March 29, 2020
Third Sermon at First Lutheran
“Breath of Life”
Rev. Joshua Graber
Grace and peace in the name of God our Loving Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
Well, welcome once again to our Covid-19 worship service. We once again are a church in exile, but in our familiar homes. We are not where we expected to be this Sunday. We are forced to deal with a separated reality as the First community is gathered, but scattered like the bones in Ezekiel’s valley. We will return to the building soon for recorded or streamed worship and even if we don’t get back to the church by Easter, we will celebrate Easter when we come together again.
I hope some of you got in the Spirit and got a little exercise dancing, moving or thinking of your whole body while you listened and sang to the Dem Bones hymn. When we’ve been cooped up for our third Sunday now, we need to remember how to care for our bodies, or maybe just remember that they are there! I hope some of you have been able to open up a window, or go for a walk, or work in the garden to remind you of creation and our place in it as human beings. We have mortal bodies and that helps us remember that life is precious. Covid-19 has been reminding us of that mortality as cases and deaths due to the virus increase. Now the United States has more cases than any other nation and that does not seem to be changing any time soon.
Ezekiel’s vision today reminds us of hope even during times when it seems all has been lost. This vision came to Ezekiel while he was in exile in Babylon along with the nation of Israel. He sees a vision of bones strewn in a valley and is told the bones represent the nation that is separate, that has been unplugged from its power source. They think the power and identity comes from the land and the Temple that have been lost. But this vision brings the message that the word of the prophet and breath of God are what can restore life to those who are separated and feeling powerless. God shows what it means to breathe life and re-creation into these skeletal remains. It is the breath that brings life.
I am reminded of living in Hawaii during my internship year. Some of you might know white people in Hawaii are sometimes called “haoles”. If you are new person to the island who doesn’t understand the culture, like I was, you are known as a “fresh off the boat haole”, or “fresh off the jet” these days. Haole means “without spirit”. It’s meaning may not sound as biting as other taunts, but it cuts pretty deep. Within Polynesian culture there is a traditional greeting where two people bring their heads together so their noses and eyes align and they breathe deeply together. The ritual of sharing breath is a way of showing that spirits are connecting and mixing. The reason Caucasians are called haoles is because when white people first met Polynesians they did not know how to share breath or chose not to participate in this ritual. So the name “without spirit” came because of that and it has stuck.
So when I think of these bones being without air. Without spirit. I think of them as haole bones.
These bones in Ezekiel’s vision didn’t bring anything or do anything to reanimate. They allowed God to work. Religion so often tries to control the divine, control the source of power, but we mostly need to give God room to breathe. To stop and share the breath of God and be filled. You see the Holy Spirit is the holy breath of God. It was there in the beginning. In Hebrew the word for breath, wind and spirit is “Ruach” and that is what enters into these bones to bring life. You don’t need to worry about germs with this breath! It brings healing!
And so it is for us 26 and half centuries after Ezekiel. In days when we may struggle to get a breath of fresh air, we are invited into the breath of God. Not just to draw it into our lungs but deep into our spirit to give us life. This story from Ezekiel and his vision is for us now. For First Lutheran as a community separated from each other and separated from our normal worship space. And for our nation as we brace for the impact of this storm, not the physical storm that hit the Midwest this weekend, but the wave of Covid-19 cases that is likely to fill hospitals and could stretch our society to its limits. Many doctors and nurses find themselves ill-equipped as this virus steals breath from hardened lungs of those they care for. What does a word of God say to us about this reality today, and in the coming days? What does it matter?
What does a new pastor have to say to a congregation he’s barely met? Well I’ve got stories. And stories have power. And God’s stories, that I get to carry and share as a pastor, even have power to raise the dead.
As you all get to know me, it’s interesting that these texts and times have reminded me of my grandparents, because it gives me a chance to introduce you to them. They have both passed away into the promises now, but their lives and stories were a powerful influence on me and my whole family. The faith I have was shaped by their witness, so you might as well meet these fellow saints in what the Apostle Paul called the “great cloud of witnesses” of all believers connected through time and space.
Let me tell you a story that takes us away to another place, this time to the Pacific. Maybe you can imagine a warm breeze! If you watched or read my last sermon, you know that my grandparents had escaped the European Theater of the war when the Nazi’s took over Norway and I told the story of my grandmother sitting and looking up at Michaelangelo’s David in Florence and it giving her solace in the midst of the storm of war raging.
