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Sunday, 2 April 2017

Can these dry bones live?

Here is the sermon that I preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields during the 10.00am Eucharist:

‘April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.’ Those are the opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s iconic poem entitled ‘The Waste Land'. April was the cruellest month for the protagonist of ‘The Waste Land’ because the new life of Spring mocked the lack of the life - the depth of death-like despair - that he felt in relation to his life and his society.

The spirit of the Lord set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones ... and they were very dry. Today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures (Ezekiel37:1-14) begins in a similar place to ‘The Waste Land’. The valley of dry bones that Ezekiel enters in his vision equates to Eliot’s poem because it is a place with all the life sucked out of it, a place of dryness, desert and death. In his poem Eliot was articulating ‘the disillusionment of a younger post–World War I generation with the values and conventions—both literary and social—of the Victorian era’, while for Ezekiel the Valley of Dry Bones equated to Israel’s exile from the Promised Land and the sense of helplessness and hopelessness felt by the whole house of Israel and summed up in what was a common saying of their time, "Our bones are dried up."

During Lent we actively choose to go into the dryness of the wilderness and be cut off, together with Jesus, in order to pray but there are also times and seasons in our lives and in our society when we think and feel that we are in a Valley of Dry Bones. Meg Warner draws on her personal experience in our Lent book to explain how this feels when it affects us personally. She writes, ‘It may be that you are stuck in the depths of Lent, perhaps facing an impossible choice, or perhaps feeling that there are no choices open to you at all … You may simply be carrying the weight of an unfulfilled longing for something that appears to be quite impossible … Your longing may be for work, for home, for intimacy, for a child, or for a number of other things which you lack and without which life feels unpalatable or pointless.’

In ‘The Waste Land’ and Ezekiel’s Vision, the sense of hopelessness is political as well as personal. Similarly, there is much that we may wish to lament as we look at life on Planet Earth today. We are witnessing the death of environments and species around our world. ‘More than 700 mammals and birds currently threatened with extinction already appear to have been adversely affected by climate change, according to a major review of scientific studies’; a situation not helped by Donald Trump’s most recent Executive Order. Climate change, poverty and conflict are forcing mass movements of people across our world and we are, perhaps, witnessing the death of compassion in response to those who are migrants; as hostile environments are being created for immigrants and travel bans or walls used to keep people out.

Austerity measures are increasingly causing crises in education, healthcare, prisons, and social care. In their powerful book, The Body Economic, David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu show that austerity is having a "devastating effect" on public health in Europe and North America. Thousands of additional suicides and millions of extra cases of depression have been recorded across the two continents since governments started introducing austerity programmes. ”Recessions can hurt,” Stuckler and Basu write, “But austerity kills." 

To give just one example of the impact that austerity cuts are having in he UK, Lady Jane Campbell wrote recently in The Guardian that while the UK has been a world leader on disability rights, now ‘current and future generations of disabled people face the slow, inexorable slide back towards social death once again.’ This is because ‘Disabled people are confronting the spectre of re-institutionalisation as councils and clinical commissioning groups limit the amount they spend on individual packages of support.’ The Care Act, she argues, ‘fails to ensure disabled people’s right to independent living, and swingeing cuts in health, social care and benefits are eroding the availability of support and people’s right to exercise choice and control.’

Eliot’s poem provides only a hint of hope for those who find themselves in their own Waste Land but Ezekiel’s response in his vision is significantly different from that of The Waste Land’s protagonist. Ezekiel spoke prophetically about the situation of sterility and death in which he found himself. We might expect the prophetic voice in that situation to be the voice of Eliot’s protagonist, a lament for all that has been lost and a keening cry for all that has died. Instead, Ezekiel’s prophecy was a word of life. Ezekiel’s prophecy was that the Lord God would cause breath to enter the dry bones so they would live.

As a result, Ezekiel’s prophecy shows us God working with what is there. There is no replacement of the dry bones and no moving of Ezekiel to a better valley. Ezekiel’s vision promises that it is precisely in the place where hope seems to have died that resurrection will occur. This means that God starts with what is already there, the dry bones; so this prophecy is about recognising, valuing and using what we already have. It is about beginning with our assets, not our deficits, and recognising that addressing, instead of avoiding, the problem is actually the way to life and change and resolution.

In their book The Abundant Community John McKnight and Peter Block argue that, by contrast, our consumer society constantly tells us that we are insufficient and that we must purchase what we need from specialists and systems outside of our immediate resources and community. They suggest that when we outsource health care, child care, recreation, safety and satisfaction, we are actually being trained to become consumers and clients, not citizens and neighbours. It is, therefore, arguable that our social fabric – our sense of real community - has been unravelled by consumerism and its belief that however much we have, it is not enough. To recognise that in ourselves and in our communities we already have the capacity to address our human needs, in ways that systems never can, is to challenge the mantra of consumerism.

In the Membership Pack for HeartEdge, the new network of churches St Martin’s is initiating, we argue that this is equally true for churches, their congregations and communities. That we can do unbelievable things by starting with our assets, not our deficits; that we all have gifts to offer, even the most seemingly marginal among us. Using our particular assets (our skills, experience, insights and ideas) we have the God-given power to create a hope-filled life and can become architects of a future where we want to live.

Following Ezekiel’s prophecy further we can then see that the individual dry bones are joined together to form skeletons on which sinews and skin grow to fashion living bodies. St Paul also used this same illustration of a body with each part in its right place playing its rightful role, in his case to create a picture of the Church as the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). Again, this suggests that we can do unbelievable things, but this time the focus is on our doing them together; starting with each another’s assets, not our deficits. Sharing our particular assets with others and receiving those of others fosters a wider understanding and models the practice of hospitality. McKnight and Block suggest we can nurture voluntary, self-organizing structures in our communities that will reveal our gifts and allow them to be shared to the greatest mutual benefit. By doing this we will find our way to becoming abundant communities that open space for generosity and cooperation.

Similarly, in HeartEdge, we are saying to the Church that rather than beginning with our hurts and our stereotypes, as happens in a community of fear, and finding a hundred reasons why we can’t do things or certain kinds of people don’t belong, if we take off labels like disabled or wealthy or migrant or evangelical or single and instead see qualities like passion or commitment or generosity or enthusiasm or humility, then there’s no limit to what a community of hope can do.

Starting with our assets and those of others around us provides the structure or skeleton that God can then animate with his Spirit – his qualities of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – to truly bring renewed life, change and growth. That is the journey of Lent, because it is the journey of Christ’s Passion; through the experience of crucifixion and death to resurrection and renewal, and beyond.

We may well, in some senses, inhabit a Valley of Dry Bones or a Waste Land personally or socially. All is not lost, however, as in Ezekiel’s vision by starting where we are with our assets and by coming together to release and share our gifts we find the power to create a hope-filled life and become the architects of a future where we want to live. It may even be that we need to experience the scarcity of the Waste Land in order to then see, appreciate and value the new life of God’s kingdom. As one song says ‘… sometimes, you need the darkness / In order to ever see the light.’ (Michael McDermott, I Know A Place)


Michael McDermott - I Know A Place.

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