Them bones, them bones, them dry bones; now hear the Word of the Lord.
The toe bone's connected to the foot bone; the foot bone's connected to the ankle bone; the ankle bone's connected to the shin bone; the shin bone's connected to the knee bone; the knee bone's connected to the thigh bone; the thigh bone's connected to the hip bone; the hip bone's connected to the back bone; the back bone's connected to the head bone. Now hear the word of the Lord.
Them bones, them bones gonna walk around; now hear the Word of the Lord.
As we move through Lent this year we have been using each Sunday to examine some of the obstacles to having a strong, vibrant, life giving faith. Pride, Holy Mysteries, Bishop Devadhar preached about Risks, and last week Myopia. Today’s obstacle as we think about Ezekiel’s vision of a valley filled with dry bones is death. And by death I don’t just mean the physical end of our lives, when they will hold a funeral for us and burry our bodies in the ground. The death we meet in Ezekiel 37 is the kind that makes us act dead even while we are still alive, paralyzing us with fear and hopelessness. The death that can disrupt our journey of faith comes in many shapes.
One form is fear. While some fear is healthy, and keeps us from being foolish – touching the burner on a stove or sticking wet fingers in the electrical socket, the fear that is like death is the kind of fear that paralyzes us, or leads us to over react. Like the woman whose child got the stomach bug and threw up in bed. In her fear of germs the mother threw the pajamas and bed clothes in the trash. And even then she could not go back to sleep. Or the student who has developed a fear of tests so that their muscles tense, their brain freezes and they can’t remember what they knew quite well just last week. Or the fear that Charile Brown has every time he wants to talk to the Red Haired Girl – causing him to say and do dumb things. Or the fear I saw in a co-worker who had been in the same job since high school. It was easy enough, and secure, but he wasn’t happy, wasn’t using his talents. So he complained a lot, and was frequently grumpy. But he made no move to change anything because he was afraid.
We might wish to help people whose fear keeps them from living by giving them advice. We could give the fearful mother accurate facts about germs and laundering and the economic and environmental impact of her reactionary actions. We might be like Linus telling Charlie Brown to cheer up and try again. We might give the co-worker a pep talk together with brochures for the local community college and a vocational aptitude test. But we know that when we are the ones struggling with paralyzing fear such words and actions bounce off our hearts like golf balls off of pavement. The obstacle of death can leave us feeling hopeless.
For many years I struggled with the fear of being single all my life. I was thirty when I first started ministry. One of the committees of the Board of Ordained Ministry looks at the candidates’ lives to see how they fit with ministry. The first question I got in that meeting was, “Do you know how hard it is for a single woman pastor to get a date?” I hadn’t had a date in four years. But after ordination it seemed even harder. The funny looks and awkward pauses when a new acquaintance learned I was a pastor. Falling in love hard and despairing when the feelings weren’t at all mutual. The loud ticking of my biological clock making me miserable. Finally after three and a half years I had a boyfriend. He didn’t match my ideal in many ways. But he was kind and gentle and I found healing in our relationship. Yet after a year and a half, when it became clear that he was not interested in marriage the relationship ended. And it felt like death.
We try to console ourselves when faced with the death of a relationship. He wasn’t meant for you. You’re better off this way. There are many more fish in the sea. But caught up in the experience of death such words bounce off our hearts like golf balls off of pavement. The obstacle of death can leave us feeling hopeless.
Most of us have been touched deeply by the death of someone we love. It may be someone elderly who lived a good long life and had a relatively peaceful passing, or it may be an unexpected, or even tragic death. But each time someone we love dies, something in us dies too. At the edge of death we can feel a little crazy at times. Our emotions can run the gamut from raging anger, to deep despair, or simple numbness. Death interrupts the routines of our lives, we’ll reach for the phone and then after dialing remember there is no one there. Later as the grief subsides we’ll be going along fine for a while, and all of a sudden a song will come on, or we will smell something, or see something that triggers the grief all over again and we cry like a baby. The people around us want us to feel better and offer us platitudes – “God just wanted another angel.” “He’s better off now because he’s not suffering so much.” Very, very bad theology – I pray none of us ever again say such things to people in grief. If we are lucky such words bounce off our hearts like golf balls off of pavement, but at these times they are more likely to do some real damage to an already wounded soul. In any case the obstacle of death can leave us feeling hopeless.
