Them Bones, This Breath
November 8, 2015
We know what dry bones feel like…don’t we?
- Dry bones is having worked for many, many years at something – a job, a marriage, a dream – and watching it crumble.
- Dry bones is one illness or injury on top of another, laying you low for so long that you’re not sure you have the energy, or even the motivation, to try to get up.
- Dry bones is trying so hard to keep a loved one healthy or sober or employed, and finally having to admit that there’s nothing more you can do.
- Dry bones is listening to the news about violence and natural disasters and terrible epidemics, and feeling helpless in the face of their relentless power.
Can our dry bones live?
We in the church know what dry bones feel like…
- Once healthy, vibrant congregations are closing their doors.
- Our children and grandchildren regard the traditions and beliefs that mean so much to us as useless to them.
- We are divided by disagreements on important matters and our inability to bridge our differences harms us in potentially permanent ways.
- Laity want strong leadership; clergy are exhausted; we do not know what lies ahead.
We want to be rescued from this valley of dry bones. We want God to cut our losses and cushion our failures, to grant us a life free from pain. We want resuscitation, rescue from death. We want God to delete dryness and death from human experience and find another way to operate. We want our dry bones to be given new life.
Tell me, brothers and sisters, can our dry bones live?
In the 6th C BC, the prophet Ezekiel sees himself in an unnamed valley filled with bones. It is hardly a place that one would choose to be. The number of bones is vast, and they are very dry. They have been there a long time.
It might be the site of a terrible battle, where many soldiers died, their bones cleaned and dried by the blast furnace of the desert. It might be a monstrous cemetery where the bodies of the dead have lain exposed to the elements and scavenging animals.
The grim setting of the vision reminds us of what has happened since Ezekiel was first summoned to speak to the people of Israel. Since that time, the people’s long history of rebellion against God and now against the king of Babylon has sealed their fate. First in 597 and then again 10 years later, the Babylonian army has emptied Judea of its leaders and citizens and destroyed the Jerusalem Temple, turning it into dry rubble.
Living in exile in Babylon since the first wave of deportations, Ezekiel has witnessed the dissolution of his home. For him, and for the others forced to live in Babylon, the future seems to be a black hole into which they are destined to disappear. The key symbols of their faith--Jerusalem, its temple, its people, and the Davidic monarchy--have been destroyed. Many assume that their God has been defeated by a stronger god from Babylon. They want a God who will deliver them from this living death, who will rescue them from the empty dryness of their existence.
Can their bones live?
God commands Ezekiel to prophesy. As he does, the bones come together with a great rattling and quaking: sinew, flesh, and skin come on to the bones. But there is still no breath in them. So God commands Ezekiel to prophesy again, this time to the “breath,” or “wind.” Ezekiel does as commanded, and as breath enters into the slain, they live and stand as a great multitude. The dry bones are alive, a vast multitude standing on their feet, but not much more than that.
“Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, we are clean cut off,” they complain. These are not the dead slain by the conquering Babylonians, but those who have survived in exile, the whole house of Israel. They feel themselves cut off from God’s presence…which means they are as good as dead.
Ezekiel’s vision is concerned, not with the reality of death, but with despair. The exiles were the survivors, yet they have dug their own graves with their fear of God’s absence.
Can their bones lives?
The text holds the answer to its own question. Did you notice how often the words “spirit,” or “wind” or “breath” is used in this passage? Nine times. Translated differently in English, the word is the same one each time in Hebrew: ruach. In order to live, one needs not only flesh, sinew and skin…but also breath.
5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause ruach to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put ruach in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
Then, in the vision, sinew, flesh, and skin cover the bones, but there is no breath in them (v. 8). So, Ezekiel prophesies to the ruach, "Come from the four ruach, O Ruach, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live" (v. 9). And "the ruach came into them, and they lived" (v. 10).
"I will put my ruach within you, and you shall live," says the Lord. (v. 14)
Whether it appears in one instance as breath or in another as wind, it is all the same life giving force. And it is all from God. In this sense, breathing becomes a metaphor for divine presence. Despite the exiles’ fear of being cut off from God, God is as near to them as their own breath. With God's spirit, anything is possible. With God's spirit, there is life--and what Jesus called fullness of life. And though their present difficult circumstances have not changed, now they know that there is no place on earth, no when in time, and no what in sin or situation, that can keep God's Spirit away from God's people.
Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor says she cannot hear the story of the Valley of Dry Boones without thinking of her friend Matilda, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease, which means that she gradually lost control of all her muscles. “Her face went first, then her vocal chords, then 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 to paint, until her kitchen walls were papered with tulips, peonies, daffodils, hibiscus. When you went to visit Matilda, you painted. That was one of the rules. It did not matter if you had no ability, if the last time you held a paint brush was to put a coat of latex on your bathroom wall. Matilda stuck one 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.
“It was all I could do to watch her die,” Taylor writes. “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 had showed up to call her from her tomb—she would have had to die all over again later. It would have been a rescue from death instead of a triumph over it, a resuscitation instead of a resurrection.
“Something bigger than that was going on with Matilda. Every time she lost something she thought she could not live without, she found out she could. First there was a painful void that lasted an hour, a day, a week. Then something new moved in to fill the empty place: fresh series of paintings, a new friend, a deeper sense of the presence of God. "He is calling me," she wrote on her slate one day, "like a bridegroom calling his bride."
Some in our day will say that the neighborhood church is done; that “church” as we have known it has lived out its time. And yet, throughout this culture of disbelief in which we live, there are congregations full of vitality and new life. God’s renewing Spirit can work anywhere that we mortals are open to recognizing and receiving it.
Books about church growth and renewal abound in such number that no one pastor can read them all. And although many are worth reading and some have ideas that are worth trying, I don’t believe that the answer comes from any book or any theory.
If we believe as Ezekiel taught, that God is as near as our own breath, then we invite and receive new life from the Spirit’s presence by cultivating the life of the Spirit that lies already within ourselves and within our church. We do so by doing exactly what our newest members promised to do this morning.
Their vows remind us that we made the same promise:
- to pray for the church, for the people that comprise it, and for its ministries…daily;
- to be present – in worship and other parts of its life…regularly;
- to support the church’s life with our financial gifts;
- to serve God and our neighbors through the ministries of the church – teaching Sunday School, singing in the choir, making quilts for Haven House residents, participating in mission trips, reading and studying the Bible with others;
- and to witness to our faith, by telling the stories of our lives and our congregation so that others might hear and know that God is as close as breath.
If each of us does those five things – prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness – the result will be resurrection, new life. Not resuscitation – the old life extended a little longer – but resurrection, something entirely new.
Matilda’s resurrection began before she died and everyone around her saw it. When she set her paintbrush down for the last time, the canvas of her life was full. There was nothing wasted, nothing left over to 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 believe they can do it too.
We do not want to die. We do not want our churches to die. We want a God who will cut our losses and cushion our failures, a God who will grant us lives free from pain and congregations free from conflict and dissolution. We want a God who will rescue us from death.
What we have instead is a God who resurrects us from the dead, putting an end to it by working through it instead of around it—
- breathing life into the midst of grief,
- creating love in the midst of loss,
- helping us inhale faith in the midst of despair,
- resurrecting us from our big and little deaths,
- showing us by his own example that the only road to Easter morning runs smack through Good Friday.
God is as close as our breath.
But I must add one warning: when we inhale God’s Spirit, there is no telling what the new life ahead of us will look like. Jesus used a different metaphor to say the same thing: you can’t put new wine into old wineskins. Old wineskins of tradition and expectation will burst from the press of the new. Cultivating the presence of the Spirit in our lives will take us out of our old familiar ways and will put us onto paths that we have not yet even imagined.
The job, the relationship, the dream may die. And what fills that void may be entirely different than what you expect or even think you want. The way we do things now in our churches and denominations may continue to decline and disappear. The new forms of our faithfulness – whatever they are – lie present among us, unknown and unrecognized, still waiting to be birthed.
The very deterioration that wracks so many of us (individuals and churches) may turn out to be the necessary pry bar that separate us from our dying forms.
In any case, God is already breathing these dry bones into new life.
Barbara Brown Taylor. “Can These Bones Live?” The Christian Century, 113 no 9 Mar 13 1996, p 291
Walter Wink. “These bones shall live.” The Christian Century, 111 no 16 May 11 1994, p 491
Alan Brehm. “New Life for Dry Bones” Posted Wednesday, July 29, 2009. http://thewakingdreamer.blogspot.com/2009/07/new-life-for-dry-bones-acts-21-21-ezk.htmla
Margaret Odell. “Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14.” April 06, 2014.http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2070
John C. Holbert. “Becoming Whole Again: Reflections on Ezekiel 37:1-14.” March 30, 2014. http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Becoming-Whole-Again-John-Holbert-03-31-2014
Rolf Jacobson. “Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14.” March 09, 2008. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=39