Saturday Night Theologian
31 May 2009

Ezekiel 37:1-14 (first published 8 June 2003)

Who can read this, the best-known passage from the prophet Ezekiel, without humming the words to the old spiritual:

Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around;
dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around;
dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around;
hear ye the word of the Lord.
How many of us who are not African American, though, can imagine the pathos that these words must have evoked in an enslaved, oppressed people? They were singing about the Israelite nation, but they were thinking about themselves. If God could liberate Israel from bondage in Babylonia, surely he could liberate slaves from their oppression in America! The passage plays on the Hebrew word ruach, which can be translated spirit, breath, or wind, depending on the context. Ezekiel prophesies under the influence of the spirit of God to the wind to fill the reconstituted bodies and fill them with the breath of life. The prophet witnesses an act of re-creation. As in the first chapter of Genesis, where God's wind or spirit hovers over the surface of the waters, causing dry land to appear, and in the second chapter, where God breathes into the man, causing him to come to life, so in this vision Ezekiel witnesses the inanimate animated by the breath of God. The contrast between the prior condition and the subsequent state in emphasized by the prophet: the bones were "very dry," and he is unsure whether anything so desiccated and obviously devoid of life can be made to live again. "I don't know whether they can live again," he tells God, "only you do." Before Ezekiel's astounded eyes the bones are covered with sinews, then flesh. When the breath of God enters them, they stand on their feet. The "very dry" bones have become an army that is "very, very great." The God we worship gives hope to those who are oppressed and downtrodden, on the bottom rungs of society. He promises them that they can't be kept down forever. Regardless of the material wealth or martial strength of their oppressors, God will raise them up to be a mighty army. How many in the U.S. today need to hear the message that God delivers and empowers the poor and marginalized? If Ezekiel were around today, he would cry out to the poor African Americans in the Mississippi delta, in rural south Georgia, in Harlem and Detroit: "God cares about you; you aren't condemned to lives of poverty or violence or imprisonment. God will raise you up!" He would preach to the Native Americans, who suffer unemployment and poverty in unconscionable proportions, whose ancestors were slaughtered and whose land was stolen: "Your heritage and your lives are precious in my sight; I will raise you up once again to be a great and proud people!" He would say to the millions of poor whites, blacks, Hispanics, and others living in the inner cities or in rural areas, "God cares about you, even if those in power often don't; you are important to me, and I will deliver you from your oppression!" If God is truly concerned about those in our society, and around the world, who are the most needy--and he is--doesn't it behoove those of us who are more fortunate to oppose all too many of our neighbors, co-workers, and elected representatives who are doing all they can to maintain positions of privilege for themselves and their friends? Regardless of the apparent current state of affairs, it is always better for God's followers to stand with him on the side of the poor and oppressed, than against him on the side of the rich and powerful. Those bones that you see around you will rise again!

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b (first published 8 June 2003)

Imagine you're a bacterium growing in a petri dish. Because you're so small, the petri dish is enormous, seemingly infinite in size. The agar you're growing in is full of all the nutrients you need to live. You're in control, and you're on top of the world. Life is good. Suddenly, while you're minding your own business eating and dividing, you encounter a toxic substance that kills many of your fellow bacteria. Unbeknownst to you, a scientist has added a drop of liquid to the petri dish. You put your flagella in gear, moving away from the toxin as quickly as possible. It turns out that your life really isn't under your control after all; you're totally dependent on the scientist for your survival and happiness. The first part of this psalm describes God as the creator, the second half portrays him as the sustainer of life. Like the scientist with the petri dish, God is in control of life on earth. The psalmist describes God's animating power as breath or spirit (again, both meanings are present in the Hebrew word ruach). God sustains life with his breath/spirit, and when he withdraws it, life ends. One might even describe every living creature as intimately tied to God's breath: when God exhales, his spirit gives life; when he inhales, the spirit returns to its maker, and the creature dies. Do God's followers today feel so closely tied to God that their very lives are totally dependent on God's continued sustenance? Much is made of the miraculous nature of the events of Pentecost, but the psalmist draws attention to the everyday power of the spirit of God. We are God's hands and feet, and we are sustained by his breath. Not only that, but the breath we have in our bodies is shared with other people, and even with the other living inhabitants of the planet. When we understand both the source of our lives--God's breath--and the fact that we share God's breath with all other living things, we are able to draw several conclusions. First, just as our breath belongs to God rather than to us, the same is true for every other person. God breathes life into his children, and only God has the right to take it away. Therefore, followers of God must eschew the taking of human lives, not only murder and manslaughter, but also capital punishment and war. Second, since we share the breath of God with the non-human inhabitants of the planet, we should do all we can to ensure that the human race is living in a healthy balance with nature. Recent reports concerning the over-fishing of the oceans, the continued rise of greenhouse gases, the further destruction of rainforests and other ecologically vital wilderness areas, and the human-induced diminution of biodiversity demonstrate that we are disregarding our divinely "inspired" connection to nature to our own peril. Third, just as people in a crowded elevator may find it hard to breathe, so also the planet itself may soon be laboring to deal with an out-of-control human population. We have obeyed God's command in Genesis to fill the earth; now is the time to address the problem of overpopulation before the situation gets completely out of control and we find ourselves in a world that resembles that described in the book Make Room! Make Room! which was made into the movie Soylent Green.

