Monday, June 11, 2012

The Intangibles

Well, I recently stepped back into the pulpit for a Sunday.  It was Pentecost and the scripture I preached from was Ezekiel 37.  Below you will find the text of my sermon.

I would like to share with you a quote from one of my favorite movies, Miracle on 34th Street, the 1947 version with Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood. Fred Gailey, the attorney who defends Kris Kringle, is speaking to Doris, the Maureen O’Hara character, who has had enough heartache in her life that her heart is hardened and her spirit is broken. She is very set on making sure her daughter is raised without anything but absolute tangible reality.

The quote:
Look Doris, someday you're going to find that your way of facing this realistic world just doesn't work. And when you do, don't overlook those lovely intangibles. You'll discover those are the only things that are worthwhile.
Intangibles. Difficult concept to grasp because intangibles are just that, intangible. When I looked up intangible in the online dictionary it not so helpfully said “something that is not tangible.” Continuing my quest, I looked up tangible, and here’s what I found:

Tangible a : capable of being perceived especially by the sense of touch : PALPABLE b : substantially real : MATERIAL

The Holy Spirit is one of those intangibles. The Holy Spirit is definitely something that is not capable of being perceived especially by the sense of touch. The Holy Spirit is not palpable or material. I might argue the “substantially real” part. I don’t particularly think of intangibles as being unreal although I suppose if you use “substantially” as meaning something of worldly substance then okay I suppose so.

I don’t know about you, maybe you have an easier time with intangibles than I do. Maybe you find it easy to interpret metaphor and imagery and to read between the lines. I tend to be a fairly linear, factual, black and white kind of gal. In school, literature classes struck terror into me the way differential equations never could. When presented with a book such as the Bible, filled with literary devices, I cringe. Then there are the intangibles like faith in a God I cannot see or touch, a Spirit who lives in my heart; these are difficult for people like me, people who like the concrete, the predictable, the facts of the matter.

So when faced with a lectionary passage such as Ezekiel 37 for sermon material, I sighed and realized all those literature classes might have been worth something to me after all. Maybe I can look beyond face value of the words and see the message beyond. Maybe I can find the intangible message lurking amongst the words, and maybe, just maybe, I could share what I find with the rest of you in a way that helps you understand too.

To start let’s put the Ezekiel passage we heard earlier in context. This passage depicts not something purported to have actually happened but a vision that Ezekiel had at a time when things were looking mighty bleak, both for Ezekiel himself, and for the nation of Israel of which he was a part. Ezekiel had been reduced from a prominent position of future priest in Jerusalem to that of a temple-less priest in exile. His wife died and God told him not to mourn her passing as an example to the exiled community not to mourn the loss of the Temple. Talk about needing a stiff upper lip! This all happened in the midst of a two year siege by the Babylonians on Jerusalem where many were tortured and died and the remainder were forced to migrate to Babylon.

Just about all hope is gone; death has conquered; oppression rules in the land; and the outcast, the dispossessed, the marginalized sink deeper into their graves. And yet, in the midst of despair, there is a call from God to Ezekiel to see that a promise exists that what was once dead will again breathe life. Not literally, but to see that through the intangible spirit of God that despair and pain can be turned to hope and comfort.

That same Holy Spirit descended into the midst of the disciples on Pentecost. This was a time when, as Ryan shared here last week, there must have been an awful void. Jesus was no longer among them. Their work to carry on his message must have felt like the weight of the world on their shoulders. They very well could have become so discouraged that they allowed themselves to wither and become old dry bones. Then the Spirit came as wind and tongues of fire and turned things around. All who were present felt the Spirit and were renewed by the Spirit into new life, ready to continue the work that Jesus had started.

In the present day, those who exist at the margins of society – because of orientation, ethnicity, gender, ability, or economic status – can become so discouraged that they just want to roll over and die, simply wasting away until they, too, become old dry bones.

To those who are old dry bones, the words Job’s friends shared with him in Job 2:9 often sound like good advice, “Curse God and die.” Seeing hatred rule through the passage of referendums, propositions, constitutional amendments, and laws that rob humans, all of whom are created in God’s image, of dignity is enough to make one want to give up, to curse God and die. And yet, in the midst of death’s victory and the grave’s sting, we are told that the dry bones can be put back together, can have flesh restored and have new life through God. The Holy Spirit keeps us from falling to the way-side, from wasting away under the burdens of hatred and oppression.

We see the Spirit at work today. Take the It Gets Better project, for example. Countless people have posted video messages on YouTube aimed at breathing new life into those who are being bullied in school, often for their sexual orientation, young people with old dry bones as a result of verbal and sometimes physical battering just because they are “different.”

How many of us are like Doris from the movie? How many of us have felt cheated in life? How many of us have been abused? How many of us haven’t had a fair hand dealt to us? How easy is it for us at those times to want to go crawl into bed, curl up and let ourselves become dry bones? The promise of a new Spirit, new breath, and new possibilities for justice is sometimes all we have to hold on to in an environment in which new laws are passed that continue to rob some of their humanity. Full justice may never get to rule in our lifetime, but the struggle continues, turning our dry bones into pregnant seeds that when buried will produce new life for the struggle to continue.

I close by paraphrasing another quote from Miracle on 34th Street:
Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to. Don't you see? It's not just we who are on trial, it's everything we stand for. It's kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles of a loving, breathing, still speaking God.

So there it is.  A short and sweet sermon, delivered to a smaller than normal crowd thanks to it being delivered on Memorial Day weekend.  I know that some of the things I said will not sit well with some so-called Christians, the ones who seek to exclude rather than include, but it reflects my beliefs and my faith.

I continue to ponder the possibility of a second career as a minister and have received a great deal of encouragement.  Seminary seems more and more appealing, and God does seem to be calling me to something.  Just not sure what yet.  I keep trying to listen.

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