Ezekiel 37 – God’s Redemptive Love

He brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.

The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

15 The word of the Lord came to me: 16 “Son of man, take a stick of wood and write on it, ‘Belonging to Judah and the Israelites associated with him.’ Then take another stick of wood, and write on it, ‘Belonging to Joseph (that is, to Ephraim) and all the Israelites associated with him.’ 17 Join them together into one stick so that they will become one in your hand.

18 “When your people ask you, ‘Won’t you tell us what you mean by this?’ 19 say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am going to take the stick of Joseph—which is in Ephraim’s hand—and of the Israelite tribes associated with him, and join it to Judah’s stick. I will make them into a single stick of wood, and they will become one in my hand.’ 20 Hold before their eyes the sticks you have written on 21 and say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. 22 I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. 23 They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God.

24 “‘My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. 25 They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. 26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. 27 My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. 28 Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’”

If this isn’t the perfect Bible story for the Sunday before Halloween I don’t know what is. A spooky valley full of dead bones gets turned into zombies – okay, maybe not brain-eating zombies but basically, for a minute there, these bone are un-dead: living but not breathing flesh.  Then a supernatural force comes through the winds and turns these zombies into a living army.  Yikes.

But that’s just the surface of the story, and it ignores the whole second half of this chapter.  Really, this is one of the most hopeful, redemptive chapters I’ve read in a while.  In it, God restores the dead, joins the scattered and squabbling tribes of Israel, and establishes a holy, everlasting covenant of peace.

Is this chapter to be taken literally, though?  Will God literally open our graves and raise up our bones?  Will God literally rejoin the houses of Ephraim and Judah?  Will David come back from the dead, too, to rule over this new kingdom and will God literally dwell there?

I see God as capable of all things, so yes, certainly it is possible to take this chapter literally.  But if we’re just sitting around waiting for that day, I think we kind of miss the point.  Let’s start from a historical perspective.  This passage was most likely written after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.  So a lot of Ezekiel’s prophecy was looking towards the rebuilding of the temple in a more immediate sense, not an eschatological sense.  The temple was rebuilt around 516 BC., seventy years after it was destroyed.  Followers of Ezekiel could point to this as the fulfillment of his prophecy, and the promise of this chapter has been fulfilled and is not just another illustration of God’s good work, but nothing we’re waiting upon.  Now, let’s look at this chapter from a religious perspective. It can be argued that much of this-and the rest of Ezekiel’s prophecy-was fulfilled through the arrival of Jesus.  Jesus, a descendant of David, came to take on our sins, redeem us from the grave, and will return to rule over us in an eternal covenant of peace, as foretold by Ezekiel. So again, perhaps it has already been fulfilled and we’re waiting upon nothing.

While all of this fulfilled prophecy-whether it is a rebuilt temple or the coming of Christ- is awe-inspiring, I think it misses the larger point, which is the redemptive power of God’s love.  God can redeem us even from beyond the grave.  God can heal not only our own souls, but the souls of nations.  God wants to restore our hope, restore our peace.  It is not something that’s only going to happen at the end of the world.  This is something we are offered not only on a monumental scale, on a daily basis.

I was listening to The Liturgists Podcast the other day, and they were interviewing Father Richard Rohr, who published his latest book, Universal Christ, earlier this year.  (I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m eager to do so, and have it on hold from my library.)  During the interview, he talked about the difference between retributive justice and redemptive justice – I believe those were his two terms.  Rohr says Jesus offers redemptive justice: a justice that heals instead of punishes.  Many of the prophets, Rohr pointed out, start with preaching a retributive justice: the justice based on God’s wrath, hellfire-and-brimstone, death-and-destruction sort of justice.  But almost all of them arrive at a place of redemptive justice.  We can see that difference happening between the chapter we studied last week, which basically promised destruction for all people, and this week, which promises peace for all people.

What is it about God that makes these prophets arrive at a place of redemptive justice?  Love.  God’s holy love is undeniable in the long run.  It is my firm belief that the longer you sit with God, the more that becomes apparent.  I know, there are lots of religious people with hate in their hearts that could be used to disprove my point, but I don’t think they are truly sitting with God.  What they are doing is scouring the Bible for passages they can bend to their own wishes, or following the biases of a small-minded leader, anything to prop up their own world-view.

