“Can these bones live?”
A sermon for Pentecost Sunday
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached at First Church in Sterling
June 6, 2019
I parked outside this morning behind a car that had a Church of the Flying Spaghetti monster sticker on it, made to look like a Christian fish. That’s a tongue in cheek symbol for atheists to poke fun of believers who worship a supernatural God. And I thought, how awesome. A church of the flying spaghetti monster parked outside the Christian church. It’s gonna take all of us to make it. And so we better learn one another’s language. Church of the flying spaghetti monster adherents need to hang out in Christian churches so we can learn each other’s language. Believers need to learn the language of non-believers. Muslims need to learn the language of Jews. Jews need to learn the language of Buddhists. White people need to learn the language of black people. Elders need to learn to speak the language of teenagers. Americans need to learn languages other than English that are already spoken here. Powerful folks need to learn the language of marginalized folks.
Did you notice what happened when we read the scripture?
Last time I did that a few years ago on Pentecost, everyone got mad at Helen Hill, our office manager. They thought she messed up the bulletin. So I just wanted you to know that I did that on purpose, so leave Helen alone.
Last week was ascension, when we overheard Jesus praying that we all may be one. Then he left, officially, to sit at the right hand of the father, and left us down here to our own devices. He promised us that he would send us the Holy Spirit to help, but we didn’t know exactly what that would look like.
In our scripture from Acts, the day of Pentecost comes, and just like Jesus said it would, the Holy Spirit fills all the people. When the Holy Spirit enters, a transformation occurs. It’s scarier than the disciples imagined.
It involves a roaring windstorm, and a STRANGE FIRE.
And all of a sudden, all people of the world have the presence of God inside of them, and can actually SPEAK TO ONE ANOTHER and understand one another, even though they are speaking different languages. They were speaking in tongues.
This looked and sounded just as crazy to them as it sounds to all of us.
The text says they are “perplexed.”
They look for an explanation: “maybe they are filled with new wines,” which is Bible speak for “maybe they are trashed or on something.”
And Peter says: “That’s not possible, it’s nine in the morning.”
Peter says “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”
It’s supposed to look like this: seeing visions. Speaking a new language so that this messed up world can become more like God’s dream for it.
It is notable that the people gathered around the disciples don’t learn to speak the disciples’ language. Instead, it’s the other way around. The Holy Spirit gives the disciples the ability to speak in the language of the international crowd who have gathered around them.
All of a sudden, differences are stripped away and the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, residents of Rutland, Holden, Sterling, West Boylston, Leominster, and Worcester, France, England, Syria, India, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Iraq, and the United States of America, are no longer strangers who speak strangely, they are all simply children of God.
All of a sudden black people and brown people, transgender and cisgender people, MAGA hat wearers, and co-exist bumper sticker owners, immigrants and natives, poor people and rich people, CEOs and farmers, young people and old people…They all share the same language:
God’s word of Love is all they know to say.
PENTECOST. The day we found our voices.
Pentecost. The birthday of the church.
God has placed us in the valley of the bones to show us why we need a re-birthday of the church TODAY.
God has placed us here
in the valley of rising health care costs and crushing student loan debt
the valley of irreversible climate change
the valley of white nationalism and ‘straight pride’ rallies
the valley of mass shootings
the valley of poverty
the valley of meaninglessness
the valley of despair
the valley of violence
the valley of over-consumption
the valley of addiction
the valley of racism and ethnocentrism
the valley of division
the valley of hatred
the valley of demonization and dehumanization
God asks, “mortal, can these bones live?”
We don’t know what to say to that because we think we are alone here in death valley.
We think we can pull ourselves up by our own boot straps.
We think we are meant to be self-made and self-taught and self-righteous.
We think we can find salvation by having a personal relationship with Jesus,
or a personal relationship with the beach,
No need to show up for one another.
We think that we should concentrate
We think we are meant to go it alone in the valley of the bones.
No wonder we are shouting:
“Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely!”
We are shouting into our echo chambers on a dying planet, the Good news of the Gospel choked out by the fake news on our news feeds; the language we use getting smaller and meaner.
