Hope for Old Bones

Ezekiel 37:1-14

"God grabbed me. God’s Spirit took me up and set me down in the middle of an open plain strewn with bones. He led me around and among them—a lot of bones! There were bones all over the plain—dry bones, bleached by the sun. He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Master God, only you know that.” He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones: ‘Dry bones, listen to the message of God!’” God, the Master, told the dry bones, “Watch this: I’m bringing the breath of life to you and you’ll come to life. I’ll attach sinews to you, put meat on your bones, cover you with skin, and breathe life into you. You’ll come alive and you’ll realize that I am God!” I prophesied just as I’d been commanded. As I prophesied, there was a sound and, oh, rustling! The bones moved and came together, bone to bone. I kept watching. Sinews formed, then muscles on the bones, then skin stretched over them. But they had no breath in them. He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath. Prophesy, son of man. Tell the breath, ‘God, the Master, says, Come from the four winds. Come, breath. Breathe on these slain bodies. Breathe life!’” So I prophesied, just as he commanded me. The breath entered them and they came alive! They stood up on their feet, Then God said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Listen to what they’re saying: ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone, there’s nothing left of us.’ “Therefore, prophesy. Tell them, ‘God, the Master, says: I’ll dig up your graves and bring you out alive—O my people! Then I’ll take you straight to the land of Israel. When I dig up graves and bring you out as my people, you’ll realize that I am God. I’ll breathe my life into you and you’ll live. Then I’ll lead you straight back to your land and you’ll realize that I am God. I’ve said it and I’ll do it. God’s Decree.’"

Prayer – God of life, there are many times when we feel like old dried up bones; overwhelmed by life and circumstance, with little room to breathe. There are other times when life is full and the deepest breath brings a sense of renewal and strength. Send your deep breath of life to those who are feeling uncertain, hopeless, and discouraged; for others, remind us that your breath brings new spirit and hope where there is a sense of tiredness. Bless us this day of Pentecost, O Lord, with a deep cleansing and renewing breath of life – amen.

On November 6, 1991, a band of the Charles Taylor rebels stormed a small village in Liberia. In desert-dusty pick-up trucks and battered jeeps, the rebels roared into the village without warning and unleashed waves of terror.  They were part of a violent uprising to overthrow the government of Samuel Doe. The first house they stormed was the home of Sabby Browne. Her father worked for the government as Deputy Chief of Immigration. They bound and beat him, tortured him in unspeakable ways – before they killed him. Sabby was restrained and forced to watch.  Then the rebels tore Sabby’s infant son, Onesimus, from her hands. They assaulted her, brutalized her and left her to die with her son beside.

Left for dead, with little food and less hope, Sabby and Onesimus walked out of the village into the Liberian scrub bush wilderness where they wandered for more than a month.  On December 10, they arrived in the Ivory Coast. A family took them in, but after three months, when they could no longer provide care for Sabby, they asked her and her son to leave.  Homeless, penniless, helpless and hopeless, a young mother and her son were figuratively in a valley of dry bones.

On March 12, 1992, Sabby and Onesimus arrived at a refugee camp in Ghana.  It was crowded with tens of thousands of refugees fleeing from the same horror.  Sabby found work weaving hair and found a relationship with a man from Ghana. She had two more children with the man, Rufina and Ndu.  The man left her – a homeless mother with three children in a refugee camp. The promising hopeful valley was barren again.

A refugee resettlement program brought Sabby and her young children to the US.  A small church cobbled together the money and the means to welcome them to a furnished apartment in Chicago.  On a bitter bone-chilling February night in 2006, fifteen years after the Charles Taylor rebels roared into her village, Sabby and her three children arrived in Chicago.  

The children were small – malnourished.  They needed shots and medical attention. They needed safe strong consistent schools.  They needed a stable community. They needed hope. Sabby wrote, “I don’t know where my mother, brother and sisters are since the Liberian War, but I thank God that I am alive with my children.”  There have been a few other moves and struggles along the way but today, Sabby Browne is alive and working two jobs to care for her kids.

Now you can hear that as a story of remarkable resilience of the human spirit.  It contains the tension between the worst impulses in humanity and the best. You can hear it as a celebration of luck, or providence, or the mystery of how some survive in this cruel world, but I hope you hear it is a living parable of how God brings hope to deep valleys of dry bones.  

