Ezek 37:1-14; Ps 130; Jn 11;1-45
Well, this morning, I want to tell you a little something about a man named Sam Mockbee. Sam was a professor from the Auburn School of Architecture who knew God’s creative purpose for his life far more deeply than most of us can begin to imagine for our own. The story I’m going to share is set in Mason’s Bend, Alabama – one of Alabama’s poorest communities where more than 40% of the population lives far below the poverty line. Mason’s Bend is tucked into a curve of the Black Warrior River along an unpaved road that plows through weeds and briars, 25 miles from the nearest town. Home to four extended families, about 100 people live in tumbledown shacks and rusted trailers with chickens noisily wandering around their dry and dusty yards.
The Bryant family was raising 3 grandchildren in a shanty without plumbing when Sam Mockbee came along. Sam asked if they might be inclined to allow his students to give their place a free renovation. The Bryant’s home then became the first of his students’ many projects in Mason Bend, in what continues to be known as Auburn’s Rural Studio. The students use donated materials, like salvaged lumber and bricks. But more often, they create these structurally and environmentally viable homes out of discarded tires, bales of hay and waste cardboard, carpet squares, concrete rubble, colored bottles and old license plates. Discarded stuff becomes the precious material of inexpensive, ingenious buildings in a style Mockbee once described as “contemporary modernism grounded in Southern culture.”
Sam Mockbee was a man who was battling for convictions. One was that we all have an ethical responsibility to help improve the living conditions for the poor. Another is that the architectural profession should “challenge the status quo into making responsible environmental and social changes.” In an article he wrote for Architectural Design, he said, “…the Rural Studio (tries) to establish a discourse between those of us who have become mentally and morally stalled in modern obligations and these families who have no prospect of such obligations.” Students learn from the projects of the Rural Studio that architecture has the power to change lives. Their work has been called “transcendent.”
I do not know to what creative purpose God has brought you to this earth. And we’re never certain where our faith journey will lead us along the way. But I do know that every single breath we take is only by the power of the Holy Spirit who intends for each one of us to participate in God’s creative purpose for the world. It’s our job to be inspired by Jesus’ bellowing command and like Lazarus, come out, proceed and be bold with one another, in faithful community.
Too many of us are bound by the cloths of tradition – or maybe some influential personal experiences – to even consider participating in God’s every day, creative unfolding. We allow the conventions of society guide who we are; then, letting go of any part of this self we’ve become is too difficult to imagine. Our fear that we might lose something about ourselves as the world knows to become who God needs us to be arouses in us our latent awareness of our own mortality. This fear losing control of any aspect of ourselves to anyone or anything other than ourselves drives us toward acts of self-preservation that effectively thwart our ability to think openly about God’s need for us within the continual re-creation of community. We close in on our definition of who we are or the role we are to play in society and close out any ideas for how we might expand our participation of the unfolding movement of unfolding events. Not only does this further narrow our vision for our own purpose in the world, it further limits the world’s experience of what might otherwise be.
Sometimes, we have to look beyond our own fears, convictions or deeply-seated expectations for our lives in order to become open to creative possibilities for serving God in community. Unlike Martha and Mary, we need to see the stone at the mouth of the cave and believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is something God can do help to release what’s behind it. To have faith is to rely upon something especially when we feel a desperate need to rely upon nothing other than ourselves. It’s to step out beyond what is in complete conviction that God is in gracious control of everything; that God remains the creative force in this world and the next inspiring you and me to reconnect with God and one another on Main Street and side streets, in our church home and in our family home. To have faith, then, is to breathe from the breath of the Holy Spirit and be set alive – made attentive, attuned and engaged in the world around us with God through prayer and devotion to all creation – so that we can rise to new ways of creative living in this world where, compelled by the values of Christ, we can dry the weeping eyes of the broken-hearted.
Jesus tells us that in this way we’ll be glorifying God, but don’t let this prettied up language fool you. Jesus spoke of his glory any time he needed to say that the passageway we follow just might lead us directly to the cross.
