Frank C. Spencer: Prophesy!

This story from Ezekiel is one that most of us have heard for a very long time. It's kind of a funny story I remember from childhood. We sing songs about it. We do silly art projects in Sunday School. But it's not a silly story.

This is a profound story; it is a profound miracle. God takes Ezekiel out to the valley, by the hand of God, "in the Spirit of God," and sets him down to see the dry bones. To the Hebrew hearer, this phrase "dry bones" does not mean simply the remains of what might have been a great battle. "Dry bones" has a meaning of much greater finality. The Jewish tradition following death was to place the corpse in a tomb, allowing the flesh to decay. The body would remain there until there was nothing left but the dry bones. Only then would the dry bones be placed in an ossuary which was set in the final resting place. This was the end of the line, utter desolation, permanent exile from the living.

So, God asks the prophet, "Mortal, can these bones live?" The word used here for "mortal" is Bin Adam, best translated as "Son of Man." It clearly harkens back to the creation story in Genesis and foreshadows Christ's own description of himself. It is intended to be a universal calling out of all humankind.

Now God poses the question to Ezekiel, "Can these bones live?" The prophet attempts to answer. It is hard to know how Ezekiel might have actually intoned his response. Was he trying to deflect? Or was he being humble or afraid? He says, "O Lord, God, you know." He is in essence saying, "I don't have to tell you! Surely, you're not asking me, a mortal, such a question." We can just hear the uncertainty in Ezekiel's voice.

God, having gotten no answer from Ezekiel, in turn offers no answer back. Rather, God commands action, "Prophesy!"

God poses the question and then commands action. It is not so much an answer as an invitation to participate in whatever God is doing in the world. God invites Ezekiel to participate and the prophet obeys. He says, "Thus says the Lord," Ko Amar Adonai in Hebrew, the clarion call of every prophet. And while he is prophesying, God begins: bone to bone, flesh, sinews, skin. Resurrection has begun. It is God who is at work while the prophet speaks, but resurrection is not complete.

God says, "Prophesy to the breath...come from the four winds." The word for both breath and wind used here is Ruach. It is used ten times in this passage and it carries multiple meanings: it is the breath of God; it is the Spirit of God; it is the wind from the four corners of the earth; it is the breath of life in each human being. God acts as the prophecy goes on. God breathes life into each individual and the Spirit of God, Ruach, restores the community, and it is "a vast multitude."

Then in a most unusual twist, God explains this miracle as an allegory. So far in the scripture, everything we've seen has been expressed in the past tense. Now we shift to the only present tense phrase in the entire passage. "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.'"

And what then does God do? Again, God gives the command to action, "Prophesy!" And as the prophet is called to action, the passage now shifts to all future tense: God's promise of action, God's commitment to the community, God's keeping of promises and covenants. "O my people, I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil." We might even say on a firm footing, a place to take a stand. But the people say,

"Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely."

You know, that sounds an awful lot like what I hear in the broader Church community. In every mainline denomination you encounter discussions of declining membership, shrinking budgets, staff cuts and the loss of relevance to the broader culture. One blogger wrote after having reviewed last year's decline in the Presbyterian Church, "If we keep it up at this rate, in 18 years we'll all be gone."

"Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely."

Congregations are shrinking. The majority of main line congregations have fewer than 100 members. [] Commentators are predicting ongoing decline and fewer calls for ministers. Our seminaries are telling students, "You better think about part-time ministry combined with a secular job. Be a tent-maker," they say, "because we're not going to do church like we used to do church."

"Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely."

But I don't really buy that. I do not understand how we can preach the transformative Word of Jesus Christ, in whom all things are new, and then plan for our own demise. We cannot expect death, when we worship the Lord of new life. It just doesn't make sense.

It is true, that many small congregations are getting smaller, particularly in the rural areas of this country which are losing population. But if you ask a different question, "How do most protestant Christians in the United States experience Church?" you discover that more than 3/4 of us are members of larger churches with pastoral leadership, a sanctuary and a more or less balanced budget. The denominations themselves hold billions in assets and while secular trends create headwinds, [] I can't believe God is finished with the current expression of Protestantism in the United States.

Do we need reform? Absolutely! There will likely need to be changes to the corporate model of each congregation paying its dedicated pastoral staff from its own tithes and offerings. On the positive side of the ledger, there is an undeniable awakening of a new spirit by the Spirit with a commitment to social justice and inclusive community.

Let me tell you about Broad Street Ministries in my hometown of Philadelphia. It is run by Presbyterian ministers in a former large church building given by the Presbytery of Philadelphia, but it is incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit. Broad Street serves over 6,000 of our homeless neighbors with food, mailboxes, health screening, clothing and art therapy. It attracts thousands of volunteers annually. Over a hundred people gather each Sunday for worship and half again as many for Wednesday night Bible study. But there isn't a single "member." The mainline churches are going to have to think of new ways to conceive of what constitutes a church and new ways for denominations and traditional congregations to support them.

God asks the church, "Can these bones live?"

While I believe God is troubling the church, God has questions for each of us individually as well. I've been thinking a lot about prayer recently. In our text today, God asks a question. There is no answer ever given. I think sometimes when we pray, we get too focused on the answer. We go to God asking questions, expecting an answer. This is reflected in our language, we wonder, "Does God answer prayer?" There it is, "answer." We hear it in the word discernment. We try to discern the will of God or discern the mind of Christ or discern how God is calling us to a vocation. Those phrases expect an answer. It's as though we want God to whisper a correct answer in our ear so that we can get it down on some presumed test. What if our prayers were listening for God's questions, rather than asking for our heart's desires?

Abraham Heschel, wise rabbi and brilliant theologian, says, "The Prophet is a person who feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden on the prophet's soul." [The Prophets, Abraham Heschel, Harper Collins, 1965, p.5] This burden is God asking a question and then commanding, "Prophesy!" What question is God posing that is troubling you? What action might it suggest on your part? As you go to God in prayer during this season of Lent, listen for the questions that God is asking you.

So, brothers and sisters, Prophesy! to the dry bones and God promises new life. Prophesy! and the Holy Spirit restores the flagging community. Prophesy! about the questions with which God has burdened your soul. Are you ready to be a prophet? Are you ready to build the church? Ko Amar Adonai. Thus, says the Lord, Prophesy! Because God has promised to act.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Join me in prayer if you will.

Holy One, we pray that you will burden our souls with questions. We ask that you grant us the courage to participate with you as your Spirit moves in this world. Come from the four winds and make us one community, a great multitude in your son Jesus Christ. For it is in his name we pray. Amen.