I have spent a good part of my working life as a classroom teacher, so when the collect for today speaks of “the unruly wills and affections of sinners” my mind immediately goes to the two years I spent teaching 8th grade English. You have to be a particular kind of person to teach middle school, and actually I think I was pretty well suited for it. But you can only do it if you’re a bit of an eighth-grader yourself. Depending on what hour of the day you have them, middle schoolers can be grown up or immature or perhaps both at the same time. Teaching middle school is for you if you like being in a room with people who act like ten-year-olds one minute and forty-year olds the next. If you want to survive in that classroom, you need to be able to adjust to their moods as quickly as they come and go. It’s not unlike trying to surf in a tsunami.
When I think about teaching English to middle, high school, or even college students, I always think first of two common experiences, one shared by all teachers, the other limited mostly to those who teach literature. The first is the student who misses class or comes in late and asks you, “Did I miss anything important?” When asked this question, I often replied, “No, we all sat around in frozen silence awaiting your return.” A professor of mine once observed that education is the only thing people will pay for and then willingly forego. There is no substitute for being there.
The other teaching experience more peculiar to literature teachers is explaining what we call “figurative language” (metaphors, similes, symbols, other methods of comparison) by which all human perception works. We human beings seem to be designed to understand something only when it is placed in comparison with something else: love is a rose, no man is an island, war is hell, Christ is King. We only grasp things by analogy. In my experience, kids first resist this idea and then go overboard (another metaphor) once they get it. I’ve had students who refused to see Christ figures in anything and then suddenly saw them lurking behind every telephone pole.
Today’s collect and the reading from Ezekiel remind me of my days teaching middle school. They make me think of those days first because the “unruly wills and affections of sinners” applies to all our inner eighth graders. They make me think of those days second because Ezekiel uses an outlandish metaphorical comparison—saying Israel is like a valley of dry bones coming back to life—as a way of helping us understand something else. A word about each.
As Ezekiel understands the human problem, there is something awry in our very makeup. In the chapter before the one we heard today, he speaks of God putting a new heart and a new spirit within us.
26A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. 28 [Ezekiel 36-26-27]
Our problem is not that we don’t obey the law. Our problem is that we don’t love the law. I know the Ten Commandments are good; I know that I’m supposed to obey them; but I don’t really love them—to be honest, I don’t even like them all that much. They come to me from outside myself. I have not made them my own. There is distance between God’s will and mine. My “unruly will and affections” get in the way of my taking in God’s will and making it my own. And, as our collect today says, the way for me to obtain what God promises is to love what God commands. I’ll do my best to DO what God commands. But LOVE it? That’s an extremely tall order. As a student might say, “Can I get an extension?”
One way to describe our problem is to say that we are all spiritual eighth graders. We are all in the process of being shaped into the people we are designed to be. As with all education, the goal is that we internalize the values to which we aspire. Just as we want a kid to learn certain values and virtues through experience, so God wants us to grow into the depth and compassion we see enacted in the life and ministry of Jesus. Just as school shapes children, so our relationship with God shapes us. The goal of the Christian life is not to be one who slavishly obeys all the rules. The goal of the Christian life is to become more internally God-like, which means to take into ourselves the characteristics of Jesus and to learn, over time, to live them out.
This is hard work. It goes against our very nature, our “unruly wills and affections.” God wants me to want justice and peace and righteousness at least as much as I want professional advancement, romantic fulfillment, and a new car. How on earth do I become that kind of person?
It’s in answer to that question that our readings speak to our spiritual condition in a second way: by means of an extended comparison. When Ezekiel envisions God’s transformation of Israel, he sees what looks like a battlefield, a plain covered with dry bones. The spirit of God announces that God will remake those bones into people by putting sinews (ligaments and tendonsand muscles) and flesh on them. The spirit of God announces that the four winds will breathe breath and life into those new bodies and make them live.
What we have here, of course, is a picture of human transformation. You were dead and now you are alive. For Israel that means the Babylonian exile, life cut off from the promised land and lived without access to the Temple. In this beautiful and dramatic reading, God announces that though they are as dead now, they will once again live. They will live because God will remake these dry dead bones into living breathing human beings. And they will love what God commands because God will turn their hearts of stone into hearts of flesh and put a new heart and a new spirit within them. Obeying the law will no longer seem like an onerous duty. It will be the greatest experience we can imagine.
We make the life of faith more complicated than it is. Ezekiel would remind us that the life of faith is finally about one thing: it is about transformation. The life of faith is not about learning a set of rules or about getting cosmic credit in the sky. It is not really about getting to heaven or avoiding hell. The life of faith is about being remade into our authentic selves, into someone who can love what God loves, who can love AS God loves, who has made God’s priorities of compassion and justice and wholeness and peace their own priorities. And because Jesus is what theologians call the “human face of God”, the Christian practice has been to keep our eyes focused on Jesus so that, as we steep ourselves in his love and forgiveness and healing and blessing we will be transformed into his likeness, both internally and in our actions.
“Did I miss anything important?” Just as you can’t learn a musical instrument or a language or an athletic skill without practice, so you can’t open yourself up to personal transformation without showing up. I have heard a lot of clergy make the case for church attendance in my life, and usually they do it as some kind of sly or submerged guilt trip. I want to make the case for church attendance from the opposite point of view: you will never be the person you and God want you to be unless you open yourself up to God’s creative work in your life. And, like it or not, God’s creative activity takes place more reliably in the practice of Word and Sacrament than it does in the very important and good things that otherwise claim our attention. When you are not here, God does not mark you absent. But you do miss something important. And what you miss is the formative shaping power of the word and sacrament to breathe a new life and new spirit into your drying bones.
A week from today is Palm Sunday, the day that initiates Holy Week. In Holy Week we walk with Jesus through the last days of his life, from triumphal entry into Jerusalem through his betrayal, arrest, crucifixion and death, and then on to the surprising gift of the resurrection. Easter will come whether we’re all here for Holy Week or not. But our ability to take it in and let it accomplish God’s transforming work in us is proportional to the extent to which we steep ourselves in the process by going with Jesus on that journey. So I’m asking you to be here for all of Holy Week. You and I will become our true selves--that is become more like Jesus--the more we live and share in his life-changing journey. Easter will come whether we prepare for it or not. But it will be little more than a spring festival unless we first walk the way of the cross.
So don’t miss anything important. God wants to put flesh on your bones and breathe breath into your being. Let God remake your heart and your spirit. Allow God to transform you into one who will obtain God’s promises. Be here in Holy Week with your brothers and sisters who want, as you do, to obtain God’s promises of joy and peace and hope and new life. If you do that, you will discover that you are becoming someone new: one who knows the fulfillment of God’s promises because you now, perhaps even to your own deep surprise, love what God commands. Amen.