Faith, Doubt and Playing Possum

My brain feels like a whirling dervish this week with all the scandal, intrigue and assorted craziness in the news. I feel like I’m living in a bad soap opera with FBI raids on the President’s lawyer, Speakers of both the US House and the Ohio House stepping down unexpectedly and military strikes on Syria that put us closer to a nuclear showdown with Russia than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment but I can’t seem to stop watching and reading the news like the proverbial train wreck. I have managed to get engrossed in a couple of good novels as a respite from the 24-hour bad news cycle. One is a book on tape I listen to while driving, James Patterson’s “Woman of God,” and the other on my Nook, Dan Brown’s “Origin.” But of course both of those are full of conflict and profound theological questions about human suffering and human nature itself. And in my spare time I’m wading through a weighty and rather depressing tome entitled “What Are We Doing Here?” by Marilynne Robinson for a book club I’m in.

Mingled in with all that drama has been a personal struggle with guilt. On Wednesday of this week I had the painful task of dispatching a possum whose only offense was making his domicile under our deck. I’ve been trying to trap him or her for a few weeks and until this week had only managed to feed chipmunks who are too small to trip the trap and catch a stray cat. Every morning that the trap was by our deck I was relieved to find it empty, but Wednesday it was fully occupied by a sleeping possum who seemed quite content. It had finished off the apple that I used as bait and unlike the cat seemed quite content and even trusting when I carried him/her to a watery grave in our pond. It would have been much easier on me if she/he had hissed and growled at me, but that is not the way of the possum.

The possum’s capital offense was invading turf that belongs to us – we have a deed–but then I guess possums can’t read; so posting a no trespassing sign would probably not have done any good. Fearing he/she would attract or produce more furry friends that could do damage to the foundation of our house my wife and I felt justified in this dirty deed. I used to take such critters a few miles away and release them, but that is actually against the law of the land and increasingly impossible as urban sprawl takes over more and more habitat for our four-footed friends.

On this second week of Eastertide I couldn’t help theologizing a bit about this experience, and it occurred to me that there is a parallel here between my possum and what we did to Jesus a couple millennia ago. Their offenses were much the same– invading someone else’s space and making them/us uncomfortable. Just as the possum created conflict for me about his/her right and mine to occupy this space on Brock Road, so Jesus created such a degree of discomfort and cognitive dissonance by proclaiming a higher ethical standard of God’s reign that threatened the Jewish and Roman homeowners in Jerusalem that they set a trap for him and executed him on trumped up charges of blasphemy.

The big difference of course where these two tales of death diverge is in their outcome. And no I’m not suggesting Jesus was just playing possum in that tomb for 3 days. He was just as dead as my possum – ask his mother who watched him be nailed to that cross. Ask the centurion who ran a spear into his side to make sure he was dead. Jesus was dead!

But Eastertide is the season of resurrection – even in chilly Ohio where spring has been delayed. I saw a meme on Facebook that said “Mother Nature was late delivering spring because Father Time was driving and refused to stop and ask for directions.” But better late than never we had at least a teaser of spring this week. The daffodils, hyacinths and forsythia are blooming, the crocuses are croaking, and the robins are digging up earthworms in my yard.

I had an hour between two appointments on Thursday, our first warm day; so I went for a walk in one of Columbus’ lovely metro parks. I took exception to a sign that told me the trail I took was 1.1 miles. I know it had to be longer than that because it took me much longer to hike it that it used to. I was also struck for the first half mile or so by how dead everything looked. Dead trees and limbs were all over the woods, everything was the barren brown of winter. And then I looked a little closer and saw that there amongst the detritus of winter’s death there were tiny green leaves quietly emerging from some of the branches. When I walked by the lake there was a young couple facing each other on a picnic bench and staring into each other’s eyes as only new lovers can do.

Signs of new life are there even if they aren’t obvious to a casual observer. Even my poor departed possum will provide nutrients to the soil and food for some birds of prey. Even in the news there are signs of hope, but we may have to work to find them. Today’s headlines were all about the bombing of Syria and the most recent scandals in Washington. But back in the metro section was an editorial that gave me hope. One of my heroes in days gone by is a local preacher here in Columbus, Ohio who is often called the father of the Social Gospel.