We know that valley.  We see it in our lives.  The dry bones of best intentions, our failed efforts, our fractured relationships.  We all have hit some serious dry spells. We see it in the world – the tragedy of yet another senseless school shooting; in the broken bodies of persistent racism; of war and famine like Sabby experienced; young black men who can’t find jobs; gay teenagers who commit suicide because of the rejection they face; impoverished Honduran campesinos; women beaten by the men they love.  In scorn for people with mental illness or who speak a different language or travel in a wheelchair. Children who don’t have enough to eat and who never really know love as God intended.

We know that valley.  Our stories may not be as horrific as Sabby’s, but we all have stories.  We run stuck in this world. We hit brick walls. We get mired in intractable conflicts.  We exhaust options. We deplete hope and drain help. We know the dead ends of bankruptcy, cancer, depression, abuse, lonely and left behind, unemployed, grieving yet another loss, and family conflicts that just won’t budge.  We know the unending violence in the Middle East, the violence in our own communities, and the profound imbalance of a global economy. Dry bones are seemingly the way of the world.

But our ancient text opens up a window, an angle, a perspective; a vision . . . Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones is not really a story about resurrection of the dead.  Rather, it is used as a metaphor for the renewal of the people of Israel. They were seemingly at a dead end, exiles in Babylon. Their land was ravaged, their temple destroyed, and their families scattered.  They were refugees in a strange land. They regarded this political and military defeat as an irrevocable historical judgment. Marduk, the god of the Babylonians, had prevailed. Yahweh had proven impotent, their faith inadequate, and the covenant promises proven insufficient.  The formation of a kingdom with a king didn’t turn out so well. They had gone the way of empires, they rise and fall.

Stuck in Babylon, some sat by the river and sang old songs, while others scoffed.  They were a field of bones, dry, dusty, sun bleached and dead still. Without breath; without help; without hope.  Then God called Ezekiel to go stand in the middle of the cemetery. Climb up on a tombstone with neck bones and thigh bones and wish bones as far as you can see, and proclaim – “Watch this: I’m bringing the breath of life to you and you’ll come to life. I’ll attach sinews to you, put meat on your bones, cover you with skin, and breathe life into you. You’ll come alive and you’ll realize that I am God!”

Don’t be fooled by dead ends.  Don’t trust your eyes or ears. Don’t believe the ways of the world.  Don’t be on the pretty ponies, the powerful kings or piles of money. Don’t believe it when the fat lady starts to sing.  It is not over. Love wins in the end. Hope is grounded, founded and granted by God.

For when you are without power, when you’re weak, when you’ve run out of options, when you believe you are at the end of your rope, there is still the breath of God.  And brittle bones will band together and be blown full of life, and a dry old man and a barren old woman will give birth to a son, and water will come from rock, and a virgin will bear a son, and the garden tomb will be empty, and the dead will be resurrected.

Now that can easily get turned into a cheap faith in long shots and we get sold a bill of goods that if we believe enough in God will turn our scars into stars.  And it skirts the role that Ezekiel’s vision played in the story of God’s people, for they did return home, and rebuild the temple, and Babylon, that eternal empire fell.  But be that as it may, there is still some deep hope that God continues to breathe new life, new hope into dry old bones. There is still the deep longing, the deep belief that God is still at work in creation – even today.  So, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we still cling to the hope that the breath of God will blow up a roar and rattle old bones, and marriages that are dead in the water will find new winds of love, and stone cold drunks will breathe sober, and those embalmed with greed will be alive with compassion, and both poverty of spirit and pocketbook will be flush with richness, and those dry with depression will be drenched in deep laughter, and this old world will turn upside down, and refugees will dance of justice and mercy and grace, and young people may be able to go to school unafraid – death, dry bones won’t have the last word.

The long trenches of life remind us that the breath of God will blow where it will, and our task is to be faithful even in the waiting, give thanks when we feel it on our faces, and follow its leading when it blows its way toward the cross.  Our confidence is not in our own breath, but in the breath of God that has done, continues to do a radical thing – restoring life where there is death.

Although we don’t know the valleys we will encounter and face in this world, we know the covenant promises of God, ‘I will be with you in the valleys of life.’  I don’t know what is dead in your heart. I don’t know where death has a grip in your life. I don’t know how dry and brittle you are. AND, the will of God is that life will come out of death.  My faith, your faith, our faith is not a naïve optimism or confidence in the power of the human spirit; rather it is in the breath of God – breathing new life, hope into dry old bones. Just ask Sabby Browne – thanks be to God – amen.