Sermon March 29 2020 – Can These Bones Live? Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you been watching the news? I haven't been watching on TV. Right now my TV is reserved for after-supper mindless entertainment. While I keep my fingers out of my mouth by knitting all the blankets out of all the yarn. And instead, I'm getting all my news online.
It’s a curious thing to realize that it hasn’t been that long since human beings operated only with the knowledge of what they themselves had actually experienced. Only really in the last hundred years or so have images from far away made their way into our newspapers – and even then, at least at first, there was a certain reticence about using images that actually portrayed human suffering and death.
If you look at old images of the Halifax explosion, for example, from the Nova Scotia Archives, they’re ALL images of the extraordinary destruction of homes and buildings. Not of the visceral horror of so many killed. It may have been a delicacy about what was ‘appropriate’ for a newspaper or newsreel – it may have been out of respect for those who had died – but images of people, bodies – only those who were HERE, who were living it as actual experience, ever knew what that actually looked like.
I’m not sure when that changed. I think it may have been when the first images emerged out of concentration camps, after the second War.
Because until then, unless you found yourself actually in the midst of a natural disaster, a battleground, a genocide, you would never have seen with your own eyes what that looked like in human terms. Until the last few hundred years, of course, you might well have not even HEARD about such things happening, if they didn’t happen in your neighbourhood.
But NOW we not only hear about it, almost as soon as it’s happened, but we also see.
And I cannot imagine that our brains have not – in sheer self-defence – figured out a way to mitigate that horror. To shut our emotions down somehow, to keep enough distance from the enormity of all of it to make ordinary living still possible.
Just in terms of evolutionary biology – it hasn’t been that long since our brains even had to DEAL with horrors we weren’t experiencing directly. There’d have to be some kind of panic brain shut-down mode. But then, of course, when something breaks through it, it can be shattering. Much easier to keep that distance, to be able to choose not to deal.
I mention all this because I think it has real importance when we consider the passage from Ezekiel that we just heard.
Because there’s a tendency, when we engage this vision that Ezekiel has – of the valley filled with dry bones – to keep an emotional distance from it. To spiritualize it, to think of it metaphorically, to really not go where it quite frankly wants to take us.
I can't tell you, for example, the number of times I've heard Ezekiel and the Dry Bones get preached symbolically about the church at Presbytery or Conference meetings. Usually followed up by chipper renditions of either Dem Bones Dem Bones Dem DRY Bones. Or that other one -- I knows it, WHEE, These Bones Gonna Rise Again. All meant, of course, to be spiritually encouraging and reassuring and uplifting.
But the thing is… for Ezekiel, those dry bones weren’t symbolic. They weren't metaphorical. Ezekiel had, with his friends and neighbours, been dragged as one of the few survivors left after the Babylonian invasion of Israel, through the rubble of their cities, past the thousands and thousands of corpses left behind, into slavery in Babylon.
So that Valley of Dry Bones – yeah, it’s a vision that he’s shown in this passage, but it’s not stretching his imagination. He has seen, and not that long before this vision happens, what that amount of death looks like up close.
And that's where we’re forced by this reading to go. To the killing fields, to refugee camps, to villages in which every resident has been slaughtered in a genocide, to places in which the ultimate in human violence and inhumane apathy have been allowed free rein. And then to hear, as Ezekiel did when he looked out over the valley of dry bones, that question from God. Can these bones live?
And he doesn’t even really answer God, does he, Ezekiel. It’s very roundabout. Only YOU know, he says to God – and really I don't think it's so much the unlimited faith of a prophet that’s talking. I think it’s that prophet – really – just not wanting to be rude.
Because now that they’re in Babylon, that small remnant of the people of Israel who were dragged in chains from their homes, who watched most of their neighbours get slaughtered, whose Holy City was sacked, whose temple was demolished, whose God – as far as they’re concerned – has utterly abandoned them – now that they’re in Babylon, they’ve seen it all. They’ve seen the full measure of what humanity is capable of, and there is no room anymore for perhaps, or possibly, or maybe. They’re done. They’re empty. Their bones are as dried up as the skeletons of the dead they left behind.
They’re done. Ezekiel standing there, looking out over the valley of dry bones, he’s done. How do you come back from living that experience? How can you believe for a moment that the story isn’t over, that another chapter could be written, that these bones can live?
Ezekiel doesn’t want to be rude – but he’s done. And then God acts. In two ways. First, by commanding Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, and second, by summoning the four winds to blow into the bones with the breath of life. Awesome image. Can these bones live? Oh yes they can. With God, all things are possible.
But before we slip so easily, as we so often do, into the symbolic, into the metaphorical – like, is there still hope, do we have a future, can these bones live? – and by the way the answer to all those questions is an emphatic YES –
But before we take the easy route and slip into the symbolic, into the metaphorical, into this awesome image of God restoring life to what’s so dead it’s dry as bone, we really need to stay instead with Ezekiel. We need to stay in the midst of real bones. Real people.
Not only because it's "more faithful to the meaning of the biblical story", but also because it's the WHY of the biblical story in the first place. To push us past that comfortable emotional distance into that visceral experience of "these are real people".
