March 13, 2006
By Linda Sue Harrison, MDiv
St. Hildegard's Church, Arlington, VA
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
Ezekiel and them dry bones! What an image … a pile of bleached, dry bones becoming a veritable army of skeletons. Can you hear the clattering that makes – the clicking and clashing of bone on bone, bone against bone … that hollow kind of clink that bones with no marrow in them and no tissue between them would make. Why, it is the stuff of an old black and white thriller!
It is also the stuff of a great metaphor for a life with and without God.
When the book of Ezekiel was written, Israel was in exile. God seemed so far away. Israel’s collective spirit was dry and lost without their home, their rituals, their God. Just like dry bones, there was no life in the people of Israel: alienated, oppressed, and pushed to the margins, they were as dead and hollow as dry bones. Caught in the grip and power of death, individually and collectively, Israel had forgotten about life and the God of life.
Ezekiel’s metaphor is a powerful one.
Who assembled here today has never been thirsty? … never felt drier than dust in the depths of her or his soul? … never felt dead inside and wondered to where the joy and the life had disappeared?
I have … more than once. I cried to God from the depths of my being and my despair. From the depths of the parched places in my soul, I cried out to God just like the psalmist: “Hear me, O, God!” It echoes hollowly in the ears that hear no life – it reverberates as I imagine sound would reverberate inside a dry bone. The disconnect a person feels at this time is great. God seems so far away, and so do other people.
Israel was disconnected from God and from one another. The community lost its traditions and rituals in exile – the very rituals that kept the community connected to God and each other. It must have seemed hopeless.
You know, that’s God specialty. God does hopeless real well. God spoke a word of hope to Ezekiel concerning Israel. That word took on shape and form when Ezekiel envisioned dry bones assembling, then muscles and sinews and finally flesh covering the bones. Dry bones became filled with the potential for life. Only when the breath of God came into the bones covered with flesh, did they actually come alive.
We are the dry bones – we are filled with the potential for life. Sure, by definition each of you sitting here is alive in the technical sense: hearts are pumping blood, neurotransmitters in the brain are firing, and lungs inhale and exhale the air around us. But are we truly alive? Are we truly living in the full potential of who God has called each of us to be or do we merely exist? Have we fully repented and accepted the grace that God offers us daily and then live out that grace?
Like two characters in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, we could be empty hollow shells – like empty hollow bones with no marrow and no breath. The characters Roger Chillingworth and the Rev. Mr. Arthur Dimmesdale are technically alive: they go about their business in the small New England town where they live and work. That is the extent of it. Both characters reject God’s Spirit and by the end of book, that rejection literally destroys them. They cannot or will not accept the love and forgiveness that God offers to them. They reject life.
Hester Prynne, on the other hand, accepts God’s Spirit whole-heartedly. She is marked as an adulteress, a fact she cannot deny because of the birth of her precious baby girl, Pearl. Even so, she lives life. Hester is fully alive to herself, her child, and the community in which she lives, the very community that branded her. She carries herself well, holds her head up high, and eventually becomes known to the people in her town as a sort of angel of mercy for all her work with the sick and the poor. Living so fully in the breath and Spirit of God, the people come to say that the scarlet “A” on her breast means “able.”
Out of the despair of her sin, according to 17th century laws and customs, God knit together a new life and Hester embraced it, allowing God’s breath to breathe upon her and through her. It is important to point out that Hester did not keep God’s breath to herself. She shared it in the community, among the disenfranchised: the poor and the sick. What an excellent role model she was for her daughter, Pearl: a woman given a second chance in life and living it fully, joyfully, and sharing it with community.
Like Lazarus, who comes out of the tomb when Jesus calls to him, we are offered the opportunity to emerge from our self-inflicted tombs. The God of breath, the God of life calls to us, begging us in love, mercy, and compassion to live. Hester could have become a shell of her former self: resentful, bitter, and guilt-racked. Instead, like Lazarus, Hester answered God’s call to life. Hester accepted the call to life in the forgiveness and love of God. A life in the true Spirit of God. She could not help but share that life with those around her.
Not only does God call us out of our tomb-like existences, filling our dry bones with marrow and our lungs with breath. God also calls us to speak a word of hope to those around us. Like the promise made to Ezekiel, God will open our graves, call us up from our graves, fill us with the breath of life, and place us on our soil. We will be a living community – we are a living community! God revived the bones, God breathed life into the bones, and the vast multitude became a living community and a living community cannot be silent, but will witness to the love of God.
You have to note that as John records the story, Jesus did not act wholly alone when he revived Lazarus. Jesus asked the crowd, the community around him, for help: he asked for directions to Lazarus’ tomb, asked that someone roll away the stone from the tomb, and for someone to unwrap the bandages that set Lazarus free. Jesus spoke the word, but the community acted to set Lazarus free! God even invited a mortal to help revive those dry old bones in the valley. God said to Ezekiel, “Prophesy, mortal, prophesy to these bones.” If God is powerful enough to make dry bones come alive, why in the world would God even waste time asking a mortal to help? Why indeed? … Because that is our job. Because God expects us to be in community. Because we are called to help restore life in individuals, in families, and in communities. The broken, lonely, tired, outcast, marginalized – they are all depending on us, the individuals who make up this living Christian community, to breathe the breath of God upon them.
Holocaust survivor, professor, author, and Jewish theologian Elie Wiesel says every generation needs to hear, in its own time, that these bones can live again. I declare to you today that these bones can live again.
So, in that declaration, in the promise of God, what is it going to be? You are already knit together: bone-to-bone, filled with marrow, covered with flesh. Will you persist in your existence, going about your business in your self-inflicted tomb? Or, are you going to allow God to breathe upon you and fill you with life? Will you embrace that life, which is forgiveness, mercy, and compassion? Will you bring that breath and Spirit of God, that hope, joy, and life, to the world as you are charged? Will you bring the message to this generation that these bones can live again?