Our “Stewardship this Lent” series continues this week with Dr. Benjamin Stewart, a worship professor at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Perhaps you’re like me and have heard many sermons on Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones over the years. I think it’s a passage that’s particularly difficult to preach in a fresh, meaningful way (and that’s not just because I’m preaching on it in chapel tomorrow). Dr. Stewart’s wise, creative take is a Lenten inspiration.
Adam Copeland, Director of Stewardship Leadership
Stewardship in the Valley of Dry Bones
What is the first gift you were given to steward?
Our tradition remembers a gift we receive before our memories begin: breath.
In Genesis God scoops up dust and breathes into it, giving life to the human earth-creature. Today a newborn takes its first breath and we are struck by the wonder and fragility of our bodies and the gift-nature of breath.
On the anniversary of our own first breath, many of us commemorate the occasion by -- what else? -- inhaling deeply and then blowing out candles on a cake. This breath of life we’ve been given? Stronger than fire, we seem to say.
It is not only humans who receive this gift. Ecclesiastes teaches that humans and animals alike “all have the same breath.” When we die “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.” It is a cosmic gift, given in the very first verse of the bible: the wind-spirit-breath of God moves over the primordial waters of the earth itself.
Ironically, it is easy to forget our stewardship of this gift because it comes to us -- literally of course -- with every breath. We receive it about 23,000 times each day, but teachers of meditation still need to tell us, “focus on your breath.” In stressful situations a supportive colleague may remind us, “don’t forget to breathe!”
In scripture, the word for breath is complex. In Hebrew, ruach, and in Greek, pneuma, the word can mean breath, wind, and spirit, and it usually implies a connection between the three. The word invites us into a mysticism that holds together the personal, the ecological, and the divine.
How are we stewards of this gift?
Today, the wind-spirit-breath that sweeps over the face of the waters carries mercury from fossil fuels into those waters, poisoning the fish and those who eat the fish. What are the ways -- personally, politically, and organizationally -- that we can steward this gift of wind so that it will again bring life and not death to the waters?
The image of the breath of life breathed into us symbolizes how Jews and Christians consider every breath for all of us to be a gift from God. But at this moment in emergency rooms across the U.S. and beyond, people are struggling for that basic gift, gasping, sweating, and panicked with asthma attacks, many of which are caused by air pollution from fossil fuels. Our tradition says that breath is a gift from God, and thus it is a deplorable theft for fossil fuel use to rob people of that basic gift. How do you respond as a steward while this gift is being stolen? (An easy place to begin is the advocacy page of the American Lung Association.)
On the fifth Sunday in Lent this year, Ezekiel sees a vision of a valley of dry bones, and so the prophet calls: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. Ezekiel continues: I prophesied as God commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. If you brought “a vast multitude” back to life, what would it look like?
The United States Clean Air Act, passed in 1963, has saved the lives of more Americans than have been killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam combined -- every year. Its protections save more than 160,000 lives annually. Because of our collective stewardship of breath expressed through this law, we can look around today and see thousands upon thousands who “will stand on their feet, and live, a vast multitude.”
It may be the first gift we were given to steward. Ezekiel, the Clean Air Act, our teachers of meditation and prayer, those struggling for breath, and the Spirit interceding within us all remind us: we receive -- and are stewards of -- God’s gift of breath.
Check out the rest of the Stewardship this Lent series:
Stewardship This Lent by Adam J. Copeland
Water of Life by Cameron B .R. Howard
The Arc of Stewardship in the Age of Abundance and Debt by Israel Galindo
Stewardship’s Null Curriculum by Rolf Jacobson
Dr. Benjamin M. Stewart is the Gordan A. Braatz Associate Professor of Worship and the Director of Advanced Studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.
Generosity NOW Conference: The Ecumencial Stewardship Center's Generosity NOW: Stewardship Fusion 2 Conference will take place April 25-27, 2017 in Washington DC. Laypersons, pastors, and judicatory and denominational staff who attend Generosity NOW increase their knowledge about spiritual principles and best practices relating to faithful stewardship and generous giving through plenary sessions, workshops, and worship.