This sermon is based on Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 8:22-27, with a little Acts 2:1-21 added in. But mostly, it’s based on Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, Nondum (which means “not yet”).
Gerard Manley Hopkins was born in 1844 and died in 1889. He converted to Catholicism in his early 20’s, just after writing this poem that we’ve read this morning. Hopkins was artistic throughout his life, and apparently suffered from some melancholy most of his life, too. There are those who believe that he would have been diagnosed either with bi-polar disorder or with chronic depression had he been alive today.
Hopkins studied at Oxford, where he became friends with Robert Bridges who became the poet laureate of the UK. He was also influenced by Christina Rossetti. You can see the thematic influence in her poem A Baby’s Cradle with No Baby In It:
A baby’s cradle with no baby in it,/ A baby’s grave where autumn leaves drop sere; / The sweet soul gathered home to Paradise, /The body waiting here.
-Christina Georgina Rossetti
When Hopkins was 21, he met Digby Mackworth Dolby, who was his true love. Hopkins was gay, but there’s no evidence he ever acted upon his homosexuality. His journals are full of thoughts about Digby, though. A few years later, when he was accepted into the religious life, his confessor forbade him from contact with Digby except by letter.
Our poem, Nondum, was written before Hopkins converted to Catholicism in 1866. According to Jill Muller in Gerard Manley Hopkins and Victorian Catholicism: A Heart in Hiding, Nondum “expressed the loneliness of a believer who cold find no evidence of God in the world nor hear any answer to his prayers.” According to Dennis Hamm, S.J., “Hopkins’ very early poem, “Nondum,” written when he was 22, exemplified his own dry, pre-conversion hope in the face of Newton’s cold and nearly vacant cosmos.” Hamm goes on to say find these points of resonance with Hopkins’ poetry:
- the sense that humanity is part of nature,
- the sense that all creatures mediate the presence and love of God,
- the conviction that humankind is equipped through self-consciousness and freedom to be the most responsive of creatures,
- the awareness that people, nonetheless, regularly abuse that privilege, especially by their inattention to the gifts, which leads to ingratitude and selfish behavior violating the network of relationships with God and other creatures, and
- the awareness that renewed conversion to one’s creaturehood is always available through response to the love of God revealed in Jesus.
That point #4, “the awareness that people, nonetheless, regularly abuse that privilege, especially by their inattention to the gifts, which leads to ingratitude and selfish behavior violating the network of relationships with God and other creatures.” That’s it. That’s the dry bones.
How do you tell it’s dry bones? Read to it again:
We see the glories of the earth /But not the hand that wrought them all: /Night to a myriad worlds gives birth, /Yet like a lighted empty hall /Where stands no host at door or hearth /Vacant creation’s lamps appal.
How many of us are experiencing dry bones? We become dry bones in so many ways. Through death, sorrow, depression, not believing in ourselves, failure, sadness, grief, brokenness, oh, and let’s not forget anger. All ways anger.
And when we feel like we are dry bones, or we are living in a desert of dry bones, what do we do? I think that the writer of Romans answers that question for us.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Dry bones, groaning in labor pains, waiting for breath)
For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
The Message says it like this:
Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God.
It’s no surprise to me that the vision of the dryness is healed by the breath, the Ruah of the spirit. Ruah, the word for breath in Hebrew is arguably a feminine word. It’s no surprise that the writer of Romans talks about the Spirit, pneuma, another feminine word, instead of reaching for the “Father God” vision of so much of the Bible. Because it’s the same thing that Hopkins reaches for:
Speak! whisper to my watching heart/ One word-as when a mother speaks/ Soft, when she sees her infant start,/ Till dimpled joy steals o’er its cheeks. /Then, to behold Thee as Thou art, /I’ll wait till morn eternal breaks.
It is this nurturing, loving, feminine view of God that heals the dry bones. It is the good mother messages that Esther sent us a few weeks ago that heal the dry bones. I love you. I want you. You are special to me. I see you and I hear you. It is not what you do but who you are that I love. I love you, and I accept that you are different from me. I’ll take care of you. I’ll be there for you; I will be there even when you die. You don’t have to be alone anymore. You can trust me. You can trust your inner voice. Sometimes I will tell you “no,” and that’s because I love you. You don’t have to be afraid anymore. My love will make you well. I welcome and cherish your love.
Pentecost is the birthday of the church. A loving, nurturing God has given birth to her. God is seeking to mother this new thing coming into the earth. God is breathing new life into her child.
I picked up a book this week called Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. It’s by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, who wrote Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us. In their studies together, Brock and Parker began looking at Christian art through the ages, and noticed that images of Jesus’ corpse did not appear in churches until the 10th century. They write:
Paradise, we realized, was the dominant image of the early Christian sanctuaries. This both disconcerted and intrigued us. On the one hand, we were dismayed to think that early Christians appeared to be obsessed with the afterlife. On the other hand, we wondered why they covered every inch of church walls with such beautiful sights. We contemplated what it felt like to worship in such spaces.
We studied ancient liturgies, ritual practices, prayers, and hymns that may have been used in the churches… To our surprise and delight, we discovered that early Christian paradise was something other than “heaven” or the afterlife…[P]aradise—first and foremost—was this world, permeated and blessed by the Spirit of God. It was on the earth.
Like the breathing of a human body, the images said that God blessed the earth with the breath of Spirit. It permeated the entire cosmos and made paradise the salvation that baptism in the Spirit offered. As the most blessed place imaginable, paradise was also where the departed saints rested from their earthly labors and returned to visit those who loved them. In early Christian understandings, even heaven was a dimension of this life; it was the mysterious abode of God from which blessings flowed upon the earth.
If it is so, then the Spirit of God hopes to breathe on each of us. To take these dry bones and breathe life into them. And that life that God hopes to breathe on each of us, and through us, is a hope in a new world. A paradise.
That is the hope of Pentecost.