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2nd April 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
31 March 2017

Readings

Ezekiel 37: 1-14

The divine voice in verse in our reading quotes the people as saying ‘our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely’.  Maurice Andrew says ‘the peoples situation demonstrates that Ezekiel’s vision is not an expression of faith in resurrection from literal death, but something far greater, of life for people who want to die’.[1]

Ezekiel’s words in this passage suggest that no matter how bad things seem they can always be transformed and we should never assume that things will always stay the same and those who assumed they were beyond hope can receive life. 

John 11: 1-45

Raymond Brown suggests that whatever the history of this story might be John has used the incident to make theological points.[2]  Lazarus, the one who Jesus loves, probably represents all whom Jesus loves, in other words all ‘all Christians.’  We may also want to say all humanity.

It is not important for today’s readers to believe that Jesus raised Lazarus from death or to seek all sorts of rational and medical explanations.  Ultimately our faith must be grounded in our own experience of the risen Christ.    Bill Loader concludes his commentary by saying.  We need to ask ourselves if God in Christ is understood as life and nourishment and how that leads us to talk about compassion and challenge.[3]

Sermon

Both the readings fit the theme of resurrection and new beginning.  The Ezekiel reading grapples with the dry bones of despair and offers new life to those who feel defeated by life’s hard journey.  The Lazarus reading introduces the theological concept of resurrection and prepares the reader for the Easter story.

The autumn harvest is part of the resurrection story of the natural world where death and new beginnings are part of the cycle of creation and recreation that sustains all life.  Those of us who have hunted or fished have recognised the feeling of exhilaration when such an enterprise has been successful.  For our distant ancestors that elation was also an expression of thankfulness because success meant that family or tribe would be fed.  In a world of mystery where unexplained disasters were part of the everyday struggle it appeared worthwhile to celebrate a successful hunt by giving thanks to mysterious forces that seemed to control all of life.  Pacific people returned the first fish to the sea and American mythologist Joseph Campbell claims that people who lived on the plains ‘where the Buffalo roam’ and other such wide open spaces regarded killing an animal for food as a religious event with set rituals that liberated the animal’s soul and gave thanks for the sustenance its death gave. 

As people moved to settled agriculture the success of the harvest was no less a miracle with fluctuating seasons, storms, droughts, fires, plagues of insects and other animals.  There were also raids from other tribes and nations along with feudalism and other protection rackets that put a tax on any crops that flourished.  Therefore there was still a thankfulness that needed to be celebrated and a ritual to insure the spiritual force of creation was just as generous in seasons to come.  The biblical descriptions of worship, both in the wilderness and in Jerusalem, feature animal sacrifice. They also suggest that the worshipers feast on the animal, in the same way Campbell describes the worship of plains hunter gathers.  Furthermore in the book of Deuteronomy we find this passage.

‘When you have come into the land that Yahweh is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that Yahweh is giving you.... (Deuteronomy 26:1,2)     

The chapter further instructs that the gift will be placed in a basket, taken to a place of worship.  The prayers of thanks are spelled out and finally the instruction that the produce will be given to the priests, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows. (Deuteronomy 26:13) 

The passage not only acknowledges the divine hand in a successful harvest but also acknowledges that the land is also a gift from God.  Deuteronomy recognises land as a deliverance from slavery and the wilderness journey but we can also reflect that the land is a gift of God’s creation. 

The very land on which we grow our harvest is the gift of the ongoing process of creation where rock is weathered and soil is produced by the decay of past life.  Our harvest thanksgiving must recognise that gift of creation along with the praise we give for the produce we share.

In this day and age when so many of us hunt and harvest for packaged produce and processed provisions in the frightening forest of supermarket shelves it is easy to forget where our food comes from. We are still dependant of the interdependent echo system, the vagaries of climate and the toil of those who farm or fish. 

Furthermore as we stand among the well stocked shelves, where the only limitation to gratification is the balance in our bank account, it is very easy to forget the needs of today’s equivalent of the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows.  As they swipe the card through the Eftpos terminal people give very little thought to the gleaners who scavenge the waste bins for outdated packets or discarded produce or line up at food banks because circumstances have made them dependant on others.

But the harvest thanksgiving passage in Deuteronomy makes it clear that worship is much more than giving thanks for our plenty.  Micah reinforces that fact in a question and answer verse as he writes, ‘He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does Yahweh require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

True worship involves compassion and the harvest of our faith involves hope given to those whose circumstances make them feel like the dry bones of our world, and calls us to raise people from the tomb of despair. 

