20 May 2018
The Valley of Dry Bones seems like a strange place to go on Pentecost, but here we are. We start at a place where there is no hope, no life. Ezekiel was mourning for the Israelites in Babylon, in exile and with seemingly no promise of anything to come. God had abandoned them; the temple lay in ruins and all that they had come to believe of themselves as God’s chosen people was shattered. No wonder all that Ezekiel saw was death and dryness. I have never been to Death Valley, but I picture it a bit like the valley he saw: all heat and dryness, with all the moisture, that is the life, sucked out of it.
But God saw something different in that Valley of Dry Bones. Archeologists get all excited when the discover a new fossil bed. About 200 miles from here is the Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park, just off US Highway 20 near Royal, Nebraska. From their brochure:
About 12 million years ago, a volcano in southwest Idaho spread a blanket of ash over a very large area. One or two feet of this powdered glass covered the flat savannah-like grasslands of northeastern Nebraska.
Most of the animals which lived here survived the actual ashfall, but as they continued to graze on the ash covered grasses, their lungs began to fill up with the abrasive powder. Soon their lungs became severely damaged and they began to die.
The smaller animals died first (smaller lung capacities) and finally, after perhaps three to five weeks, the last of the rhinos perished. Their bodies were quickly covered by the blowing and drifting ash.
Undisturbed except by an occasional scavenging meat-eater, the skeletons of these animals are preserved in their death positions, complete with evidence of their last meals in their mouths and stomachs and their last steps preserved in the sandstone below.
Ezekiel would have understood. His own people, the whole house of Israel, were exiled and spiritually dead. But nothing is impossible for God!! The bones are brought back together with tendons, then muscle was laid upon them, then skin covered them. But they still were not complete; “there was not breath in them.” Ruah” is the breath, the wind, the spirit. Those in our midst who are refugees understand very well the despair that the people felt. You have seen your country destroyed and friends and family killed. Hope may be destroyed as well; but hear a word from the Lord: despair itself can be destroyed by God. Hope can come to all who yearn for peace and a return to the fruits of peace. God is with you and the wind of the Spirit blows over the land, whether it is South Sudan or Syria or Palestine or tribal lands of Native peoples.
People living with severe depression are like those piles of bones, unable to reform to a living breathing human being. Depression and mental illness can lower you to the brink of death, if not death itself. It takes great effort and many caring people to lift someone from the throes of depression. Veterans and people who are marginalized are often victims of suicide. Ezekiel can be a messenger of hope for those who feel there is no place to turn and live in utter despair. Maybe this is why a 12-step program works for so many who can pull themselves, with the help of others, out of the mire of substance abuse. You must recognize a higher power and that higher power can infuse you with the breath of life. Sometimes we become the breath of life for someone else. We sit with them, we support them, we make sure the resources are there to help them. Most of all we recognize the common humanity of all. When we are filled with the spirit, we can help breathe on those who need us. Part of CPR is rescue breathing, literally putting your own breath into another person.
What of us as a nation? What of those who live within our borders who despair as the Israelites had despaired? I am a wealthy white Christian whose ancestors literally helped form the institution of slavery in this country. I can trace at least one branch of my family to a very real tobacco plantation on the banks of the Potomac River in Virginia. Even if I did not have that clear family history, I have benefitted from this nation’s institution of slavery. Almost every one of us who is white have participated in the creation of a Valley of Dry Bones as we reap the wealth given us from the unpaid labor of African Americans. What will happen to us as a nation when those people are made whole? For we are the unspoken imperial power that created the dry bones to whom Ezekiel prophesied.
When his prophecy was made to pass for those who returned from exile, the people who returned discovered the poor Israelites who were left behind and who experience had been different and perhaps harsher than those who returned. At that point in the history of Israel those who returned could have remembered what God had done for them and worked for justice and prosperity for all. But they did not. How will things be in this nation when all who despair are given not only hope but the reality of being made whole, given the breath of life? Will we be able to forge an identity as one nation, with liberty and justice for all? Or will it be merely a regime change?
Perhaps I have given the appearance of straying far from the feast of Pentecost. For it is indeed a feast!! Today God has given us the tools we need to create a beloved community, one based on radical (and I do mean radical) inclusion of disparate groups of people from all over. Age is no barrier, nor is gender or ethnicity or language. Today we celebrate God’s bringing together a group of people who would spread out and become a radical movement preaching what had never been preached and living a kind of life the world had never seen. We would do well this Pentecost to heed that very early message, the Good News, that was preached to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria (notice we are getting farther and farther from the heart of Judaism) and to all the world. It is as if we were to go out to where all the dry bones are to be found and to start the process of putting them back together; we are to be Ezekiel with an attitude. But we can only do so much; only by turning to God does the Spirit, the wind, Ruah, rush in and complete the work that has been done.
Today let us be one with those early disciples and feel the rush of the wind and the tongues of fire. Then let us leave this place with more resolve and more full of the spirit than we have ever been and do the work that God has given us to do. I would ask that this week you pray every day for five people outside of your family and that you pray for this nation and for the world. Now that you are full of the spirit, let it take you where your calling is: the place where your deep joy and the needs to the world meet one another.