One day when our son, Tim, was in fifth grade he engaged my husband, Rich, in a combination wrestling and tickling match. Unfortunately, at one point Tim took a misstep and fell backwards with his arm twisted behind him, and suffered a hairline fracture. He was a real soldier as he endured weeks of being inconvenienced by a cast, although he had great fun teasing us that he was going to tell people that his dad had broken his arm.
After a time the arm healed, and I remember feeling such awe at the miraculous way bones can re-knit themselves when they are simply held together. Indeed there is a power within us, what my former colleague, Roger Jahnke, called The Healer Within in his book by the same title. God works within us in ways we can scarcely imagine. We may take that healer within for granted until we are caught up in a moment of awe, when we notice that we don’t have to tell our body what to do to heal us or keep us alive. Every once in awhile we slow down enough to remember the truth of Psalm 139 that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”
If we are honest, however, we are not always healed according to our timetables or expectations and it can be really tempting to give into discouragement and doubt. I’ve sat with people through the years whose bones have not healed well or whose wounds–physical, emotional and spiritual–have been sources of ongoing pain. My challenge has always been to speak a word of hope that doesn’t candy coat the reality of human suffering or lightly dismiss anyone’s experience.
Isn’t that the challenge for all people of faith– knowing the truth about this earthly life and not being done in by it?
So how about today’s reading from Ezekiel? Talk about broken bones! Actually, these bones are not broken–they are dried up, dead remnants of once living people, a metaphor for the whole house of Israel. It’s a disturbing image.
I must confess that in one of my typical avoidance behaviors during sermon writing week, I googled pictures of dry bones which led me to watching clips of the Lion King. Does anyone here remember that scene where the lion cubs disobey The King (whom I will forever think of as James Earl Jones!) and sneak off to the elephant graveyard? It’s a really creepy, deathly picture, not unlike our passage from Ezekiel. Can these bones live? It hardly seems so.
Let’s take a moment to understand what’s happening in today’s Bible passage. Ezekiel is writing from Babylon where he has been taken captive with a number of leaders from Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel, in 597 BCE. Ten years later the Babylonians will destroy rebellious Jerusalem and the temple, and deport a second round of Judean leaders to Babylon. For the people of Judah life as they have known it is over, their group identity lost, and faith in the God of Israel, who seems to be missing in action, severely tested, even to the point of unbelief .
And so God speaks a promise through Ezekiel to these people who are in dire need of hope. Earlier portions of the book of Ezekiel sound like what we often think of when we think of prophets–full of dramatic judgments and thundering calls for repentance.
However, in today’s passage, as God’s people languish in exile, fearing that all hope and meaning are dead, God speaks very tenderly to assure them that they are not forgotten and that death will not have the final word.
As I read the text, I hear God speaking from the Valley of Dry Bones not only to the house of Israel almost 3000 years ago, but also to our generation, to those of us who desperately wonder if the bones of our own faith and hope can live. Exile and deportation are certainly on our hearts and minds these days as we watch families being cruelly ripped apart by immigration policies, warfare, and violence. Our country’s original sin of slavery, a prime example of deportation and exile if ever there were one, continues to bitterly hurt and divide us. The obscene divide between wealth and poverty in our country continues to grow and leaves us reeling in the face of such greed.
In my counseling ministry, and this is not in any way to minimize more global examples, I have witnessed the ways we live in exile that may not seem so obvious at first glance. Some of us are isolated by grief, some cut off from our own bodies, others trapped in the netherworld of addiction, and many of us distanced from one another, and even God, because of fears, resentments, and old wounds. Living far from home, far from our deepest sense of ourselves as beloved children of God, can take many, many forms.
So, can these bones live? “O Lord, God, you know,” says Ezekiel. And indeed God does know for God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones that new life is the word of the Lord. Did you hear it when the children sang Dem Bones? Did you hear that refrain– “Hear the Word of the Lord?”
This is the Word of the Lord–– that God will bring life out of the literal and symbolic deaths we have created through our disobedience and the ones we have innocently suffered. Hear the Word of the Lord– “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.”
This is the God who promises to bring us out of exile–out of the places where we feel cut off, where we feel powerless to change our own lives, let alone this crazy world. This is the God who gave the house of Israel a very dramatic vision of bones being knit back together, of flesh and muscles being restored, of the body brought back to life as God’s breath is breathed into it. We are made alive and kept alive by God breathing God’s Spirit into us. That is obviously where our basic existence comes from, and even more, the source of deep meaning in our lives. St. Paul reminds us of that in the 8th chapter of Romans when he says that “those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:5-6)
So how do we set our minds on the things of the Spirit? I would suggest that a start is calling to mind the many ways God’s Spirit is at work in our lives.
Just a few examples: the Spirit is working through those who provide sanctuary and welcome to immigrants and refugees like US Together and our own Morag Keefe who lovingly cooked a Lenten dinner two weeks ago that would be halal–food cooked as prescribed by Muslim law– in anticipation of receiving a Muslim family here at church.
The Spirit is working through Greater Cleveland Congregations as they strive to assure that the residents of Cleveland’s neighborhoods are not abandoned.
The Spirit is working in our Presbytery’s Race Action Network, Hunger Network, and Self-Development of People, as they advocate for justice in the church and in the world.
The Spirit is working in our Food Pantry and the community we are committed to building there.
The Spirit is working through Forest Hill’s Discernment Task Force and Session who have been tirelessly seeking to follow God’s call to be the Beloved Community.
I imagine you also have personal examples of the ways God has worked, and is working, through different people and situations to breathe new life into you when your spirit is tired and faith is flagging. Every time we rise above the meanness of this world, every time we return love for hate and compassion for fear we know God’s spirit is at work.
As I was putting finishing touches on this sermon, I received an email from an educational retreat center with a link to a video of my colleague, Roger Jahnke, leading a healing breath exercise. I had to laugh since I had just written about him in the opening paragraph of this sermon. One of the major emphases in Roger’s writings is the power of the breath to heal and revitalize.
Many of you know that the Hebrew word “Ruach” means both breath and spirit and is commonly used in Scripture to refer to the Holy Spirit’s work. When I pray with people I frequently pray that they will remember that God is as close to them as their breath. Indeed God is our breath, the very spirit that breathes us back to health, at times physically, and at other times mentally and spiritually.
This is the God who gave Ezekiel a powerful vision of resurrection almost 3000 years ago and who still speaks through that vision to us today. As we head towards Jerusalem and the cross in a few weeks, as we face literal and symbolic deaths throughout the course of our lives, we do so as people who can lay claim to the vision of “Dem Bones” and to a God who never stops acting in the world and within the deepest recesses of our very beings. Hear the Word of the Lord!
Thanks be to God!