- In Strength and Faith
- On Firm Foundation
- Our Fatherâ€™s World
- Knowing How, Knowing Why
- With Love and Hope Surrounded
- To Sacred Truth
- Play On Your Harp
- Coming Through Home
- Yesterday, Today, and Forever
- The One Thing Needful
- In the Face of the West Wind
- To Sacred Truth
- Not So Wild a Dream
- From Redemption to Renaissance
- Salty Days and Starry Nights
- A Holy Restlessness
- The Cross and the Glory
- Remarks - Chapel Dedication
Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Acts 2:1-21; John 7:37-39
It has been a weekend of talking about memories -- and about dreams. Let me tell you about a boyhood dream of mine. Our farm was just a quarter mile from a meandering creek. It went by the inglorious name of Mud Creek, which was, sadly, descriptive enough. In spring and early summer it would yield fresh fish — bullheads and bluegills — good game and good eating. As I sat along the shore, so often I had a persistent dream to build a raft and float Mud Creek until it joined the Yellow Medicine River and then the Minnesota River and then, at Minneapolis, the mighty Mississippi. But, like so many youthful dreams, my dream didn’t materialize.
Years later I learned about a dream of a similar kind. Eric Sevareid, the late respected broadcast journalist and grandson of Concordia founder J.O. Hougen, grew up in Velva, N. Dak., and Minneapolis. As a 17-year-old, he and his boyhood friend, Walter Port, dreamed of canoeing up the Minnesota River and then down the Red River to Lake Winnipeg and on to Hudson Bay. They challenged their dream in a 2,200-mile trip that Sevareid would later describe in his brilliant midlife autobiography, Not So Wild a Dream.
But speaking of wild dreams, we have in today’s Old Testament story the dream of Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a prophet in the sixth century (BC). By the time he had the dream described in our text, he had been a prophet for perhaps 20 years. Ezekiel’s dream was initially more like a nightmare, for he found himself set down in the middle of a valley --a valley full of bones and, we are told, they were very dry bones. There were the dry bones of the failed dreams and hopes for Israel that was to have been a land flowing with milk and honey -- where Yahweh would be worshiped in truth and purity and where the people would respect one another within the tradition of law come down from God. But the promised kingdom was now a divided kingdom. The likes of Manasseh and Nebuchadnezzar divided the nation. The chosen people were scattered. Idolatry flourished. The astral deities from Assyria were made respectable; Manasseh had his own son pass through the fires of human sacrifice; the local sanctuaries -- the holy places -- became places of debauchery and any prophet who lifted a voice was snuffed out. And so Ezekiel’s dream of his nation was a dream of life in a valley full of the dried bones, the very dead bones of what had once been a thriving, faithful people -- and it, too, was not so wild a dream.
Fast forward now to the first century and a Jerusalem gathering of ragtag people who were followers of Christ. Jesus had given them a commission but they wondered how he could possibly have been serious about it, for they were a people of dry bones. Jesus had talked and taught about faith, about priorities, and responsibility. The disciples had heard his teachings and seen his lessons in action but had great difficulty believing and living them. They had been disloyal to Jesus in his final hours -- they just plain looked for a place to hide to save their own skin. Peter’s betrayal was fresh in mind; Judas couldn’t resist the temptation to take the money and run; James and John were still looking for status, not sacrifice; Matthew was dogged by his reputation as a tax collector, and Thomas was always, always asking questions and not quite willing to yield his total allegiance. Dry bones, very dry bones laid out in the sun for all to see.
Then there was the preposterous task to which they were supposedly called -- to take the gospel into a world where people spoke many different languages and followed many different cultural traditions, a world in which the Romans kept peace by the sword, a world of religious pluralism in which Christianity was highly suspect and a world that included Athens where reason was king and where God was thought to be unknown and unknowable. Yes, these were dry bones, very dry bones laid out in the sun for all to see -- dry bones -- and not so wild a dream.
We can see the dry bones in our valleys, too. In Bosnia ten days ago, as the army regained ground from the Serbs, it came upon an unmarked mass grave containing the bodies of over 500 people, slaughtered in the name of blood and God and soil. In our own land there are pathologies we cannot begin to understand. Two weeks ago the Pulitzer laureate, Gwendolyn Brooks, read her poetry on campus. She read a poem about a child who was the victim of sexual molestation. Thinking of Elizabeth Steinberg is the title and here, in part, is how it reads:
“Already you are on page eight.
And in a while your name will not be
by that large animal The Public General.
I don’t know who will remember you, Lisa,
or consider the big fists breaking your little bones,
or consider the vague bureaucrats
stumbling, fumbling through Paper.
Your given name is my middle name, Elizabeth.
But that is not why I am sick when I think of you
no one to help you in
your private horror of monsters and Fools.
You are the world’s Little Girl.
And what is a Little Girl for?
She is for putting a bow-ribbon on.
She is for paper dolls.
She is for playmates and birthday parties.
She is to love, to love.
She is to be precious, precious.
She is for ice cream cones.
