Convection in the Wilderness

The Day of Pentecost 2021 (May 23), found the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights sitting with some of God’s people who knew something of diminution and weariness.  Our texts included Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Acts 2:1-13.

To hear this message as preached in worship please use the media player below:

To see the entire service of worship as recorded on YouTube, please use the following link:

It’s your birthday, but you’re not feeling it.  Or maybe you are, but your friends and family have ditched you.  Do you know what it’s like to have a sub-par birthday experience? A quick search of the web provided me with these images that, well, I hope I never experience.

I just don’t get this one.  The long table.  The carefully wrapped subway sandwiches.  The two guests who look as if they’d rather be at the dentist’s…

Or this one.  Who shows up at that venue and thinks, “Yes! This is it! This is where we’ll tell Dave how much he means to us!”

And finally, well, I’m just not even sure what to say about this one.

And yet, here we are, on Pentecost 2021, the “birthday of the church.”  How are we doing?  How does it feel to be you in late May, 2021?

I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest that these things may be true for you this season, if not this day.

We’re tired.  I mean, exhausted, in some respects.  Individually and communally, we don’t have much left in the tank, do we?  There are so many things that we used to think of as automatic that now require decisions and negotiation.  Stuff we used to just DO now requires a policy decision or a vote from the board.  Can we have coffee at the meeting? I’d like to offer you a handshake – does that make you nervous? And, speaking of birthdays – remember when we all ate cake after someone else blew all over it? Yikes!  But so many of these little things have just worn us down.  We’re done, many of us.

And we’re frustrated.  I mean, seriously – especially when it comes to things having to do with the coronavirus – how do we make sense of all the apparently conflicting information we’ve received?  Who do we trust?  When my cousin the epidemiologist tells me one thing, but then your friend the nurse tells you something else, and that guy on TV said yet another thing?  To make matters worse, when we finally come up with something that we think will work for us, then our parents or our children or our friends or our neighbors look at us like we’re crazy!  They tell us so, and then they attempt to correct us, or to scold us, or to ridicule us.  And we’re just supposed to take that?

Let’s not kid ourselves – we’re grieving.  Oh, there is an ocean of grief right now.  Some of us are simply lost because of the deaths we’ve endured.  Our grandparent died, alone, in an ICU, and we couldn’t even FaceTime.  Or maybe the specter of death has passed, but it’s been more than a year since we’ve seen the rest of the family.  There is so much loss – in the past fourteen months, we’ve said goodbye to friends or friendships, to jobs, to travel dreams or favorite restaurants or family trips.  And each of those losses adds to our collective lament.

What else? We’re impatient.  We think, “Why can’t those people act or think or believe more like me? What are they, morons?”  We’re concerned.  We think, “Oh, no! Those people are not acting or thinking or believing like me! They are at risk!”

We’re surely out of practice when it comes to being the Church.  We’ve learned a lot of new things, but we’ve gotten out of the habit of being around other people.  If we’re honest, we kind of like our lazy Sunday mornings, and fast-forwarding through the church service on YouTube.  That “mute” button is nice, isn’t it?  And being able to scroll through your email while being “at church”?  Very efficient.  And that’s just us, here in Crafton Heights.  Some of you are watching this on social media because your church has closed, or the pastor has left, or there’s been a big fight about the masks, or whatever.  It’s rough out there, ecclesiastically speaking.

But mostly, I think, we’re just tired.  Worn out.  Frazzled.

So we can be forgiven for arriving at this, the second Pentecost of the great Pandemic, and feeling a little less than exuberant.  In some years, we’d say, “Hey! It’s the birthday of the church! – YAY!”  Now, it’s more like “yay…”

If ever Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones has seemed appropriate, it is today.

Ezekiel had been born in Israel and raised in the faith.  As a young man, he and his family and community were taken captive when the nation was defeated and its people driven into exile.  From his isolated viewpoint, he was forced to watch much of what he loved be destroyed, or wither, or die.  After ten years of this diminishment and loss he has a vision of a valley that is filled with nothing but dry bones.

As a priest, such contact with death would render Ezekiel unclean.  If his identity lay in his ability to do that for which he had been trained since childhood, then he was even further lost – because simply touching anything dead would sit him on the bench for a while.

