God Reanimates Even Skeleton Lives *

A sermon based on Ezekiel 37:1-14
April 6, 2014 at Mount Vernon, Ohio
by Rev. Scott Elliott

We just heard Ezekiel’s very strange vision of a valley full of bones. That, of course, leads me to some strange puns. Did you notice how Ezekiel’s pretty intense in the story, but, the skeletons are calm? I suspect that’s because nothing can get under their skin. Also they don’t speak because they had no body to speak with.  And they could not get up because they lacked the guts to do so. Actually although they can’t get up, it’s not because they are lazy bones –  to flesh the story out– they can’t get up (and this is real) because they represent Israel in exile where truly only a skeleton of the once powerful community remained.
In addition to my mining the story for strange puns, there are actually a lot of metaphors in the text that we heard Greg read.  Babylon conquered Israel and took its culture’s elite into captivity for nearly 50 years.  In the valley of captivity the hopes of those captured were dashed and dried up; they thought they’d never get home. They thought Israel was lost forever.The scattered bones of the nation in a foreign land were all that seemed to remain. There was no meat, or muscle; no sinews or skin; no guts. The people of Israel really did feel that they had no body of a community left. Ezekiel knows this. God shows him a valley filled with the symbolic bones of the once proud leaders and elite of the nation of Israel and God asks  “Mortal can these bones live?  And Ezekiel is smart. He doesn’t say the obvious “That there’s no way those dried up old things will live!” He does not even hem or haw or take a wild guess. He defers to God when facing the impossible. He responds “O Lord God, you know.”

And what God alone knows is remarkable. The answer God gives is incredible. It is in essence: “Yes, the bones can live. Yes, newness is possible”1 God’s answer defies human logic. It is virtually inconceivable, but God claims that those hopeless, dried up bones of the spirit in that valley of despair can live. In fact God promises their spirit will be reanimated – that they will live– through God’s actions, actions which profoundly reverse the ordinary order of natural decay. God promises to cause sinews to appear, to cause flesh to appear, to cause skin to appear and to cause breath that will bring them to life.
Like the creation story, the Word of God, the breath of God is essential to animate human life in this story. But in this story the Word of God, the breath of God comes out of the act of a human, Ezekiel.  This fits with the Lenten theme we’ve got going that God works through us!  We can hear in this, hope. Hope that humanity has the God-given power to initiate the re-animation the life of even those with nothing left, but bare bones of life.  Even if it is just dead dry bones of our spiritual life scattered and in pieces. No matter what there is always the promise that our spiritual life can be re-animated! 2  Amazingly it is through humans that God works this miracle!

To tie into another theme we’ve touched upon, like the story of the phoenix rising, there’s the promise of transformation from the ashes of our lives. Whatever has happened in any moment before, can be overcome to make a better us. We can be saved from the lesser life we have had– no matter what! This is true in every given moment.  From dry bones, from heaps of ashes, from anything, even from a torturous death on a cross, God can transform the negative into the positive. How? For us it is through God’s incarnation in humanity.

Ezekiel works God’s miracle by prophesying to the bones, teaching them to “hear the word of the Lord.”  God’s Word is the breath that begins creation and life in our Bible stories. Once they have learned to hear the word, God then builds the body back up bit by bit. And Ezekiel, a human is involved. He’s a part of God’s very own breath being breathed upon them so that they can live. And live they do!

This is a very hopeful story. And it is not just one for history. It is one for the present. Indeed it speaks to us now. A number of folks in this church grew up in the United Church of Christ or one of the traditions that formed it. But many of us are amongst the scattered. Some from other denominations. Some from other religions. Some from no prior religion at all.  Many of us have even lain in a desolate spiritual valley with hopes dashed and dried up. Nothing but bare bones to our spirituality. No meat or muscle. No sinews or skin. No guts left, bones, ashes, crosses of one sort or another have emptied us. The good news of this story – of the whole Bible, in fact– is that God can re-animate our lives from the valley of the shadow of even death.