This passageway winds through a Valley of Dry Bones which is long and hard, and we know too well. It’s a valley of desolation where undocumented men and women dodge police peppering the sidewalks of their sub-minimum wage jobs. And it’s a valley of despair where hungry families look through windows at heaped plates of Sunday supper. It’s a valley torched by the debate over whether a couple can be married in one of our Presbyterian churches without fear of getting their pastor fired because of who they love. It’s a valley lined with violence, where innocent children are shot each day, just as it’s a valley filled with minerals where energy-producing companies lure poor landowners to sell their very souls.
God has placed us in the Valley of Dry Bones which is at once corporate and deeply personal, requiring us to do acts of justice toward the mission of God just as it requires us to do acts of compassion for the likes of Mary and Martha – people like us who are feeling fragmented from our family members and friends or feeling outside the blessing of God. It’s to be in connectional community animated by the Holy Spirit that has friendship with God and neighbor as its aim, which is one of the reasons I value our Lenten Spiritual Disciplines series and retreats, Sundays in the City and our outings to sporting events and our picnics in the spring and fall. It’s to be a part of a body that’s attached bone to bone by the sinewy stuff of life, becoming sculpted, in a way, through interactions with one another so that we feel a stronger sense of being loved and cared for through our marriages and break-ups, our job losses and new employment, our deployments and our difficult diagnoses, our fights with siblings and, quite frankly? – Our visits with the in-laws. Being in the Valley of Dry Bones as a connected body inspires a reciprocal exchange with one another that affirms our oneness with God and all of creation.
With such relationships, we are necessarily changed, but this change is not to be feared as it is not the change that leads to the death of anything at all. Actually with God’s help, it’s change for the good as the compassion that awaits – compassion meaning “suffering with” – frees all of us who are tired, lonely, and broken as well as those of us who are delighted and filled with hope for the days ahead to seek and be help; becoming, then, true Christian community that is an ever-new creation, continually forming and reforming us to be the people Jesus cries out for us to be.
God has placed us here in this church today as a stop along our journey of faith to receive the breath of the Holy Spirit, to hear the bellowing cry of Christ, to engage the creative passions of God and emerge fully alive like Lazarus, Martha and Mary and all of the exiled of Israel in Ezekiel’s day, attentive to the needs around us – maybe even those of the person sitting beside you in the pew – as God’s work of creation continues through each one of us. As you and I continue along our faith journey, how will God be calling you to live into the new creation God longs for you to be? How will God be calling this church to continue to live into the body the Holy Spirit formed into being decades ago? How will we receive God’s creative power to change our lives and the world forever?
Sometimes, it comes by simply asking the right questions. Sometimes, it comes by being open to what you hear and being willing to seek a creative solution. I’d like to tell you about Tiffany Norwood’s brainstorm to foster world peace, but since she’s on another continent this morning, I’ll tell you about another program across the country that’s called Laundry Love. OK, it’s a goofy name, but it’s having amazing impact on the neighbors we’ve come to serve best. Laundry Love assists low-income families with meeting a basic need – washing clothes.
Laundry Love was launched with a simple conversation: one guy’s, “What do you need?” provoked an easy response, “Clean clothes.” A social entrepreneurship group called “Just One” took it from there. They established a series of partnerships in cities across the country between laundry mats and individual and group supporters who want to nurture the well-being of every one with acts of mercy, human care and love. First launched in California about 10 years ago, Laundry Love has served over 100,000 people from coast to coast. There’s even a Laundry Love location on Mt. Pleasant Street in Northwest DC.
As the call of the prophet Ezekiel reverberates through the deepest valleys of want where we are, may each one of us inspired to live creatively with all people in community. As the cries from the side streets of our cities or the hallways of our homes penetrate our faith journeys, may we be inspired to live creatively and compassionately with all people in love. As our bones begin to rattle in anticipation of how we will be changed by the new relationships that are formed, may we remember the fullness of God’s grace that has brought us to this place and may death not be feared, as we proceed boldly through this life and the next with a faith that knows no end.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Oppenheimer Dean and Hursley, Rural Studio (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.) Inside cover through 13 (some verbatim, some paraphrased). Oppenheimer Dean and Hursley, Proceed and Be Bold (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005).
 Tillich, Paul, The Courage to Be. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952) 35.