Can These Bones Live Again?
Ezekiel 37: 1-14
Mary Kendrick Moore
Arlington Congregational Church
May 23, 2021
On the church calendar this day, we celebrate Pentecost - the celebration of the pouring out of the spirit of God on the church, for what has become known as the birthday of the early Christian church. The story of the New Testament church in the book of Acts where God poured out his Holy spirit was a small band of the earliest believers in Jesus. A head count of about 120! That Pentecost day fell during the festival of thanksgiving for the grain harvest – it was a day for recalling the powerful gracious, life-giving presence of God. Then following this pinnacle day, we enter the days of church life that have long been called Ordinary Time. And now, here we sit at a time when we are hoping beyond hope for some ordinary time. Usually, right now we are headed into summer when things get more relaxed. Now we are hoping that our lives crank back up enough to be ordinary again.
Pentecost is about how we allow in, how we embrace, the mystery and magnitude of our faith, sometimes in the midst of the most unusual circumstances. It was about a room full of people and how they understood each other, how they adapted to the unexpected, and how they lived out community in their diversity. Pentecost is about how we take the mystery of our faith and let it breathe life within us. The story of Pentecost, as well as many other stories about the Spirit of God are filled with vivid imagery – of winds, of breath, of fire, even, of bones.
The passage read today tells a story from a most un-ordinary day in the life of the prophet Ezekiel, where he sees an expanse of dry bones in the desert. The story seems unimaginable, but we must remember, this was a vision - like a dream or a daydream, and it’s a fascinating one. Our inner spirits have the most incredible and unique way of surfacing our needs and hopes and of bringing meaning to our life experience.
As this story unfolds, Ezekiel is deeply involved in the problems facing his generation and culture. During his ministry he goes from one extreme to the other – he predicts impending doom and later his message turns to hope for the nation of Israel. He probably mirrors all of our sentiments when we look at things like damage to our environment or the escalation of violence in our country. Our feelings can range from a sense that something tragic is looming all the way to hope that solutions will be found.
In this vision, as Ezekiel was carried by the spirit of the Lord into a valley, full of countless, dry bones, and God said to Ezekiel, "Can these bones live again?" Bones meant something different in the ancient world than they do for us today. For them, "If the bones are strong and firm, then the soul is strong; it manifests itself just as well in them as in the heart." (Pedersen) So God likens the image of the dry bones scattered about the valley to a people in search of their lost soul.
For this story to have life for us today, we must envision our own valley of dry bones. We have all looked out over a valley of dry bones at one time or another. Coming home to a house that is filled with the dry dust of loneliness. Going to work amidst the crackling dry tension of economic meltdown – those desert times of our faith when we long to pray and can't find the words. When our body, mind and soul are disconnected from each, it’s as if they are laying strewn across a valley. When pieces of our lives feel scattered out around us, each part of our existence longs to feel alive and whole.
In the vision, God's told Ezekiel was to say "Bones, hear the word of the Lord." And God promises to put breath in the bones and they will live. There seem to be two important lessons here. First, face those dry bones and walk round about them, and then speak the word of the Lord which is hope. This means:
looking at the dry bones - those lifeless places in our lives where nourishment is lacking, where bitterness has unpacked its baggage and moved in, where forgiveness is an absent partner, where our creative spirit is squelched, where hope is silent.
looking at the dry bones – homes filled with kids who are filling their emptiness with violence and drugs
looking at the dry bones – the part of our earth where wildlife can no longer survive
We must walk around the bones – feel the pain, listen to their story, understand what they mean. And then when we have gone round about the bones, the question is called - Can these bones live again? It’s that moment when we say yes or no or I’m not sure. That’s hope in process.
Ezekiel proclaimed the words: "Bones, hear the word of the Lord!" And upon his words, the bones kicked up a rattling, rustling fuss and astonishingly began to fit themselves together, bone to bone to bone – Them bones, them bones, them dry bones. Hear the word of the Lord.
Tendons appeared around the bones that provide the chief support and solid resilience. And then the bones were clothed with flesh, the soft muscular body parts that offer strength and form. Then skin appeared, the external layer of protection.
They put on new skin. A new outer layer, covering up the inner layers. We have been through some dry bones kind of times this past year – our normal lives have been scattered here and there laying separated from their normal strength, their normal connections. Churches were already struggling with what it means to feel relevant in this modern day. And when the pandemic hit, the church buildings felt like a dry hollow skeleton, torn from it flesh and blood. But we all put on some new skin. Some churches gave out food in drive bys; you have dropped off donation items at doors; churches brought cameras in to live stream services – we put on some new skin. This church is welcoming a non-profit organization, Family Promise, into these walls. That’s putting on some new skin.
We learned anew that the church is not the building. But even after the bones rattle and after the tendons and new skin take shape, there is still something more for there was no breath. With no breath, the vision is still only of a helpless army of lifeless bodies. And then Ezekiel followed God’s urging, crying out, “come from the four wins O breath, and breathe that these may live!” Just like God said to the early Christian church, "I will put my spirit upon you and you will come to life." Just like says to Arlington Congregational Church, "I will put my spirit upon you and you will come to life." This Pentecost day, yes, it celebrates the birth of the church, but more than that it celebrates that the breath of God’s Spirit comes to us always to bring us life and hope and resilience.
