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Ezekiel 37:1-14 CEB
It is the 6th century BCE, almost 600 years before Jesus, and Israel is facing perhaps it’s greatest crisis since the Exodus. They have been conquered by the Babylonians and exiled to Babylon. And, as if that weren’t enough, their temple in Jerusalem has been leveled to the ground. Maybe that seems bad enough to you, but I assure you it’s worse. Ezekiel’s vision is a valley full of bones because that’s what the Israelites to whom he is speaking feel like…a pile of bones. They are not only exiled, trapped away from home and perhaps even family, they are separated from God. See, God, to them, lives in that temple. The one now in ruins. They had a really big chair in the temple’s center courtyard for God, that’s how much they thought that God livedthere. And now they are trapped, far away, separated from God. It is a crisis of faith, a shock to the system, it’s the loss of stability and balance with no reasonable idea when the crisis will be over.
That’s what the world felt like for the Israelites exiled in Babylon. And maybe you can identify a little. Right now, in some ways, we are in a similar place, desperately trying to process exactly how we wound up in a world we don’t recognize, whatever illusions of control we had shattered. We’re likely worn out, dried up, tired, even hopeless, like a valley full of dry bones. We are anxious about what is to come and grieving what we’ve already lost as we wonder when this will end. I am grieving my son’s senior year and the likelihood that he won’t have a graduation ceremony, or at least nothing like his mother and I had imagined for him. There are weddings coming up that will have to be cancelled or rescheduled, and there will be funerals. There are already. A colleague of mine gathered a few days ago with just four other people to light candles and remember a loved one’s death…no one could even hug. It was heartbreaking.
And then there’s Easter. It’s only three weeks away, and we won’t be meeting face-to-face for that. I trust we all know that by now, though when I say it out loud my soul hurts. It’s another in a long line of things that we’re losing, and must grieve, as we continue to live into a new normal together…even as we’re not together.
It is a time when we need our faith, not the fragile faith that offers only concrete platitudes, or the judgmental faith that is always litmus testing us for how much we believe, but instead the resilient faith that hurts alongside us, the faith that can be comfortable without control, the faith that knows God can be found in the darkness, too. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once described faith as, “like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m in the “struggle, tense up and thrash about” phase right now. I need some reminders of my faith. I need some spirit in my dry bones.
But it’s another Sunday away from this sanctuary. We don’t get to see each other’s faces, at least not all at once, and we don’t get those hugs or smiles…whatever snack time might come after the benediction you’ll have to provide on your own. And though we’re making good electronic effort, it certainly feels like we’re separated from each other. It might even feel like we’re separated from God. After all, this is the place where we likely evoke God’s name most often. This is the place where we have our theology, our “God-talk.” This is the place where we worship, where we experience the love of God manifest in one another, in those hugs and handshakes and smiles, in our voices singing together. And, like the citizens of Jerusalem in exile, we might now feel cut off, adrift, directionless, maybe even a little hopeless?
So, it’s time for some prophesying, which does not mean that I’m now going to ask you to send in $100 for your monogrammed prayer handkerchief because the world is about to end. That word that gets translated as prophesying is, in Hebrew, something more like telling the truth. Telling God’s truth. And telling it out loud, which is what Ezekiel does. These dry bones aren’t the end of the story, they can have life again. But to help give them flesh we have to first have vision for something new, for possibility, then we have to call upon and trust in the Spirit of God, the life-giving animating breath of God, and then we have to let loose the truth in our hearts so our vision, with God’s Spirit, becomes reality.
There is no doubt that the physical crisis we face is real, and that it will become more real with each passing day. It is changing who we are and how we live. It is changing us psychologically, ideologically, even physiologically, maybe even theologically.
The truth that we need each other has long been a theological claim, and now it is time for that to go out in the public, even as we don’t. We need each other, and the theological claim we often make here at Fellowship – that God is a God of Love and that we are the children of that God, all made in God’s image – THAT claim ought to be heard loudly and clearly, shaping who we are and how we live. Seems like that would be a prophetic word to some these days.
I mean, maybe this just be a blip, a mere inconvenience for most on the road back to work. Maybe it’s just a few weeks of Netflix and then all is restored. But do we just want things restored? This crisis is exposing weaknesses in our healthcare system, giant gaps in coverage, our economy, our most basic structures, flaws we knew were there in our heads, but which many of us now feel in our bones. What if, instead of simply returning back to what was, this is actually the start of a whole different kind of living, a revolution of values, an indwelling of the kin-dom of God?
A great theological liberation came to the Israelites in Ezekiel’s time, for during their crisis of faith, new life was breathed into their dry theological bones – bones that limited God to a building in Jerusalem, and they could now see that they were not exiled from God, for God is everywhere. Not only was another Exodus possible with God, but ALL THINGS were possible with God. Not only was God their God, but God was God for everyone in the world. It was a revelation that reshaped their faith. What revelations await us as we reimagine what God is up to, what is possible for the Holy?
Ezekiel’s vision is not one that is trapped in some distant past, but one that speaks in the face of all places of spiritual and emotional exile and death, including the one in which we are currently living. Now, in our valley of dry bones, at our time of existential and real struggle, we can see the Spirit of God moving among us, breathing new life into stale places. Where do you see that happening? I see it in the work of teachers, who stay-at-home conscripted parents turned teachers now realize are dramatically underpaid. They are already reassembling their classrooms into virtual space, learning to teach a whole new way so they can do their calling. I see it in the actions of people reaching out from behind computer screens and cell phones to check on the vulnerable, to provide entertainment, to resource hope. I see it in the arms of the grocery store stocker, the one who doesn’t even earn a living wage, but who loads and unloads so that we can sometimes feed our fears as much as our bellies. I see it in the heroic actions of medical professionals of all kinds, going faithfully to work, sometimes in very difficult situations, maybe even without the gear they need to protect themselves.
The lesson of the dry bones is not that God will save us. It isn’t even “Don’t worry” because God’s whole schtick is resurrection, though that is true. The lesson is that life happens, that change and chaos is actually the norm, and our task is to learn to see it, to work with it, and to have the uncomfortable courage that it takes to move through the new stuff, that newness that is frustrating and painful, so we can grow, so we can learn, so we can condition the muscles we need to love our neighbors (and our enemies) as ourselves in an ever-changing world.
How we form community at a distance is how we bring life to dry bones.
How we decide to live from this moment on, deeply reminded of how interconnected we all are, is how we bring life to dry bones.
How we seek the action of God among us, how we tell the story of the darkness and despair among us, and then invite the Spirit to breathe new life, living the vision in our hearts out into the world…that is how we bring life to dry bones.
May God’s Grace and Peace be with us all. Amen.