Acts 2:1-21

In his 1887 book Unua Libra, l. L. Zamenhoff laid out the basic grammar and vocabulary of a new language that came to be called Esperanto. Based primarily on the Romance and Germanic languages, with touches of Slavic, the name of this new language was based on the Latin root meaning hope. Zamenhoff envisioned Esperanto being adopted as a second language by increasing numbers of the world's population. He hoped that if people from all parts of the globe could communicate with one another, they could resolve differences and bring about peace. Today there are perhaps as many as two million Esperanto speakers in more than a hundred countries. Unfortunately, the spread of Esperanto has not brought peace to the world. In the second chapter of Acts, the followers of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem witnessed the appearance of flaming tongues, and they began speaking in languages they did not understand but which were understood by the numerous visitors to the city. They told the story of Jesus, interpreted his death, and proclaimed his resurrection. Within weeks the number of Christians in and around Jerusalem had grown to several thousand. Within a few decades Christians had spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, and within 300 years, they were the dominant religion in the empire. When Constantine became emperor, the membership of the Christian religion soared. But then something strange happened, something completely unexpected. The early Christians had preached a gospel of the kingdom of God that emphasized Jesus as the prince of peace, but now Roman soldiers were joining the church in droves, and suddenly Jesus was a warrior king. Nations waged war against other nations in Jesus' name, against both non-Christians and Christians with different sets of beliefs and practices. These wars continued through the centuries--the Crusades, the Reconquista, the conquest of the New World, the Hundred Years War, the Thirty Years War, the Civil Wars of England and the U.S., World Wars I and II--all these wars, and many more, were fought by Christians. Often Christians fought on both sides in the conflict. Even today many Christians advocate war as a valid solution to international conflict, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Africa, or Korea. They see God taking sides in conflicts that result in the slaughter of thousands of people. Christianity is no longer viewed as a religion of peace, not even by Christians themselves, and certainly not by Muslims and people of other faiths, or of no faith. Where did Christianity go wrong? How did it get off the track of peace and onto the track of war and violence? The answer to this question is long and complicated, but the solution to the problem--if one sees it as a problem, as I do--is quite a bit simpler, at least in principle. Go back to the teachings of Jesus. Observe how he interacted with people, both friend and foe. Especially re-read the Sermon on the Mount. Forget those parts of the Old Testament that advocate making war on our enemies. Jesus taught us to make friends out of our enemies. Yes, conflicts in the world are real, and diplomacy and conflict resolution is often tough, but so what? One of the lessons we should take away from Pentecost is that God desires unity, peace, and love, not disparity, war, and hate. Maybe Christianity hasn't brought peace on earth because Christians en masse have never really given it a chance. Now's the time to try it, before it's too late. Or maybe we should all just learn Esperanto.

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15 (first published 8 June 2003)

If the Spirit of God as described in the Old Testament and Acts is a powerful race car, then the Advocate described by John is the quiet, comforting interior of the car. The Spirit of God roars, it soars, it calls attention to itself and the person wielding its power. The Advocate, on the other hand, is quiet, silently encouraging believers when they are faced with persecution and giving them insights that help them to better understand the world. The idea of encouragement presents no problems to the interpreter of this passage, but the reading from John 16:8-11 is somewhat more problematic. Though traditionally rendered "[the Advocate] will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment," the passage should probably be understand to mean, "[the Advocate] will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment." First, the Advocate will prove the world wrong in its idea of sin. The common belief in the first century was that sin was primarily a violation of divinely inspired rules (whether purely ceremonial or more substantial). Jesus says that the root of sin is lack of faith in him. If we're unable to see God at work in Jesus, how can we hope to see God at work in much more subtle ways? Yet we know that God is at work, constantly, all around us. Let us pray that God's spirit will open our eyes to see what God is doing in the world. Second, the Advocate will prove the world wrong about righteousness. Jesus was already aware of the ordeal that awaited him before Pilate that night, even if the disciples weren't. Jesus would be condemned as an unjust common criminal, but he would be vindicated by his ascension to the Father. Let us pray that God will give us the grace to endure hard times, even perhaps times of persecution, knowing that God will judge us, too, as righteous. Third, the Advocate will prove the world wrong about judgment. Pilate and the religious leaders who condemned Jesus thought they had the authority to condemn someone on trumped-up charges. Not so, says Jesus. In fact, God's judgment will take place apart from human judges, and the "ruler of this world" (i.e., Satan, the embodiment of evil) has already been judged and found guilty. Let us pray that God will give us discernment to see the real sources of evil in the world, so that we might condemn them, while showing mercy and understanding to those who have sinned and repented. The tagline for Progressive Theology is "Exegete the World!" and this passage perfectly illustrates both the need--because people often misunderstand the theological truths at work around them--and the source--God's spirit of truth and wisdom--for discernment.