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A sermon for Pentecost based on Ezekiel 34 and Acts 2

Lately I’ve been reading a book by Tim Ferris called “Tribe of Mentors”. In it he asks over 50 leaders, across all sorts of fields of expertise, the same eleven questions. Their answers range from the enlightening to the silly. One of the joys of reading this book is the repetition of the questions has caused me to reflect on how I would answer the questions. One of the questions I’ve been reflecting on, especially as this day was approaching, this day where we celebrate our graduates is this: “What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?” I’ve been thinking a lot about what advice I would give to graduates of all schooling levels as they prepare for the next stage in their journey. 

There are a couple of things that immediately come to mind: Read a lot, read books that aren’t assigned to you, read outside of your areas of interest and expertise. Be kind to everyone, but especially to people in the service industry. Don’t be afraid to fail. 

But as I say those things they sound like a litany of cliches. The things we tell to all of our graduates. Things like “Dream big” and “Follow your passion” and “Please don’t move back home after you graduate.” Okay, we don’t say that last one, but I know some of you are thinking it. 

Then there are the unspoken pieces of advice that somehow we all internalize: “Make a lot of money.” “Pursue the “American Dream”. “Follow the prescribed rules of family and future.” Sure, we tell ourselves (and our youth) that those things don’t matter, but then when they do something that falls outside of that we get concerned. We ask them if they are really sure they want to pursue the arts and maybe shouldn’t they have a second major “just in case”. 

I’m sure we can all think of things that our families didn’t exactly say, but that we felt. And the sense of failure we felt when we didn’t live up to those unspoken ideals. 

Advice is a tricky thing because we all experience the world differently: from different points of view, from different avenues of privilege, from different life experiences so any advice we give is inherently impacted by the place we occupy in the world.

And yet, there are lessons that can be passed on. There are truths that live inside of us, there are stories that shape us. 

Can you think of the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given (even if you ignored it when it was given? Can you think of the advice you wish you would have gotten; whether as a young person just about to head off to college? Or as a new parent? Or even last month? 

In today’s Scripture texts we find some vital truths that we can internalize and allow to shape our lives no matter if we’re heading off to college, to our first job post college, figuring out how we want to spend our retirement, or anywhere else along life’s journey. 

But first we need to be honest for a second. There is a lot of weird stuff happening in today’s readings. In Ezekiel we’ve got dry bones coming to life. In Acts we’ve got what appears to be tongues of fire and people hearing and understanding different languages. We’ve got Jesus talking about sending a “comforter”. There is a lot going on here. And yet it all seems to go together. These stories, when put in conversation with each other, point out some pretty profound things.

Let’s start with the weirdest: Ezekiel. How many of you remember hearing this story growing up? I don’t remember quite when or how I heard it; whether it was in faith formation classes or in church or even through art but I remember envisioning this giant field of skeletons coming to life. Kind of creepy. And, actually, not at all what the text says. But even now if you were to google Ezekiel and the dry bones, all of the artwork you would see would have scores of dancing skeletons. It seems to me that this erroneous artwork proves a point: how often do we read and see what we think is in the text instead of what is actually there? How often do we miss the point because we don’t understand the whole context? 

Ezekiel is written to a people in exile. Far from their homes. Scattered and separated from the land that nourished them and from the people that raised them. And the longer the exile wore on the more hopeless the people became. Can you imagine it? Can you imagine what it would be like to be separated from everything and everyone you know? And then, as people in your community start to die they have to be buried far away from their homeland. And the children that you are raising have never been to the place you still call home: their home is here in this strange land. 

You start to wonder if you’ll ever get home. If your home even exists anymore. The people were losing hope. The text says that the people were crying: ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.’ 

Most of us here probably haven’t experienced this level of exile (though of some of you have). But others of us have experienced smaller exiles: Maybe you came out and were no longer able to go home to the church you grew up in. Or maybe you weren’t able to go home to the house you grew up. You are exiled. Maybe you’ve struggled with your body: with your gender identity or illness or disease and you’ve felt exiled from even the intimacy of your own skin. Maybe you’ve had a relationship that was once beautiful and life giving that instead became fractured and broken beyond repair and you felt exiled. 

