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Recycle or Perish
March 21, 1999

EZEKIEL 37:1-14

What a graphic sermon illustration Ezekiel used--the vision of a valley filled with bones, as if soldiers had lost their lives in battle and there lay their desolate, dry, dead bones. Ezekiel told his people, "These bones are the house of Israel." They had refused to heed the warning of the prophets God sent them--Amos, Hosea, Isaiah. The nation had lost its focus, lost its morality, lost its values, lost its faith. They were weak, and the Babylonian army descended on them and conquered them. The prophet Jeremiah wept. Solomon's temple was destroyed. Jerusalem was flattened. Most of the people were carried off to Babylon to work like slaves. There they sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept--depressed and hopeless, "like dry, dead bones," said Ezekiel.

Then Ezekiel changed tunes. But God will not leave us here, he cried. The dry bones are going to get up, get reconnected with each other and walk around. Now hear the word of the Lord, "I am going to open your graves and bring you back to the land of Israel. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live." Dem bones gonna walk around.

Several years ago, our church looked out on the valley and saw, not dry bones, but waste and garbage. Our church saw how the environment from which we get our water to drink and air to breathe was being polluted and destroyed, how the natural resources are being depleted; and our church heard the word of the Lord, "Recycle or perish." Under the leadership of Lloyd Hall, our church was one of the forerunners of the recycling movement in Merced. Like dry bones, aluminum, newsprint, glass and plastic can receive new life. Americans produce 154 million tons of garbage every year--enough to fill the New Orleans Superdome from top to bottom, twice a day! 50% of the trash is recyclable. Good news: the federal government which buys more than 20 billion sheets of copier paper each year, now will purchase and use only recycled printing and writing paper. Recycle or perish!

I'm taking this sermon very seriously. After I retire, what will it be like for Ellie and me on July 1? No longer will I have a congregation. No doubt, I will go places to substitute, but no longer will I have a congregation of my own to pastor. Norm Montague had the insight of the major change this will mean in Ellie's life. For over forty years, she has worshiped and listened to me as the pastor's wife. For over 40 years, she has excelled in her own unique ministry. Now, Eleanor and Douglas, hear the word of the Lord, "Recycle or perish! I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live." Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around!

What about you? Ever had to make a big change? Ever lose your job? Sometimes career moves are forced upon you. Sometimes marriages fail. Sometimes a spouse dies. Sometimes the doctor says, "I'm sorry, but you have cancer." Sometimes you get an F or are suspended from school. Sometimes people you trust let you down. Sometimes you are forced, without your consent and without proper preparation, to take stands, to become controversial and confrontational. Sometimes you feel like dry bones! Now, hear the word of the Lord, "I will put my spirit within, and you shall live." Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around! Sing it with me.

Last Tuesday evening at the CATCH dinner, I sat next to Elizabeth who is a fifth grader. She said to me, "I'm going to miss you when you're gone." I put my arm around her and replied, "I'm going to miss you too." From across the table, Jillian spoke up, "I know someone who is not going to miss you." Someone at the table asked, "Who?" Jillian said, "Dorothy Buck. She likes Jody's sermons better than yours!" Leave it to children! That's okay, Dorothy, I also like Jody's sermons.

Win some, lose some; except, I'm not into winning and losing. Comparisons aren't usually helpful. When Pastor Lori comes in July, it will be tempting to compare her with Jody and with me. Don't go there! We each have our unique gifts and graces. Our worth is not determined by how we compare with others, nor is our worth determined by what other people think. "I will put my spirit within you," says the Lord--not someone else's, but God's spirit. You are created by God, loved and redeemed by Jesus, and powered by the Spirit. God is the source of your worth.

Virginia Mollankott is a gifted teacher. She teaches English to freshmen. Before she passes back their first graded paper, she gives them a little speech, "This grade is not for you. This grade is for a piece of work you turned in." Hear the difference? Then she asks them if they would like to know what she thinks of them. They usually do, so she says, "I think you're made in the image of God and of inestimable worth. There's no way anything I could put in my grade book could ever begin to estimate you."

George Bernard Shaw was hard hit by his father's alcoholism, but he refused to let his worth be measured by his father's illness, nor to let his worth depend on what other people thought of his father. He wrote, "If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance." "I will put my spirit within you." Dem bones gonna walk around!

On April 24, 1741, Georg Frederic Handel stumbled through the streets of London disillusioned, depressed, despondent, and sick. He was recovering from a stroke. Scarcely 56 years old, it seemed that his career was finished. For years his Italian operas had been popular, but the public suddenly transferred its interest to French stage plays. Handel was having financial problems and his health had broken.

But that evening, a man named Jennens dropped off a manuscript he thought Handel might develop into an oratorio. Half-heartedly, Handel leafed through the pages, noting that it was a series of Bible verses arranged to tell the story of Christ. When he read, "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God...And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed," suddenly the words came alive--no longer dry bones, but living words. Handel forgot his depression and hopelessness. Harmonies of mighty choruses and the music of orchestra and organ flooded his barren soul, and he was alive with creativity. He began to write notes on paper. With incredible rapidity, he filled page after page. He worked all night. For 22 days Handel worked in such feverish excitement that he admitted afterward, "Whether I was in my body or out of my body as I wrote it, I know not." On September 14, he wrote the final note, signed his name and slept for 17 hours.

The Messiah became the world's best-loved religious oratorio. Our Chancel Choir will sing two of its moving pieces on Holy Thursday to help us prepare for the Passover Dinner. Handel, depressed and despondent, his spirit like dry, dead bones, heard the word of the Lord, "I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live."

We all have dry periods. We all have dry bones. We all need to hear the word of the Lord. Perhaps some of you are wondering how you can tell if you need to hear the word of the Lord, how you can tell if your spirit is a valley of dry bones. I have some questions to ask. Answer them quietly within yourself.

During this past year, have you wept about anything?

Has your heart beat faster at the sight of beauty?

Have you thought seriously about the fact that someday you are going to die?

Is there any injustice that bothers you, that angers you enough to do something about it?

Is there anyone you know in whose place, if one of you had to suffer great pain, you would volunteer yourself?

If you answered "No" to all or most of these questions, chances are your spiritual life, your relationship with God, is a valley of dry, dead bones. Now hear the word of the Lord, "I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live." Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around!

© 1999 Douglas I. Norris