While they made it back to the States but they chose to continue their call to go to China as Lutheran missionaries. That meant going to the Pacific, either Hawaii or the Philippines, to learn the language and then continue to China. They could have stayed closer to home in Hawaii, but they wanted to get closer to their destination and were in the Philippines when the Japanese took over the islands and put Westerners in concentration camps.
My grandparents, their friends, and many other ex-pats and Europeans found themselves living in close quarters not knowing what to expect next. In the early days there was more leniency and one of the first things my grandparents did was help create a new school. They had just been at a Norwegian folk school that was a community-based education that saw everyone as a teacher and everyone as a learner. It was education for the whole human, head, hands, and heart (and all their bones too!). So they quickly got to know others in the camp and assessed what different people could be good at teaching, setting up a way for the children and people of all ages to learn and grow even in those circumstances. That’s the type of learning community I’m hoping we can organize in West Allis and what we can try out while we are stuck in a circumstance we didn’t expect.
To me that instinct to keep growing and learning together in prison camp was a sign that of the Spirit being present even in difficult circumstances. Helping people find hope in the midst of fears.
When Jesus shows up in Bethany, people think he is too late to help his friend Lazarus. Jesus hears that Lazarus is sick but takes his time getting to him. By the time he gets there his friend has been dead and in a tomb for four days. Lazarus’ sister asks why he didn’t get there sooner. But Jesus says that this loss happened so that Jesus’ true identity can be revealed. The grief and the pain that others felt is shared by Jesus. It is here that the Bible says that Jesus wept.
Why do we go through difficult things? Why can’t God just prevent them? The questions of Lazarus’ sister are the same questions we have. The question of anyone who believes in a powerful God but also knows of pain of their own life and suffering in the world. A scholar recently said, that to prevent bad things from happening is the easy thing to do. The hard thing is to reverse the destruction. We usually want the easy thing don’t we? But God doesn’t.
What Jesus is doing with Lazarus’ is giving us a story that tells us a truth about God. God is with us in our pain and suffering, but God does not always prevent it from happening. This is not because God wants us to suffer. It is because we are mortal and God does not make us immortal. We are creatures and God does not change that. God breathes life into us to create us and God breathes life into us to re-create us. That happens in everyday miracles that give us hope to get by and it will happen when we will be raised up on the last day.
Lazarus was raised up but back into his old life, and I suspect he got sick again and died as we all do. But Jesus was resurrected into new life. Into the life everlasting, when death is defeated. In this life death does come for us all, but our savior invites our mortal bones into a re-creation when we stand together in victory over death’s grave.
In the days before my grandfather was liberated from Bilibid Prison in Manilla by the US marines, he was 117 pounds and bleeding from an ulcer. His stomach was so empty it was eating itself. He was quickly becoming just bones. The doctor in the camp said he was close to death and would have died except for a miracle. In the middle of an urban war zone, a cow broke through the fence and into the prison yard. It produced milk and the milk was brought to the sickest of prisoners, including my grandpa. And because of that milk, that cow, that gift of creation… my grandfather lived. He was liberated in the days following and because he lived, my mother lived, and I lived.
At the Punchbowl Military Cemetery in Honolulu there are mosaics of the liberation of the islands of the Pacific Campaign in WWII. When my parents visited me in Hawaii, we looked up at the mosaic of the Philippines for what seemed like an hour. Meditating on the lives lost to liberate my grandparents, and on the new life, new breath they were given. Now we face a threat that can’t be seen and without clear battle lines, and the new heroes are doctors, nurses, grocery store clerks and pharmacists.
We are all invited into re-creation with God every day that brings hope amidst hardship and fears about this confinement and the situation we are in. We usually are invited to the Lord’s table for communion at church, but today as we are separated from that gift, I want us to experience God’s presence in a different way.
Imagine Jesus gripping your mortal bones, and raising you up for another day. Jesus’ face comes close to yours. Way closer than 6 feet! He puts his forehead against yours. Looks into your eyes and breathes in and out. Imagine Jesus sharing his spirit with you, filling your lungs, because he knows you need it… for this day and the ones ahead.
May the peace that passes all understanding fill your heart, your mind, and your lungs with the good news of Christ Jesus. Amen.