“Mortal, can these bones live?” God is asking.
We reply, “we just don’t know.”
And so God says: “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord….”
Speak, CHURCH, God says.
Speak the word of Love and God’s breath will enter your lungs. And you shall live. COME UP out of your GRAVES.
CHURCH: “Can these bones live?”
YES YES YES.
But only if we speak. PROPHESY TO THE BONES.
I saw one of the greatest prophetic leaders of our time at the festival of homiletics in May, Rev. William Barber.
He says “we must not speak from the left or from the right but with the voice God calls us to speak from. Because it’s not about right and left, it’s about right and wrong. And some things are just WRONG.”
Speak, Church. God’s language has been placed in our mouths.
He says: “We can no longer use the language of Caesar. It’s too puny to challenge the extremism we are facing now, things that are wrong and just plain mean. We must claim the deep moral language of faith, and silence is not an option.”
Speak, Church. God’s language has been placed in our mouths.
Have you heard about 16 year old Greta Thunberg yet? She explained in a speech at the COP24 climate talks in 2018 that while the world consumes an estimated 100 million barrels of oil each day, "there are no politics to change that. There are no politics to keep that oil in the ground. So we can no longer save the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed.”
"So we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future," she declared. "They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not. The people will rise to the challenge.”
That is the message of Pentecost: the people will rise to the challenge. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.
Speak, church, God’s language has been placed in our mouths.
The Chinese character for crisis, we are told, is a combination of danger and opportunity. Right now, the world has reached a dangerous crisis point for humanity. And those of us who are called to be the Church have a unique opportunity to lead us through it by teaching a common moral language.
Leading climate change scientists reported to the UN this year that we have twelve years by conservative estimates to stop irreversible damage from climate change. Those of us who have been paying attention know that we can’t recycle our way out of this, buy the right electric car, or take the air conditioners out of our windows and solve the problem.
Our friend Katy was just telling me that she read a study that said that the more people believe they can effect climate change by doing individual things like recycling, the less likely they are to push for legislation that would stop climate change on a large scale.
In other words, the more that we are under the illusion we can do this on our own, the less likely we are to work together.
We are in the Valley of the bones together. Together, we must learn to prophesy.
On Monday night, 25 or so of us gathered at the Mill in West Boylston to talk about Green Transformation. Led by our fearless leader, Katy Fazio, we had a deep, at times hopeful, at times despairing conversation about the Christian Church’s role in the midst of the climate crisis.
Here’s what we determined:
The church is in the unique position.
We have the skills, and the depth of ritual to help one other grieve:
an uncertain future for our children,
the loss of ways of life we love,
the parts of the planet that may become inhabitable,
the species that have gone extinct.
But we need to turn our grief into action.
We need to start focusing less on self-care and more on community care.
We need to build up communities of resilience.
And we need to use our voices loudly and publicly, filled up with the breath of God.
We need to be voices of urgency, and voices of hope.
We need to teach a shared moral language, one that doesn’t come from the left or the right, but from our God who is Love.
Today, my friends, is the RE-birthday of the church. Some say that the church is dying, but we know a different story.
The Church was made for such a time as this:
Because we believe.
We believe these bones can live.
We believe our lungs are filled up with the breath of God.
We believe God’s spirit is poured out upon ALL flesh.
We believe that Love’s language has the power to reach all nations, all abilities, all genders, all sexualities, all races, all ages, all believers, questioning believers and non-believers, all of HUMANITY.
We believe in the power of Love to put us back together, bone to bone, sinews and flesh,
We believe in the power of God to breathe life back into us mortals so that we might live, stand on our feet, as a VAST MULTITUDE and PREACH THE GOOD NEWS.
And we will rise again up out of our graves:
to build bridges, not walls;
to give us a new heart for each other and the world;
to teach God’s language not of right and left, but right and wrong;
to LEAD a MOVEMENT of REVOLUTIONARY LOVE.
Speak, church. God’s breath is in your lungs.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org