The following sermon was preached by Christine Wenderoth, Director, JKM Library, Associate Professor of Ministry, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Monday, April 11, 2011.
37:1 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. 37:2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 37:3 He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, "O Lord GOD, you know." 37:4 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 37:5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 37:6 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." 37:7 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. 37:8 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. 37:9 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."
37:10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 37:11 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.' 37:12 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. 37:13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 37:14 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.
I opened up The New York Times yesterday, and “the spirit of the LORD set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.” Everywhere I looked there were bones and they were very dry. In Libya, Ivory Coast, Syria, Afghanistan, Israel where bombs explode and guns pop: the bones are very dry. In Japan, Haiti, the Gulf of Mexico and the state of Georgia where earthquake and tsunami, oil spill and tornados rip apart the earth and her people: the bones are very dry. In our own country where Guantanamo survives, where Detroit and Cleveland rust before our eyes, where states disenfranchise unions, where Republicans and Democrats cannot manage civil discourse, where health care and employment and immigration are denied: the bones are very dry. In our own backyards where our seminaries struggle for resources, our friends and families struggle for jobs, our churches struggle for justice and concord: the bones are very dry. And in our families, where death claims our loved ones—Tony and Ruth, Sally and Frederick, Robert and Edith, Harold and many more: the bones are very dry. It doesn’t matter which direction we look—toward the environment or politics or the economy or world affairs or our personal lives—death is pretty much in charge. I cannot remember a Lent more given over to dying and despair than this one.
Perhaps it’s my mood. I’ve been through a rather rough patch the last few months. My father died. My mother-in-law died. My uncle died. My mother broke her hip and has had to leave her home of 56 years. I had to move her. Now I have to monitor her finances and joyless bulletins from the realtor which say things about my childhood home now up for sale, things like: “Needs a total update top to bottom. Windows, doors, walls and floors. A great location no doubt, but so much to do. Priced too high.” That’s a direct quote. That’s my childhood she’s talking about: needs a total update.
Perhaps it’s my age. My joints hurt, my metabolism no longer sails through desserts and fried chicken, I can’t drink coffee past 3 p.m., I’m ready for bed by 10:30, my skin wrinkles and sags, and my TIAA-CREF account tells me I’ll never retire. I remember how things were done in the “good old days” and prefer them. Like reading from books and shopping in stores and talking to people face-to-face. I watch my mother push her walker around and struggle to understand her Medicare statement, and know I’m seeing my now-near future looking back at me. As they say, this growing old is not for sissies.
Or perhaps it is that the world is going to hell in a hand basket like they say. I can buy that. Joblessness, violent weather, suicide bombers, the demise of old ways and venerated institutions—seems to me like it’s all going to hell in a hand basket. Newsweek agrees [hold up April 4, 2011 issue]. Whatever it is that’s going on, the LORD has set me down in the middle of a valley full of bones, and those bones are very dry. Ezekiel and I are in the same place.
And so the LORD is addressing me as well, I suppose: “Mortal, can these bones live?” My despairing self replies, “Reckon not.” My feisty self replies, “How the heck would I know?” which I think is pretty much what Ezekiel is saying only more enigmatically and politely. My hopeful self says, “I have so many questions, Lord. Can rescue be worked? Do exiles have a future? Do people shut out have any hope of restoration? Will the earth live on? Will wars ever cease? Will I ever see my daddy again? Tell me! Tell me the story again. Remind me, so that I can trust that dry bones might live.”
And so with you I watch God and Ezekiel play the scene in the valley again. Bill read it beautifully. God tells Ezekiel what is going to happen. God will cause these dry bones to live again. God will cause these dry bones to live again. God will do this, that and the other thing but the end result is that those bones shall live again and these bones will know that it is God who has given them life. The scene is wonderful, really: something between The Nightmare Before Christmas and A Night on Bald Mountain, femurs rattling and skulls grinning all to good effect with all that wind (ruach!) and flying dust. It’s a great scene. And none of it is reasonable or rational. Like The Nightmare Before Christmas it’s this fantastic, loopy affirmation of imagination and conviction.
And I get it; I do get it. I get that the power of life belongs to God and only to God. I get it that my questions are not questions for human response; only God can answer them. That life is animation—the wind, the breath, the words that blow hair and move muscle and restore power and place. That life is about bodies and land and physical reality, not disembodied spirit. I get it!