But even that narrow mindset cannot withstand God’s love.  There are plenty of stories of people who recognized how God’s message was being warped, and left whatever toxic religious climate was preaching it.  Exvangelical is a podcast, hashtag, and movement that deconstructs the more harmful elements of Evangelical societies.  I’m sad to say that many exvangelicals fully leave Christianity, but many also examine their beliefs and find a God that is loving and kind.  Thought leaders like Richard Rohr, Pete Enns, and the late Rachel Held Evans, among others, are helping shape the idea of a loving and inclusive God for those who may have doubts about Christianity at large.  Yes, there are many so-called Christians that still cling to their hate like a security blanket, but God’s love is wearing them down.

The most beautiful thing about God’s redemptive love is that we can be agents of it.  We have the power to forgive, to heal, to teach.  We can be living, breathing examples of God’s love, reborn just as Ezekiel’s army was.  How you, personally, might manifest this may be different than how I or someone else manifests it, but it remains true. We can be agents of God’s redemptive love through speaking out against the injustices of the world, by helping our neighbors and community, by teaching our kids what it means to be kind and inclusive.  If you’re not sure where to start, may I suggest just sitting with God.  Offer up a simple prayer, such as “God, how can I be an agent of change in this world?”  And then just be open to it.  The answer might be immediate or it might be revealed over time.  But it will come, and you will be doing your part to spread God’s love.

Matthew 12 – Do Good, not Dogma.

Let’s battle the image of the Christian Hypocrite.

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”

He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10 and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

11 He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

15 Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. 16 He warned them not to tell others about him. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

18 “Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
    the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
19 He will not quarrel or cry out;
    no one will hear his voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
21     In his name the nations will put their hope.”

22 Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”

24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul,the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”

25 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

29 “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.

30 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.

43 “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. 45 Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”

46 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

The Christian Hypocrite is a well-known character:  The little old church lady in her Sunday Best, piously in her pew every week but spreading wicked gossip every other day is a character used in more than one film I’ve seen.  Corrupt preachers are another common example – both in entertainment and (unfortunately) in real life – of the Christian Hypocrite.  There seem to be a lot of Christian Hypocrites in Southern literature and cinematography.  Preaching acceptance and the importance of following Jesus while being a bald-faced racist is the definition of hypocrisy and an easy one to portray as a foible to whatever virtues the main character may have.

Hypocrisy is the main thrust of Jesus’ message in this chapter. The dogmatic hang-up in Jesus’ day was this working on the Sabbath bit.  I do think we need to observe the Sabbath more: rest is good for our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.  I know for a fact I don’t get enough of it.  But I also think that I, and probably the Pharisees, too, missed the most important part of this commandment. It starts with “remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Yes, then it goes into stipulations about not working (and making sure no one else in your household has to work), but upon reflection, the “work” part seems very secondary to the “keep it holy” part. Using the Sabbath as just one example, Jesus reminds us that God’s work is never done, and neither is our role in it.

Once again, Jesus tells the Pharisees: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  Jesus is reminding the Pharisees, and us, of the difference between the legalistic and elitist interpretation of Biblical law and a true following of God’s desire for mankind.  God’s people may not look or act the way we think they should.  They might not even be Christian. But that doesn’t matter to Jesus. “A tree is recognized by its fruit,” he tells us, along with “the good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him.”  Any outward signs of piety – going to church, mindlessly checking “Christian” in the religious preferences box, having an unopened Bible somewhere in the house, condemning those whose beliefs are different than yours – are fruitless and meaningless.  Legalistic and elitist interpretations of Biblical law are not going to win Jesus’ favor.  Providing love and mercy to our fellow man will.  Jesus himself says “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

And who provides this love and mercy?  Who is Jesus’ brother?  For sure, some of them are Christians.  But many of them are Muslim, Jewish, Buddist, Sikh, and I’d even go so far as to say Atheist.  Google “Islamic Charities” or “Jewish Charities” and you’ll see just how many of them there are, doing the same work as Christian charities: feeding the hungry, providing relief aid for victims of natural disasters and war, uplifting at-risk women and children. Aren’t these all things God wants us to do?  Aren’t these all fruits of a good tree?

So does it matter at all if we believe in Jesus? Is it only about good works? I don’t think so, but I’m not too worried about policing the secret hearts of those who are out there doing said good works.  I wrote about why I think being a Christian still matters, if you want to read my thoughts on the matter there.

