected the ones who were as good as dead still living in Babylon – the ones with no hope, disconnected from their home, from their God, from one another. The ones who, in Psalm 137, sit and weep by the rivers of Babylon asking “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” The ones who declare in our passage this morning, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely”
Ezekiel looks out over this scene of utter hopelessness and feels the sadness of a future with no possibilities, the weight of what feels like broken promises.
“Mortal, can these bones live?” the divine voice asks him.
“O Lord God, you alone know” he answers.
God tells him to prophesy to the bones. To tell them that indeed, they shall live. And so Ezekiel speaks into the impossibility of it all, declaring promises he probably isn’t even sure he believes. Looking out over the valley before him, he tells of life and breath and hope.
Then, out of the deathly silence, a rattling sound. An unexpected movement. Bones come together. Flesh grows upon them.
But now we just have a field of zombies, don’t we? They’re reconnected, but not really living.
The Hebrew word for soul is nephesh. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul” – with all your nephesh
This is an interesting word because it can also mean neck. It’s through your neck that breath enters your body and makes you alive. Makes you move. Makes you love. By this divine breath we are connected to God.
In the creation poetry of Genesis, God forms a man from the dust of the ground but he is not living until God breathes into him the breath of life. He is not living until he is connected to God. Until he has a soul. A neck. A connection.
It’s this breath that comes upon the valley of death before Ezekiel’s eyes, transforming reconnected bodies into reconnected souls full of breath and life:
“the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude”
As much as this passage sounds like a vision of bodily resurrection, this is actually a vision of restored community. The idea of resurrection came later in the Hebrew Scriptures – this is a story about promises kept to the people of God – promises to the vast multitude now standing together. Promises to future generations of return to community, promises of renewed peace in their land, promises of an end to exile, isolation, and disconnection. The spirit breath of God not only connects the individual to God, but connects people to each other. This is not an individual miracle, but a communal one.
And this brings us back to Pentecost this morning. Back to day 50 after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Back to a Jerusalem filled with visitors from every corner of their known world in town for the Festival of Weeks, giving thanks for the wheat harvest as well as the giving of the Torah.
A violent wind sweeps across the ragtag group of faithful disciples. Tongues of fire appear, the spirit of God breathes upon them, and the crowds are astonished that each hear their own language being spoken. The spirit of God surprises everyone with the barriers that it breaks. Connecting those who had been divided, removing obstacles of communication, binding all people together in one mighty breath.
And this is only the beginning of the Spirit’s work through the church.
As the story unfolds, the Holy Spirit gets to work breaking down the walls that divide and bringing people together:
The socially and sexually marginalized Ethiopian Eunuch comes to Philip asking for baptism.
Cornelius, the gentile Italian Centurian invites Peter to share the good news with him and his household.
Barnabas arrives in Antioch to find a diverse church full of Greek gentiles thriving and growing.
The Spirit of God moved in ways never expected, broke boundaries thought to be permanent, and very often moved faster than anyone was initially comfortable with.
The gift of the Holy Spirit to the church is a gift of unity. A force that binds us with one another in Jesus Christ and reminds us that all people are connected to God and each other. Where we want to draw borders, the Spirit moves to restore kinship. Where we want to stay safe with those most like us, the Spirit moves us to make room and welcome for the other, the stranger, the ones far away. As the Spirit was poured out on Pentecost with tongues to speak across borders, the Spirit moves in the church now to always open the door, to widen our welcome, to recognize the shared image of God in all who have breath.
Mother Teresa famously observed: “If we have no peace, it’s because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
When we forget that we belong to each other, when we ignore the binding and connecting movement of the Holy Spirit, that’s when we find our way back to the valley of death. When we see others as less deserving, as less human, when people refer to others as animals instead of human - that’s when we allow people to die out in the desert, to die behind fortified walls, to perish behind the bars of mass incarceration or in communities devastated by systemic racism.
So today, as we celebrate Pentecost and rejoice in the gift of the Holy Spirit in our divided and broken world, let us remember and proclaim our connectedness. Let us open ourselves up to new ways that the breath of God is at work in us to connect us – moving us to:
stand with those who suffer,
advocate for those who are silenced,
sit with those we disagree with,
eat with those who have different stories,
share with those who have less privilege,
learn from those who call another place home,
practice seeing the image of God in all those we share this planet with.
This morning, we stand with Ezekiel and wonder if these dry bones can indeed live. We stand with Peter and all the first followers of Jesus, and wonder what the future might hold. This Pentecost morning we are reminded to breathe deeply the breath of God and prepare ourselves for new movement, for new community, for new ways of being the church… for new life, in the name of the Father, and the son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.