David A. Davis
September 10, 2023
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The second scripture lesson this morning tells of the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the “valley of the dry bones”. A familiar biblical text to some, to many perhaps. A vision of a stark image that strikes the eye of the first time reader, strikes the ear of the first time listener. A valley full of bones. Very many bones. Dry bones. As I read the lesson for this morning, I invite you to listen for, to look for the word “breath” that occurs so often in just a few verses. “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live…Come from the four winds, O breath..” In Hebrew the word for “breath” is the same the word for “spirit”. Ruah. Breath. Spirit. “I will put my Spirit within you, and you live.” The breath giving life to the very many dry bones is the life giving Spirit of God.
“Mortal, can these bones live?” There in the middle of the valley known to the psalmist as the “valley of the shadow of death”. Heap after heap of dry bones. A scene of biblical proportion painted to portray the utter opposite of life. That type of scene is not reserved for archeologists in the tattered span of human history or even in most of our lifetimes. As we gather this morning on the eve of another anniversary of September 11, 2001. This I read that the remains of two more people who died on 9/11 have been identified and families were notified. More than twenty years later. Another scene of the utter opposite of life.
“Mortal, can these bones life?” Ezekiel, the prophet to a people in exile, the prophet/priest turns toward the voice of the Lord that led him into death’s valley, the prophet turns back to the Spirit of the Lord, shakes his head, shrugs his shoulders, heaves a heavy sigh, and says “O Lord God, you know!”
Here in the bible, in another place, at another time, another vision is offered. This time it is John of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. John is shown a great multitude which no could number. The canvas of the vision isn’t a killing field. It is the throne of heaven. John is shown a crowd coming from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. People from everywhere are standing before the throne of God dressed in white robes. They are carrying palm branches and singing a divine setting of Hallelujah Chorus. A scene of biblical proportion painted to portray God’s promise of everlasting life. One of the elders, one standing before the throne of grace, one of the elders says to John, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” John turns toward the elder who offered the exam question. John looks back at the crowd, shakes his head, shrugs his shoulders, heaves a heavy sigh, and says Sir you are the one who knows”.
Or in other words, “I have no idea!” From the valley of the dry bones to heavenly throne room of God. “Can these bones live?…Lord God, you’re the only one who knows.” “Who is this multitude?…God, you’re the only one who knows.” It would seem the presence of the Holy Spirit and voice of the Lord inspires one to come to grips with the notion that some questions, some answers are best left to God. Can these bones live? Who is that standing there as the roll is called up yonder? Lord God, you know. Visions of biblical proportion. Prophet piety of biblical proportion that comes with a decided unwillingness to claim all the answers. Ezekiel, John the Revelator, and the Holy Spirit. A not so subtle, too often missed message of biblical proportion that trumpets a life of faith infuse with humility and grace. “I just don’t know, God.”
It occurs to me that John, John was privileged to hear the choirs of heaven singing. All Ezekiel got to hear was that “rattling”. “I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together.” Rattling. This was no ordinary rattle. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find the word “rattling” elsewhere in scripture. This was more like a rumbling, an earthshaking. Like the loud rumbling Ezekiel himself heard when he was called and sent by the Lord to be a prophet to the people of Israel. Ezekiel’s call, what tradition summarizes as “when Ezekial saw the wheel”. A biblical multi-media experience for all the senses. As the vision came to its end, Ezekiel reports that the “spirit lifted me up as the glory of the Lord rose from its place and I heard behind me the sound of loud rumbling”. A quaking. A rattling. Like the shake felt by the prophet Elijah up at Mt Horeb when the Lord was about to pass by. There was wind and fire and earthquake, a rattling, but the Lord, you remember came in a still small voice. Like the rattling that must have been heard by angels when the stone was rolled away that Easter morning; what Matthew describes as “a great earthquake”.
This rattling was more than a bone here or a bone there, more than the knee bone connected to the thigh bone, more than one skeleton learning to dance. That rattling. John got to hear angles sing. Ezekiel got to hear the rattling of resurrection life. The rattling of life coming upon a whole people. The dance of collective resurrection. “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 gong to 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……I will put my spirit within you and you shall live!”