Rev. Washington Gladden died 100 years ago this year after a long and illustrious career of championing social justice causes as the pastor of First Congregation Church on East Broad St. just a few blocks from the state capitol. Today’s editorial was about a memorial garden that the church is building on property next to the church to honor Gladden. The park, to open in August, will include “exhibitions on social justice issues, an artist-in-residence program to teach children about social justice, along with art, lectures and forums, community dialogues and performances.” Current Sr. Pastor Tim Aherns says plans call for “a refuge of waterfalls, public art, green space, trees and a pathway of quotes about the pursuit of justice.”

Gladden himself was an early advocate for ecumenism and church engagement in political reform. He was friends with Theodore Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington, and every prominent public figure in Columbus. “At the time of Gladden’s death,” the editorial concludes, “The Ohio State Journal—which regularly had published his social justice sermons on Page One—called him the ‘First Citizen’ of Columbus.” The full editorial is at http://www.dispatch.com/opinion/20180414/editorial-new-park-to-honor-columbus-social-justice-champion

My take away from all of this disjointed rambling is that there is always a spark of new life hidden in the darkest days. That’s what resurrection is all about. God is not playing possum. Spring may not arrive when the calendar says so, but it will arrive. Justice will roll down like waters, maybe not today but someday. Easter didn’t end two weeks ago, it just began, and that liturgical season lasts until Pentecost when God saw that even showing the disciples Jesus’ hands and side wasn’t proof enough and sent the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit to light a fire in those believers that no one, no thing, no how has or ever will extinguish. We believe Lord, help our unbelief.

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Wilderness Times: When Only God Knows! Ezekiel 37:1-14

I just recently figured out the answer to a problem that I know befuddles many of us Ohioans, namely why well-trained meteorologists are so often wrong about our weather forecasts. I’ve decided it’s not climate change, nor is it crazy Ohio where we have three or four seasons in a 48 hour period. It’s because the weather people are all too young! With the exception of Jim Gynal and Ben Gelber all of our local forecasters are young people. Yes, they have Doppler radar and other fancy tools but what they don’t have are old bones and joints that reliably tell us seniors when the weather’s changing.

I bet you’re wondering what weather forecasting has to do with our text for today! The connection is that both are about old bones. The difference is that in Ezekiel’s vision the bones he saw were no longer predicting or doing anything. Ezekiel walks among this valley of dry bones and makes it very clear that these bones are very dry and have been dead a long time.

Here’s the context for this most familiar of Ezekiel’s visions. He is relating this vision to the people of Judah about 600 years before Christ. Ezekiel is a priest who along with the ruling classes of Judah is a political prisoner in Babylon. Geographically Babylon was located where modern day Baghdad sits today in Iraq. Then and now it was and is a hot, dry wilderness.

Our nephew Michael spent time in that part of the world a few years ago. He was stationed in Kuwait next door to Iraq when he was in the Air Force. Michael was a mechanic at the time and told us about a day that was about 105 degrees when he was working on a plane and forgot where he was. He reached down and picked up a wrench that was lying in the desert sun and immediately burned his hand.

Living in that heat came to mind when I was thinking about Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. Remember the Exiles were mostly people of Israel’s upper class, not used to these harsh living conditions. The Interpreter’s Bible describes the Babylonian exile this way: “The Israelites exchanged their hilly homeland and pleasant climate of Jerusalem for the flat and hot Babylonia lowlands…and forced manual labor.”

I’m sure the Babylonia Chamber of Commerce advertised to visitors that their climate was a “dry heat.” I’ve never been in Iraq or Babylon, but I’ve been in Phoenix in mid-summer; and I don’t care how dry the heat is, anything above 100 degrees is just too darn hot.

We’ve been thinking about “Wilderness Time” in this Lenten Sermon Series because whether it’s a voluntary retreat from daily living to draw closer to God or the wilderness is forced upon us by life’s circumstances, solitary time with ourselves and God is good for our souls – but only if we embrace it.

