Can These Bones Live?
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
March 29, 2020 Fifth Sunday in Lent
Psalm 130; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11
[You can watch a video recording of this sermon at the end of this text.]
Welcome to the scriptures and sermon for this on-line service of the United Church of Strafford on March 29th, 2020, the Fifth Sunday in Lent. The lectionary readings for this deepest, darkest point in the Lenten wilderness confront us with death. Holy Week begins next Sunday, and by that Friday Jesus will be hanging on the cross. Spiritual wisdom and common sense both say we must face death before we can move beyond it to resurrected life. So today’s Gospel passage from John (Chapter 11) is the story of Lazarus dying and Jesus raising him from the dead. The Epistle reading is from Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:6-11) about how we are dead if all we focus on is our materialistic ego life, but that God will raise us to life and peace if we set our minds on the spirit and let it lead us rather than the ego. The Psalm (130) cries out from the depths and turns to God in trust: “My soul waits for God more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.”
Here is today’s passage from Ezekiel (37:1-14), one of the great visions of the Hebrew scriptures: The hand of God came upon me and brought me out by the spirit and set me down in the middle of a valley that was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of God: 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 God.”
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 he said to me, “Prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, 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 he 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 God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel, and you shall know that I am God. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, your God, have spoken and will act.”
Can These Bones Live?
Ezekiel was a rare combination, both priest and prophet. He was both a leader in the religious and social establishment and a scathing critic of it. Ezekiel looked back over the history of the children of Israel in the Promised Land and saw that they had gone wrong from the start, that they had let materialism and greed, power and wealth be what they served for hundreds of years and not the God of compassion, justice and love that had led them through the wilderness.
Ezekiel prophesied that their ways would lead to disaster, and he saw his prophecy fulfilled when he and the people were carried off in captivity to Babylon, leaving behind a destroyed Promised Land. But Ezekiel did not see this tragedy as causing the death of Israel. It already was a valley of dry bones. Rather, he saw that through their suffering could come redemption, resurrection. He saw that those bones could live if they turned away from their violent greed and selfishness and let the Spirit of God rule their hearts at last.
People are interpreting our situation today in a variety of ways. Adam Gopnik warns in the New Yorker against our tendency to moralize about natural disasters. He says the meaning of today’s pandemic is not about us, it is about a tiny life form that wants only to live. We happen to be what it lives in and on, and surely it does not intend to kill us. Like any species with any sense, it would rather live in symbiotic balance than kill the environment it needs to survive.
Gopnik is opposed to the kind of thinking that led Ezekiel to proclaim that the Babylonians were instruments of God punishing the sins of the Israelites, or that leads preachers to say that the pandemic today is an instrument of God’s wrath.
My position is similar to what I used to say to my poor daughter when I gave her a time out. It is not about punishment, it is about consequences. Yes, I agree with Gopnik that the pandemic is just life seeking to flourish, but the reasons human bodies, economies and societies are falling victim to it are at least to some extent consequences of our own actions.
I do not want to dwell on those actions. The title of this sermon is not “Are These Bones Dead?” but “Can These Bones Live?” So let me say only this, that our bones are dead to the extent that our society has departed from the Spirit of the universe that created us and all creatures on earth.
We know full well what behaviors are in keeping with that Spirt and what rules lead to harmony, fairness and a thriving community. We teach them to our children in preschool and kindergarten, but then we allow and even encourage corporations and governments to live by violence, oppression and greed.
One result of our straying from the sacred way is that we are destroying the earth’s health and the delicate balance of nature on which our lives depend, and pandemics are one of the consequences. Another result is that the relentless pursuit of short-term profits has left our economy lacking sufficient resilience or long-term sustainability, and left our healthcare system and other systems of support underfunded and unprepared.
On the other hand, the Golden Rule, compassion for the vulnerable and the love of neighbor as our self would create exactly the opposite: planetary stability, harmony and balance with nature, social and economic sustainability and sufficiency for all, and the kind of systems of nurture and care that the best of parents create for their children.
“Can these bones live?” Our neighbor, William Sloane Coffin wrote, “Hope is a state of mind independent of the state of the world. If your heart’s full of hope, you can be persistent when you can’t be optimistic. You can keep the faith despite the evidence, knowing that only in so doing has the evidence any chance of changing. So while I’m not optimistic, I’m always very hopeful.” This is an important distinction. I suspect Ezekiel was not optimistic, but very hopeful.
My mother developed a fast-moving, deadly form of cancer when she was my age. Near the end I came into her hospital room and saw my father on his knees beside her. Before I could back out I heard him ask, “How did we do it?” Meaning how did they raise four boys while both working jobs, being involved in the church and community and growing much of their own food. My mother said, “Because we had to.”
Necessity truly is the mother of invention. The hope I have is that humanity will undergo a transition in this wilderness of suffering, that we will emerge from it at a higher developmental level, that we will have the heart and mind of Christ and finally follow and fulfill the wisdom that humanity has preached to itself for at least three thousand years, that we will live in harmony with one another and with the earth and with the creator of the universe whose sacred ways cannot be violated without consequences.
I am not optimistic, but I am very hopeful, not just because we are running out of time and now must by necessity make this change, but also because such a transformation has happened before. Jesus came out of his wilderness transformed and so have many others.
Bishop Desmond Tutu said that it was great suffering that transformed Nelson Mandela—great suffering combined with great love.
The same could be said of Horatio G. Spafford. You may know this story but it is worth recalling right now. In 1873 Spafford and his family were about to travel to England, but at the last minute, business delayed his departure.
He sent his wife and four daughters ahead. A week into their Atlantic crossing, in mid-ocean at dead of night, their ship collided with another and quickly sank. His wife, Anna, was found floating unconscious on a plank of wood, but their four daughters, aged two to eleven, were lost.
As soon as he heard, Spafford left to be with his wife. The captain of his ship called him to his cabin one night to say they were passing over the place where his daughters had died. A feeling welled up in Spafford, a certainty that his daughters were not three miles down in the cold dark. He had a vision of them like lambs in the arms of a good and loving shepherd, and that vision restored his soul. He wrote this hymn before he reached land.
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Horatio and Anna went on to dedicate their lives to a healing ministry in Jerusalem that brought together Christians and Muslims and Jews, in a spirit of oneness and love born out of suffering, like Nelson Mandela, and like Christ.
Our Upper Valley neighbor Russ Keat was in Haiti as a disaster relief worker in the first days after the earthquake ten years ago. Keat was overwhelmed by the devastation when he arrived—a hundred thousand dead, a million homeless. All day the relief workers had seen people dying of dehydration, and they felt helpless to stop it.
Keat was lying outside that night in a valley surrounded by densely settled hills, unable to sleep, thinking over the suffering he had seen, thinking over the next day’s seemingly insurmountable challenges. Gunshots were echoing through the city. Fear and grief and despair filled the night.
At one in the morning, out of a home above him, a voice sang out. It was a song he knew but could not place at first. Then other voices began to sing. Soon a whole neighborhood was singing. And then from the other side of the valley, another neighborhood joined in, and another, and then he recognized the song.
It was Horatio G. Spafford’s hymn,
When peace like a river…
It is well with my soul…
Before long the entire valley was singing, thousands of voices rising into the night, and for four hours they sang like a river of faith, a river of love, a river powerful enough to fulfill the deepest longing, the greatest hope they had, that it would be well, that it truly was well with their souls, on this earth.
Humans have a tremendous capacity for resilience, transforming suffering love into wisdom and well-being. “Can these bones live?” Let us live and work in that hope, and let us pray in silence that it may be so…