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Clattering Bones and Stammering Lips
a sermon based on Ezekiel 37 & Acts 2
by Rev. Thomas Hall

n 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, Ford’s Theatre the night Wilkes Booth slips in while Abraham Lincoln watches from the Presidential Chair in the balcony. Once they’ve 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 enemy’s 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 completely.’ "

What does death look like? A denomination looking over the ledger and noting that they’ve 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, we’ve seen death too often. The gradual wasting away of flesh, skin hanging on frail arms and legs due and the last rattling gasp for breath.
The vision reminds me of a sigmoid. We’re 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-that’s 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 we’re 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 we’re talking about-an institution, a congregation, a community, a neighborhood, or our life, the result is the same-we’ve reached a dead end.

I have seen the sigmoid played out too often in our churches. Faded curriculum lying about a room that hasn’t 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. That’s 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 sigmoid’s inevitable path toward death is for another S to erupt right at the terminal point of plateau or death.

I’ve 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 it’s 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 what’s 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. It’s 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 God’s eyes. Can these bones live? Of course not. But look at them again through God’s 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 God’s 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 God’s eyes and watch them come up, receive God’s 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 God’s eyes. "I can’t believe my eyes!" we say when the seemingly impossible happens. But we can believe God’s eyes and look through them and so gain new reasons to keep on hoping. [1]

Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once noted that there is no date on the vision of Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. "That’s 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 Ezekiel’s 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.

[1] The preceding two paragraphs taken from The New Interpreter’s Bible VI  (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), page 1504.