As many of you know our family has been doing some wilderness time this last month. My father died on February 12 and due to family schedule complications we set his memorial service and burial for this past weekend. Little did we know then that on March 1st Diana’s mother would go into a rapid decline and pass away on March 5th. These were not unexpected life events. My dad was 96 and Diana’s mom, Mary, was 100, but getting a double whammy of mortality definitely put us into the wilderness. We celebrated both of their lives last weekend, and Ezekiel’s image of dry bones seemed all too real in those cold, windy cemeteries.

Wilderness time is often hard to embrace. The exiles were none too happy to be carted off to Babylon, not just because they were uprooted from their homes and familiar surroundings, they were also yanked up by their theological roots. The foundations of their faith were supported by four basic pillars: 1) God’s blessings were assured them as God’s chosen people; 2) the land God had given to their ancestors would be protected forever; 3) the throne of David and his descendants would continue forever; and 4) the Temple at Jerusalem was the only suitable place for proper worship of their God.

When the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem in 597 BC the Israelites theological scoreboard suddenly read 0-4. Their beloved temple was in ruins, and the foundations of their faith were not only shaken they were pulverized. So what can we learn today from this ancient history? Aren’t we a lot like these Israelites? As it was for them it’s quite natural to want our faith to be comforting “Good News,” that’s even what the word “Gospel” means. So like the Israelites we are tempted by the same prosperity gospel that promises worldly comforts as rewards to God’s chosen people. Like Ezekiel’s contemporaries we sometimes forget that God chooses us not to be privileged but to be servants to others. We’d like Easter morning without Good Friday, but let’s not forget that much of the Bible describes a lot of bad news and how people like us respond to being in the wilderness.

Psalm130 was written in one of those wilderness times. It begins “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” That Psalm is known by the title “De Profundis” which in Latin means “out of the depths.” I woke up one day last summer in one of those wrong-side-of-the-bed moods and thought of De Profundis to describe my mood. I wrote in my journal that day “De Profundis is Latin for “O crap, I have to get up and face another day of aches and pains and bad news!” Am I the only one who has days like that? I saw a cartoon awhile back that describes me all too often. It said “Sometimes I wake up grumpy, and other times I let him sleep.”

When I first started thinking about this dry bones text I pictured it in terms of personal or individual wilderness times that come to all of us. And then when Diana’s mom died that introspective kind of wilderness seemed even more real. But then I reread Ezekiel’s words and I realized what he’s talking about is a lot bigger than personal grief or loss. Verse 11 says, “Then God 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.’” God says this valley of dusty, dry, lifeless bones is a metaphor for “the whole house of Israel.” A whole people, a whole nation is dead to God and hopeless, completely cut off. They’ve been in exile a long time; the buzzards and other wild life have picked their bones clean.

I’ve been trying to think of some contemporary situation to compare the Exile to. The heart-breaking pictures we see on the news today of the devastation and ruins of Syria are the closest image I can think of to understand how hopeless the exiles must have been feeling.

But as pitiful as this image of dry bones is Ezekiel is not sympathetic to Israel’s plight. This vision from Chapter 37, believe it or not, is from the “good news” section of the book of Ezekiel. He spends the first 32 chapters of this book passing judgment on his own people for their failure to obey God’s will. He warns them that bad things will happen if they continue to break their covenant relationship with God. The Israelites remember clearly God’s part of the bargain made with Moses, to give them a homeland, to make them and their descendants prosperous. But in their comfort and prosperity they have conveniently forgotten their half of the covenant – namely to live obediently, justly and humbly before God. Their leaders have become greedy oppressors who according to Amos “sell the poor for a pair of shoes.” Things have gotten so corrupt and unjust for the common people of Israel that at one point Ezekiel even declares that his people have out sinned Sodom. That is not a record you want to break!

