Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

It was Spring Break, 1996. A group from Chicago Theological Seminary went down to Miami. Not for the beaches or the parties. We went down to work on building houses for Habitat for Humanity. These were steel framed houses, because steel framing was a product on the market, but not widely in demand, so Habitat got them for much less than market price. And rather than do every other stud like the building codes say, we put a hurricane strap on every stud of a house.

This was a part of the Hurricane Andrew relief effort. Habitat for Humanity was building a 90 home subdivision. The goal was not just to build houses, but to build a community.

And we got introduced as Chicago Technological Seminary. I guess that means we will pray for your power tools? Kinda like how our church gets introduced as First Congressional Church of Charlotte.

We took great pride in our work. We heard stories of when Andrew came through that part of Florida and multi-million dollar homes were flattened, but Habitat for Humanity houses stood.

In the 21 years since then, I have not been able to keep up with those houses. My prayer is that they still stand and that people are loving their homes.

But this year we have had Harvey hit Texas, and now Irma is hitting Florida. It has gone west of Miami, and is right over the keys right now. And the amount of damage is more than my mind can understand. With Harvey, they say the area that was flooded is the size of Lake Michigan. And I know people down there. Friends from school, and folks I went to church meetings with when I served in Dallas.

Other friends are out in Montana, talking about the wildfires. Someone superimposed a map of the fires, and the area was about the same as that hit by Harvey. Just this morning they posted a one word update: “rain.” Thanks be to God.

It is overwhelming. We know that evacuation is difficult in the best of circumstances. We know that evacuation only works if you have transportation, if you have money for gas, especially in bumper-to-bumper stop-and-go traffic that crawls along the Interstate. We know that boarding up a house only works if you can take time off of work without losing your job and you can stand in line at the lumber yard for plywood.

Like Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of bones. Can these bones live? Oh Lord, only you know.

Natural disasters are not the only ones we face. Policies rolling back protections for the least of these in our midst seem to come with every news cycle. Whether immigrants, refugees, people of color, the LGBT community, sexual assault victims on college campuses, or minority communities of voters, hard-won rights and protections are being dismantled.

As one church member said to me, “I can’t watch the news, it just eats my heart.”

Like Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of bones. Can these bones live? Oh Lord, only you know.

But we do not have to look out that far do we?

How many funerals have we had in recent years? Funerals of beloved church members, of leaders of this church and of our community. You know their names. People we miss every day, both personally and as a community.

And grief can feel like this, can’t it?

But it goes beyond funerals.

It is in our budget, in our stewardship, in our belief that there is not enough for us to be the church. We ended in the black for the first time in decades, but at what cost? We lost a pastor to do it. And we like to think we are past our grief, as thought reason could rule the heart. But do we not gather and wonder sometimes if these dry bones can live again?

Is that not the lament of Israel in the time of Ezekiel: we are cut off and cannot live?

And the church laments the same thing. One writer puts it this way:

Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to humankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christian today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action…

That writer was Dietrich Bonheoffer, writing of the church in Germany in the 1940s. But is that not the lament of the church that has circled the wagons for too many years?

I want to give you a word that will make it all better. I want to preach for you the sermon that will bring new life to this church, bring new hope and new possibilities. But I find myself too much like Ezekiel.

God asks, “Hey preacher, can these dry bones live?”

And I have to answer, “Lord, I have no clue. But you know.”

And when Ezekiel tells God he does not know, God tells him to prophesy to the bones. And he does. And the bones knit together.

And when Ezekiel admits that he cannot make breath come into the bodies and make them live, God says to prophesy to the wind, the breath, the spirit, and it comes into them and they live.

You see, if it were up to me, I cannot make this church live. If it were up to us, we could not change the world with the redemption and reconciliation that we are called to give the world. If it were up to us, we could not heal and help those who are evacuated and those who have stayed.

But it is not up to us. God gives us a word of reconciliation and redemption. God gives us the word we need to speak. God gives us a word of hope and of compassion. God gives us the inspiration to put figures of every skin-tone on the lawn and announce that we reject racism to the community. God gives us the ability to do the work to which we are called.

And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.

Thanks be to God.Amen.