Clattering Bones and Stammering Lips
a sermon based on Ezekiel 37 & Acts 2
by Rev. Thomas Hall
In the movie, Grand Tour, a civilization from
the future has finally created a perfect world. They can control sickness, wars, poverty,
and natural catastrophes. But with all of this perfection they are stuck with a very
boring world. Everything is predictable and safe; no more adventure or surprises. What to
do? Well, they decide to take "spectacle" tours. They leave their perfect
environment and travel back to specific moments in time. Their tour makes stops at what
they call, "spectacles," those places in the past of great calamities-the
Titanic as it unwittingly heads toward a collision with an iceberg, Fords Theatre
the night Wilkes Booth slips in while Abraham Lincoln watches from the Presidential Chair
in the balcony. Once theyve seen enough to satiate their curiosity, they move on to
the next disaster.
This morning we are the time travelers on our own grand tour. In our lesson from
Ezekiel we return to behold a spectacle, a graphic, unforgettable scene. We have returned
to a ravine. We are immediately aware that this is not the majestic Grand Canyon. There is
no life anywhere. No trees. No song birds. No parks. No human beings. Just the howl of a
wind sweeping down the side and echoing across the ravine wall. We are alone and bleached,
dry bones surround us. No matter where we look, we see only human bones. Bones normally
represented for the Hebrew people the essence of life. The Book of Proverbs associates
laughter and joy with the fatness of marrow in the bones. But not here in the Valley of
Dry Bones. Laughter is absent and bones have become the spectacle of hopelessness. In the
glare of the noon sun, we hear a howling wind forming the words, "Mortal, can these
bones live?" And all we can say in response, "O God, you know."
Images like this spectacle show up in other places. In Mesopotamia, for instance, King
Sennacherib of Assyria (704-68 bce) boasts, "With the bodies of the enemys
warriors I filled the plain, like grass." A decade later his predecessor, Esarhaddon
predicted what his god would do to any disloyal vassals; he will ". . . crush you
with his fierce arrow, and fill the plain with your corpses and give your flesh to eagles
and vultures to feed upon." Word on the street was that whether it be God or armies,
disobedience would turn a community into a cemetery. And that seems to be the meaning
about this spectacle: "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel," God
says. "They say, Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off
What does death look like? A denomination looking over the ledger and noting that
theyve lost another 60,000 members during the last four years. See those corpses
stacked up body upon body? And not even an eyebrow is raised. Business as usual. What does
death look like? As clergy and chaplains, weve seen death too often. The gradual
wasting away of flesh, skin hanging on frail arms and legs due and the last rattling gasp
The vision reminds me of a sigmoid. Were all, every one of us, somewhere on the
sigmoid. The sigmoid is based on the Greek letter sigma or s
. It corresponds to our letter S. Think of the bottom of the S as the beginning point. The
beginning of a hope-filled future. Then the S curves and turns upward-thats the
period of growth. The new outreach, new congregation, new life finally begins to flourish.
Maybe that success lasts for years or at least decades, but at some point we reach the top
of the S. We no longer ascend but level off.
When institutions or congregations or even our personal lives plateau, growth stops. We
just sort of exist at this stage. No risks taken, but no noteworthy achievements recorded
either. Maybe were riding the successes of the past. About that time we enter the
last stage of the sigmoid-the abrupt and precipitous slide down. The last stage is a time
of decline and we find ourselves left with dwindling numbers of members, finances, energy,
and ideas. Its in the final stage that we enter the Valley of Dry Bones-a place of death
and decay. Whatever were talking about-an institution, a congregation, a community,
a neighborhood, or our life, the result is the same-weve reached a dead end.
I have seen the sigmoid played out too often in our churches. Faded curriculum lying
about a room that hasnt been used for Sunday School in a decade. Storage space. Dark
hallways where children once hurried to their classes on Sunday mornings; now dark and
musty, vacant. Empty pews staring back at the pulpit every Sunday. Grass growing in the
corners of the parking lot. The frantic search for some community agency to rent unused
space for a church now preoccupied with keeping afloat. Survival mode. Thats death,
according the model of the sigmoid. I remember in my first pastorate, sitting at my desk
on Monday mornings or walking in the empty sanctuary and asking, "Can these bones
live?" It was a once thriving congregation, but had long since ceased to be alive to
mission. The only thing that will change a sigmoids inevitable path toward death is
for another S to erupt right at the terminal point of plateau or death.
Ive seen that too. Just when a congregation is ready to throw in the towel, when
they can no longer pay their bills, here comes a new sigmoid. Sometimes its a fiery,
energetic new member. Other times it the death of someone who had abrogated power and
controlled the congregation. But of course, it could also be Reverend Mother Judy. She
just rolls up to the church, rolls up her sleeves and gets to work-physically cleans and
paints and replaces whats broken, opens rusty windows and tosses years of
accumulated junk out. And while Mother Judy works alone, hungry eyes observe this new
spectacle of energy. Resurrection happens. The Day of Pentecost arrives with fresh winds
of the Spirit. And slowly newly raised folks join in; others gain a sort of transference
of energy from the new pastor. Even worship begins to breathe deeply of the Spirit. And a
strangely exhilarating sense of hope begins to pervade Sunday mornings. Then a kid shows
up here, third grader there arrives with his family. Its not an overnight
experience; sigmoids seldom are. But gradually a congregation begins to come together in
unexpected ways and the result is a new community, freshly filled with the Spirit and
called back out of the Valley of Dry Bones and into mission.
The prophet Ezekiel challenges us to view our circumstances not from our own, limited
vision and resources, but through Gods eyes. Can these bones live? Of course not.
But look at them again through Gods eyes, and watch the spectacle of bones rushing
to their appropriate partners. Watch as ligaments bind them together, flesh blankets them,
and skin seals them tightly. Watch as Gods Spirit, heal hopelessness, infuse them,
so that they rise up-a great army testifying to the power of God.
Can corpses be brought forth from graves and become living beings again? Preposterous!
But look through Gods eyes and watch them come up, receive Gods ruach, and
return home. When we raise our vision to look beyond what our limited vision can take in,
we watch the impossible happen through Gods eyes. "I cant believe my
eyes!" we say when the seemingly impossible happens. But we can believe Gods
eyes and look through them and so gain new reasons to keep on hoping. 
Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once noted that there is no date on
the vision of Ezekiels vision of the valley of dry bones. "Thats because
every generation needs to hear in its own time that these bones can live again." He,
more than most of us, has seen and lived in the spectacle of bleached bones but has also
in his very lifetime witnessed the raising up of an entire people into a bold, new future.
Today we have traveled back in time to see a spectacle-Death and Hopelessness. And we
have asked Ezekiels question about our own valley of dry bones, "Can these
bones live?" Yet even in the cemeteries of dead dreams and hopeless futures, the God
of Pentecost reminds us of the Good News: The Almighty is still the Lord and Giver of
Life. The mighty life-giving, resurrecting Spirit will still have the last word in matters
of life and death-no matter where on the sigmoid we are. Amen.
 The preceding two paragraphs taken from The New Interpreters Bible VI
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), page 1504.