And then there is spiritual death. I’ve heard the story several times in the past four years. Pastor Tsitsi trying to lead this congregation in a joyful, toe tapping, hand clapping kind of song, and the people standing still and mumbling the words. Finally, she just stopped everything looked out at you all and said, “I see dead people.” It’s not completely true. There is quite a bit of life in this congregation. But as part of the United Methodist Church I think it’s fair to say that we are on the endangered church list. Last fall Rick McKinnley told us that if the statistical trends continue as projected the 629 UMCs in the six states of New England will drop down to half in just a couple of decades. Every year at Annual Conference we recognize churches that have closed their doors, disbanded their members and sold their buildings. Congregations continue to age as the active members get older while the confirmands become apostates and few if any young families become active participants. Brad Nathan was on Craig’s list the other week and noticed that some churches have paid youth workers, something he might like to do. He sent me a message asking if the UMCs had paid youth workers. I had to say that very few have enough youth and enough resources to add a youth minister to their staff. With so few youth, and even fewer who stay active in the church beyond high school, or denomination has a very shallow pool of people ready to become pastors. When I went through the BOM 16 years ago there were 70 members, needed especially when it was time to examine all the candidates. Lately there have been less than half a dozen going through the process, and many of them are going into ministry as a second career.
We’ve done our church health assessments. We know about the root problems. In Natural Church development terms the UMCs in New England are struggling with passionate spirituality and inspiring worship – inspiring means filled with the Holy Spirit. In other words spiritual death is endangering our churches. We can name the cause of death. We can say we need revival. We need to pep up our worship in a way that people come away having felt the spirit of the living God touching their lives. I can tell you that this church won’t grow significantly until the members start personally inviting the people in their lives to join them for worship. But such words bounce off our hearts like golf balls off of pavement. The obstacle of death can leave us feeling hopeless.
The year was 587 BCE, Before Christian Era. It was the low point of Israel’s history. The Babylonians had wiped out the total Israelite army. It was no contest. The Babylonians were the strongest nation around. Babylonia was a great big nation; Israel was a dinky, little nation. Israel was nothing; their army was nothing and they got wiped out. In 587 BCE, all their young Israelite warriors were killed. Many, many women and children died too. Most of the people left alive were captured and deported, especially the leaders, the teachers, the prominent people.
It was the low point, the worst time in their nation’s history. All the hopes for life in the Promised Land Promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, carried by Moses and the Israelites as they left Egypt and wandered through the desert for 40 years were now shattered. All the miracles God had performed, manna in the wilderness, water from a rock, the walls of Jericho tumbling down, the victories of King David, the grand palace and the glorious temple built by Solomon in Jerusalem – it all seemed to be for nothing. A loud and mournful lament went up from the people “God can’t help us. God won’t help us. There is no God. God is punishing us for our sins. We are here to rot and die in the desert. We have become like dry bones.”
In those days God gave Ezekiel a vision. In the vision the Spirit of the Lord set Ezekiel in the middle of a valley full of dry bones. They walked together all around them. It was like the Civil War and the battle of Gettysburg and there were dead bodies out there in the fields by the thousands. All those skeletons Ezekiel saw were out there, lying on the valley floor. And the whole valley, as far as the eye could see for 360 degrees, was filled with white bones of long dead people. Those bodies were not buried but just laid there to rot in the sun. By the time Ezekiel saw them, the vultures and bacteria had done their thing and all that was left was dry bones. The vision matched the way Israel felt. Hopeless, barren, desolate, a pile of dead, dry bones bleaching in the sun.
And the Lord ask Ezekiel, look at these bones. Is there any hope in the midst of all this death? Shall all these dry bones live?
It all looked pretty hopeless to Ezekiel, but he wisely replied, “Only you know, Lord.”
Then God said, “Preach to the bones. Tell them that I, the Lord God, say that I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live and you shall know that I am the Lord.
