Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
When do you think you first understood about death? Did you lose a beloved pet as a child? A grandparent? A friend or neighbor? I was pretty young when I got that losing someone you love was a permanent loss. Three of my grandparents died while I was still quite young. I remember someone tried to explain it to me by comparing the loss to the experience of winter, which, living in the uppermost region of Wisconsin was a very real, long experience. But I had known enough springs that comparing the death of my beloved grandparents to winter, which I knew would end, was simply not true. My grandparents would not be coming back. Children don’t do all that well with metaphors – they take a more mature mind to grasp. I also had heard the Easter message about Jesus – that he died but lived again – to be wary of any religious promise. It’s why I’m so glad Rob has decided to talk to parents about how to talk to children about the experiences of Holy Week. Children can be tough critics when it comes to the assurances of faith. They are, at one and the same time, able to suspend belief and demand truth. It was my dad, ever honest and religiously demanding, who told me that my grandparents were really gone, that when people die, they don’t come back in any way that makes them real to us again. Maybe we dream about them, or remember them, but they won’t smooth my unruly hair, or lay down on the floor with me for a nap, or reliably laugh at my knock knock jokes. They’re gone.
Now I’m an adult, and not only are all my grandparents gone, but so is my beloved dad, and a host of other saints and friends. They are gone. If we are to understand the resurrection stories of Scripture, and there are a number of them to explore, we have to start with that harsh truth. Death is permanent. It ends life. The bodies of those we love do not lie dormant beneath the soil, only to grow again in the spring. I know that seems imprudent for me to say this close to Easter and spring, but I am convinced that we cannot embrace the resurrection of our savior with all its reassurance and glory, unless we first have come to understand death.
That may be why, given the choice in preaching on this fifth Sunday in Lent between John’s story of the raising of Lazarus and Ezekiel’s of the raising the dry bones of Israel, I always go for the dry bones. Both the stories deal with the decay of death. Martha warned Jesus that her dead brother’s body had begun to decay and there would be quite an odor, and the bodies lying in the valley have been dead so long that all that are left of them are skeletons, dry, bleached, and brittle bones. At least it’s absolutely clear that Ezekiel’s bones are really, truly dead. Even Jesus’ declarative statement to his disciples, “Lazarus is dead” do not convince me that John might not be trying to trick us with his enigmatic language and images. Maybe, maybe not – but in Ezekiel, we know without any doubt that the bones he was looking at with God standing at his side were dead.
Ezekiel was one of the most visionary of Israel’s prophets. Before the fall of Jerusalem in 587, Ezekiel’s prophecies were harsh, judging, and condemning. Judah’s leaders were beyond hope. God’s judgment would be swift and relentless. Ezekiel’s preaching was clear as could be, absolutely unambiguous message – God is mad. God is not patient with disobedience, with willful disregard for the ways of justice and the disciplines of faith and the Jews would suffer because they had abandoned God’s will. But Ezekiel was also a pastor who felt deep compassion for his people, so when Jerusalem was eventually destroyed, as Ezekiel warned it would be, his message to his people changed. He became a comforter, someone who preached to the broken, grieving hearts of his people. Do not lose hope. God can and will bring life back to the Holy City. Remember love? Remember courage? As angry as God was (and oh yeah, God was very, very angry), so now will God forgive you. God can bring you back to life, restore love, give you life again. You have not been abandoned. You are not alone.
Ezekiel’s message had to have been a relief – as it would be to anyone who still believes in God through dark days – after the death of someone we love, when we experience set back after set back on the road to justice, when we are sure our state, our nation, our planet has turned toward such peril as to be too far over the brink of disaster to be pulled back again. And maybe it has. That was Ezekiel’s underlying message as well. Jerusalem has fallen to enemies. You blew it. You lived in such incredibly unjust ways and with such untoward stupidity, that you are now as dead as these bones – saying crude things on Facebook, demeaning the needs of the poor, the mentally and physically disabled, the women who cannot afford healthcare, the children who have been lost. You’ve left them all to die in this parched land where, by the way, you’ve squandered the resources of water, nutritious foods, and the bounty of the seas. And now you’re looking at a heap of dry bones with God standing next to you, asking you, can these bones live?
Remember that Ezekiel was preaching. Ezekiel was laying before his guilty, defeated people the sight of their own death and the possibility of their resurrected life. The valley of dry bones is you, Israel. The valley of dry bones is you, New Hampshire, you America. There are three valleys of dry bones in the wars we are waging – Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya. There are thousands of valleys of dry bones where there are children who are hungry, abandoned, and violated. Paul said it to the Corinthians - “For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” (2 Corinthians 4:11)
We are always being given up to death. Death is everywhere around us, even as the frozen earth is beginning to come back to life. Does that mean we would stand with God on the edge of the valley and answer the question – “can these bones live?” with, no, I don’t think so. I think death has done its worst and I can’t do anything about it.
Why do you suppose Ezekiel preached this sermon to his people? It’s a magnificent metaphor – the clacking bones rising, covered again with sinew and muscle and flesh, coursing with blood, gasping with breath as if having been breathless for a long time. Why did he tell his people this story? I’m just guessing here, but I’m fairly sure that he was afraid that what had died in his people was not their bodies but their hope. He was afraid they had lost their will. He was afraid they gave up. I suspect he preached this sermon to them because he loved them, and perhaps he himself had had to struggle with a little despair, some hopelessness, doubt in God’s presence and fear that maybe, God has grown indifferent. I suspect that, because I know that I preach what I need myself to hear. Can these bones live? Watch, because they can, because they will, because I will breathe my spirit into them again.
Holy Week is soon upon us. Next Sunday we will begin the eight day liturgical journey from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to the upper room, Golgotha and the empty tomb. We all know the story, how Jesus chose to go to Jerusalem, to confront, directly and fearlessly, the power and principalities, from the injustice delivered at the hands of the Romans to the acquiescence of the Jews. The story moves from human hope to human betrayal, from the silence of God in the garden to the light of God behind the large stone. Next week, we will walk, with Christ as our companion and our guide, directly into the path of the vicious, all the way to Calvary. How shall we prepare for this test of our faith? What must we do so that in the hour of trial, we will not abandon our Savior or disappoint our God? I think we might start by looking directly into the valley of dry bones, and by giving ourselves over, body and soul, to God’s question – can these bones live? Amen.