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Another sermon for Easter 6 Year C Dry Bones

March 26, 2016

dry bonesIn the Return of the King, the third film of The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn enters a cave through a small crevice in a mountain. He steps over piles of dry bones heaped up against the walls of the cave. Aragorn offers these dead soldiers, who deserted their king, a chance to regain their honour and be restored to peace if they will help to defend the City of Kings which is under attack by evil powers. They have a chance to redeem themselves by making good on their pledge to defend good against evil, and to be a part of a community that will restore the kingdom.

I guess today’s reading has been put in the lectionary because it is seen as a prophecy of the resurrection but the language of “dry bones” is surely metaphorical, at least in the first instance, for the promise is “I will bring you home into the land of Israel.” The hope is for homecoming for exiles.

The time was 587 B.C. E. The place was Babylon–modern day Iraq. The Babylonians were the superpower at that time, under Emperor Nebuchaddrezzar. They conquered Jerusalem. The temple was destroyed. The capital city was destroyed. The people were in abject poverty. Everybody was on the edge of starvation, so much so the Book of Lamentations says that the people were so hungry that mothers boiled their own children for food: “All the people groan as they search for food but no one gives them anything. The hands of compassionate mothers have boiled their children. They become their food in the destruction of the daughters of the people.”

Then many of the Jews, including the prophet-priest Ezekiel, were captured and hauled off to live a life of exile in Babylon. But it’s amazing what you can get used to. Eventually things got so cozy for the Hebrew exiles that even after they were encouraged to return to Jerusalem most of them didn’t want to go. The old dream of living in the Lord’s presence had died, buried under piles and piles of coping devices.

We have an Israel whose hope has died and for whom there is no future. Ezekiel’s task is not easy. The people to whom he is to speak, to whom he offers hope are not predisposed toward his message. They know the realities of exile too well. They cannot see the possibility of something different, let alone better

The Babylonians had wiped out the entire Israelite army. It was no contest. The Babylonians were the strongest nation around. Israel was nothing; their army was nothing and they got wiped out.  All their young Israelite warriors were killed. Their bodies were sprawled out on the desert sands as far as the eye could see in all directions, not buried but just left there to rot in the sun. Dry bones do not live, the breath being out.

So Ezekiel tells them about his vision. Behold (וְהִנֵּ֨ה hinneh) is used twice in v.2 which declares that what Ezekiel is about to see will be extraordinary. Bones had a special meaning in ancient Hebrew thought. The Hebrew word עֶ֖צֶם hetsem -bones – is repeated eight times in this passage,  derived from a root meaning ‘to be powerful’, stable. When he speaks of new life, he is speaking about the future of a powerful,m stable nation, a vision of the impossible being brought about. His vision is about the immediate future. These dry bones will live. This exiled and despondent community, as good as dead, is to come out of exile, as improbably as corpses coming out of their graves

Dem bones, dem bones, those dry bones. There is little wonder why American slaves embraced this story from the Old Testament as their own. And despite their misery, as they suffered cruel injustice, they gained the same hope as the ancient Israelites. They knew that God gave them a reason to live despite the fact that they were enslaved; despite the fact that in spirit and emotion and self-esteem they were mere skeletons of the powerful men and women they had been in Africa; despite how often they thought their fate was doomed; despite how much they felt they were as good as dead. Such spiritual enslavement leaves us in a land as desolate as Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, spiritually dead, mere skeletons who have lost our religious muscle and skin of faith.

Is the church today a valley of dry bones? I read recently of a minister who quit preaching because he couldn’t stand looking out on a sea of “prunes sitting in the pews”. Pretty graphic for a church whose average age is 62.but lacking in hope that we dry bones can have new life breathed into us.

A modern Ezekiel might be taken to a small town in England where the local high street shops are boarded up. He or she might walk down the streets in certain neighbourhoods, looking at care homes which keep some old folks’ bones out of sight. We too, like Ezekiel and the Jewish people, have our experiences of exile and dry bone situations. For some of us, living in exile may take the form of a serious injury or illness, which suddenly changes our lifestyle. For others, living in exile may take the form of an unexpected or premature death of a loved one. For others, it may be unemployment, going through the trauma of a divorce, suffering as a victim of physical, emotional or psychological abuse.

Living in exile involves a growing uneasiness with the negative trends in our society. We live in what is becoming more and more a cultural wasteland. Films and television glamorize sex and violence. Our society has over-emphasized materialism and individualism to such an extent that they have become death-producing, and alienate us from God, God’s creation, and one another.

But there is hope. Why else does the church keep pouring out its little cup of water into the West Bank, Sudan and other desperate places of the world where hope has run dry? Why do we keep visiting the shut-ins and those in hospitals when we have no miracle drug to take away all their pain? Why do we commit ourselves to the political process when there is so much cynicism? Why? Because God is not done with us.

So we will take our stand beside Ezekiel and proclaim our hope to the dry bones, “Thus, says the Lord, I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live!” You who gave up hope, who gave up dreaming, who have settled for a comfortably routine life of work, bills and dirty laundry. You who think your best years are behind you. You who think the Lord God has forgotten all about your little life. To you, we say, “Arise!” Arise from the heap of discarded dreams. Arise to discover that the Holy Spirit is breathing life back into you. Arise to live with magnificent hope! Because God is not done with us.

We have come full circle since Ash Wednesday, when we were reminded that we were but dust. Now we know what the Lord can do with a pile of bones and dust: we can live and be part of the Lord’s vast multitude. And always we shall know that “I am the Lord,” and that knowledge will sustain us.

God continues to surprise and rescue us in our experiences of exile, in our Babylons. That’s why we’re here together in this place today. The creative love and power of God in Christ is stronger than all of the negative forces at work in this world. As we celebrate God’s Presence in this community in Word and sacrament, God breathes life into us–abundant life, eternal life. For this, thanks be to God!

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