Ezekiel 37:1-14, “Bones, Seriously?” Pentecost B 5/27/12
Seeing beyond the Bible story is often hard. We tend to hear the stories like we did as children. It takes a conscious effort to listen beyond the words. Like any good story worth re-telling, the biblical record has meaning beyond the literal if we can get there.
And this is the perfect story to dive into.
Today's story is one of the stranger ones. Rather than immediately looking for metaphors, let's 1st enter into the story and see what we can learn as we try to see & feel Ezekiel's vision.
I had forgotten most of Ezekiel’s story and that he was taken into exile in 597 BCE. One scholar, Dave Garber, describe Ezekiel’s situation like this:
He was a priest who heard reports of his religious institution being corrupted without the proper oversight of the priesthood who had been exiled to Babylon.His own status had been reduced from a prominent position in Jerusalem to that of a temple-less priest in exile. (The book tells many of these traumas.) We forget the death of Ezekiel’s wife and God's command for him not to mourn her as an example for the exilic community not to mourn the loss of the Temple (24:16-24).Most of all, we forget the historical trauma that accompanied this exile. We forget that the Babylonians tortured the inhabitants of Jerusalem with siege warfare that lasted almost two years, leading to famine, disease, and despair (2 Kings 25:3). We forget how these invaders destroyed the city of Jerusalem, razed the temple to the ground, killed many of its inhabitants, and forced the rest to migrate to Babylon.Over and over again, in the texts we (seldom or never) read from the book of Ezekiel, the prophet offers imagery that testifies to and metaphorically represents the multiple traumas that the community faced under the realities of ancient Near Eastern warfare.[i]
This is the background that leads us to Ezekiel’s vision. Unlike some biblical stories, it is clear this is a vision – given for a purpose. Which makes it easier for us to see the metaphor w/o feeling like we are 'not believing’ something. Instead we are trusting in a real message from God.
This vision was certainly given to Ezekiel for the entire nation of Israel. The symbolism is that of an Israel whose hope has died, and for whom there is no future. The dry bones themselves are portrayed as ‘dead as dead’ could possibly be (v. 2). As Ezekiel looks at them, he sees no possibility of a return to life. He must prophecy to the dry bones, which are clearly symbolic of his defeated people.
The people’s perception of their present situation is overwhelming. But the word that the prophet is given to say to them is equally powerful. Life can only be experienced again if it comes from God.
Since this is clearly a message for exiled Israel of 600 BC, how do we find our place in the story?
So: WHERE DO WE SEE DRY BONES?
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Some would say it is here, in the Christian church of 2012, where there is nothing left but dry bones, rattling together every Sunday morning.
“. . .polls, surveys, denominational questionnaires all indicate the inherited religious identities like ‘protestant’ catholic’ ‘Jewish’ [even ‘brethren’] are in a state of flux” says Diana Butler Bass (In "Christianity After Religion")
“Attendance at weekly religious services is significantly down, people mix and switch religions more easily than in the past, traditional religious institutions are in a sustained decline and even general belief in God has eroded over the last 30 years.”
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“Many individual congregations are successful, but the overall picture for religious life in the US is not terribly encouraging, especially for Christians.”
In addition, some people are angry about religion and see only the fighting between faiths. Others are wounded, many people “are just bored.
They are bored with church-as-usual, church as club, church as entertainment, or church as work,” Bass writes. The truth is, “on Sunday, other things are more interesting” or at least more compelling.[ii]
Are we sitting in the valley of disconnected dry bones?
Have you ever felt like you had nothing left to give and the faith in which you grew up, is no longer connected to your life?
I hope not, but since I have questioned the church’s future, I’m going to guess I’m not alone in at least wondering what will come next for the church based on the Jesus’ Way.
If we trust, that God's Spirit can makes these Dry Bones live, what would new life look like?
Can you see an image of new flesh on these bones?
Imagine for a moment. . .
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Do you see people walking into church, children in hand, filling the sidewalks outside this building and others like it?
When I see that image in my head, the women have on hats and gloves, the men are in dark suits, little girls have frilly dresses, and the little boys are in shirts and ties. In fact, I’m so sure it’s a historic image that I see it in B&W. – It is an image of the past, the 1950-60s, the time when this building was first built.
