Can These Bones Live?
by Louise Westfall
The reading today from the book of the prophet Ezekiel, in the 37th chapter, is an ancient and fantastical story. Rather than read it, I want to share it in the way it may have been told around campfires for a hundred years, passed from generation to generation. Listen for God’s word:
The hand of the Lord came upon me and brought me to a valley, full of bones. There were many bones lying in the valley, and they were very dry. God said to me “Mortal can these bones live?”
I answered, “Only you know, O Lord God.” Then God said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live. 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.”
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. 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.
Then God 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 that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
Then God 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.” Therefore prophesy and say to them: Thus says the Lord God, I am going to open your graves, O my people…I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live. I the Lord have spoken and will act. This is the story of God’s people for God’s people. Thanks be to God!
And God is the God of life, who created the world and all that is in it, and continually calls us to notice the Divine breath animating every single one of us.
Can these bones live?
Another week in the shadow of COVID-19. More diagnoses. More deaths. Strict orders for staying at home. Liquor stores added to the list of “essential businesses.” 3.3 million new unemployment claims nationwide, nearly 20,000 in Colorado. An unprecedented 2-trillion dollar economic stimulus package to flatten the curve toward financial disaster. One dad posted that he’d threatened to ground his unruly child, who sassed right back “But aren’t we grounded already?”
Well, yes. Which is why this text — weird and wacky though it seems — can speak a word to us. Ezekiel told this story at a terribly painful time in Israel’s history. Once prosperous and strong, they had been conquered and virtually destroyed by their enemies. Jerusalem –“the holy city” — was in shambles. It would be generations before the exiled people were allowed to return and begin to build their nation again. But it was precisely at this time that God spoke through the prophet to remind them of what they could count on to help them hold on to faith in a perilous, exhausting and discouraging time.
Friends, now we are walking in the valley of dry bones…we are seeing dreams — both immediate and longer-term — shriveling up before us; we’re doing the best we can to practice social distancing, and it’s hard not to feel disconnected from one another. There’s a sense that this “new normal” is going to go on and on, a dusty, chalk-dry moment that can’t be quenched by any amount of alcohol or made easier by cheerful platitudes and predictions of overflowing churches by Easter.
Can these bones live? Only God knows. But God does know. And God is the God of life, who created the world and all that is in it, and continually calls us to notice the Divine breath animating every single one of us. In some ways the entire Biblical story is a call to breathe, to choose life again and again and again — in contrast to the death-dealing forces that inhabit us as well: infectious viruses, yes, but also selfishness and greed and fear. To us, God says “I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live.” The breath is the very spirit of God, the life-giving breath God breathed into the first — and every — human.
Take a deep breath as we return to the valley of dry bones. The vision proclaimed by Ezekiel is both individual and communal. It is intended to spark our imagination: to wonder where God is at work bringing bone to bone and joint to joint, fleshing out skeletal hopes, and re-animating the dead.
My mind goes immediately to the burgeoning of spring all around us: the sunshine that falls like a great blessing on my tired body; the bright purple crocuses and laughing daffodils. I see the hand of God at work in the turning of the seasons even though this is the most natural thing in the world.
Take a closer look to see the spirit exercised through women and men continuing to serve others; those who risk their own health to care for the sick, deliver babies, comfort the dying. I’m grateful for the good advice and counsel I’ve received from some of Central’s docs and health personnel, essential for saving lives. I am grateful for grocery store workers and people who keep delivering the mail and the newspaper. With our building closed for the most part, we are going to be able to complete needed repairs on the Steeple from storm damage — I’m grateful for our contractor and workers still on the job, and expedited permission to close Sherman for the three days of crane work. I’ve been inspired to hear what you are doing while staying in — starting with the sense of purpose you express in doing what’s right to contain the viral spread. Others have focused on the opportunity to remember priorities. One of you called it “a giant pause” in the breakneck speed of normal life;” she called it “a re-set button for my soul.” Others have focused on reconnecting with family together, and by phone with others. Fact is, the majority of people are trying to think beyond their own self-interest towards the common good; to get through this together.
This week saw a powerful example of reanimated bones in the abolishment of Colorado’s death penalty. The interfaith community, including the Presbyterian Church USA have long advocated for this change as a matter of justice (particularly in the inequality of its application, often based on race and socio-economic status) AND in our theological conviction of God’s redemption, forgiveness and grace available to all people. In a particular way, this good news served additionally as a reminder that change takes time; may God grant us perseverance and resolve to keep working for justice, making peace, and loving people we regard as enemies.
Look even more deeply into the valley of dry bones to see the outline of a cross. Friends, we remember that we are not the first to find ourselves in this frightening place. We confess a crucified God, One who did not flinch from engaging the full measure of humanity, including death. That cross is empty: as if to stare death straight in the eye until death looks away, its fearsome finality broken once and for all. Life is the goal for all God’s beloved—not simply heaven, but abundant, authentic life here and now. If the scenery around us is full of dry bones, we can look at them as contingent, impermanent. These bones are gonna rise again.
So let us walk together even through this dry, unpromising time. Let us be in our separate places not fearing the eventualities and disappointments and potential harms of the corona virus and covid-19, but holding on to the truth of life. Can these bones lives? Oh, my Lord, yes. Most definitely yes!
Thanks be to God.