Homeward Bound

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Good morning! Thank you for all the wonderful feedback that you gave me over the last week. When I began the broadcast last week, I mentioned how strange it felt, talking into a computer screen. But I suppose I got used to it pretty quickly, because so many of you commented on how natural it all felt. Many of you described the broadcast as intimate—which I wouldn’t have believed was possible before last Sunday. It must have been a Holy Spirit thing. Whatever it was, it worked. And I am so glad that it worked so well for all of you.

If you weren’t here for worship last Sunday, here’s how this service will go. I’m going to offer a stripped-down version of the worship service. First, I’ll make some announcements, then I’m going to offer some prayers, read from the prophet Ezekiel, preach a sermon, then offer some more prayers. Finally, I’ll close with a benediction—a blessing for all of you. But first, here are some announcements.


ANNOUNCEMENTS: All church events, all in-person gatherings are suspended until further notice. The church office will remain open during this time. Our hours are from 9:00 to noon, Monday through Friday. We will hold meetings and classes online using Zoom meeting software. Please remember that we need you to continue to make your offerings! We still have to make our mortgage payments. So, if you are not suffering a financial hardship in these times, please remember to send your checks to the church office or make your offering online. Information for online donations can be found on our website.

Prayer of Invocation

Dear God, silence all voices within our minds but your own.

Help us to seek and be able to follow your will.

May our prayers be joined

with those of our sisters and brothers in the faith,

that together we may glorify your name

and enjoy your fellowship forever.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Prayer for Illumination

O Christ, by remaining faithful till death,

you show us the road to greater love.

O Christ, by taking the burden of sin upon yourself,

you reveal to us the way of generosity.

O Christ, by praying for those who crucified you,

you lead us to forgive without counting the cost.

O Christ, by opening paradise to the repentant thief,

you awaken hope in us.

O Christ, come and help our weak faith.

O Christ, create a pure heart in us;

renew and strengthen our spirit.

O Christ, your Word is near;

may it live within us and protect us always. Amen.

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. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I 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.”


7 So 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. 8 I 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. 9 Then 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.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.


11 Then 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.’12 Therefore 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. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I 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.”


Sermon

Good morning. I love that reading from Ezekiel. It speaks to us from across the centuries. It speaks a word of peace that we really need to hear right now. I think a lot of us who were raised in the Christian tradition want to turn to Jesus in troubled times like these—and that’s always a good thing, but we should never forget that there’s a lot of comfort to be found in the Hebrew scriptures, too. And this is a great example of God’s peace and comfort.

The thing that you need to know about this story from the prophet Ezekiel is that it was written during the Babylonian Captivity, the exile. This was the period when the religious and political leaders of the kingdom of Judah were being held captive by the Babylonians.

I’ve talked about this in other sermons, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time walking you through all the history today. What’s most important to remember is that the Babylonians laid siege to the city of Jerusalem at least twice at the beginning of this period of exile. The second time, the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and the destroyed the Temple, the center of Jewish religious ritual.


This loss was enormous. The Jews who were taken from Jerusalem were utterly bereft. They thought that God had abandoned them. They didn’t know how to practice their faith without the Temple. For a time, they felt they were completely lost.


But they weren’t.

God continued to speak to them through prophets such as Ezekiel.


That’s the context for this morning’s lesson. God is telling God’s chosen people that God has not abandoned them. God will breathe life into them. The dry bones that Ezekiel sees are the “whole house of Israel,” they believe their hope is lost, they feel that they are cut off from the love of God. God tells them:

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. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I 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. (Ezekiel 37:12-14)


They will live again in their own home.


Beloved, this is where God is speaking to us, too! The parallels are clear, but we do need to be careful. We haven’t lost everything. We’re just forced to worship away from the physical structure of the church. For a while. But not forever. We are absent from our building as a precaution, so that we aren’t made sick by the coronavirus. We had a choice in this. The people of Jerusalem did not. This story stands as a powerful reminder that God is with us through thick and thin.


I’m curious. How many of you noticed that I’m wearing a different stole today? Last Sunday I wore my purple stole. Purple is the liturgical color for the season of Lent. It’s also the color for Advent. Both seasons are times for looking within. That’s always a good thing. But I felt that this story called for me, and for us, to do something different.


Today I’m wearing my red stole. Red is the color for the Holy Spirit. Today’s reading is all about the Holy Spirit. One of the words that comes up a lot in this text is breath. In Hebrew, that word is ruah. That word also means Spirit. As in the Spirit of God; the Holy Spirit. And it is only through God’s Spirit that the people called Israel may rise from their graves and return to their homeland.


Beloved, that’s true for us, too. We have the Holy Spirit with us. We have what we need most, even when we can’t gather in the sanctuary at 118 West Main Street. But I’m getting ahead of the story.


God continued to speak to the people called Israel, even though they were exiled from their homeland. Even though the Temple was destroyed. The people called Israel kept their faith. In fact, they learned to practice the faith in a whole new way.


