We Can Do Hard Things
Before I read the Ezekiel text, I’d like everyone to take a deep breath. Fill your lungs; then breathe out. The Hebrew word for breath is ruach, and it can also mean “spirit,” as in “Spirit of the Lord” or the spirit of a person; and it can mean “wind” – a breeze or strong wind. Ezekiel uses the word ruach in all of these ways. As I read from Ezekiel 37, listen for “spirit,” for “breath,” and for “wind,” keeping in mind that the ancients would have heard all of these as one word.
Read Ezekiel 37:1-14
A recent Barna study ranked U.S. cities that are the most “post-Christian.” It’s not surprising that the San Francisco Bay Area lands in the top ten. Personally, I was surprised we were just 6th, rather than first or second. We’ve all seen the signs: Dwindling church attendance. Little League games, dance recitals and birthday parties on Sunday mornings. People who raise their eyebrows when you mention that you go to church. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is when people are sure they know how you think, believe and vote when you say you’re a Christian, when they really don’t. Have we – the Christian Church – taken up residence in a valley of dry bones – the valley of despair, the valley where there is no hope?
Ezekiel prophesied to a people in exile. A people filled with despair, beyond hope. When the leaders of Judah were dragged into exile in Babylon, they were free to live pretty normal lives there. They were even free to worship, but that was hard because they couldn’t imagine worship apart from the temple in Jerusalem, which had been destroyed. It’s a tragic irony of the soul that sometimes, we find it most difficult to worship when we need it the most.
The exiles in Babylon did just what we might do. They tried to numb the spiritual pain by making life more comfortable. They worked, they bought stuff, they planted roots in Babylon, trying to make Babylon as pleasant as they could. Time passed, and eventually things were so cozy for the exiles that when they were encouraged to go home to Jerusalem, most of them didn’t want to leave. The old dream of living in the Lord’s presence was dead and buried. The people lamented, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
So God turns this very lament into a vision of hope. In this vision, when God asks the prophet, “Mortal, can these bones live?” the only reasonable answer is no. But Ezekiel defers to God: “God, you’re the only one who knows.” God says, “Prophesy to these bones. Tell them to get up.” And Ezekiel does. The bones rattle and clatter and come together and then grow muscle and skin, but there’s no breath, no life in them. So God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the wind, to the breath, to the Spirit; the breath obeys and a vast multitude stands ready to do God’s will.
Then God explains what it all means. God says, “You think it’s impossible for me to restore my people from exile? If I can restore these bones to life and breath to these bodies, I can restore my people. I will send you home.” Exile is not the end of the story. God is not done yet.
God is not done yet, and neither is Ezekiel. The exiles that were born in Babylon had never even seen Jerusalem or the temple; what’s it to them? Ezekiel tries to stimulate some enthusiasm for the trip home by giving the people a plan for the future temple. It has this marvelous effect: The people start debating the details of Ezekiel’s plan, and everyone gets so involved in arguing about the details of the project that they don’t even notice that they’ve all accepted it as a reality. The vision becomes expectation. Hope becomes anticipation. The unimaginable has been imagined. And that is how the world and people change: by envisioning new possibilities, and acting on them as if they’re inevitable. That’s how despair is overcome: by moving forward into the unknown in hope.
I bought my first piece of “sign art” this week. I ordered it from Etsy, and I don’t have it to show to you this morning. I’ve stayed away from signs and motivational posters because I have a pretty low threshold for corny but this one spoke to me. It is our sermon title today: “We Can Do Hard Things.” Because that is the root of real, active hope.
Author and social science researcher Brené Brown says that in the past few years, the inescapable message invading our lives is that everything, absolutely everything should be fun, fast and easy. Brown sees college students feeling small because things aren’t easy for them. The message they’re getting is that, whatever you try, not only should you be able to do it and do it well, but it should be a breeze. But when Brown studied people who engage in their lives from a place of wholeheartedness, they kept using words and phrases like tenacity, perseverance, resilience in the face of failure – and most surprisingly, HOPE. She didn’t expect “hope” because most people think of hope as a wishful feeling, as in, “I hope I get the job; I hope I make the soccer team…” But her research shows that hope isn’t a feeling at all. It’s a way of thinking. And this is the really important part: Hope is a function of struggle.
Brown appeared on a radio show and discovered that she and the host both were ex-swimmers. The host, however, went on to be an Olympic swimmer, while Brown went on to be – a shame researcher. The host still coaches swimming and she asked Brown about a flip turn exercise she does with swimming students. A flip turn, if you’re not a swimmer, is that somersault competitive swimmers do that’s much, much faster than touching the edge of the pool and turning around. So at flip turn practice, the kids have to get thumbs up for 5 flip turns before they can leave. The problem was that parents objected, saying, “We don’t want you to do this anymore with our children [2 thumbs down]. How would you feel about [wave hands in an ambiguous maybe-maybe not movement]?” The radio host asked Brown, “What do you think?” Brown said she thinks this [the wavy hand movement] is terrible.
Brown said, “Imagine you’re in flip turn practice. You see this: Flip turn. [Thumbs down.] Flip turn. [Thumbs down.] Flip turn. [Thumbs down.] Flip turn. [Smile; thumbs up.] Did you feel that moment? How many of you know that moment? How many of you think that’s an important moment? That’s what hope looks like. I’ve got a goal. It’s reachable. I believe in my ability to get there, even if I have to use a Plan B to do it.”
Brown worries about our culture, where parents are reluctant to let children have any experiences of failure or even hard work. That’s no small problem, and Brown says her research has changed the way she parents. But my takeaway this morning is this: We can do hard things. The Church can do hard things, and that gives us hope. The people in exile found hope in the struggle to do the next thing, and then the next thing, and that is how God’s Spirit works.
Just as with them, God has not abandoned us. God’s Spirit is at work and, actually, this crisis facing the Church is a gift. Since the church became the religion of the Roman Empire some sixteen hundred years ago, it’s often lost its way, distracted from Christ’s work of love and justice by the lure of power. The Church or at least parts of it is waking up to the truth that religion is at its best when it leads us forward, when it is courageous and creative in doing the hard work of bringing about the kingdom Jesus described “on earth as it is in heaven,” a world defined by love not hate, by sharing not privilege, by cooperation not violence. The Spirit still calls, the Spirit still breathes life in us, the Spirit still leads us onward. The reason for adding muscle and breath to those dry bones is so they can move! The church exists to move, to learn the flip turn, if you will; to do the next thing, and then the next thing in bringing about the kingdom of God!
We can do hard things. The church is the church when it is doing Christ’s work – that’s our goal. That’s reachable. We can get there. There aren’t any easy formulas for church growth or renewal and it’s vital to remember what an archbishop of Canterbury once said: that it’s a mistake to think that God is chiefly or even largely concerned with organized religion; what God really tells us in the Gospels is that we’re to transform reality, as best we can, through works of love. But we do that through community, through this community, with the gifts of these people, these buildings, our history of faithfulness and God’s ongoing Spirit, leading, prodding, breathing in us and through us. There is hard work to do, but in the struggle lies our hope. God has not abandoned us. God’s Spirit is at work. This is not the end of the story. God is not done.
We can do hard things, and we can do them together. Flip turn. [Thumbs up.] May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserved.
 For the curious: Albany, New York, was #1.
 Craig Barnes, “Resurrected Hopes,” in The Christian Century, February 27, 2002.
 Jon Meacham, “The End of Christian America,” in Newsweek, April 13, 2009, pp. 34-38.