Saturday, July 27, 2013

Life in a Graveyard

(A sermon preached at Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Dallas, TX on July 28th, 2013)

Rick Wienecke and Casting Seeds (

The sad truth is, a story told over and over can cease to captivate us.  That is especially true for those of us who have heard stories in the Bible year after year after year.  We have stopped being shocked, angered, grief-stricken, overjoyed, humbled or captured by the stories of our faith.  And when that happens, we have to open our hearts to hear old stories in new ways, with new words.  Which is why, this morning, I ask that you listen while I try to retell you one of those old stories.  May the words I have written and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O God, my Lord and redeemer.

Ezekiel had thought that he was done being surprised by YHWH. He had once found himself whisked into the inner sanctums of the temple in Jerusalem though he had been 200 miles north only seconds before. He had been struck mute for years, the only words that passed his lips being sharp words of judgment. He had watched his wife die and then had been forbidden to mourn her. He had eaten bread cooked over cow shit, had crawled through holes in walls while confused crowds watched him. If it was possible to get used to the impossible, Ezekiel thought that he had gotten used to it. But now he knew the folly of that presumption as he stood knee deep in the dry bones of what seemed to be an entire nation. Where the hell was he?

These people (a whole people?) had been dead a long time. The bones had none of the shiny luster of a fresh kill, and there was no smell. The wind whipped through rib cages and macabrely delicate hand bones and there was no smell - except maybe for the faint aroma of dust.  These folks had been picked clean and their marrow had been sucked dry and all that was left were their brittle bones like cracked carapaces.

Ezekiel tried to pick his way out of the middle of the sea of skeletons he had materialized in. He was haunted by so many scenes of terror and violence, his dreams a shrill and screaming cacophony of nightmares already lived and nightmares only feared, but he still looked quickly away from the tiny skull that could only have belonged to a baby. He tried to unsee the small hands clutched in the bones of larger ones, tried to avoid the postures that hinted at loved ones dying alongside one another. These bones were old and dry but they still told a tragic story, a story of devastation and destruction and the implacable march of time that bleached them white.

He tried to make his way to the edges of the graveyard valley but seemed to be trapped by the unmoving figures strewn about him. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, preparing to fling himself in a random direction, when he felt a hand slip into his own.  Ezekiel's eyes popped open in fright and then he stilled when he realized who was standing next to him. The first time the figure had appeared, Ezekiel had tried to get a good look at the face hidden by the deep white cowl of their robe, but he could never remember what he saw there. (A face? The starry skies? The dark vastness of the tumultuous seas? All that was and is and will be?) He let himself be led through the bones.

They came to the edge of the valley of bones and looked on it together. Ezekiel braced himself for another volley of gorgeously phrased judgments, but the figure to his right merely gestured expansively to the graveyard scene below them and asked with a voice both whispering and thundering: "Human one, can these bones live again?" Can these bones live again? Was that rhetorical? A test? Ezekiel was still not used to being able to speak by his own choice and he was deeply shaken by the desolate scene laid out below him. How could he have words in this place of death, let alone words of life or hope? Can these bones live again? He decided to deflect with what sounded pious but was really laden with confusion and pain: "Lord, You Know."

He was afraid he did know and that the answer was no and that this was just one more depressing vision about the fate that awaited Israel after God brought down full judgment. His people, his wife, his children, his nation, himself, prone bones in a valley of death, an object lesson for the ages. "Lord, You know."

The figure moved from his right and stood in front of Ezekiel and took his face into its hands (or were they furling clouds? Or the great stones of the Sinai desert mountains?) and spoke gently to him. It was the voice that mothers use with suckling babes or shepherds use with frightened lambs. It was a voice that the Hooded One had never used with him before. "Prophesy to these bones, Human one. Tell them that I will soon breathe life into them and they will live again. Muscle and sinew, nerves and skin will grow again and they will live."

Oh, how he had longed to speak words of life after so many years of only speaking words of death! The Hooded One stood beside him again, patient (such a patient One), seemingly unmoved by the open tomb below them and motioned him forward. So with a soft voice, choked with tears unshed and hope so long unspoken, Ezekiel whispered a trembling benediction over the valley of dry bones: "Bones, you shall live."

The clatter that arose out of the valley was one that Ezekiel would never forget.  It seemed to be the sound of a thousand blades crashing together, of the waves of the Red sea roaring up and over the armies of Egypt, of the loud songs of the temple during the golden age of Solomon, of the thundering of rocks as they rolled down the sides of Mount Horeb.  Dust swirled below, but he could clearly see the bones rising up from their resting positions and…assembling.  Feet connecting to ankles to leg bones to femurs to hips to spines to arms to necks to skulls, a skeleton army that stood unmoving in the sudden silence. 

And then, the air was filled with a wet sound.  Ezekiel had no idea what could make that sucking, swirling noise so he raced back into the midst of the bodies and watched as sinew and vein, nerve and muscle grew up and around and through the once-dry-bones.  He watched hearts begin to grow and eyes fill in the sockets and tongues lay down beside now glistening teeth.  He marveled as skin grew up and hair grew out and all at once a nation of people stood where there had been only death.  He would have shouted with welcome but he suddenly realized that they didn’t breathe.  He felt the neck of a man close to him and he could feel the pumping of a newly made heart.  But they didn’t breathe.  They were statues made of flesh.

Ezekiel looked to the ledge that he had just run from, seeking the answers that only the Hooded One could give.  As usual, the cloaked figure was never where Ezekiel expected it to be.  This time the voice (was it weeping? Or singing?) came from his left, weaving a path in and out of the still standing figures.  “Call to the four winds, Human one.  Tell them that the Lord bids them to come and lend their breath to those that were slain so that they may live. “  Ezekiel ran into the midst of the still bodies, ran until he reached the middle of the great (and silent) multitude and threw his hands and voice up into the air with exultation: “Come winds of the North! Winds of the south! Winds of the East! Winds of the West! Bring your breath, that those who were dead may once again live!”

And the winds came.  With a thundering fury, the winds spilled into the valley and swirled around the silent figures.  Ezekiel was buffeted back and forth, blinking furiously as the powerful winds from every corner of the earth rushed and pulled at him.  Shielding his eyes and struggling to make his way through the tightly packed bodies around him, he strained to see what was happening.  He finally reached the edge of the assembly and he saw, all at once, all of their mouths fall open: the mouths of babes in arms and withered old men, the mouths of strong young men and pregnant women, the mouths of the young and the old.  They opened their mouths and as one their chests heaved and swelled with their first breath.  They lived! They lived!  He had spoken the word of the Lord and they had lived!

Ezekiel watched with joy, anticipating their first words, their life, (their possibility!) when he felt himself being jerked around and then swallowed up by the fabric of what seemed to be a very large white robe.  Strong arms (or were they the trunks of great trees?  Or thick vines from plants unknown?) held him close and the Hooded One spoke quietly into his ear: “Human one, these bones are my people Israel who cried out to me when all hope was lost.  Prophesy to them, tell them that I am the God who opens graves and restores life to the dead.  Tell them I will open their tombs and bring them up and they shall live again.  My spirit shall be within then, with you.  You shall live again.”

And Ezekiel wept in the arms of the One he loved, of the One who loved him.  Wept because his people would one day live again.

Hear the words of the Lord, my beloved.  God has given you his spirit, and you shall live.  God has breathed upon you, so you will live.  Out of the graves of your past, out of the tombs of your sin, out of the mausoleums of your failures, God calls you to live.  Stand up you who were once dry bones.  Stand up.  And live.

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