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Can These Bones Live?
Contemplating the Death of the Church for the Sake of the World

Sermon – 3/13/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, "O Lord GOD, you know." 4Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD." 7So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 11Then he said to me, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.' 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act," says the LORD.

A little over 2,500 years ago, a nation died.  An entire nation was wiped from the face of the earth. I speak of course of the destruction of Israel by the forces of Babylon.  This destruction, which Ezekiel and the other prophets interpret as the judgment of God upon the sins of the nation, was so complete that the nation had become, in Ezekiel's words, a valley of dry bones, bleached white by the scorching sun.

It is not that there were not any survivors, as a matter of fact, there were more survivors than victims, as far as individuals lives are concerned.  What made the defeat of Israel such a devastating deed was not the loss of blood, but the loss of the temple, the official dwelling place of God and symbol of their national identity.  Looted of all its precious metals and razed like a condemned, deserted shack, it became a "heap of ruins" and Jerusalem little more than a "ploughed field", as the prophet Micah proclaims.  The entire population of the Holy City, save peasants and caretakers, were then marched off like common prisoners to a foreign land.  For a people whose whole being was tied to the land, the promised land, it was a fate worse than death for it could only mean the abandonment by God.  And without God, the nation of Israel ceased to exist.  It became extinct.

There are many voices who say the church, as we know it, faces a similar fate.  That we are in danger of becoming extinct, or at least irrelevant to the culture around us.  Several years ago Herb Miller, director of our National Evangelism Association, was sharply criticized for projecting that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) would cease to exist in the year 2052 based on the rate of membership losses in our church. 

Then Ron Allen, New Testament professor at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis added fuel to the fire with an article in The Disciple magazine proclaiming that we are in the early stages of “code blue,” the medical designation for a patient in a life-threatening trauma.  Noting that we had lost 200,000 members over the previous two decades, Allen said that without "radical treatment", the patient would be lost.[i] 

Well, since it has been ten years since he made that provocative claim, I thought I’d check the stats to see how we are doing.  In 1994 we had 657,000 participating members.  Last year we had, do you really want to hear this?  Last year we had 493,000, a decline of 164,000 in ten years.  Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans and similar denominations are all experiencing similar fates. The decline among Disciples is a little faster than other denominations, because the average age of our members is older than most other denominations.

The church typically responds to this news much as a patient to the news that they have a terminal illness.[ii]  First there is denial.  “We don't need to change.  If we just keep doing what we have always done, everything will be OK.  Better yet, if we just did things the way we used to do things, the people will come back!”  Right.  And how many vinyl records and typewriter ribbons did you buy last year?

After denial comes depression.  No wonder! When you look at the statistics, it IS depressing.  Lyle Schaller reports that somewhere between 65 & 85 percent of all protestant congregations are either stuck on a plateau or declining in size.  Not just those affiliated with the "mainline" denominations, but a majority of ALL protestant congregations.  Growing churches in all denominations are in the definite minority.  Isn’t it nice to be in the majority?

Then comes the bargaining.  If we can just create the right program, find the right leader, raise enough money, all will be well.  If everyone would just be more supportive, more faithful, more positive, the problems will take care of themselves.  If you put more into it, you will get more out of it.  If the preacher would just stick to the Bible, if the music director would pick the right hymns, if the organist would pick up the tempo, if, if, if...  

Finally comes anger.  It's the denomination's fault, all those pronouncements on political issues.  We should have fired that lousy minister years ago.  I didn't leave the church, the church left me.  If the church weren't full of so many no-good hypocrites, they would be less judgmental, like me.

So we respond to our condition with denial, depression, bargaining and anger, because, frankly, the future prospects scare us and we are afraid to face the possibility of our own demise.  The paradox of a dying patient is that it is not until he or she comes to terms with his or her condition by accepting it, that she or he begins to live again, even to discover new life. 