And as he is contemplating this fresh hell, the voice speaks to him: “Ezekiel, can these bones live?”  The way I’ve come to hear his reply echoes the weariness and frustration that the late great Paul Newman demonstrated as “Cool Hand Luke” a generation ago.  After days of being badgered and tormented by the sadistic prison guards, one of them says, “Luke, what’s your dirt doin’ in Boss Keane’s ditch?” Without making eye contact or even protesting, Luke says, “I don’t know, Boss…”

That’s how I hear Ezekiel’s reply – after a decade of loss and diminishment and grief and frustration, and now finding himself immersed in death and uncleanness, the Divine One asks him for a statement of faith.  The best he can do is to say, “You know, Lord. I don’t know, but you know.  I’m trying to have faith, but it’s so hard…”

And look at what God does – and does NOT do.  God does not give Ezekiel some monumental task; God does not make a huge “ask” of the beleaguered prophet.  Instead, God says, “Look, Son, just tell the truth.”  That’s what “prophesy” means – it means to say what is true. “Tell the truth, and stand in the midst of this wind.”

There’s a word that shows up an amazing ten times in this passage – in Hebrew, it’s ruah, and it can mean breath, or wind, or spirit.  Ruah is “air in motion”, and as that ruah moves over that boneyard, the disjointed skeletons become gradually transformed into what the Hebrew says is a chayil – our English renders that as “a vast multitude” – but it means a strong force, an entity that is infused with bravery or valor or power and purpose.  All Ezekiel does is watch, and stand in the ruah, and tell the truth.

It’s easy to hear a parallel from the book of Acts.  There, on the second floor of a borrowed residence, the followers of Jesus are hanging about.  They are a dispirited bunch in the days after his ascension.  They appear to be more concerned about what they’d lost than they were hopeful about what they might find.  They seem to be more worried about who had died than about looking for signs of new life.  If anything, they feel stuck in the present while they are longing for the past. Have you known any of that in these past 14 months?

And into this room that is filled with a preoccupied grief and angst blows the breath of the Holy Spirit.  It is the pneuma – the breath, the wind, the Spirit of the Holy, and She washes over these disciples gently at first, but then with enough force that they are compelled to run out into the street and tell the truth to anyone who will listen.  The result in Acts is similar to that in Ezekiel: by the end of the day a small group of, at most, a hundred and twenty people has swelled to a multitude that is thirty times that size.  Whereas they had begun the day in quiet, removed, private consultation, the chapter ends by describing a group that meets publicly and looks ahead and is, by any measure, vital and empowered.

The instigating force in both Ezekiel and in Acts is the same: air in motion.  The Spirit of God that moves on, and in, and through, and over those who have been despondent, defeated, demoralized, or dead.

Air in motion.

If you doubt the power of air in motion, let me invite you to ask Ron Gielarowski about his air fryer.  Talk with a chef about her convection oven, or ask my granddaughter about the fish jerky we make in the dehydrator.  Air in motion can do some amazing things, and render what we might consider to be lamentable into something wonderful.

And you say, “All right, Rev., cut to the chase.  What do you want us to do about this now?”

Well, you won’t be surprised to know that I have a few ideas.  But for today, I want to keep it simple and ask you to merely imitate what we’ve seen in Ezekiel and in Acts.  I want to invite you to get yourself into a position where you can catch a glimpse of the Spirit’s power.

Ezekiel entered into a valley and looked expectantly at a scene of disruption and isolation that he never hoped to see again.  The first followers of Jesus were able to take a few steps outside of their cloister, to escape their resignation, and find themselves in places where the breezes could flow.

With the exception of those of you who are about to be ordained or installed as officers in the church, I am not asking anyone to do or to be one more thing.  I don’t think that I’m adding anything to your weariness, or frustration, or impatience today.

I’m just asking you to listen for the Spirit of God.

And then I’m asking you to look at this church, and at your faith that has brought you here, and to answer this question: Can that faith live?  Can this church live?  Can this neighborhood live?”

Today, as we celebrate this birthday and gather around those who will serve as our leaders for years to come, and as we sit and find refreshment at the Table that has been set for us by Jesus of Nazareth, let us move – not as those who carry any power or authority on our own – but as those who have been touched by the convection of the Holy Spirit.

Let us listen.  And watch. And wait.  Expectantly – as those who believe that God does some of God’s best work with those who are despondent, defeated, demoralized, or dead.  Thanks be to God for the breath of the Spirit.  Amen.

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