She is not to be hurt.
She is not to be pounded.
We cannot help you.
They wept at the wake in Redden’s Funeral Home,
among messages, bright gladiolas.
There was weeping at your grave.
will not return you to air.
Dry bones, very dry bones. A September story quoted Attorney General Janet Reno describing the 165 percent increase in the murder rate among 14- to 17-year olds. Gwendolyn Brooks told us of young men in her city who do not expect to reach adulthood. They expect to die in the street and they are already choosing their caskets and planning their funerals right down to the guest list. One expert described them as “the young and the ruthless” but perhaps more accurately they are “the young and the hopeless.” Dry bones.
We live in a country with a booming economy and a growing underclass and bulging prisons. Something doesn’t compute and we all know it. Dry bones.
Our political vision is that government can’t replace character, resourcefulness, or responsibility. It is a truism on which we now act and wisely so. But who and how will we care for the “least of these” when personal stewardship and volunteerism are on the decline? Dry bones.
There are other personal stories too -- the sudden death of a classmate in a car crash, the slow death of another to cancer, the brokenness of a lifelong relationship, and the lack of virtue in the face of temptation. Dry bones. Very dry bones, and not so wild a dream.
But there is more to Ezekiel’s dream, my friends. He spent much of his prophetic ministry counting the bones and castigating the culture, heaping blame on everyone in sight. There was a second prophecy in his dream. In the valley of the dry bones, God acted, and sinew covered the dry bones and skin covered the flesh. “Suddenly there was a rattling and the bones came together, bone to its bone.” And then God said, “I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live. And the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet in a vast multitude.” In spite of idolatry and backsliding, separation and persecution, the house of Israel was not dead after all; a new day was coming -- the people of God would be restored. No more dry bones for God said, “I will put my spirit within you and you shall live.”
Then think about the disciples’ dream. Jesus had told them they would receive the power to bring life to the dry bones of their failed vision and their failed resolve. “You will receive power from the Holy Spirit,” they had been told. But could they have imagined what would happen? Many people of many tongues from many nations had gathered in Jerusalem, and the Holy Spirit came upon them like the rush of a mighty wind. And the people spoke simultaneously in many languages from many different lands -- Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Cretans, Arabs and Jews -- even some guests from Rome. But the miracle is that they all heard the same message about God’s love and deeds of power. Talk about unity amidst diversity! In the midst of this wild gathering, Peter would stand to speak about a dream, the dream of Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”
As the events in Jerusalem that day proved, the dream of Joel, as with the dream of Ezekiel, was not so wild a dream. The promise of Christ was made real in their midst -- it was resurrection day. The doubt and division, guilt and uncertainty that had dried out the bones of the disciples were shed away and the bones came together and God’s spirit breathed life into them. And so the disciples would carry out their commission -- they would carry the witness to Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth. The breath came into them, and they stood in a great multitude. It was, after all, not so wild a dream.
Today we gather in this year of our Lord 1995 on our own field of dreams. We can nurture the dream of Ezekiel. In parishes around the globe, we gather around word and sacrament and the living water renews the valleys of our dry bones and the spirit of God enters our lives. Thus we find the resources to transcend the episodes of doubt, despair and brokenness that hound our days. In our human communities we find the will to persist in our claim that what unifies us as children of God is far more powerful than what divides us into religious, ethnic, and political categories. When the spirit of God enters the dry bones of our church, we discover that our gospel mission transcends our divisions over polity and policy. Africa missionary and Concordia alumnus Rev. J. David Simonson said, “When the church rejoices the whole world sings.” On the global scene in Israel today, as Palestinians and Israelis work to painstakingly carve a new path of peace where there had been only a trail of blood, they are surely not unaware of Ezekiel’s later dreams of a just and peaceful kingdom, and we can believe that God’s life-giving, peacemaking spirit is in their company. In our own neighborhoods where increasingly multicultural neighbors reach out in mutual understanding and commitment we can see the bones rising again -- and it is not so wild a dream.
In these days of our Homecoming we have shared countless stories of people whose dreams bear the mark of God’s transforming spirit. There is the Cobber physician who brings healing to refugees in this world’s most desperate places, there is another who brings Hospice care to the dying, there is a Native American who now administers justice in the state court, and an entrepreneur whose passion is to create jobs where people most need them. There are scores upon scores of teachers committed to excellence; there are public servants committed to both justice and prudence; and there are thousands of friends who have discovered the joy of giving life and livelihood away.
On this campus a new generation of Cobbers shares the dream. Students reach out to those in need across the street and down the block and around the world in such an array of care giving that we have simply lost count. The words “calling and vocation” are a respected and often spoken part of the daily vocabulary of staff, faculty and students alike. Is there brokenness here? Of course, and the dry bones that go with it. But the dream is alive here, for the word of the Lord is alive here. And when that word and that dream are alive, so too is the breath of God. In such places as this and in such lives as ours God declares,
“I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young shall see visions, and your old shall dream dreams.”And that is not so wild a dream! Amen.