Prior to the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, the people believed that the Temple was God’s dwelling place on Earth. They felt lost because they literally didn’t know where God was, where God dwelled after the temple was destroyed.


What the exiles learned was that God was with them wherever they went. They could worship God anywhere. They weren’t abandoned. This was truly a great innovation in worship. Every other religion in the Ancient Near East believed that its gods dwelled in specific places. The idea was radical at the time, yet the people called Israel kept the faith.


They learned that God doesn’t belong to any particular building.


Beloved, this is a lesson for us. We need to be reminded—constantly—that the Church is more than just that gorgeous brownstone on the corner of West Main and Brinckerhoff. The Church is US, breathed into life by the Holy Spirit, for the life, love, and hope of all God’s beloved children. We are the Church. Period.


I borrowed the title of my sermon this morning from the song “Homeward Bound,” by Simon and Garfunkel. Paul Simon wrote the song when he was living in England. He was staying in a small industrial town in the north of England. He had a serious girlfriend there, but most of the gigs were in London. For Simon, home was where his girlfriend was.


Even if you don’t know the song “Homeward Bound,” or the details about Paul Simon’s life, it’s easy to understand the sense of longing that Simon describes. It’s a universal thing; at some point, each and every one of us has probably wanted to be somewhere else. We can all relate.


Beloved, I think that what we’re dealing with, during this time social distancing, is more like the longing in the Simon & Garfunkel song, rather than the feeling of being utterly cut off that we hear in the prophet Ezekiel. We all believe that we’ll be back in the sanctuary for worship sooner or later. The question is how long we have to stay in quarantine. How long until we’re homeward bound?


It’s a valid question. But I have a more urgent question for you. We are the Church. We have received the gift of the Spirit. My question is: How are you going to share the Spirit, to share the love of God in this time of social distancing? What are you going to do to share the Spirit?


Beloved, this is an urgent question. We have a tremendous opportunity to connect with members of this congregation, to strengthen and deepen our bonds with one another. We also have a tremendous opportunity to reach out to friends and loved ones who used to be a part of this congregation, but who have drifted away. And we have a tremendous opportunity to share the love of God with people who are not yet a part of this community of faith. How are you going to respond?


It occurred to me this week that this is the first time in, say, forty years, that we haven’t had to compete with youth sports on a Sunday morning. Think about that for a second. For the first time in two generations, we’re not competing with anything on a Sunday. There are no youth sports, high school sports, college sports, or professional sports. There are no vacations or ski trips or weekend getaways. There are no college visits or family reunions. We’re the only game in town.


You know what else? During this time, we’re not bound by the words, “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” For the first time in my life, those words don’t apply in church! Think about it!

Just as the Jewish leaders grew and innovated during their time in exile, we, too can learn and grow in our time away from the physical church. This is an opportunity to focus on who we are and how we are called to love one another. We can make something great from this challenge.


We know that God is with us in our time away from our church building. We know that we are equipped with the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. So, I ask you, again: Who are you going to reach out to and share the love of God? Who are you going to invite into this community? Thanks be to God. Amen.


OFFERING / PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING


Responding to the Word


Prayers of the People

First, we lift up everyone who is suffering from the coronavirus and the families and loved ones who suffer with the sic. We also lift up the exiles in our midst—those people who are living and working outside of this country, and are separated from loved ones here. We stand in solidarity and in love with those whose loved ones are far away and who don’t know when they might be homeward bound.


We also lift up Beth Sulzberg’s cousin Paul. Paul lives in Seattle and he’s battling COVID-19.

We also lift up all the medical professionals who are on the front lines of this struggle, who are busy diagnosing and treating this disease, including Beth’s niece Roxanne, and also Ray, whose brother is Mike, who is Beth’s boyfriend.


We also lift up Cliff Stahl who is having severe cardio pulmonary issues and is hospitalized in the ICU. Prayers for healing and wholeness for Cliff.


We lift up the family of Richard A. Newman. Richard was Bob DiSogra’s father-in-law. Prayers for Suzanne, Richard’s daughter and for all the Newman family.


We also lift up the family of Jerry Drake. Jerry was a buddy of mine from the cigar shop. He was 52 and he left two young children behind.


Finally, we lift up all the other people who work to keep us safe in these trying times: the first responders, especially the EMTs who have to transport all kinds of sick people. We lift up all the non-medical staff in the hospitals: the lab technicians who process all of the medical tests, the housekeeping staff, the people who transport patients around the hospitals, and the custodians who struggle to keep hospitals clean and free of germs. We offer a prayer of thanksgiving for all they do.


The Lord’s Prayer


Benediction

Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ. We are called to be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!


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First Presbyterian Church of Freehold

732-462-0234

fpcsecretary2@gmail.com

118 West Main Street

Freehold, NJ 07728

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