My first congregation was here in New Jersey down in Camden County. There was a vast county-owned property not far from the church known as Lakeland. At one point in history Lakeland was vast campus that housed all kinds of county services. Over the decades, Lakeland became a shell of itself. Among a campus of falling down, empty buildings, the only operations left were a long term care facility for veterans and a mental health hospital. This vast piece of property also included a rather large cemetery with no gravestones or markers to be seen. It was a paupers’ field. A cemetery full of nameless people who died alone with little to nothing. I officiated at a few burials there where it was me, a couple people from the funeral home, the person who opened the grave, and a casket surrounded by mounds of dirt that sat atop recently filled graves. I offered the liturgy, the scripture, and the prayers. The four of us said the Lord’s Prayer together. The ritual of the promise of resurrection life in a Paupers’ Field or in Princeton Cemetery. Speaking, prophesying, preaching “the sure and certain hope of resurrection life”.
The prophet Ezekiel stands in a pauper’s field, a valley of dry bones, amid a common grave. God said “these are my people”. The prophet standing amid heap after heap of dry bones and the Spirit says “preach”. Like a wind. Like breath. Like Spirit. Preaching life to the dry bones of the people of God. Listening as the Holy Spirit works to breath life, hope and faith in and among and through the people of God. Listening in a community of faith for the rattling that comes with resurrection life.
The rattling of resurrection life embodied in the lives of those called together by God. A collective resurrection, that these dry bones, might in the very power of God, be the body of Christ in service to another and to the world. The Spirit’s breath and our life together. Not as anonymous Christians lost in a crowd, but as a living breathing community that worships together, a community that seeks to be faithful together, a community that commits to a depth of learning and living the gospel together. A community with more than enough broken bones and missteps along the way, where both hurt and forgiveness are real. Yet, a community that fully believes and waits for the breath of the Holy Spirit to blow afresh. A community that yearns to care for all who are in need, together. A community that dares stand with those who are shunned by the world, together. A community that strives to welcome strangers and entertain angels unaware together. A community that can look back with honesty and lament where necessary and can look ahead with hope and confidence in God’s leading, together. A weather worn community that experiences a passion for its life in God, together. A community that full expects that passion to be renewed week after week. A community that longs to hear, maybe only ever now and then, hear this rattling of resurrection life in its midst.
The preacher Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote that “the truly great preachers in this world are people whose names no one will ever know, because their sermons both arise from and are entirely absorbed by local communities of listeners who labor with them to embody God’s word….The success of a sermon is not measured by how many people said they like it, nor by the preacher’s own sense of accomplishment, but by ho the spoken word cleared a space for people to be met and set in motion by the Spirit of the Living God.” That’s Barbara Brown Taylor writing about the rattling. There is this rattling in the body of Christ. Spirit. Breath. Life. Our life together and the resurrection promise of God.
The pandemic has taken its toll on houses of worship and faith leaders. At the same time, culture and politics has ripped some congregations apart as well. You have read about what some have called “the great pastor resignation”. The topic went viral this week on “presbyterian twitter.” Actually, presbyterians are not that hip so it was probably better described as “presbyterian Facebook”. A pastor blogging about leaving their congregation and offering a pretty extensive list of grievances about the old dry tired bones of the church and of ministry. The chatter, the buzz, the talk, the response to that post? It’s…a lot. On all sides. All opinions. All kinds of thoughts about these old, tired bones.
I couldn’t help myself. I read more responses and chatter about that post than I should have. I don’t even have Facebook. Amid this social media firestorm, I have my found myself being incredibly grateful because I realize God has gifted me, God has blessed me, God has enriched my life and my faith endlessly. You see, I have heard it. I have heard the rattling. Some Sunday mornings when you stand up here and look out, you can see and feel the weight of the world and the complexity of life and the strain of the journey. The collective wear and tear of life. And I bet over the years, you have seen it and felt it among those of us called to serve among you. But time and time again, there is this rattling. The promise of resurrection life rumbling. The shaking that comes when the darkness is so thick and together we discover that the light still shines. Maybe I can’t describe it. Maybe I can’t make a list. Maybe I can’t point here or there. But for heaven’s sake, for God’s sake, I have heard it. I have felt it. I have seen it. I long for it. I crave it. For Christ is Risen. He is Risen Indeed!
The promise of resurrection life and these tired old bones. A foretaste of what God can and will do among us, the body of Christ here and now at Nassau Church. “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live!” God’s promise. Let it rumble among us. And let those who have ears to hear, let them hear!