These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire, Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
This is one of those passages that has made it into our memories and is even known by the most biblically illiterate among us. In large part we can thank our songs (… "Dem Bones, Dem bones, dem dry bones… O hear the word of the Lord." The choir wanted to sing that song…
And yet behind the fun and the humor of the song are the fairly disturbing images of the text. The prophet Ezekiel, a temple priest during the time when the Babylonians had basically wiped out Israel… a devastating defeat… forcing them to become refugees and resettle in what is modern day Iraq… Ezekiel is led in a vision to a valley – not of the shadow of death but of death itself… and if you really use your head to imagine this valley… it is not a pretty picture:
"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… "
A valley… full of bones. Can you see them? My mind thinks of other places of death where bodies and bones lie lifeless. I think of Omaha beach, pictured in movies like Saving Private Ryan… where after the landing the beach is covered with bodies and blood… lying lifeless… I think of visiting the Holocaust museum in Washington seeing bone upon bone of God’s Jewish people stacked like cords of wood in open graves… Dry bones… not an ounce of flesh. My mind flashes forward to Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge killing 25 percent of the population… or more recently to Rwanda… I saw a memorial where skull upon skull was stacked of those who had died in the brutal violence between Hutu and Tutsi-over 500,000 killed. 500,000!
That can fill any valley with dry bones as far as the eye can see. Dry, lifeless bones.
Sometimes there are bones you can’t see of course.
Places of deep despair where death seems to lurk. Look deep within the valley of many a soul and you’ll see some skeletons hanging out there. Anyone over the age of 12 knows what I’m talking about. You’ve looked inside where you can hide from everyone but God and seen that place of death:
You know what I’m talking about:
The day of the diagnosis;
The day you lost the job;
The day you realized your marriage was on the rocks
The day the love of your life was snatched from you too soon;
The day your friend died in an accident;
Or Eve Carson is murdered;
The day you realized that your alcohol or drug abuse was killing your relationships and destroying you…
The day you lost faith in somebody you trusted who disappointed you big
The day you lost faith in yourself because of a sin you committed you cannot bear…
The day the newspaper headlines and the cable news finally got to you;
The afternoon, you got the email or call telling you your dear child, the dearest child in the universe was being sent to Iraq…
The morning you wake up and you don’t want to leave your bed because you are so depressed that nothing seems to matter anymore…
The day you wondered if there really was a God? (1)
Do you know what I’m talking about? Have you ever looked deep within the valley of your soul and seen those dry bones lying lifeless in the arid heat… Tell me I’m not alone brothers and sisters. If you’ve seen those bones… then you have seen what Ezekiel saw.
And then maybe you’ve heard the Lord ask you a question… and if not the Lord, maybe you asked it: : "Mortal… (Jody… Stephanie… Cathy, Sylvia, Julie, Bob)… can these bones live?"
Now Ezekiel says, "O Lord God, you know." Which sounds like an evasion of the question to me. To be honest, do you want to know what I’d been tempted to say to our Lord? "Lord, I don’t see any way that these dry bones can ever live again. Look at them… not even a shred of flesh on them… it’s over Lord. They are dead, gone, dust. Let’s grieve and move on."
That’s the kind of answer I often hear in times of despair when there seems to be no future.
Sometimes I hear it expressed through a cynicism that decides it is time to give up. It’s time to give up on our marriage… our children… it’s time to give up on the church… the denomination… it’s time to give up on our leaders… shoot, those bones will never live… never…
Sometimes I feel that way. But not Ezekiel. Because I look again at what he says and I don’t think he is evading the answer at all. He is in effect saying, I don’t know… but Lord, you do. You know… I don’t know about the future, but I have faith in you Lord… maybe… just maybe… God is not finished… I know it looks like it is over… the fat lady has sung… but God is not finished.
And with that, Ezekiel is about to learn something about the character and power of God. God has the power to resurrect us from the dead. Not rescue us from death but resurrect us from the dead. And there is a difference.
Barbara Brown Taylor taught me the difference. She said: "It’s not Easter yet, but it won’t be long now. The only problem is that we have to walk through a graveyard to get there. Those who do not have the stomach for it will stay home from Palm Sunday through Good Friday, showing up just in time for the trumpets on Easter morning…. "
She’s right of course. We are trying to avoid death at all costs… I know I am. Death really does seem like the enemy with the power to destroy us. No wonder we want to avoid it and we ask God to help us avoid it.