And I get it that life is not some spiritual, private matter. The life God promises Ezekiel is a public reality, a historical reality, a political reality. It’s the exiled Israel’s return to home and power. It’s any exiled community’s participation in the life of physical and political power. Can powerless communities again participate in the power of public life? Can victims of war and natural disasters, victims of greed and prejudice, victims of unemployment and homophobia participate in the power of public life again? God’s answer is “Yes! I will bring you all up from the graves of war and natural disasters, the graves of greed and prejudice, of unemployment and injustice and you shall live! I will place you on your own soil!”
I get what God is saying to us. “I will place you on your own soil.” I will place you—the people of Israel yes, but also the displaced refugee, the homeless victim of tsunami, the illegal immigrant, the wounded and ravaged war victim, the gay and lesbian seminarian, the under-employed state clerk—I will place you on your own soil. That soil may be the shelter of a house or the plot of land on which to grow your crops or the legislature in which to make just laws or the pulpit from which to preach the gospel or the job from which to feed your family. But that soil is the platform, the anchor from which you can affect things. For affecting things: that is the sign of life restored. “And I will place you on your own soil!”
This is a great stuff, and wonderfully rendered. We remember this scene for its drama and cadence, its visual power. We remember it for its conviction in the hesed of God, God’s faithfulness. We remember it for its bravado and for the scandal of embodying the universal truth of God’s sovereignty in one particular story.
But as audacious and resolute as it is, this scene is really scary. Not the rattling bones and wind tunnels. Not even God’s voice, commanding the elements. No. The scary part is Ezekiel and what Ezekiel is supposed to do. Because if he and I are standing in this valley of death together, what God tells Ezekiel to do is what God is telling me to do. “Prophesy! Prophesy to these bones! Prophesy!” Holy Moses, what does that mean?
If you look the word “prophesy” up in Webster’s Dictionary, you’re told the word means “to utter as if by divine inspiration, or to predict with assurance on the basis of mystic knowledge; to foretell”. Yes, that’s what the word has come to mean for us today. Crassly put, for most people to prophesy means to predict the future and be annoyingly certain about it.
So am I supposed to be some kind of cosmic fortune teller? Am I supposed to stand up in the middle of tsunamis and unemployment lines and war zones, seminary board meetings and funeral homes and declare “you shall live, and God will place you on your own soil”? Er, if I’m lucky I might be ignored or told to stop the Shirley Temple routine. If I’m less lucky I might come to bodily harm. Either way, I hope I’m not supposed to do this because I’m gonna go with Ezekiel here and say, “O Lord, you know.” As in only you know. As in I cannot be so bold. As in I have a slight theological conundrum here. Because if only God knows and God really is in charge, then why does God need little ole me or Ezekiel or anybody else to do anything? Isn’t all in God’s hands?
Yet God says, “Prophesy.” Three times, in case I missed it. “Prophesy! Prophesy! Prophesy!” Now, to be fair to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, there is another definition it gives of the word “prophesy” and it is this: “to give religious instruction”. Which when you think about it, shouldn’t be such a hard assignment for someone on a seminary faculty. OK, OK, but I don’t think eloquent lectures on curriculum development or multiple intelligences or whatever else I do in that Religious Education course is going to animate dead bones. To the contrary, it tends to stultify live bones. So probably that’s not God’s command to me.
Yet I am commanded to do something. Maybe what I’m supposed to do is tell the story of Ezekiel and me standing in the middle of death and remembering—not foretelling—remembering that God has made promises to our despair before. Maybe what I’m supposed to do is remember that the Bible recounts how God’s promises, time and time again, have come true. That God has shown us that She is honorable, faithful, and utterly reliable. Maybe what I’m supposed to do is notice that God has restored people to the land of the living before; that Exodus and Exile, for example, have overcome Empire against all common sense. Maybe what I’m supposed to do is notice that these past promises have been fulfilled because God stands outside the closed reality of the empire—the empire which studies war, which rewards greed, which excludes the powerless, which intends that dry bones shall never live again. Maybe what I’m supposed to do is reject the closed conclusion of the empire and call that rejection of empire…Lent.
Will wars and environmental degradation end? Will blue and pink collar workers and the unemployed receive health care? Will I ever see my dad again? “O Lord God, you know.” Standing here in the middle of the valley of death, I don’t really know. What I know are dry seasons of defeat and despair. But. But I also have these loopy stories of God standing outside the obvious, logical conclusions, knitting bone to bone to sinew to flesh to skin to breath. What I know is when there is restoration, God’s sovereignty is visible. We call that Easter.