Ezekiel 37: 1-14
Can you still remember what you gave up for Lent? We have given up a lot in the past few weeks – handshakes, warm embraces, shopping, haircuts and a cup of coffee with a friend. Worse, things have been taken away from us – Sunday gatherings, security, health, 3 million jobs. In the midst of adapting and worrying and flattening the curve, I have forgotten what I pledged to do for Lent. Yet I feel like I am living Lent more deeply, facing the vulnerability and uncertainty of our human condition. Lent feels unavoidable.
A pastor on a Facebook forum raised the issue if Easter could be moved back a few weeks till we gather again. I’m sympathetic. Virtual Easter will be weird. But something in my head said, “Wait a minute. Easter is not Groundhog Day. Jesus can’t emerge from the tomb, see his shadow and add six more weeks of Lent. Virus or not, Jesus is coming. As one pastor said on Twitter:
“How to faithfully celebrate Easter this year:
Only women on the Zoom call.
Call is scheduled before dawn.
We speak only of impossible things that would topple the empire.”
I am grounded by following the liturgical calendar. It gives deeper meaning to what I am feeling and experiencing. It brings the presence of God to our moment. Apart from my little world, wondering how to manage Palm Sunday and Easter online, God is still speaking. I stop to listen because I am stuck between the world I knew a month ago, and the reality of what will be a month from now.
The story of Ezekiel captures where I am, as he preaches somewhere between despair and hope. Ezekiel’s world was destroyed. After Judah was defeated in battle, he was part of the first cohort taken hostage to live in exile in Assyria. Later he receives news that Jerusalem had fallen, and everything was destroyed. The great Temple of Solomon ruined. A wonder of the ancient world, the holiest place Ezekiel knew, wrecked. This vision of dry bones captures his grief. While Ezekiel is trying to listen and serve God, he does not know what kind of world will emerge after the carnage.
Dry bones were a metaphor that expressed the low point of grief. Imagine taking on a long hike, and coming upon a skeleton. I would be filled with dread. It is not just confronting death. Stray bones, unburied, with no grave marker, means this person died with no one to care for them, no one to honor their death, and their bones lie where they fell. Ezekiel’s sees an entire valley of bones, the remnant of a great battle or plague, where the dead are left untended. It is the death of a community, a culture and a way of life.
We may not reach such a low point of grief in our pandemic, but our heartache is real. We don’t see a valley of bones, but we hear of hospitals overwhelmed and undersupplied, nurses and doctors exhausted, too many people sick and suffering to save them all. We are getting the news of friends and family who are sick, even dying. We are feeling the high cost of denial by powerful people, and we are supposed to stay home to make things better.
I am moved by the conversation between Ezekiel and God. God says, “O mortal, can these bones live?” If God said to me, “Hey mortal, what do you think?” I’m not answering. Sometimes God calls us by name to let us know we are loved and valued. When God offers grace, she says our names. When God says “hey mortal” it is a reminder of our limited and small place in the big wide universe. Ezekiel gets the answer just right. “O God, only you know.”
O God, only you know what happens next for us. Economists say the market was strong before this hit, so we will recover quickly after a stimulus package. It’s like saying, I was really strong before I got cancer, so I know things will be fine. Only God knows. So, the market goes up 10% one day. But then we realize 3 million people just lost their jobs and down it goes. What do we mortals really know?
Sarah and I watched a webinar of thoughtful church leaders like Diana Butler Bass and Jackie Lewis. Frankly, it scared us. They basically said the trend towards churches closing due to financial problems would be accelerated, and we would all have to adapt faster than before. I thought, slow your roll, people. I have at least three more stages of grief to get through before I move to acceptance of a new painful reality. I’m a fighter. I’m hardwired to be with the underdog. I will charge a windmill. I will charge with the light brigade. But right now, I feel so mortal. I don’t know what is next. With Ezekiel, I answer, “Oh God, only you know.”
What God does next shocks me. God commands Ezekiel to prophecy to the bones. In other words, preach it Ezekiel. Preach to them bones! Preach and them bones gonna’ rise again! I’ve heard of St. Francis sermon to the birds. I once preached to a congregation where I wondered if they were dead already. But preaching hope to the bones of the dead is madness. It’s like preaching hope in a graveyard.
That sounds absurd, like something from Camus or a Coen brothers movie. Absurd, except…well, I have done it before. In fact, I’ve done it a lot. I have done a few hundred funerals and burials. Each one has begun, “I am the resurrection and the life, says the Lord.” Life amidst death. Hope even while grieving. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning. How can we dare say such things?
This is why Ezekiel’s vision is so powerful. It addresses my two temptations, denial and despair. I think it is denial to simply say, we shut things down for a few weeks, we defeat the Corona virus and before long things will be back to normal. We will regather choir, worship here together, and life will go on. But my heart says things will change, because this disaster exposes our weaknesses – our inequality of wealth, our inability to provide health care to everyone, our conflicting views of reality, excessive individualism, and so much more. The chickens have come home to roost, the interest is due, and other metaphors that all say, Wake up!
Yet I resist the temptation of despair. God quotes what the people in exile are saying, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is perished, we are completely finished.” But God was not finished speaking yet. God calls for Ezekiel to speak words of hope with only the dead to listen, and God calls on the four winds to come and breathe life into the bones and let them live.
So how do dry bones live, right now? My heart is open to this hopeful word of God. Maybe your heart is too.
I am not despairing, but I’m still grieving. Despair and grief aren’t the same thing. Greif is feeling the loss and sadness. Grieving is part of loving compassion. Greif values life. Despair is giving up and being hopeless. We can grieve and still hope. But it requires a spiritual shift.
I’m trying to shift from “what will happen” to “who will we become.” I have been worried about what will happen to our church, our economy and the people I love? What is the next chapter? But I’m still at “Oh God, only you know.”
Instead of being compulsive about what will happen, I trying to refocus on who we will become. Who will we be through disaster and suffering? Will we be selfish or compassionately serving? Will this bring out our best selves or our worst, will we unite in our common struggle or divide even more? Will we be the Church, now and when it is done?
The history of pandemics isn’t encouraging. As the author Ben Judah pointed out on Twitter, “The Black Death (in the 15th century) led to a terrifying spike in antisemitism and pogroms with Jews being accused of poisoning the wells, having bought down the wrath of heaven.”
More recently, during the flu pandemic of 1918, more than 650,000 Americans died. Yet, as the New York Times columnist David Brooks notes, “When it was over, people didn’t talk about it. There were very few books or plays written about it … Perhaps it’s because people didn’t like who they had become.”
Who will we become now? I hope to be like Ezekiel, and Jesus, and anyone who draws close to God.
I hope we can move from isolation to solitude, finding inward room for God.
I hope we learn to pay less attention to things and more on relationships.
I hope this pandemic teaches us that we are truly woven together in one garment of destiny, and one nation can’t prevail alone.
I hope we learn that justice delayed is justice denied, and we are all paying a price of tolerating injustice.
I hope, and I think we are, becoming more fully the church God intends us to be.
Finally, I hope we also value the heroism of small actions. It takes faith to be persistent in prayer when the distractions are powerful. It takes patience to shelter together amidst demands of family life and work. It takes compassion to reach out to those who are sheltering alone. In all these small actions, we are becoming who God wants us to be.
Friends, God is still speaking, right down to your driest bone, and calling you to new life.