We, of all people, should not fear the prospect of death.  We need to remind ourselves that the central proclamation of the gospel is the hope of resurrection for the dead.  In many ways we owe our beginnings to death.  One of the founding documents of the Christian Church was “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery”, in which our 19th century ancestors willed “that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large...”  More importantly, in baptism we are buried with Christ, “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of [God], so we too might walk in newness of life.”  (Romans 6:4)

Given the promise of new life we have in Christ, death of an institution should be the last of our worries.  Michael Kinnamon, one of the leading theologians of our denomination, wrote in response to Allen's “Code Blue” article, that there is plenty of good news even in our present state:

Think of Isaiah:  it is in exile that the community learns its true calling as a light to the nations.  Think of Pentecost:  it is in a moment of utter confusion that the Holy Spirit is experienced.  Think of Paul for whom human weakness makes room for the power of Christ... Our faith... is not about resuscitation but resurrection…I hope we are witnessing the death of a church dominated by white males.  I hope we are witnessing the death of a denomination that drew sharp boundaries between itself and others who bear the name of Jesus Christ.  I hope we are witnessing the death of the time when giving to [the church]--to paraphrase Ronald Osborn--felt more like paying taxes than investing in our own missionary work.[iii]

 

Kinnamon goes on to suggest that what others have interpreted to be signs of impending death could in fact be signs of impending birth, that the time has come for us to serve as midwives to a new creation, to reinvent the church.  That notion, that the changing times we are in will lead to a re-birth of the church to which we are called to be a part, is an exciting possibility.  Like the pioneers of old and the astronauts of the Apollo mission to the moon, we have an opportunity to journey into a new frontier, to boldly go as James T. Kirk says, where no one has gone before.

But what is our destination?  Must we wander like the Israelites of old for 40 years in the wilderness because we cannot see our way to the promised land, we have no vision for the future?  Actually, we do.  At least we do in this congregation.  We began to identify such a vision in our planning retreat last year and then we kind of put it on the back burner to attend to more pressing needs. To use the analogy of this morning’s text, it’s time to put some sinews, muscle and skin on these dry bones. 

The vision identified in our planning retreat to bring resurrected life to these old bones was described as a “new paradigm church” that is non-literalistic, open and affirming.  Do you know what the fastest growing religious category in the United States is?  The unaffiliated.  These are people who believe in God but who have no religious affiliation.  Either they have dropped out of church or have never been a part of a church. 

The reasons for this phenomena are varied and greatly debated but this much is abundantly clear, for millions of North Americans, the church has ceased to be relevant.  Here is just one statistic to give us a clue as to this increasingly irrelevance.  In 1963, 65% of the people living in the United States indicated a strong agreement with this statement in a Gallup poll:  “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.”  In 2001, only 27% agreed with that statement.[iv]  That is a phenomenal shift in perception. 

Given that those statistics include the Bible belt and we live in the Bible kilt, a mixture of woven colors with nothing underneath, you’d have to surmise that less than 15% of our community are Biblical literalists.  However, there is a perception among the unaffiliated, created by the predominant religious voices in the media, that to be a Christian requires that you believe that the Bible is literally true, word for word. 

Marcus Borg, who teaches at OSU where more than half of his students have no church background, says that his non-Christian students consistently use five adjectives to describe Christianity in papers they write for his courses:  literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental and bigoted.[v] Thus our planning retreat participants said that we need to get the word out to our community that we are thinking, caring people of faith, non-literalistic, open and affirming in all of its dimensions.

In using “new paradigm” to describe this vision for our future, we borrowed from Borg’s latest book, The Heart of Christianity.  About 20 from this church went to hear Borg speak on this topic a couple of weeks ago and I know many more have read the book.  I read a lot of religious books and this is among the two or three I would name as important for all Christians to read, right alongside Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People and the complete anthology of “Calvin and Hobbes”.  (We all need some light reading now and then!)