Barbara Brown Taylor understands this when she says: "Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief, because I still do not want to die. I believe Jesus has the power to raise the dead, only I do not want him practicing on me. I want a God who will cut my losses and cushion my failures, a God who will grant me a life free from pain. I want a God who will rescue me from death, who will delete it from the human experience and find another way to operate. What I, what all of us, have instead is a God who resurrects us from the dead, putting an end to it by working through it instead of around it-creating life in the midst of grief, creating love in the midst of loss, creating faith in the midst despair-resurrecting us from our big and little deaths, showing us by his own example that the only road to Easter morning is smack through Good Friday." (2)
That’s the God of Jesus and the God of Ezekiel. The God that helps us find hope and envision a new day when God will bring life out of death. Death is not the end with God and it is not the end of us. This is a hopeful vision that Ezekiel would share with people who thought God had long left them for dead.
In fact those who thought God had left them for dead were wrong. Israel did go home. The temple was rebuilt. That superpower Babylon, who looked like they would rule the world forever… fell within 50 years. God’s vision and hope of a new day would feed their souls and bring them back to life.
God is still working like that you know. You and I see it now and then.
Even in places like Rwanda. I was watching the news recently and discovered that Rwanda… where genocide reigned just 13 years ago… is now a bright spot of hope in that dark continent where violence erupts in places like Darfur and Kenya. In Rwanda a National Reconciliation and Unity commission has led them to a new day. Using the tools of confession and forgiveness (gifts that come to us from God)… even the most hated enemies have become friends.
I read the story of Xavier and Cecile who are friends who talk every day, pray at the same church and send their children to the same school… 13 years ago they were bitter enemies. Xavier had killed members of Cecile’s family… But through a difficult journey involving the painful process of confession and forgiveness, justice and mercy-a new life has been built into their relationship and new life now breathes hope into that country. Them bones, them bones, them, dead, dry lifeless bones have new life again.
It’s a story that gives me hope. Hope that God is seeking to breathe new life in death-filled places in the world and in our lives. We all will die, that is true. Many times in a lifetime we can die as we face many forms of death. But with God’s help, we can all live again. God is just that powerful.
One more story… a story about a friend of Barbara Brown Taylor-Matilda. Matilda died several years ago with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which means that she gradually lost control of all her muscles. Her face went first, then her vocal chords, her legs. For the last year of her life she communicated by writing on a slate, one of those erasable things kids play with. Sometimes she would get so excited that she would write and erase faster than anyone could read. Matilda found a lot to be excited about. Watercolors, for instance. When she could not talk anymore, she taught herself how to paint, until her kitchen walls were papered with flowers… When you went to visit Matilda, you painted. That was one of the rules. It did not matter if you had no ability… Matilda stuck a paintbrush in your hand, shoved a plastic egg container full of colors in front of you, and you painted. The best part was afterwards when she admired your work, sticking her thumb in the air and rewarding you with her loose, drooling grin." Barbara says, "It was all I could do to watch her die. I wanted someone to walk into her room with a pill or a prayer that would cure her illness or at least halt its progress, but even if that had happened-even if Jesus himself and cured her-she would have to eventually die anyway. It would have been a rescue from death instead of a triumph over it, resuscitation instead of a resurrection.
Something bigger than that was going on with Matilda. Every time she lost something she could not live without, she found that she could… and something came in to fill the void… a fresh series of paintings, a new friend, a deeper sense of the presence of God. … her resurrection began before she died and everyone around her saw it. When she set her cup down it was empty. Nothing was wasted, nothing leftover to spill or lament. She died clean as a whistle, and several of the people who sat by her bed that day say their fear of death died with her. Having watched her do it, they believed they can do it too." (3)
When you face your death… on this side of the grave or on the other… when you face your death as we all must, may God give you the vision Matilda was given to face her death… the same vision God gave Ezekiel so he and we could know — really know… that our God can breathe life, even into lifeless souls and God can give anyone hope for a new day that no one else can see. That when all seems lost, God is not finished… not at all. Amen.
(1) This litany was adapted from one by Michael Lindvall in a sermon at Brick PC in New York in 2005.
(2) Christian Century; March 13, 1996