This story about dry bones came in the midst of a people on a journey. Early in their story, it seemed they would make it to their promised land. But by the time of this story, it is crystal clear that the people of God are a truly human bunch who spend a fair amount of their time wandering around - a circle of turnings and returnings. The good news is that this journey is our home. Our meandering - our comings and goings - is perhaps the only permanent address we have.
The story of the dry bones coming to life with breath is about waiting expectantly for the movement of the spirit, like the wind we can't see. Waiting hopefully for the resurrection of life bursting forth from whatever darkness has held it. It is a story that invites us, while traveling on our paths, to do it with a heart, fully alive, so the living of our days on this earth will resonate with our innermost being. God’s call to us is to get our bones a rattling.
Dr. Gloria Wilder is a pediatrician who for many years has been providing healthcare in Washington DC’s poorest neighborhoods. She drives a bright blue van through the urban war zone that is DC’s southeast side, with its high rates of crime, teenage pregnancy, and infant mortality. Violence has sometimes broken up her medical sessions. A drug-addicted mother once pulled a knife on her, she’s witnessed murder, but she walks into public housing without security, armed only with a stethoscope and sometimes a baby scale. Asked if she was afraid, she said no, inner-city poverty and desperation had been her life.
Raised poor in the slums of Brooklyn, NY, she was a patient in this city’s free clinics which inspired her early in life, to pursue a career in healthcare. Though some of the doctors and nurses were kind, she felt the whole system was designed to humiliate people like her and her mom, who couldn’t afford to pay for treatment. It was in church when she first heard a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King who said “of all forms of injustice, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane.” It was as if a fire began to burn within her and her calling was born.
One of the most powerful lessons Gloria ever learned was the day her mother gave her 100 pennies, which was all they had and sent to the local grocery store for some bread. She was embarrassed at the thought that some kids might see her hundred pennies and realize how poor she was. Her embarrassment turned to shock when the store owner whisked the pennies off the counter. He called out to one of the stock boys telling him to fill a big bag full of groceries, including a few precious peaches for her and her mom.
As she started to leave the store the owner said “Gloria, wait up a minute, you forgot your change” and he gave her back a quarter. And then he said to her, “Keep the faith, child. Keep the faith.” Today, Dr. Gloria is saving countless lives and bringing hope to a new generation of kids trying to break out of poverty.
Sometimes God shows up in the strangest ways but at just the right time. That's the lesson of Pentecost. God's gift to us on that Pentecost day so long ago was the promise that God's Spirit is with us always, often acting with and through each of us. It's in the kindness of a store owner placing groceries and a quarter in the hands of a child. It's in the courage of a doctor who braves danger to serve her community. It's in each of us when we do what we can to make the world more just and generous. (Convergence.org)
In the Pentecost story in Acts, Peter quotes the prophet Joel with that powerful reminder that, “God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” Pentecost is the time to dream. A time to think about what the church, and our lives, will look like with some new skin, some new life breathed into our bones. We worship a God who created light out of darkness. We worship a God who brings life from the tomb. We worship a God who rattles dry bones and breathes life into them.
Yet here’s the curious thing. Even though we confess God’s power to create and redeem in our preaching, hymns, and worship each and every week, we can still be hesitant to dream, to cast our vision out upon the world. Maybe we are afraid of failure or afraid of finding out our assumptions aren’t always true. Maybe we are tired; maybe we want someone else to do it. What if I dream and I am disappointed? What if dreaming will create division? What if my dream doesn’t match your dream? Remember where it says in I Corinthians, “one body, many parts?” The same is true for dreams – many dreams, one Spirit of God.
Some active dreaming is what invites the Spirit to help us see possibilities we hadn’t seen before. I love this quote from David Lose, a pastor and writer for workingpreacher.org: “. . . one of the dreams I harbor is that our congregations’ imaginations will be set loose so that we will be able to see beyond the rather oppressive “this is the way it is” to sense and see God’s pouring out of the Spirit onto “all flesh,” including even ours.” What if we trust that the blowing, burning, breathing, life-giving power of the Spirit is present among us, swirling around us, and stirring up a new thing in our midst?
On Pentecost, “may you find your heart singing with the Spirit of God, your ears humming with the voice of the Spirit speaking in a language that reaches deep into your soul and wisdom dawning on your mind so that the shackles that have hardened around your mind may be broken, and God's voice and language set free.” (Suriano) May we come anticipate the coming of God’s Spirit and expect the amazing, the unexpectable, anticipate it with joy and hope, give in to it with love, so that when this day is done our world may a bit more of the love of God.
Pederson, Israel, It's Life and Culture, I-II, p. 172.
Achtemeier, The Old Testament Roots of Our Faith
Johnson, The Meaning of Christ
Mark Suriano, Weekly Sermon Seeds,United Church of Christ