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Can These Bones Live?

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Ezekiel 37:1-14 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. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 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.”

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. 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. 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.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

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.’ 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. 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. 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.”

*****

It’s a gruesome sight that Ezekiel describes, a whole valley, littered with bones, dry bones, bleached white in the sun. It’s always a little unsettling when you’re outside, maybe on a hike, and you come across the skeleton even of a single small, animal. Bones should be covered with flesh and when they’re out in the open we know that some violence has occurred; life has been snuffed out. So when Ezekiel describes a whole valley covered in skeletons, the sight is devastating. He’s describing death and decay on such a massive scale it’s overwhelming. It reminds me of the museum at Auschwitz concentration camp, where they’ve arranged whole rooms full of glasses and shoes, each representing a prisoner who was murdered.

This just doesn’t seem like the beginning of a story. It seems like the end of a story and not a happy one. Maybe it seemed that way to Ezekiel, too. His whole book is full of warnings and premonitions that the children of Israel are going to be taken away into exile. It seems like their long hope of living in the Promised Land, of being at peace to worship the LORD in freedom, will be lost for good. The Spirit tells him that the dry bones in the valley are “the whole house of Israel.” This is an image of a community whose life will be dismembered, who will dwindle and decay and will be laid to rest in the depths of the valley. Like I said, a gruesome thought.

But that’s when things get interesting. Because this desolate ending becomes a new beginning. A place where nothing new seems possible becomes the very place where something truly new begins. The Spirit asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” The obvious answer would seem to be “No.” How could there be life in this place? How could there be hope in this devastation? But then the Spirit gives Ezekiel a vision of the bones taking on sinew and flesh and life, even there, so that the valley of dry bones becomes a valley of resurrection. That is the work of the Holy Spirit, who hovers over the formless and void and begins creating in the chaos, who makes a way where there is no way for people to leave behind their captivity, who goes down with us into the deep to raise us up into newness of life.

Today, on Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate that this Spirit, the Spirit who makes dry bones dance, rests upon the church, and makes new life possible here, too. Maybe your bones feel a little dry this morning. Maybe you are feeling the weight of grief, or anxiety, or maybe just kind of a general malaise that says “It’s not great but this is probably as good as it gets.” Maybe you look out on our world and you hear about violent fractures and collisions, as our communal life breaks apart and the pieces slam against one another. Maybe you think of this week’s shootings, of unarmed Palestinians and children in yet another school, and a valley of dry bones sounds like an appropriate image for that kind of world. A reporter asked one of the students in Texas if she was stunned that this was happening to her and she said, “No. This happens all the time, I kind of just assumed it would happen here, too.” A gruesome thought. The destruction of lives; the decay of hope; nations and races, oppressor and oppressed; perhaps you feel that we are in a valley of dry bones.

If any of that is you, you’re not wrong. You don’t need to “look on the sunny side” or be an “optimist,” pretending that everything is OK when it’s not. I’m afraid often we ask that of people in church. But the Spirit shows Ezekiel the whole valley of dry bones in all its devastation before working the miracle. If Ezekiel hadn’t looked upon that dreary sight, he would’ve missed what happens next. We won’t ask for new life if we can’t admit that we need it in the first place. But if we really believe that is possible, if we really believe that the Spirit can create from nothing and bring new life out of death than there is no darkness, no violence, no pain that we can’t look at with honesty and then say “You won’t get the last word!”

The Spirit makes dry bones dance, uses what’s leftover after destruction to begin rebuilding again. And there’s a particular shape to how this happens that I think we can learn from. First of all, after the vision, the Spirit says to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones.” Oh, so we’re actually doing something. This isn’t just something imagined; it’s a task for Ezekiel to perform. So he does it. Ezekiel prophesies to the dry bones. Which admittedly seems a little backwards, right? Don’t the bones need ears to hear? And minds to understand? And muscles to do anything? What good is prophesying to bones? Sounds like a fools errand.

But sometimes that’s what we have to do. We have to speak the Word whether or not we think we have an audience because the Word is creative. Sometimes it makes its own audience. We have to anticipate new life rather than going back to the same old places where we’ve found it before. Maybe, just maybe if we speak the Gospel, the whole Gospel of a Jesus who proclaims forgiveness of debts and freedom to captives and care for the lowly and humility to the mighty; maybe the Spirit will connect us to people for whom that resonates. Prophesy to these bones; don’t just react to what’s happening in the world, live in such a way as makes new life possible before it seems like it is. Why would I prophesy to dry bones? Because God might just use that to make them dance! What seems really terrible and also utterly unchangeable in our world? School shootings? War? Families being split up over a parents’ immigration status? Christians should be prophesying to these dry bones of our world, these ways in which some of our neighbors tear apart others, no matter how ineffectual or even backwards that feels to some of us.

