Rev. Stacy Swain
I have taken lately to wandering the Museum of Fine Arts. Sometimes as I wander, I recognize right away the hand of the master artist that crafted the piece before me. I recognize in the thick passionate brush, the touch of Vincent Van Gogh. Or the sensibilities of Monet in a canvass full of afternoon light.
At other times it is not clear to me though, who made the work in front of me. And so I draw close to read and wonder at the name printed there beside the work. And I wonder at the artist, “Who is this that crafted such beauty?” “How extraordinary she must be!”
At oftentimes, at some point in my wanderings, I come upon something so breathtakingly beautiful that I can actually feel my heart swell as I stand there absolutely awash in beauty’s inspiration.
But, there is little beauty in the valley of dry bones. It is desolate. There is loss and sadness. Life drained away. Nothing, but bones, bleached and brittle.
Ezekiel speaks to a people who know this valley. They have wandered there. It is Jerusalem after its destruction. It is life going out of the Hebrew people as many died and many more are marched off to exile. It is their despair in a foreign land, despair of a future without hope, life without promise.
We too know this valley of dry bones. It is there in our national landscape in the dehumanizing oppression of our prison system, in the life sapping disparity between those that have so much and those that do not have enough, it is there in our young people who despair of a future without hope, of life without promise.
And this valley is our internal landscape as well. It is those parched times when life has gone flat and dry. Times of loss, (a marriage crumbles, a loved one dies) times of illness (can this cancer be true? What does life look like now?) Times of depression, (do I have the strength to face another day?). These are the times when we ask ourselves “Can these bones live?”
But perhaps the biggest loss and greatest sadness of the Hebrew People of Ezekiel’s time was that they not only lost their homeland, not only were they cast into exile, but they also lost their God. For the temple was the meeting place with God. The temple was where heaven and earth drew near. The destruction of the temple was not just the destruction of a magnificent structure, but it was also the destruction of the place of encounter with God. If the temple was gone so too was the meeting place. Where was God now? Certainly not there in Babylon, not in that strange and foreign land, where strange and foreign gods resided.
But then, right there in the middle of the people’s despair and dislocation, is Ezekiel. Ezekiel who once was a temple priest in Jerusalem, well he starts having the strangest things happen to him. Ezekiel much I am sure to his surprise, he begins to have visions, and hears words, he begins to encounters God right there by the River Chebar in Babylon
For in the passage before the one we read today, we overhear God and Ezekiel in conversation and God says something extraordinary to Ezekiel. God says that through the house of Israel God is going to display God’s holiness. God says Not only will the Israel be God’s people and, God will be their God but so close will God dwell with them, so intimate will be their relationship that it will be possible to look upon the people and see something of God through them.
And this is exactly what happens with Ezekiel. For what makes the words of Ezekiel’s vision so compelling is that through them those exiled and despairing people begin to see something of God. The temple in Jerusalem may be destroyed and far away, but God’s presence is very near. In God’s promise for the people, shining out through the vision that Ezekiel speaks, the people see something so beautiful that it makes their hearts swell within them as they stand awash in its inspiration. In God’s promise for the people, shining out through the vision that Ezekiel speaks, the people feel strength returning to their bodies, flesh coming again to give them strength, sinews binding them together to carry them forward. Through the words Ezekiel speaks, the people encounter God.
Now I want to pause here for just a moment because what is going on here is really quite remarkable and rather alarming. We often say and are quite comfortable with the idea that God is present in the world. We look at a beautiful sunset, or the brilliance of a fiery maple and a word of praise easily comes to our lips. And we often say and are quite comfortable with the idea that God is in us, that there is a spark of the divine residing in our souls. But this idea that God is displayed through us pushes us a bit out of our comfort zone.
For this is to suggest that by looking at you, I am to see something of God? And that you will find something of God on display through me?
This pushes us to the edge of our comfort zone for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a lot of responsibility. It is much easier to be a nobody without much importance to God than it is to be a canvas through which the artistry of God can be know.
And second, and this the much more weightier one, this kind of thinking can easily get one in lots of trouble. For how do we really know if what we say and do, how we are in the world is actually God through us or just our own doings. How can we know if God is displayed through us or if what we display is just our own ego and desire? After all few of us are lucky enough to have such candid conversations with God in the way that Ezekiel did, few of us hear such direct instructions like he did. We can get our selves into a lot of trouble if we get too overly certain and confident that something of God is seen through us.
After all look at the Gospel reading from Matthew this morning. The Pharisees have ceased to be in a way that enables God to be on display through them. All that they display is their own ego and sense of self importance. Jesus has a bone to pick with the Elders because of the way they are using religion not in service to God but in service to themselves. Jesus warns the crowd that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
What keeps us, therefore, out of the danger zone of thinking more of ourselves than God, of displaying more of our own ego than God’s glory, is humility. Humility is the check to arrogance. Humility keeps us from moving down that path of the Pharisees, keeps us from becoming so full of ourselves that there is no room left for God.
Let’s be clear, humility is not humiliation. It is not a weak and submissive posture. Humility is about balance, it is about not thinking too much or too little of ourselves. It is about fully accepting who we are while never loosing site that there is always room for improvement.
It is not surprising then that humility is that which all the great saints that we remember and celebrate today, all of those great men and women who have gone before us and those who are among us still, share. For what makes these people saints is not that they are so amazing in and of themselves, but that through them we are able to see something amazing of God. Unlike the Pharisees wrapped in ego and pride, God is able to shines out through these people, through the work of their hands, the words of their mouths, the meditations of their hearts. Look at this artistry on display through them. At:
Martin Luther King, Jr.
What a gallery of God! What works of the master artist’s hand!
What a gallery of God. What works of the master artist’s hand. For we too are called to be Ezekiels, to be ones to shine forth the promise and hope of God to a despairing people, a people who are lost in a valley of dry bones. We too are called to be saints, canvasses of the artist’s hand. It is a great responsibility and privilege that we receive with the deepest humility, this extraordinary word that God wants to be known through us. That through what we say and do, how we love, and forgive, how we serve and care, through who we are, people around us may see something of God that makes their hearts swell and that stirs new life in them.
May we not turn from this responsibility, but with all humility accept the gift of the master’s artists hand upon our lives. May we become works reflecting God’s grace so purely that even those who wander by, those who do not yet know the love and goodness of God in their lives may be inspired to draw near and to inquire “Who is this artist that crafted such a beautiful work? How extraordinary this God must surely be.”
So in the days and weeks to come I invite you will all humility to consider what of God is on display through you? Is it compassion? Is it a passion for justice. Is it the care of creation? Is it seeing the Thou in yourself and in all people? What a gallery of God. What works of the master artist hand! AMEN