Last year, a book was published that shocked a lot of people. It was the diary of Mother Theresa, the famous Albanian nun and nurse who served in Kolkata, India. To us, she has become the absolute pinnacle of service, to God and to others. Her name is a shorthand word for self-giving, and for faith-based sacrifice. We took for granted her oneness with God, her ability to be able to communicate and be with God. After all, she did an awful lot, a whole lot more than we could have done, so she must be closer to God than us, right?
But we found out from the diaries that were published against her wishes and after her death that she had one transcendent experience, the one that motivated her to go to India, and never experienced God again. Her whole career in Kolkata, the thousands she fed and clothed, the hundreds who became Christian and even became nuns because of the example she set, that work was based not on a continuing dialogue between her and God, but her trying to recapture and please the God she felt had gone missing. By her lights, she never experienced the replenishing, regenerating spirit of God again, after that first time. She walked for 40 some odd years in a valley of dry bones.
John Wesley, the founder of our practice of the Christian faith, was on a ship that felt like it was going to sink soon. He was a failure as a Christian, and as a human being. At least that’s probably how he felt. He had failed as a chaplain to the new colony of Georgia, and the woman he had fallen in love with had rejected him in favor of another suitor. He had had to leave the Georgia colony in disgrace, and in the middle of the night, because of his refusing her communion in response to her rejecting him. The local powers were very angry with him about that, and it became clear that leaving Georgia was a VERY good idea, and soon.
Now, this passage back to England, with no prospects ahead of him, was extremely rough. The storms never seemed to end. And to pour salt into his wounded faith, the Moravians on board were singing hymns and praying with joy in their hearts as the boat was tossed in the rough seas like a leaf in a rain gutter.
Mary and Martha were sad, and a little bit angry; well maybe just Martha. Their brother, Lazarus, had just died, and Jesus, their friend and the messiah, who had performed miracles far and wide, was late in coming. For some unexplained reason he had tarried, and now it was too late. It was hard to understand why Jesus wouldn’t come running when they sent word that Lazarus was sick. But he didn’t and now they had lost their brother, and in some ways, their safety and livelihood. It was REALLY hard for women to live without male family members around in their culture, and they were facing a very uncertain and insecure future.
Almost any Christian, almost any Christian Community, church, mission, experiences times of dryness. There are times in everyone’s life when the faith, the creativity, the closeness to God, doesn’t come easy. Our lives feel dry, monotonous, uninspired. Perhaps something has happened o our health, or in a community there has been a conflict or a death that has taken the wind out of the sails. Sometimes it isn’t even a trauma that occurs, sometimes there are just cycles in lives of communities where there isn’t a lot going on, times of lying fallow, like a farmers’ field not producing.
It is times like these that Ezekiel is experiencing with the people of Israel. He recalls for them the very recent experience of their city, Jerusalem falling to the enemy, and now, having been conquered, they must pass through the fields of battle, where bodies have not even been buried, into an uncertain future in slavery and subjugation.
In the face of this national experience, the prophet Jeremiah preached hope by buying property for a land that was about to not belong to his people. Ezekiel preaches the vision that the dead and lifeless body of Israel will rise again and become strong and alive.
The life of the people of God, he says, can be revived, but only with the power and the help and the grace of God. It is only God who can make these bones live. It is only God who can re-animate that which looks dead and lifeless, with not even muscle or tendon or organ left.
Can these bones live? Yes. But not by Ezekiel’s hands. Mother Theresa did a lot to serve God, but she could not make him return to her like the lover of her youth. Welsey could not re-animate his worldview, and change things back to the way he wanted on his own. Mary and Martha could not bring their brother back to life. It took the power of God in Jesus Christ to bring Lazarus back.
It took the power of God in the Holy Spirit to animate John Welsey’s faith into a more gentle, grace-filled and motivating faith. Even in the midst of her valley of dry bones, Theresa was able to do a lot in god’s name, and she hopefully realized at some point in her life that what she had done, what had been attributed to her work, the size of her mission and the sisterhood of nuns that was now working worldwide, was from God, and not her hands.
The life of ordinary churches can be the same. The lives of ordinary people can be the same. Times of dryness, times of doldrums, times of a lack of inspiration, can end, in the name of that same Jesus, that same Holy Spirit.
This church has been in service to God for over 170 years. Surely there will have been times when things were good, and rich and energetic. There are surely other times when things have been listless, lifeless, even perhaps a little boring. But our history, our Bible, and our lives can teach us that energy, life, ministry can become alive again, in the name of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
We gather together to serve God in the name of Jesus Christ. If we are feeling dry, or lifeless, scared, or lonely, we call on Christ, and our mission is renewed.
May we always be blessed by God’s presence, but if for some reason we lose our way and the Spirit of God, may we be blessed by God’s return. May he always renew us, put muscle back onto bone, and reanimate us through His spirit.