I don’t think those old bones can live. But I do believe God’s Spirit is blowing something new all around us.
The Holy Spirit may have to work on our imagination first.
Let me share a story with you, about imagination:
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“A rich industrialist from the North was horrified to find a Southern fisherman lying leisurely beside his boat. ‘Why aren’t you fishing?’ the industrialist asked.
‘Because I have caught enough fish for the day,’ said the fisherman.
‘Why don’t you catch some more?’ the 1st man asked.
‘What would I do with them?’ said the fisherman
Fisherman w/net IMAGE
‘You could earn more money,’ was the reply. ‘With that, you could fix a motor to your boat, go into deeper waters and catch MORE fish. Then you would make enough money to buy nylon nets. These would bring you more fish and more money. Soon you would have enough money to own two boats …maybe even a fleet of boats. Then you would be a rich man like me.’
‘What would I do then?’ the fisherman asked.
‘Then you could really enjoy life.’
‘What do you think I am doing right now?’ said the fisherman.”[iii] . . .
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There are many ways for new life to grow – ways that we have yet to imagine.
Something wonderful happened when Ezekiel spoke to the people who felt as dry as old bones. They began debating the details. Walter Wink reminded me that “some even disagreed with Ezekiel, suggesting alternatives.
Everyone got so involved in the specifics of new temple life that they didn’t notice that they had all accepted as a FACT that this new life was going to happen. Vision had become expectation. Hope had become anticipation. The unimaginable had been imagined – all by the divine creative act that began with a vision of old bones.
History is made this way, by envisioning new alternatives and acting on them as if they were inevitable. This is how despair is overcome; by prophesying a course of action God is conspiring to bring to pass.[iv]
There are many ways to for new life to grow.
The church of the future may not be based on the Corporate Model of today. It might be more like the early church, a key model for Brethren, where bigger is NOT better.
The early church’s life was based on 1:1 relationships.
Image how it was: Followers of the Jesus’ way, brought their families to hear about the Christ and then their friends.
When someone needed help, they didn’t ask the Board or the Pastor to design a new program, they walked over to their home to see what they could do.
Eventually they grew large enough to deal with poverty and inequity on a larger scale, but even then the need was answered with people. (We might label it a deacon program, but the reality was they lived their faith - people to people.)
NEW LIFE can come when the Spirit blows. Perhaps it will look completely different than anything we have imagined. Or perhaps it will look a lot like a few old bones connecting to other bones and becoming covered with new flesh.
The people we already know and those whom the Spirit sends to our door are in need of relationship with other people.
Relationship is the typical quest, not classrooms full of adults and children, gathered around their Bibles and doing fancy arts and crafts. – people are looking for people who welcome them and say, “We’d LOVE to have you come again and be part of us.”
“Imagine that! People meeting people, 1 on 1.
Why don’t we trust that God’s spirit is already blowing in here and imagine the bone connecting to bone image. We make the vision a reality.
Take ONE person this month, (someone you already know) and be present to them, call, contact, visit, offer one's self as listener, not as fixer, just be part of their life for one month and see what Holy Winds blow into the mix.
Then during the month take on 1 practice that will renew and sustain your own spirit by keeping you connected to the Holy Spirit all month long. (prayer, scripture, meditation, time spent with God’s Spirit that renews your spirit)
“One to One to One”1:1:1
1 person, 1 practice, 1 Spirit - connecting us to other ‘boney’ humans in relationships where the Spirit thrives; a simple action that can turn what we imagine into reality.
Perhaps it is a simple vision of connected people – bone to bone - THAT IS the future of Christ’s church and
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These bones can live!
[i] David Garber, workingpreacher.org 4/10/11 (text slightly adapted)
[ii] Diana Butler Bass Christianity After Religion (San Fran:Harper One, 2012) 246-7
[iii] Anthony de Mello, Indian priest shared in Common PRAYER. for Ordinary radicals Claiborne, Wilson-Hartgrove, Okoro, eds. (Grand Rapids:Zondervan, 2010) 293
[iv] Walter Wink “These bones shall live” Source: Christian Century; 5/11/94, Vol. 111 Issue 16, p491, 1p