What do you do in these moments of exile?

Often in our moments of exile we find ourselves like Ezekiel standing in field of dry bones. With our hope lost. We survey the landscape around us and we see no future. No life. We are stuck in situations and relationships that offer no sustenance. And we feel exiled. 

In all of our lives we will experience moments of exile. We will experience broken relationships. We will feel broken. What can be done?

The first truth of today’s texts: No matter how hopeless it seems we can believe in the hope of resurrection. 

Even in the midst of the most dreadful exile, there is hope to be found. There is life to be found. But this isn’t a cheap hope. A “everything will be okay” hope. This isn’t the promise that you’re going to get your old life back. No, this is the promise that even in the midst of dry bones there is life.

The reality is sometimes we don’t get to come back from exile. Sometimes we can’t go back home. The relationships are too broken, we are too changed, home isn’t safe or healthy for us anymore. Sometimes the marriage can’t be saved. Sometimes the church you grew up in isn’t the church you can stay in. You need to come out, You need to transition, and sometimes the places you were in can’t hold the new truth about you. Sometimes the exile is permanent but there is still hope. Something new can be born from those dry bones.

But this hope of resurrection isn’t passive and that brings us to the second truth: Sometimes you gotta do something to bring about the resurrection. 

Ezekiel didn’t just hang out in the field and watch. God put him to work. God told him to prophesy to the bones, to call the four winds, to get up and do something in the midst of the exile. 

Being in dry places can feel immobilizing: whether because of grief or fear or pain. But God calls us to get up. To prophesy. To call on the breath to come back into the airless lungs. 

Both the Gospel text today and the the story in Acts, the Pentecost story, are about the sending of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus was crucified and after he ascended after his resurrection, the new Christian community was left feeling adrift. How would they know what to do now that their leader and teacher wasn’t with them anymore? He had showed them so many new things, new ways of being, new ways to understand the world around them and the work of God in the world. How could they possible continue the work without him?

Jesus promised that a Comforter would come. A Spirit. The Spirit of God that would reside and dwell within each of them. This Spirit would reveal God’s truth to each heart. 

This Spirit would allow the movement to grow and spread so much larger and faster because it wouldn’t be reliant on a single leader; instead this Spirit would empower all of the followers of Jesus to be leaders, to do the work wherever they are. 

And that brings us to another truth: We can trust the Spirit to lead us. 

This is a truth that is both beautiful and terrifying. Because frankly? The Spirit can lead us to do some scary stuff. The earliest Christians were led to do all sorts of things that were looked upon as awful: things like welcoming Gentiles and baptizing Eunuchs, things like letting women lead, things like expanding the boundaries of who was in, things like speaking truth to the unjust political powers.

And the Spirit continues to sometimes call us to scary things: Like doing your internship year in Texas, or spending a year in Rwanda. It can lead you to being truthful about your identity in the face of a family who can’t accept it. It can lead you to pursue your heart in spite of an insecure job market. 

But the Spirit will lead you to wholeness and health and goodness. The Spirit will lead you to abundant life. The Spirit will lead you in the midst of the fear and following the Spirit will be worth it. So trust the Spirit even when you are scared. Even when it goes against tradition. Even when it leads you to unknown places. 

What dry bones do you need to speak to today? Where do you need to call forth breath to bring life where there is no life? What do you need to leave behind in order to walk into the future that is promised for you?

Where is the Spirit leading you? What are you being called to do and be in the world? What old truths are you needing to lay down to make space for the new truths that are being revealed?

How are you hearing the Spirit in your life right now? What are you doing to be a part of the Kingdom of God that is here, in our midst, right now? How are you carrying the joy and wonder of Pentecost into the world around you?

So these are the lessons we can carry from this text: We can believe in the hope of the resurrection even in the midst of exile. We must do the work to bring about the resurrection. We must follow the Spirit as she leads us into all truth. We must carry the joy and wonder of the movement of God into the world.

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