Let These Bones Live!

Sometimes the scriptures are best imagined, rather than interpreted. So as I read this text from Ezekiel, I invite you to close your eyes and let your imagination guide your understanding.

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The Valley of Dry Bones

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 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.’

Let us pray. Lord of Life, at times it feels like we are lifeless. We are nothing but a pile of broken bones, drying out in the sun. And yet there is always new life with you. So breathe on us, breath of God, fill us with life anew, that we love as you love, and do as you would do. We offer our prayers in the name of the One who brings life out of death, our victorious Jesus Christ. Amen

What does it feel like to lose what is most precious to you? In the Gospel of Luke there are three well known, interconnected stories of dealing with something that is lost: a coin, a sheep, a child. A woman sweeps her entire house until her lost coin is found. A shepherd leaves the flock of sheep to find one that is lost. A father clings to the hope that one day his lost son will return home.

"I once was lost, but now I am found."

How long O Lord? We want deliverance from our time of sorrow. We want the feelings of grief and anxiety to pass. We want to experience renewed life. But good news arrives on its own time schedule, and we must wait. The other day our congregation made the decision to keep the church building closed to worship and activities for another month. This means we will not experience in the same space some of the most memorable and important services of the year. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, but there will be no procession of children, waving their palm branches. The Sunday after is Easter, but there will not be families filling up entire rows of chairs, wearing the bright colors of resurrection. We will still worship and experience and hear good news, but it will not be the same. For many of us, this will be our first Easter Sunday away from church.

How long, O Lord? The virus continues to harm and kill. We pray for an end to its wrath, protection for those who care for the ill and dying. We pray for wisdom and guidance for those in authority. We pray for a return to normalcy. The grief is powerful. We want to run away from it, but we cannot. We have to wait it out. We have to remain separated from one another. This week's psalm is one of lament:

Psalm 130
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
   Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
   to the voice of my supplications!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
   Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
   so that you may be revered.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
   and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
   more than those who watch for the morning,
   more than those who watch for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
   For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
   and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
   from all its iniquities.

We are in the depths, like Jonah from last week's message, but this week's it's a graveyard, not the belly of a fish. It's a tomb, much like the one where they buried Lazarus. Much like the one where they buried Jesus.

Ezekiel's vision is especially painful, because it sheds light on Israel's loss. The loss of the Promised Land, the loss of their freedom, the loss of everything that was normal. The people had realized the dream of a land of their own, first hoped for by their ancestor Abraham. God had said, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites." God had done it. God liberated the people from their slavery in Egypt, brought them through the wilderness, established Jerusalem and the monarchy. The people built a Temple to honor God. And now it was gone. Israel was overrun by its more powerful neighbors, and all that was left was a pile of bones.

The dreams, the hopes, the future of an entire people, gone. How long, O Lord?

"Mortal, can these bones live?" God asked the prophet. "Only you know, Lord," was the answer. "Prophesy to the bones," God says to Ezekiel. How does one preach to the graveyard? What good news is there to share with a pile of body parts? The story doesn't share what the prophet actually said to the bones, but whatever it was, it worked; bones begin coming together, ligaments connect them, even flesh comes on to them! We see that God has power over death, but what struck me this week was that it's through the voice of Ezekiel that God's power is revealed.

But the newly formed and re-formed bones have no breath. So God says to the prophet: "Prophesy to the breath!" In biblical Hebrew breath is also translated as spirit or wind. Prophesy to the Spirit! Prophesy to the wind! Now the bones have life. It recalls God's creative action in Genesis Chapter 2. God forms the first person, but then breathes life into its nostrils. God breathes new life into the bones and the valley. It happens because the one God has called to bring good news to the lifeless is faithful. God will bring resurrection, wholeness, and newness of life. No one knows when. In the meantime, God needs prophets to prophesy to the death around us. Who will speak to the graveyard of despair and sickness?

This weekend we lost an American icon, the Rev Dr Joseph Lowery. Dr Lowery was a Methodist preacher in the South. He was a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He organized peaceful protests during the Civil Rights era. https://www.npr.org/2020/03/28/517545662/hold-hold-hold-rev-joseph-lowery-dean-of-the-civil-rights-movement-dies-at-age

A fiery preacher and poet, Dr Lowery spoke to truth in the face-- in the actual eyesight-- of power. At the funeral of Coretta Scott King, Dr Lowery called out the false evidence leading to the war in Iraq-- as President Bush watched from the first pew. He delivered a legendary benediction at President Obama's first inauguration, which you can watch on YouTube. Democrat or Republican, you should watch and listen as Dr Lowery preaches to the bones. He was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Dr Lowery was one of the many prophets called by God to prophecy to the dry bones of racism and hate in America. "Can these bones live?" "Only you know, Lord!" "Then prophesy to them!" Thank you, Lord, for the voice of the Rev Dr Joseph Lowery.

This week also commemorated the death of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Bishop Romero was murdered during worship by pro-government authorities in 1980. He was an active voice for those in terrible poverty in his country. https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/archbishop-oscar-romero-becomes-a-saint-but-his-death-still-haunts-el-salvador
He once wrote,
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts: it is beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is the Lord's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying the Kingdom always lies beyond us... We plant the seeds that one day will grow... We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very, very well.
Following his death, Bishop Romero was officially proclaimed a martyr of the church, and later venerated as a saint. Bishop Romero was called by God to prophecy to the dry bones of poverty and injustice in El Salvador. "Can these bones live?" "Only you know, Lord!" "Then prophesy to them!" Thank you, Lord, for the voice of the Archbishop Oscar Romero.

Ezekiel's vision of dry bones symbolized the collective hurt and loss of an entire nation. The Promised Land was overrun. People were forced to leave. The Temple was destroyed. The walls of Jerusalem fell. Yet the prophet was able to see and share a new, future reality. The people would be reborn. They would be called out of their tombs, like Lazarus, walking, unbound into new life. It took decades, and most of the people died in a foreign land. A few were able to return. Hope carried them. Hope of redemption. The breath/wind/spirit was God will breathe and blow into the death and despair of the virus. Hope will be restored. No one knows when. But God has power over life and death. In times of national calamity, we turn our faith to God, saying

Out of the depths we cry to you, O Lord.
   Lord, hear our voice!
Let your ears be attentive
   to the voice of our supplications!

We wait for the Lord, our soul waits,
   and in his word we hope;
our souls wait for the Lord
   more than those who watch for the morning,
   more than those who watch for the morning.

All of the earth, hope in the Lord!
   For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
   and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem us
   from all our iniquities.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
fill me with life anew,
that I may love the way you love,
and do what you would do.
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
until my heart is pure,
until my will is one with yours,
to do and to endure.
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
so shall I never die,
but live with you the perfect life
for all eternity.