All of us at one time or another have experienced or will experience feeling dried up with no body left to our spirit, no spiritual body at all. Whether individually or communally, we just have bare bones left. It would not surprise me if there are some folks here today that maybe feel that way now. It’s getting easier and easier to feel dried up spiritually and scattered to the wind. We not only move around a lot – often far from our families and hometowns– but, more and more it seems that neighbors barely talk to one another.  We often live our lives in isolation, feeling alone in big cities bustling with people; feeling powerless in the machinery of a culture pushing us to work, to move, to do, do, do for ourselves, for our family, for the economy, for the boss, for the country, for what we called in my youth “The Man.”

This can lead us to feel like we are in a valley of captivity too, where hopes feel dashed and dried up. It can feel like we’ll never get back on the track to the promised land.  It can feel like our sense of being is lost forever. It feels like our spirituality is dried up.  Like the lyrics from a famous song in the 70’s we feel like “all we are is dust in the wind.” Scattered bones with no meat, no muscles, no sinews, no skin, no breath left. Today there can be, and often is, a sense of spiritual death, not only of self, but, of community.  Captivity can come in the form of a conquering nation or too many hours at work or isolation. It can also come in the form of bullying or oppression or physiological concerns or psychological concerns, loss of loved ones or loss of relationships, or just the daily grind.

The Lectionary reading today ends with these words:

Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.

We can choose to hear this as more than a promise to Ezekiel and the banished elite of Israel. It is a promise to all whose bones are dried up, whose hope is lost, who feel cut off. God’s promise is to raise us up, to put God’s own Spirit in us, to place us on our own soil, to bring us home to give us a resurrection so that like a phoenix we arise out of what ash heap of life we feel burnt up by.  All we need do is hear, really hear, the word of the Lord, to know that God is Lord and to act on it.

What is really quite amazing is that this church is like Ezekiel. We prophesy, that is, we herald the Good News of the Word of God to all who enter this space and even beyond. I don’t mean just here in the pulpit. I mean this whole church. You can feel God is Lord right down to the bones in this place.  God has taken the dry bones and hopelessness we have felt in our lives and built a throng here of those who know God is Lord. Not “Lord” as in one to cow-tow and kiss up to like “The Man,” but, “Lord” as in the One we joyfully follow and let lead. The Lord of the Dance, the Lord of Love, not the lord of the manor or the company we work for, or even the leaders of the state or country.  God is our one and our only Lord – a loving, caring compassionate LORD at that.

Through First Congregational United Church of Christ that loving caring compassionate Lord is building a community, adding sinews to the dry bones. How? First of all like the banner outside says we are a “heart and brains church.” We are not afraid to question and think and apply the gifts of reason in our understanding of God, Jesus, the Bible or how to love.

We are also not afraid to love and let our heart lead our understanding of how to relate to each other and creation. Indeed love is the center of our faith, our brain thinks critically to make sure we come back to the heart the place where  God – love– is. Jesus teaches us by his word and deed and continuing experiential presence to make this our relentless quest.

It may sound kinda crazy to some for a church to think critically in order to (pun intended) get to the heart of the matter. But crazy or not that’s how it works.  The United Church of Christ’s motto is “God is Still Speaking.”  In order to see a comma instead of a period, a full stop to the Word of God once the Bible was finished two thousand years ago, we need to have an open mind to help us find the heart of the matter, the Word of God speaking in our world today.  The two, heart and mind, work together.   We have to question whether what we are doing or being asked to do is loving; and then we have to figure out how to best do the loving. To be the Word of God in the world.

What I say up here is meant to open up thinking and dialog, to provoke thought and most especially, I hope, love.  My sermons are not the final word on anything in this church.  The traditions of the Church are not the final word on anything in this church.  Even the words in the Bible do not close the discussion in this church. Through this church God helps us help others, adding sinews to bare bones, by encouraging use of our brains and thinking here. We do not check our brains at the door. By allowing ourselves to be open in our thinking we hope to hear what comes after the comma, what God is still speaking– what the Word of God is saying to today.