Not fun. But intensely and necessarily human. I've told the story a bazillion times about hearing the news of a mass flooding in Mozambique. Horrifying. And there I was, keeping my emotional distance from it all, when the news emerged that a woman had crawled for safety up into a mango tree – and she gave birth up there.
I could barely give birth in the glorious comfort of the IWK without losing my tiny mind. And this woman gave birth alone, in a tree, during a flood. Oh, I felt that in my bones. I can tell you.
It isn't fun. But it's important. It's necessary. There are people in the world right now – we know this, it's always true -- for whom ‘can these bones live’ is a real question.
And the fact that the answer is yes – that’s a powerful thing when it’s a real answer, and not symbolic, and not metaphorical.
So prophesy to the bones, God commands Ezekiel. Find within yourself, as devastated and empty as you are, all the anger and despair you’ve been carrying around – and use it to wake these bones up. Prophesy to the bones. Put their pieces back together. Remind them that they’re NOT shattered – that they’re human beings, that they were created in the image of God, that they deserve the dignity of life.
And Ezekiel does. And it works. And why? Maybe because the most authentic, the most powerful voice that reclaims a place after genocide, that inspires rebuilding after disaster, is the voice that comes from within the devastated community itself. And maybe ultimately, the restoration of a people, of a community, is up to the people themselves. Which can be hard for us to accept, or wait around for, if we think we could be much more efficient – and it can be equally hard for the community itself to find the capacity for.
The people of Israel languished in Babylon for YEARS before Ezekiel roused them to rebuild, and more years before they actually started putting the pieces back together. But ultimately it was up to them to do it. And if scholars usually talk about a generation to rebuild, to get back on track, as the Irish did here after escaping the potato famine, or the Jewish community did after the second war, that’s an estimate that doesn’t take into account the legacy of hundreds of years prior of living in poverty, or enslaved, or in political turmoil, or held down by oppression, or segregated from society as a whole.
It takes time. But what we see in this passage is that the most powerful voice, the one that God chooses to use, to prophesy to the dead bones is never going to be an outside voice. God didn’t SEND Ezekiel to Babylon from somewhere else to prophesy to the remnant people of Israel – Ezekiel was already there, living in the midst of it with them. The most powerful voice comes from within, from the community itself.
So what role do we have, then, in this strange new world in which we have not only our own experiences, but also awareness of how things really are on the ground elsewhere?
Because the notion of being AWARE of something like this happening without being directly involved in it, to Ezekiel would have been inconceivable. So what's our role? Because frankly it’s just about AS inconceivable that we can be expected to have to KNOW about these things without being able in any real way to respond.
But I think there IS a real way. Quite apart from recognizing and supporting those voices from within that arise, and letting communities themselves find their best seeds for rebirth instead of imposing without understanding our own concepts of what we think will work – there’s a real way that in fact is actually – hugely different context notwithstanding – found right back in the Bible story.
Because in the end, what is it that makes the bones live? The voice from within, the voice of Ezekiel who prophesies to the bones and puts the shattered pieces back together, yes. But then one more thing. The Spirit of God. The breath of life. The breath of God’s spirit that blows into them.
But NOT just through God, or God’s Spirit, as the one bearer of the breath of life. Which in a way is strange, because it’s not the usual language we hear in the bible about how the Spirit of God blows with the breath of life into people.
Because in this passage, instead of looking after things all on God’s own, God calls on the four winds, the winds from the four directions, from all corners of the earth, as it were, to blow the breath of life back into the bones. And only THEN do they live.
So we may feel, when we look at the news – we may feel overwhelmed, we may distance ourselves emotionally because we just can’t process that amount of suffering, we may find ourselves thinking there’s nothing we can possibly do and it would be better not to know.
But who are we, in the faraway lands, if not the four corners of the earth: the bearers of God’s spirit called from every direction to breathe into the dry bones the breath of life that can make the difference. And I’m not being facile.
Because when we become aware, then we’re witnesses. When we’re witnesses, we can’t pretend we don’t know. When we can’t pretend we don’t know, we have to incorporate that knowledge into our worldview. And when we incorporate that knowledge into our worldview, it’s going to shape who we are, how we act, what we do. It's going to change who we are, how we act, what we do. It has to, if it's honest.
And seriously? I hope it does. We're learning who actually keeps the pieces of our society together – from grocery store clerks to cleaners to bus drivers, quite apart from health care providers. We're learning how many of our neighbours are disabled, immuno-compromised, food-insecure, financially precarious. We're learning to make choices not only based on their impact on ourselves but based on a CHAIN of impacts on other people.
We're learning how to deal with being BORED. We're learning how to ask for quiet or aloneness in our own homes. We're learning how to make routines for ourselves so that each day has enough movement that we don't spiral downward – but also so we can let ourselves feel grief and sadness and loneliness when we need to, protected by our routines from that spiraling downward.
We're being changed. Not just here but in the four corners of the earth and BY the four corners of the earth. This whole thing is weirdly intimate and local – and global at the same time. A bit like the Holy Spirit really. Thanks be to God who carries us this day and always. Amen.