In exciting things, my congregation is launching a capital campaign. Here’s the sermon I gave to start our work on this project. The scripture is Ezekiel 37.
Ezekiel had grown accustomed to being snatched up by God. In fact, Eugene Peterson’s interpretation of The Bible called The Message starts this passage this way: “God grabbed me. God’s Spirit took me up and set me down in the middle of an open plain strewn with bones.”
I’ll be honest with you. If I’m going to have a divinely-inspired vision, I’m not convinced that I would like that divinely-inspired vision to start in a desolate valley filled with dried bones.
But, that’s where Ezekiel finds himself when God asks him, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Now we know what the answer to this question is even though that answer seems wholly unlikely, even ridiculous. The answer is yes, right? Yes, these bone can live. The God of all creation can do whatever he likes including bringing dried, bleached bones back to life.
You might not realize it, but this is a question that’s been asked of us as a congregation. Can these bones live? Let me tell you a story. It’s a story about a church that, a decade ago, faced an uncertain future. Their settled pastor had left, and they began the obligatory interim period. Now this interim period generally lasts a couple of years and is supposed to provide the congregation with an opportunity to (1) figure out what they want in a settled pastor and find that person and (2) wrestle with whatever issues they need to resolve before than person arrives.
As it turns out, this congregation needed that time to be reminded of just what being a “church” meant. They had to make hard decisions during that interim period. That two year time frame turned into seven and a half years. Now not everyone in the congregation was on the board, the congregation’s governing body, and so not everyone knew of all the discussions taking place, of all the questions that needed to be answered. Should we pay our bills? Or invest in our mission work first? Can we support a part-time minister? Can we even support a minister? Should we merge with another congregation? Should we close? At their core, the questions boiled down to this: can the bones of this grand, old church live? If you want to know what the answer to that question is, look at the sermon title printed in your bulletin.
So, Ezekiel has been asked this ridiculous question, right? Can these bones live? And then God tells Ezekiel to do a ridiculous thing. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy over the bones. God tells him to preach to these old, dry bones! “Watch this: I’m bringing the breath of life to you and you’ll come to life. I’ll attach sinews to you, put meat on your bones, cover you with skin, and breathe life into you. You’ll come alive and you’ll realize that I am God!”(Message)
And the bones began to shake and move and started to come together. Sinews began to form, “then muscles on the bones, then skin stretched over them.” But, we are told, “they had no breath in them.” (Message)
So God said to Ezekiel, “‘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.’ (NRSV)I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.’”
Two years ago right about this time, I was poring over Westfield’s church profile. I had submitted my profile for your review and I had been chatting with Andy and others on the search committee for a while. And deep in the profile, down under the heading “Planning” was this statement: “There is no current long-term plan [for our church]. Over the past five to six years, Westfield has been more focused on the immediate needs and goals of the church, and most planning has been reactionary, as opposed to setting a long-term objective and then working towards that goal.”
You see, we had the bones and the sinews and the muscles. We had the building and the reputation and the desire. But we didn’t have the breath, we had lost our vision.
But friends, it’s my job to preach good news, and I’ve got some good news for you today. We have a vision, we’re breathing once more. Thanks to the hard work of this congregation, Westfield isn’t just bones and sinew and muscle, but it carries its own breath as well.
During my first conversation with the search committee, it was made clear that this day would come. While our congregation is thriving, our building is aging. This historic church, our launchpad for ministry, is beginning to show the signs of its 160 years. The roof needs to be replaced; the exterior needs to be repainted—those projects would protect the building. The steeple is so big that it, in fact, sways in the wind. Here’s a fun fact: the weathervane on the tip of the spire is seven feet tall. Seven feet! I’m 6’1”. And while it won’t topple again thanks to a steel super structure that essentially makes it a skyscraper, that movement of the steeple does cause damage to the interior plaster and creates openings for water to seep in through causing significant water damage which needs to be addressed itself.
And then there’s the hard reality of accessibility and our need for an elevator and restrooms that are accessible. You’ve heard me say again and again that “Everyone, everyone, everyone is welcome at Westfield.” Here’s the question: What does “everyone” mean to you? Should I really be saying, “Everyone is welcome in our sanctuary because it’s one of the four rooms in our entire building that is wheelchair accessible? Or everyone is welcome as long as you don’t need to use the bathroom—cause if you’re in a wheelchair, we don’t have a bathroom for you!” These aren’t intentional exclusions, but there exclusionary nonetheless. But the good news is: we’ve got a vision, and we’ve got a breath that can pulse through these walls and will help this building become as welcoming and accessible and long-lasting as it’s congregation.
The reality is that these projects in and of themselves cost more than we as a congregation can afford. We knew from the get go that we would need support from the community to make this happen. And we are going to go to the community and remind them of Westfield’s continued presence in it’s current incarnation for the last 200 years, and as a congregation for the last 300.
So today, we are launching our capital campaign—a journey we’ve been on for a while now. It’s called Aspire. And here’s it’s logo. The logo shows a church, our church if you look closely, reaching to the stars—aspiring toward something more than it is. Of course, it’s a pun on one of our projects—fixing our spire. But the word is more than that. Aspire’s roots are in Latin. Ad means “to” and spirare which means “breathe.” The original latin was aspirare—to breathe.
While modern dictionaries list its meaning as “to direct one’s hopes or ambitions toward achieving something,” or “to rise high; tower,” I find myself drawn to the root of the word—to breathe.
This church has faced a lot of questions over the last decade. The question Ezekiel was asked millennia ago is the one asked of us today. The odds may seem steep, or maybe downright ridiculous. But we’ve got it on good authority that God deals in the unlikely, don’t we?
So it seems to me there’s one more question for us to answer. And today’s the day we answer the question for ourselves. Actually, it’s the day you answer the question for yourself. Can these bones live?