In chapter 6 Ezekiel describes in gory detail the consequences of such unfaithful living: “Your altars shall become desolate, and your incense stands shall be broken; and I will throw down your slain in front of your idols. 5 I will lay the corpses of the people of Israel in front of their idols; and I will scatter your bones around your altars. ….7 The slain shall fall in your midst; then you shall know that I am the Lord. (Chapter 6)
That phrase “you shall know that I am the Lord” is a refrain that recurs in Ezekiel. Verse 14 of our text for today says, “You shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.” That doesn’t mean God intervenes to punish us, but God wants the consequences of our bad choices to help us see that there’s only one God, and we’re not it!

I doubt that I need to draw the parallels between Israel and the current state of affairs in our country and other parts of the world where the ways of God have been trampled in the dust by the idolatry of living in a secular and materialistic society. It is all too easy to despair, to lose hope.

When we are searching for an elusive answer to one of life’s tough problems friends may ask us, “What are you going to do?” And a common reply is “God only knows!” meaning we don’t have a clue. In his vision Ezekiel hears God ask him one of those tough questions. As he is walking around in this valley full of dry bones God says, “Mortal, can these bones live?” and Ezekiel answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

What do we do when we are in one of those situations where only God knows the answer to what we should do? When we suddenly lose a job or a loved one; when our world seems to be collapsing around us? And it seems God isn’t readily available to share whatever it is that only God knows! Or sometimes we’re too stubborn or proud to pray for God’s guidance. We might not like what we hear!

Put yourself in Ezekiel’s place. How would you answer God’s question, “Can these bones live?” Or look at the homeless, hopeless refugee children in Syria, or the suffering caused by gun violence in our own country. Why do we have so much more gun violence than other developed countries? What are we going to do to stop consuming violence in video games and entertainment? How can we help people suffering from mental illness, or those who are bullied? How are we supposed to love the bully and heal whatever wounds he is suffering that cause violent behavior? How do we provide support systems and ways to deal with pain and depression so people don’t get hooked on opioids or other drugs? Can our badly divided nation live again and achieve the high ideals of our democracy? God only knows!

And yet that hopeless cry of despair is actually the beginning of hope for a whole nation of dry bones. When we look at a hopeless situation through our own mortal eyes we see no way dead bones can live again. When I held the urn of my father’s ashes in the cemetery last weekend I knew there was no way those ashes could live again, at least not in the form we knew as my dad. But those ashes can provide nourishment for what grows in God’s good earth.

Likewise out of tragic death at the Parkland High School massacre has emerged a new generation who are taking their civic responsibility to a whole new level. Whether you agree with their methods and goals or not you have to applaud their determination to make a difference. New life can arise out of death. I saw that at both of our family funerals last week where new life was in abundance in the joyful, energetic laughter and play of young great grandchildren. May we have eyes of faith to see signs of life even in the midst of death.

Remember the dry bones story is a vision Ezekiel is having. It is one of four visions in Ezekiel. And it’s the only one of the four that does not begin with a date identifying when Ezekiel had the vision. Elie Weisel, a survivor of the valley of dry bones known as the Holocaust, commented that the reason this vision has no date is that every generation needs to see it and experience it for themselves. Dry bones are a timeless description of the human condition.

And that’s the key – the valley of dry bones is a human condition seen through finite, mortal eyes. But Ezekiel was a priest. He of all people should have known the answer to God’s question, “Mortal can these bones live?” When we began this Lenten season on Ash Wednesday many Christians received the mark of ashes on our foreheads with the words from Genesis, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Those words are not some morbid reminder that we are all going to die. We say them to help us remember that in the very beginning of God creates human life by forming us from dust and breathing life into us. Can these bones live? Of course they can live if God chooses to breathe his Holy Spirit on them.

And that’s exactly what happens in the rest of the vision. “Then God said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as God commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

The Hebrew word for breath is ruah which is also the word for spirit, the holy breath of the one with whom all things are possible. When seen through mortal eyes this is a dead, dry bone. But when the Holy Spirit helps us lift our eyes to catch a vision through God’s eyes hopelessness turns to rejoicing and death becomes resurrection. Seeing life and death through God’s eyes helps us confess our sinful nature honestly and brings us to our knees. And it’s from there we can see new beginnings that God alone can see.

