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The Rev. Dr. Luke Powery tells a Synod of the Covenant gathering that dealing with death is central to preaching that’s alive

Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones has been ‘a gift’ to a scholar and preacher ‘expanding my own homiletical imagination’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Luke Powery (Photo courtesy of Duke Divinity School)

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. Luke Powery, Dean at the Chapel at Duke University and an associate professor at the Duke Divinity School, used the account of the Valley of Dry Bones found in Ezekiel 37:1-14 last week to remind preachers that sermons about resurrection must first encounter death in a real way.

Powery, whose new book, “Becoming Human: The Holy Spirit and the Rhetoric of Race” was published Monday by Westminster John Knox Press, was the guest last week as part of the Synod of the Covenant’s monthly Equipping Preachers series. Listen to Powery’s talk, “Preaching in the Valley of Dry Bones,” by going here. The Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick, the synod executive, hosted the final installment for the year.

Ezekiel 37 “has been a gift to me in thinking about and expanding my own homiletical imagination,” Powery said. “Ezekiel 37 is what I think of as death’s domain.”

When Jerusalem fell to King Nebuchadnezzar, Israel’s “dreams were dashed by Babylonian brutality,” Powery said. “Ezekiel, a priest and prophet, is called upon to prophesy to these bones. Chapter 37 is part of the restoration discourses which reveal, as the spiritual says, ‘This trouble don’t last always.’”

“It’s interesting it’s the Spirit of the Lord that brings [Ezekiel] to the Valley of the Dry Bones,” Powery said, since “it was believed one could be contaminated by coming into contact with the dead.” The Spirit of the Lord “leads him into a preach-off with death,” Powery said. “Israel is indeed dried up and dead, and if we are honest, many of us are preaching in a Valley of Dry Bones,” where “death is the context for all of preaching. To experience life, resurrection or hope, one must go through death, not around it.”

The Spirit “leads preachers to the context of death every Sunday in order to proclaim a word of life that ultimately breathes hope into the lives of people,” Powery said. “If a preacher avoids dealing with death, he or she will not be able to preach Christian hope in any meaningful way.”

In many churches, though, “preachers do that very thing — avoid death because they are at a loss about what to say about it and don’t realize its vital connection to the substance of Christian hope,” Powery said. “Because of this denial of death in general,” many churches are left with sermons “that are fundamentally hopeless.”

Ezekiel reports the Spirit of the Lord “sat me down in the middle of a valley” that was “full of bones.” “When I think about preaching, I often begin with the pain of unjust historical subjugation,” which Powery called “the spiritual roots of preaching.” Then he began singing the great spiritual “Trouble of the World.”

“Suffering is not limited to African Americans. It’s universal,” Powery said, adding that his students used to call him “Dr. Death” for delivering talks like he did last week. “I smell death whenever I preach,” Powery said. “I think the blood of martyrs fertilizes the soil of our preaching.”

Even the Communion Table “is the table of death,” Powery said. “If the cross is our lens, then the catastrophic is at the heart of the gospel, and the church has drops of blood all over it. The wounds of the crucifixion are not erased by the resurrection” and “the wounds of centuries of brutality throughout the African diaspora are still present in psychological scars.”

“The presence of death is everywhere. We don’t even need a pandemic to tell us that, but maybe it’s a reminder that as we wear our masks … we remember that we are sick patients, all of us, in a hospital. Where’s the blood in our preaching, in our congregational rituals and social outreach? If there is no blood in our preaching, it’s not worth much.”

Pain and suffering “keep our worship connected to reality — not that we consciously perpetuate it, but we acknowledge it,” Powery said. “For me, worship and death are intertwined.” But often “our preaching is so neat and orderly that even the Spirit doesn’t seem to surprise us anymore.”

“You can’t truly celebrate,” Powery told preachers, “until you learn how to lament.”

Fortunately, “it’s not your preaching that brings salvation. Man, that should free us!” Powery said. “It’s the Spirit working through your preaching that brings salvation.”

It was the great preacher James Forbes who called preaching “a ministry of raising the dead,” Powery pointed out. That suggests “our pews perhaps are full of dying people in need. Or do we imagine preaching to be a hospice ministry, where we help people to die with dignity rather than raising them to new life in Christ? As preachers in the Spirit, we are in the resurrection business … By engaging contamination and death, we demonstrate our hope for resurrection.”

Facing death head-on “reveals a deep trust in the Spirit,” Powery said. “It’s not possible to explore the Spirit of life without facing head-on the reality of death.”

“There are homiletical spirits who pimp the pulpit for profits instead of being God’s prophets,” Powery said. “Yet they control the media airwaves, satisfied with mega churches yet perpetuating mini theology, satisfied with rejoicing when God is good all the time but neglecting lament when bad things happen to good people, satisfied with ‘Jesus and Me’ more than justice in the city, more concerned with how well one ‘hoops’ rather than how well one helps the needy in society.”

The Spirit “transgresses the boundaries of death in order to develop new and fresh ways of living, being and preaching in the world,” Powery told preachers. “By taking the Spirit seriously” like Ezekiel did, “we take death and hope seriously.”

“Every time we step behind the sacred desk, the pulpit, in the Valley of Dry Bones, we are preaching death’s funeral,” Powery said, “as we proclaim the death of death, and its sting will eventually die.”

“The next time you step up to proclaim the glorious gospel, just tell death to go to hell,” Powery said. “You can use those words in the pulpit, Presbyterians.”

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