And that leads us to where God is calling us to the heart of the matter which is, of course, to love– really, really love. First Congregational United Church of Christ God is building a community, adding flesh to the sinews with a passion for love and justice and kindness and God. There can be no dryness to our faith when the blood of our passion for the love of God, self and neighbor runs through our veins pumped by our heart.

This is a very dedicated church. There are so many of you who give of your time and other gifts to make this place and our missions and ministries run. It’s truly remarkable.  The support needed to make it through a week of all this church does is huge.  Have you ever thought about it? With passion for love, justice, kindness and God, brothers and sisters from this church do an amazing amount of work.   Volunteer hours are spent administering the non-profit corporate functions as council and officers and committee members.  Folks come and share their open thinking at Book Study, Adult Forum and Lenten studies helping us all to grow. Our wonderful free Chi Gong class exercises our body and our spirit. Progressive, loving, open-to-all worship services are provided and supported and attended.  Prayers are prayed for joys and concerns all week long.  Members in the hospital and their families are visited, as are the homebound through the pastor, deacons and others.  Talented musicians show up and spend precious hours singing and preparing for our children, chancel, bell choir and special music offerings.   People in need are provided hot meals week in and week out. People are provided for through our active involvement and support of Interchurch, Crop Walk, Back Bay, Habitat of Humanity, Christian Star Academy, Gay Straight Alliance, Fair Trade Sales, Can-Do, Winter Sanctuary  and other mission and ministry work, with new ones in the works. Things are fixed and built and taken down and gussied-up all over the  building and campus. The place is cleaned up, essentials for the services are brought in and arranged, filled and put in place. Infants are cared for in the nursery. Children and youth and adults are lovingly taught.  There are many saintly loving Spirit-filled folks here whose very presence provides peace and love. You also bring much needed gifts in the form of offerings, spending hard earned resources spent not on yourselves, but gladly on God.  Lots of passion fills this place, let me tell you.  Week in and week out you all bring gifts of “love in action” to this place, to God, to others.
And a lot of organizations  do things and are active. The difference is that love part. Our efforts to do things with love bring God’s breath into the mix.  Putting it sort of in a backwards to today’s text: We enflesh God when we love. Love animates Spiritual life. It is God’s very being we exude when we Love.  God’s there always, but, we have to bring God to the fore to animate, to help cause God’s breath to be breathed into bones that have dried up. Bones that are in the valley of despair.

So here is the thing, we have to always strive to think openly with an aim toward Love. We have to always strive to whole heartedly believe in Love. We have to always strive to animate our lives and the lives of others with actions, breaths of Love. When we do those things, which we do a lot here, then we help God accomplish what Ezekiel helped God do, the seemingly impossible. We help God resurrect the spiritually dead from the dry spiritual bones of life. God gives life to those whose hope is lost, who feel cut off completely, through love-centered communities like this church and people like us.  This is happening here all the time. God is still speaking to and even through us.

First Congregational is a God soaked, Christ drenched, Spirit-filled place and old and new bones are coming to life all the time and finding help and even family here, and they–we– in turn keep the cycle going as this family of God’s helps the world out there to be spiritually re-animated.

As we help God help enflesh bare bones, we enflesh God. As I mentioned a few weeks ago St Augustine said: “God without us will not as we without God cannot”     That’s powerful stuff. And it is good news indeed that this Holy community strives to be with God as we work for God! The Word of the Lord is what God speaks to animate life in Genesis and in the world. May we hear the Word of the Lord– and spread it far and wide.  AMEN!


* This sermon is based in part on a sermon I preached in 2008.

1. Texts For Preaching (Westminster John Knox, (2007))  p. 219 of CD ROM
2. Ibid.