And so as people with a vision of Easter in our eyes wilderness times call us to renew our covenant with God–because it is in the wilderness that we remember who we are and whose we are.
Can these bones live again? – You can bet your life on it!

The Palm Sunday Road Less Traveled


Most anyone who’s ever been to Sunday School knows the shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35, “Jesus Wept.” In that case they are tears of grief over the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. But I realized at our Palm Sunday service today that there is another time when Jesus weeps. We sang our Hosannas and the cute kids paraded with their palms as usual, but when the Gospel lesson from Luke was read my ears perked up when I heard something that only Luke records:

“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:41-44).

With this week’s missile attack on Syria much on my mind, this warning that failure to know “what would bring you peace” leads to total destruction struck me as ominous indeed. The Syrian situation has been catastrophic for years, and no one has come up with a way to end the suffering and devastation. We have seen the refugees and the victims of chemical weapons. The suffering has gone on so long I’m not sure anyone remembers what they are fighting about. But for the US to launch an attack that risks confrontation with Russia raises the stakes to a new level of anxiety.

Once again we have gone down the road of military force even though it has never led to lasting peace. Thinking about the Syrian capital of Damascus as we approached Palm Sunday got me to thinking about the choices we make about the roads we travel. The most dramatic conversion ever occurred on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19) when Saul was literally struck down by the power of God’s spirit and transformed from being the most violent tormentor of Christians to the greatest evangelist for the very Christ he had been persecuting.
It feels to me like the world needs to be knocked off its high horse the way Saul was. What else but a Taser-like blast from God’s Holy Spirit can bring an end to our warring madness? Jesus wept over Jerusalem because his people had rejected again the way of peace. He weeps even as he showed us for one last time that God’s ways are not those of conquering heroes on mighty steeds but those of humble servant leaders who choose the road less traveled, the narrow path that leads to salvation.

Jesus’ way is the road that conquers death not by use of cruise missiles or poison gas, but the way that leads through death to eternal life. Jesus taught his followers that those who lose their lives for his sake will find them, and now he’s on the road into Jerusalem to put his life where his mouth was. Jesus’ road is not an easy road to follow. His best friends bailed out on him when things got really tough, but on Easter morning we will learn again that he is indeed the way, the truth and the life.

We have watered down (pun intended) the significance and the way we do baptism in our churches to the point that we have forgotten what it signifies about the paths we choose to travel. I can’t remember the source of this story about how serious Christian baptism and discipleship really are, but I’ll never forget the story. It’s told about a priest in a Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. A young couple presents their infant to the priest for baptism and the Padre submerges the child briefly in the baptismal water and says, “I kill you in the name of Jesus.” The American visitor witnessing this sacrament is aghast, and then the priest lifts the child above his head and proclaims, “And I resurrect you in the name of the living Christ!”

Life changing conversion kills us to our worldly selves and raises us up as new creations in Christ. Maybe it’s just my cowardice, but I’ve always been a bit skeptical of dramatic conversion experiences. My own conversion from a rigid, judgmental brand of Christianity to one I believe to be more authentic was a slow gradual process, and I suspect the conversion of a nation to the ways of peace is also one that takes place over a long period of time.
As hard as that road of death to self is to follow for individuals, it is much harder for societies and nations. But I wonder if it isn’t just as necessary on the national level as it is for individuals? The current lack of morality at all levels of our nation, the way greed and gain run roughshod over ethics, the increase in hate crimes and systemic oppression of marginalized people, and the short-sighted refusal to take stewardship of the earth seriously have all raised questions in my mind about the future of the United States as a viable nation. All empires throughout history have risen and then eventually fallen, usually from corruption within and a lack of sustaining values worthy of survival. All of that has had me wondering lately if the United States is beginning to travel down that slippery slope?

I hope it’s not too late to turn back, but I honestly believe we are dangerously close to that point. Close enough I think that it is well worth praying very hard about which road we’re on during this Holy Week as we consider the passion of Christ for God’s people. Let’s honestly ask ourselves if Jesus is weeping over us and saying, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace.”