Now some people might get the wrong impression, going away from this thinking that it all lies in the preaching. If the preacher just preaches a good enough sermon even the dry bones will come to life. But that’s not what the Bible is saying. The agent who removed the obstacle of death from the people of Israel was not Ezekiel. He just carried the message. The life giving agent that transformed dry bones into living breathing people was the Holy Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit brought all those bones together, attached them with the tendons, padded them with muscles, and vital organs, blood and fat and wrapped each body with skin. But even then there was no life in them. They were missing the ruach (breath, wind, spirit).
Then the Lord said to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to the breath. Prophesy, son of man. Tell the breath, ‘The Lord God, says, Come from the four winds. Come, breath. Breathe on these slain bodies. Breathe life!’” So Ezekiel prophesied, just as God commanded him. The breath entered the bones and they came alive! They stood up on their feet, a huge army. Them bones, them bones gonna walk around. Hear the word of the Lord.
Death is such a giant obstacle to the life of faith, it seems such a burden, and paralyzes us so because we cannot remove it. Any self-help book or advice column bounces off our hearts like golf balls off pavement because our hearts know that we can’t fix ourselves. And that is the whole point of the valley of dry bones. Israel was in such a state that it couldn’t fix itself. We all can get in such a state.
Joe likes it when my sermons give people concrete things to do. But Ezekiel says there isn’t anything we can do in the face of death. Except maybe to hope in God. A crazy illogical hope. A hope that can only come from God. A hope that the power of God, the love of God, the grace of God is somehow stronger than death. A hope that the presence of God is walking with us through the valley of the shadow of death and leading us to greener pastures and still water where there is no fear or desperation.
The only way I know of to cultivate hope in the face of death is to pray. Step back, take a deep breath, and welcome the Spirit of God to come into your spirit. As you pray, read passages of scripture that inspire hope. Don’t read it straight through like the Bible Study has been doing. There is a time for that, but not in the face of death. It would be a great exercises for the Bible study to make a list, as they go along, where are the passages that give hope, that show God’s grace, that present scenes of the life of shalom that God intends us to live. Ezekiel 37 is a good place to start, Genesis 32 when Jacob finally returns home after making a disaster of his life, Exodus 15 when the Israelites escape from Egypt and Pharaoh’s army and dance for joy on the far side of the Red Sea, stories of Jesus healing people, raising Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus from the dead, Jesus’ resurrection stories, the vision of how it will all turn out in the end in praise and joy found in Revelation 4.
It can help to use hope filled Christian music when you pray. That’s what our retreat next Saturday is all about; praying with music. Heather will share the method she uses to meditate to music, Mary will help everyone to pray by making music with voice and instruments and the section I will lead will include breathing and getting our bones to walk around, and dance around as we hear the word of the Lord in music. Them bones, them bones gonna walk around. Hear the word of the Lord.
When I look out at you I don’t see dead people. I see people who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death. And some who are there right now. But I see the Spirit of God walking beside you, the breath of God filling your nostrils and lungs. And I share with God the vision of this sanctuary full of life – people of all ages, with the light of Christ in their eyes – people who experience the hand of God in their lives every day, and especially when we gather as Christ’s Body for worship, and service to the world. I see people who are no longer paralyzed by fear, people who have moved through times of grief and found the joy of the Lord in the morning. People who can’t help singing God’s praises. People who can’t stop talk the work of God in their lives and in our church, so that friends and neighbors become envious and curious, maybe even asking you if they can come with you.
It was through prayerful retreat that God removed the obstacle of death from my life when my boyfriend and I broke up. The retreat was led by Pastor Jan Smith-Rushton, who was then the District Superintendent of the New Hampshire District. It took place on Star Island off the shore of Portsmouth. While I was on that retreat feeling the warm sea breezes of early autumn, sitting in the sun, praying with others, and on my own that the Spirit of God moved me from death to new life. I was able to give thanks for all that was good and whole and healing in my relationship. And I was able to accept that it was over, and simply release my former boyfriend. As I let go and let God I found myself filled with God’s Spirit and able to move forward in my life, open to the future with a sense of peace.
Them bones, them bones gonna walk around. Hear the word of the Lord.