I am fortunate, I know, to know so very little of the scene which Ezekiel encountered in the vision before us now. One can only imagine the devastation which must have preceded what resulted in a valley full of dry bones. No, indeed, the closest I can come to comprehending such as this — at least in its literal sense — is by perusing history. In fact, I found myself digging again into what I know about the battle at Gettysburg. How 7,000 died on the doorstep of this small town and how many were hurriedly ‘buried’ by comrades in graves so shallow that they offered little or no protection from the elements. We know, of course, that their stories don’t end there for mothers and dads and wives and fiancees on both sides of the battle had their way when it came to exhuming those bodies and having them buried once more in places far more fitting.
I am fortunate, I know, that I know so little of what is before us now. I have grieved my share of dear ones, yes, and I have stood alongside countless others when called upon to speak words of comfort and promise before coffins were lowered or ashes were scattered. I have to say I could not help but compare the scene which Ezekiel was dropped down into to the orderly rows of gravestones in the cemetery which backs up to my home now. Even those whose loved ones have long since joined them so that no one who remembers them stops any more — even for them the grass around their headstones is trimmed so that anyone interested can pause to make out their names and the years their lives graced this planet. And yet, while I know little of it first hand, the image Ezekiel shares is not nearly so rare as one might hope. In modern day cases of genocide it happens over and over again that one group so little values the basic humanity of another that their remains are not given the respect one would ordinarily render.
This was surely the case in the time that Ezekiel lived and prophesied. I am told that evidence has been discovered to show that it was typical for conquering armies to simply leave the vanquished to rot where they had fallen. It would have been, of course, the last indignity that could be visited upon them. Indeed, that valley of dry bones which dominated Ezekiel’s vision was not something unheard of in that time and place. And yet even this vivid vision stood in for something else. For those dry bones symbolized all that the people of Israel lost when their national and religious symbols were destroyed, when their leaders were carried off into exile, and when the rest were left to make do in a land torn apart by war. They must have believed themselves, their present, past and future, like those dry bones to be not only dead, but dead beyond any hope.
Surely it is difficult to find any comparable experience in the world I inhabit now. I cast around trying to see if I have ever been that bereft of hope — at least in any way that matters in an ultimate or permanent sense. Except for maybe this: In one particular long dead place I had not even much thought about being dead until, I am ashamed to say, not so very long ago.
For this is what comes to mind. It is a hard struggle in the world I call home to stir up real connection between people who differ greatly from one another. I watch the news with all of you and again and again I see evidence of our differences and our distance from one another along racial lines all across our country. And yes, this is every bit as true in the community where I live and serve. Oh no, it would not be stretching the truth too far at all to say that even here while, in many cases, we live within mere blocks of one another, our experiences of the world differ profoundly. So much so that I expect we have almost forgotten that it is ours to try to shape a different world. Or at least this has been the case for me.
But let me try to bring this home. I heard on the news the other night that in a nearby city black and white clergy were meeting again for the first time in fifty years. Fifty years. I don’t know the details of the disagreement during the Civil Rights Movement which caused them to sever community and connection, but surely after fifty years those bones must have been pretty dry by now. I don’t know what stirred them to change. I do know this. Not only there, but also here, it has taken profound devastation for us to notice enough to do something different now. And yes, one could say that like the people of Israel so long ago, we have had to come face to face with our failings, with our propensity to try to do it all on our own, with our too quick willingness to worship something other than God, before we have been willing or able to sense the breath of God blowing among us and through us. And so yes, I have to believe that perhaps it is that very breath of God which also blew on those bones in Ezekiel’s vision which is now somehow finding a way to blow through the tension and fear and brokenness — and yes, death — which is bringing us all to our knees now.
On its surface, it surely did not seem to be quite so dramatic in the city where I serve. No headlines heralded a change in relationship between clergy. I just happened to be sitting next to a colleague at a hospital chaplain’s lunch last December in those days when the events of Ferguson were still fresh in our minds. I leaned over to him and told him we were trying to talk about this, but it did not seem all that helpful to only have a bunch of white people talking to one another. And he invited us to be part of shaping a series of dinners where people in this community are trying to listen to one another more deeply across racial lines.
It has been a faltering start, to be sure. It would surely be easy to just walk away from, or better yet, cover up the dry bones which so reflect what has surely been between us. Only the breath of God somehow keeps on blowing and we keep showing up and trying. And by the time you read this we will have met again — this time after listening to a panel of moms talk about the different things they say to their children to help them to be safe.
So do these bones have sinews and flesh and life in them again or is that yet to be seen? In some ways it feels as though we are learning to do this for the first time all the while our muscle memory is trying to kick in again. I can only imagine this was also so in the vision Ezekiel offers now. It was surely so when the people of Israel returned home and tried to make sense of their lives once more in that time and place.
Oh yes, for now it may be so that all I know for sure is this.These bones seemed pretty dead. It could only be something as powerful as God’s own breath which could have brought us even this far.
And so this Pentecost Day, I wonder…
- What in your community, your congregation, your home, has seemed as dead as the dry bones before us now?
- And how have you experienced the breath of God bringing life again to such unlikely places as these?
- And how is that we live as those who believe this is even possible? How do we start to move these bones which perhaps have not moved in a very long time? And just where is it we are called to move, even if our steps are faltering and uncertain, so that we, too, might begin to live into the life God intends?