My favorite part of this passage bears repeating in full:  “So I tell you, that every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”  My NIV text notes say that this unpardonable sin of “blasphemy against the spirit” was attributing Jesus’ miracles to Satan, but even that can be seen as an allegory for condemning anyone’s good works throughout history.  For example: 9-11 First Responders are suffering serious health consequences to the point of death for breathing in toxic fumes during their acts of heroism, yet the 9-11 First Responders Bill still has 19,000 unpaid claims.  Ebola aid workers are being shunned or even attacked.  Aid workers dropping off water at the US-Mexico border to keep people from dying of thirst have been arrested and charged with felony harboring.  These are just a few examples of good works (and the people that commit them) being condemned.  Again, some of these people are Christian, but others are not.  No matter their beliefs in life, I think Jesus will judge them kindly for the work they have done here, even and especially because it has gone unrecognized or attacked.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  We can all be Jesus’ brother or sister.  Belief in Jesus helps, to be sure, but if belief is something you’re still struggling with, start with these two universally good steps:  First, don’t get hung up on dogma – your own or someone else’s.  Recognize the good that someone is doing, and leave it there.  Second, provide mercy.  Be the one who is advocating for the meek, providing water for those who thirst, feeding those who hunger.  In doing so, you will be perpetuating that two-step cycle: Someone will see your good works, and loosen whatever dogmatic restraints were holding them back.  Perhaps they will then extend that hand of mercy, and the cycle will start over again.  Mercy, not sacrifice, is the way of Jesus, and the way of Love.

Psalm 139 – Thoughts for Pride Month 2019

We are all fearfully and wonderfully made.

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

13 For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
    they would outnumber the grains of sand—
    when I awake, I am still with you.

19 If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
20 They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
22 I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

I’m taking a one-post break from Matthew right now because I didn’t want Pride Month to pass me by without mentioning it, and it’s almost the middle of June!  Also, this seemed like a natural break since I finished Chapter 10 last week, and read Chapter 11 back in December, so we’ve got a gap.

Pride month is rapidly becoming one of those odd events where we focus on the celebration and not the underlying cause, kind of like Memorial Day.  All the barbeques and sales of Memorial Day and beginning-of-summer-fun mentalities seem a little tawdry when you consider we’re supposed to be remembering those who died in service of the country.  Just an example.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a good party.  But the original Pride Parade was a commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, when tensions between police and the gay community reached a breaking point at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.

But now, Pride Month is a profitable, cool thing to do.  Businesses of all stripes are on board. Lots of straight people attend (selfie-ing away in rainbow tees).  And while this isn’t inherently bad, I have several gay friends who make a point to remind people each year that this hasn’t always been some big giant block party.  It came from a real place of pain and inequality, and people have been fighting for fifty years since Stonewall to end violence, increase awareness, and promote equality for our LGBTQ siblings.

So, in the effort to find an appropriate Bible passage to recognize Pride Month, I Googled…well… “Bible passages for Pride Month.”  Psalm 139 was my favorite hit.  “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well,”  the author says.  And really, that is something we can all say, for we are all children of God.  God made each and every one of us perfect, and knows us even before we know ourselves: “You have searched me, Lord, and know me.”  God creates us all, and knows Xyr creation, and loves each and every one of us.

This goes so much farther than just Pride, too.  I found this psalm intending to use it for Pride Month, but it immediately made me think of my Autistic daughter.  My biggest concern for her is that she will not be accepted into society the way she is.  As she gets older, her differences are becoming more and more noticeable.  She doesn’t talk to people, but her echolalia (repeating things over and over and over) is pretty constant.  I actually love it, because I get to hear her voice, and not all moms can say that about their special needs children.  It also gives me a way to interact with her, because I know the “script,” if you will, and we can do a call-and-response sort of thing.  Additionally, she has trouble regulating her voice and reactions appropriately in certain social situations and can sometimes be extremely anxious – if she’s getting overwhelmed she will scream at (and sometimes try to hit) unfamiliar people who try to talk to her. We’re working on things to make navigating this world easier for her, but I am in no way looking to “cure” her.  She is smart, beautiful, funny, and completely cherished.  God made her the way she is (not vaccines or any of the other bullshit people sometimes throw out there related to Autism), and she, too, is fearfully and wonderfully made.  As are we all.

As the psalmist says: even the darkness is not dark to the Lord.  God knows all, and knows us.  Isn’t that a wonderful thing?  We are not perfect, and yet we are:  we are perfectly loved and perfectly formed by our God.  Let’s honor that fact by loving others, no matter how they may have been formed – Christian or not, gay or straight, abled or disabled, man, woman, or somewhere in between: we are all children of God, fearfully and wonderfully made.  Happy Pride, everyone – God loves us all.