I am going to give you a quick and easy snapshot of this new paradigm by comparing it to the old paradigm in four essential areas.  You may want to read the book, if you haven’t already, for more information. If the new paradigm sounds familiar to you, it may be because I have been preaching out of this paradigm for over 20 years.  Other preachers for much longer, so it is not entirely new.  Thus Borg calls it the emerging paradigm rather than new and has a way of summarizing it that makes it clear and easy to understand.

Origin of the Bible.  The earlier paradigm views the Bible as a divine product, that is, as written essentially by God.  Human authors were simply dictation machines, human conduits for God’s voice. 

In contrast, the emerging paradigm sees the Bible as the product of the ancient faith communities.  It is the faithful witness to the way in which they interacted with God and how they understood God to be working in their midst.

Interpreting the Bible.  The earlier paradigm interprets the Bible literally.  The world was created in six days, a flood killed all humans and animals save for those on the ark, God gave Moses two tablets of stone and they looked just like those on the courthouse lawn in Austin, Texas.

In contrast to this literal view, the emerging paradigm uses an historical-metaphorical view.  In this view the meaning of a story is much more important than the facts of the story.  Whether the world was created in six days or 6 billion years is insignificant in comparison to what the story means, that God is the Creator and creation, as the act of God, is good.

Function of the Bible.  The primary function of the Bible in the earlier paradigm is to tell us what and how to believe, act and live.  Everything we need to know for a good life is right here, in the Bible.

The purpose of the Bible in the emerging paradigm is not primarily to pass on knowledge to us, but to mediate the sacred, to make the presence of God known and real in our lives.  This means scripture is sacred not because of its origin, but because of its effect, as a means through which God continues to speak to us today.

The Christian Life.  The goal of the Christian life in the earlier paradigm is to join God and our loved ones in heaven.  We accomplish this by believing the right things about Jesus, following his teachings and seeking God’s forgiveness for our sin.  In sum, we are saved through belief for the next life from this life by Christ’s life.

The emerging paradigm sees the Christian life as “a relationship with God that transforms life in the present.”[vi]  Being a Christian is not about correct beliefs about God, but a correct relationship with God.  The evidence of such a relationship is in a transformed life which, in turn, leads a Christian to work for a transformed world, what Jesus called the “Kingdom of God.”

This is obviously a very incomplete caricature of two different ways of being a Christian that is much more complex and varied.  Each of these areas have variations of the forms I have described so you may find yourself agreeing with only a part of each at best. 

It is not the case that one of these paradigms is right and the other is wrong.  Both affirm the existence of God, the centrality of scripture and Jesus, emphasize a right relationship with God and the importance of transformation.  It is the case, however, that the earlier paradigm no longer works for a growing number of people in our modern world and hence, the church, if not Christianity, has become irrelevant to them.  I am convinced Borg is absolutely right, that the numbers who are convinced by the earlier paradigm are shrinking and that the wave of the future is in this emerging way of seeing our faith and how we apply that faith to our world.

            The challenge then before us is this, are we willing to let the church as we know it die so that the Gospel can be born again?  Can we prophesy to these old bones like Ezekiel, causing sinews, muscle and skin to come upon them again so that God can breathe new life into the church? Can the bones of this old dinosaur come back to life in new and exciting ways that speak to our modern culture?

It just may be that the time has come when God is saying to us, “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to life!”

People of God, be filled with the Spirit of God and dance with these old bones! Envision the possibilities and opportunities for new life before us!  God is not finished with us yet!

            If you believe the best years are ahead of us, say Amen!
            If you believe the Spirit is with us, say Amen!
            If you believe God calls us into the future, say Amen!
            If you believe in resurrection of the dead, say Amen!
            If you believe these bones can live, say Amen! shout Amen!



[i] Ronald Allen, “The Disciples: A Denomination in Code Blue.”  The Disciple, January 1994.
[ii] See Loren Mead, The Once and Future Church.
[iii] Michael Kinnamon, “Code Blue: A Second Opinion.”  The Disciple, March 1994.
[iv] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p. 4.
[v] Borg, p. 21.
[vi] Borg, p. 14.

 


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