So Ezekiel prophesies to the bones, and it happens. They take on sinew and muscle and flesh. Now remember, these bones represent the whole house of Israel. These dried bones, separated and dismembered, represent a community that has fallen apart, Abraham’s children in exile. So when Ezekiel prophesies to the bones and they take on sinew and flesh, this is an image of new life, but new life as renewed connection, new communal bonds. When the Spirit brings new life, it looks like communities joining together. This is what we see in the Pentecost story when the Apostles speak and everyone understands in their own language. And beyond that it looks like Jews holding everything in common with Gentiles in the new reality of the church. There are no borders to protect for God’s chosen people; borders dismember what God wants to join together. (How different would our world be if Christians really taught that?)

So maybe, if we’re looking to participate in the way the Spirit brings new life, we need to be looking for ways to join our neighbors, to let connective tissues grow between us. Last week, we provided space for the PTA at Creekside to put together around 400 meals and we prepared lunches for several students at Ephesus Elementary who all needed lunch on Wednesday when their teachers were at the Capital rallying on behalf of public educators and their students. That wasn’t about proselytizing or getting people to join the church; it was a sign that we want to join in with the good things that are going on in our community; we want to bind ourselves to our neighbors and their struggles and the opportunities to do this are many. There are people all around us struggling and they’re telling us why and how others can help. We can join in and see what new life comes next.

And if we want to be the kind of place that people want to join, we’re going to have to join in first. We can do this as a congregation but as members of this body you are all called to do this, too. What are the places in your life where you already do or could join your neighbors? I know you’re busy but is there something you could join, maybe once a month, once a season? A neighborhood association meeting? A political organization? A class at the senior center? Maybe you could start a monthly breakfast like we do at Bob Evans but for people in your neighborhood or at your job if you’re working? Where can you join with people? I’m looking for those opportunities for Ephesus but we will really start to thrive when we are all doing so. New life for us and our communities comes from those new connections, as we join our neighbors in their loves and their struggles.

Now, when we try this, we can’t be surprised that those struggles are in fact struggles. There is no technology or management strategy that we can use to wrangle new life out of it’s hiding place. After Ezekiel prophesies to the dry bones and they receive new flesh, at first there is no breath in them. Things seem to get worse before they get better. Instead of dry bones, now there’s a valley of corpses piled on top of each other. When communities try to join with each other, sometimes some pretty nasty stuff comes up. When we feed students who are on free and reduced lunch, we have to ask some questions about why there are so many hungry kids in our community. If we wanted to join with workers in their struggle for better working conditions, those of us who have been managers might have to hear some hard things. If we’re going to join with communities that are not Christian, we might have to hear some uncomfortable words from people who have been hurt by the church.

And when that happens (not if but when), we have to remember that the Spirit is the one who brings new life, the Spirit whose fruit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Love of our neighbors, joy even in the face of struggle, peace that follows from justice, patience when things aren’t going how I thought they should, kindness even when it isn’t reciprocated, generosity of spirit and wallet, faithfulness to persist, gentleness rather than aggression, and self-control rather than self-defense. When the Spirit is at work, when we bear those fruits, the sinews that have joined together begin to move and dance. [There are zombie communities that gather together around the opposite principles, many of whom call themselves Christian!] But Ezekiel prophesies to corpses and the Spirit breathes into them and new life arises from the valley of dry bones.

Prophesy, join, cultivate the fruits of the Spirit. This is the pattern for new life. This is what it looks like when dry bones start dancing. That’s what begins at Pentecost. Our world is full of dry bones, a gruesome scene, but that is no reason to lose hope. When the Spirit catches us up, new life is still possible. Israel returned from Exile, Christ rose from the dead, the church has decayed and revived throughout her history, Christians (while often upholding the status quo) have joined in with our neighbors to do our humble part in feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, abolishing slavery, unionizing workplaces, and educating students. We can do so again. We must. There are so many dry bones, in here as well as out there, that need a word of hope, flesh to embrace, and fruit to enjoy. There are dry bones just waiting to dance. Amen.

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