April 10, 2011
Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Romans 8:6-11
Setting Our Minds on the Spirit
Rev. Leanne Walt preaching
16 year old Gabby François – wrapped her hair in a silk scarf that morning because she didn’t want to wake her parents by the noise of the shower, she quietly grabbed the set of keys on the kitchen counter, she gently opened the front door of her parents’ apartment and slipped out unnoticed, she walked down the narrow hallway of the apartment building and out into the street in the middle of the Bronx. She got on the subway and rode it into Harlem.
That same morning, in the neighboring borough of Brooklyn, Rhonda Rodriguez ate cereal with her great grandmother, the woman who raises her and she set out alone, with her book bag on her back, from the apartment building where she lives, a building that is set aside for kids being raised by grandparents. She made her way to the subway, got on and rode it into Harlem.
They had come, along with hundreds of other New York City teenagers, to sing gospel. They hoped to be selected to participate in the free, semester long program, Gospel for Teens.
At the beginning of each Gospel for Teens class, Vy Higgensen, the founder and director of the program, has them shake every part of their body and she does this so that they will let it all go – all of the baggage they carry around with them, problems with their mom and their dad, peer pressure, violence, loss – they physically shake their bodies until they have left everything outside of this space where they will come to learn the history of gospel music and to sing the songs that their ancestors sang while they were bound together by chains picking cotton until their hands bled:
When Israel was in Egypt's land
Let my people go
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
Let my people go
Go down Moses
Way down in Egypt's land
Tell old, Pharoh
Let my people go!
Gabby and Rhonda shook all they could, they shook their whole bodies, their hands and their heads, their legs and their feet. And, when they were done, they were asked to stand up and to say their names and where they come from loudly and with confidence. When it was her turn, Gabby stood and, disinterested, with her eyes cast on the floor, she muttered her name, “Gabby François, Bronx, New York.”
When it was her turn, Rhonda stood and softly spoke, with tears in her eyes, “Rhonda Rodriguez, Brooklyn, New York.” They were ashamed.
But they sang. They had come to sing gospel, the good and promising news in prose and verse, in rhyme and rhythm. For weeks and months they joined their voices together and they sang gospel.
At the end of the final performance of the semester, Vy asks all of the teens to scream their name, loudly so that everyone can hear, in succession, one after the other, on the stage. She waits, in anticipation for Gabby’s turn, “Gabby François, Bronx, New York,” then down the line, “Rhonda Rodriguez, Brooklyn, New York.”
Perhaps in the most captivating image in all Scripture, God’s hand comes upon Ezekiel, scooping him up and setting him in the middle of a valley of lifeless, hopeless, disconnected, dry human bones. In this vision that Ezekiel has, God leads him all around the valley of darkness and shadows and death. And in the midst of the valley, as Ezekiel was walking along, God asks the prophet, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel responds, “O Lord God, You know.”
Then God says to Ezekiel, prophesy to these bones. Tell them that God will cause breath to enter them and they will live.
Breath, Ruach, the Hebrew word for breath, wind, spirit, ruach. If you’re able, raise your voices and say it with me, ruach. It rolls off your tongue, doesn’t it. Ruach. A rich, beautiful word, a word of transformation, a word of transcendence. A word that embodies its meaning. Ruach.
So Ezekiel speaks to the dead bones as God has commanded him and the bones begin to bind together, with sinew and flesh, but they’re not yet living, so God tells Ezekiel to do it again, speak to the bones and command the breath, the ruach, to enter these vessels. Ezekiel does as God has commanded him and the bodies suddenly what was lifeless becomes life-giving. What was hope-less becomes hope-ful in the joining of the Spirit with the body.
The Apostle Paul sums up the happenings in the valley of dry bones when he writes, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on ruach, the Spirit, is life and peace.”
Paul is often misinterpreted as preaching the Spirit in opposition to the flesh, or the spiritual versus the material, or our need to put aside our bodies and concentrate solely on our inner life of faith. Yet, Paul knows that the Christian life is an embodied, material life and he does not say that the material is bad, for as the story goes, “God saw everything that he had made and, indeed, it was very good” (Gen 1:31).
Paul shares Ezekiel’s vision of the symbiotic relationship between our flesh and ruach, the Spirit. Setting our mind on the spirit is a way of conducting bodily life, it is manifested in how we use our physical energies and our material resources, how we care for our neighbors. Setting our mind on the spirit happens when we allow God’s spirit to dwell with us, inhabit us, animate us. Setting our mind on the Spirit is the only way to discipleship.
I imagine that as God asks Ezekiel of the bones that represented the whole house of Israel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” God is asking our church community on this holy day when we – and me I – enter into covenanted ministry together with one another and we God, God is asking us, “Mortals, can these bones live?”
God is asking us, if we, First Congregational Church of Braintree, will allow God’s spirit to dwell with us, to inhabit us, to animate us. God is asking us how will we transform our community? What will our vision be?
When the Spirit of God dwells in us, our corporeal lives, in all their concreteness and messiness, become expressions and instruments of life and peace. So it is when Gabby sings gospel and Rhonda screams her name.
After the semester was over for Gabby, she wrote Vy an email explaining why she had been so quiet and disconnected during class. She wrote that she was storing up all of her pain so that she could sing it out. And, she thanked her.
How will we transform our community?