The purpose of our long Gospel reading is to make the theological point that new life comes through the love of Christ and those who experience that love are compelled to share that love with others, to be Christ for others. 

The history of our faith is an ongoing struggle to spread the message of redeeming hope and recruit a harvest of disciples to reenergise the dry bones of a struggling humanity.

That missionary zeal was very evident in the early church but as Christianity and the Roman Empire became allies its compassionate bones began to dry up.

Certainly when the Catholic Church was the only European church it took the closing verses of Matthew’s Gospel seriously.  The Church literally went into the world ‘making disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’, (Matthew 28:19a)

In so doing they also aided Europe’s colonial and trading ambitions and, not only taught that people should obey everything that Christ commanded, they added in a number of extra commands that aided the ambitions of a number of European nation’s imperial ambitions.

As an aside we need to remember that was not the Catholic Church of today but the Catholic Church that was part of all our history and the early post reformation churches continued to be ruling churches and continued the unholy alliances between church and secular totalitarian monarchies.

What is significant about the Reformation for our theme of harvest and new beginnings was the idea that people were saved by divine grace rather than the good works they did.

That snuffed out the power of the church to raise money from indulgences and lessened the impact of other dubious practices that promised eternal life in exchange for generous donations. 

However the unfortunate side effect of that liberating perception was to dampen any missionary zeal because if God was not showing Grace to the people of what Europeans referred to as the ‘New World’ then it was considered no business of Christians to interfere. 

Nevertheless within the European Pietists movement of 17th century Moravian Christians, under the leadership of Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, began to send missionaries all over the world.  They sent missionaries to twenty eight different countries in twenty eight years which gave the protestant missionary movement a great start.

Of particular interest to us is the fact that John and Charles Wesley deeply felt the spiritual impact of the Moravians and it was through their influence that John Wesley reluctantly attended a meeting in Aldersgate Street.  It was at that meeting in Aldersgate Street on May 24, 1738 where he famously felt his heart strangely warmed.

What gave life to the dry bones of the Calvinist Lutheran faith was the theological realisation that, although people are saved by Grace rather than works, they are also called to respond to others in gratefulness for the Grace they have received. 

Receiving Christ’s love calls us to be Christ to others and the harvest of that love is a transformed world.  

That may seem an extravagant claim but think of the ongoing harvest of Zinzendorf’s Moravian missionaries, who in an Atlantic storm challenged the faith of a terrified Anglican priest called John Wesley.  Wesley was going to Georgia to be chaplain of an English Colony and the Moravians were going to tell the indigenous people about Jesus.  Wesley regarded his ministry in Georgia as a failure but his meeting with the Moravians was certainly the seeds of a spectacular harvest, of which we are a part. 

The harvest of the protestant missionary revival was spectacular and we are part of the ongoing harvest of that change in theological thinking.  That change in theological thinking was the seeds of the transformation that is ongoing.  But the Wesley brothers’ interaction with the Moravians also brought a harvest of more than seven thousand hymns, they campaigned against slavery, supported the development of the trade union movement and were a significant force in the development of Christianity in the United States.  Those Wesley seeds have continued to bring a harvest of a way of being Christian that links individual piety with a passion for social justice.

At a time when the dry bones of the church of England were failing the dispossessed of the industrial revolution the Wesley brothers prophesied to those dry bones and there was indeed ‘a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to bone.’ (Ezekiel 37:7)

Furthermore the Divine Spirit breathed on those bones and a vast multitude, not only lived and stood on their feet, but marched out into the neighbourhoods bringing their message of piety and social justice to the world. That multitude of Methodists disturbed and re-energised Christians and gave resurrection life to the Lazarus churches languishing in their tombs of tradition and ecclesiastical complacency.

As the introduction to today’s readings tells us, both our readings fit the theme of resurrection and new beginning.  The Ezekiel reading grapples with the dry bones of despair offering new life to those who feel defeated by the life’s hard journey.  The Lazarus reading introduces the theological concept of resurrection and prepares the reader for the Easter story.

As we give thanks for our harvest and through Home and Family share what we have with the alienated, the orphans, and the widows of our world we also look to the harvest of our faith. 

In thanks and praise for the bounty of the harvest we have received we recommit ourselves to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999) pp. 516,517

[2] Raymond Brown, The Gospel According To John I-XII (London: Geoffrey Chapman 1966), p.431.

 

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