There's a good chance that when I preach this tomorrow, I will refer to my son's death in only the most general way. I realized, as I printed the bulletin into 28-point font so that I can read it, that there may be very young children in this congregation, as they do not usually have Sunday School during worship. Their parents are not bringing them to church so that they can learn the definition of suicide. (I remember my horror when one of my friends at my own church, whose wife sings in our choir and was there for our son's funeral, talked about explaining what had happened to his own little nine or ten-year old son. Horror that my family's circumstances mandated such a discussion in his.) But this is how it emerged earlier in the week, with a little subsequent RG editorial assistance.
I’ve been here enough times in the past few months that I think we know each other a bit. Enough for me to preach a bit more personally then usual, at least insofar as sharing some of my experience in encountering today’s texts. Perhaps that experience will speak to all of us who have found ourselves in deserts filled with dry bones.
As I think most of you know, we in our family lost one of our young adult sons two and one-half years ago. He died of suicide, just as I was preparing to return to Pittsburgh for my second year of seminary. I use the term “died of suicide” these days because I have learned a lot in those two-and-one-half years. One of the things I’ve learned is that very few people “commit” suicide, not any more than they "commit a heart attack" or ""commit a stroke." Most people who die of suicide suffer from unresolved or – in the case of our son – even unrecognized clinical depression or bipolar disorder. And that’s a problem we won’t even begin to confront successfully until we get rid of the very language that implies the victim is somehow at fault. And so – my son Josh died of suicide. That means that he died suddenly, and unexpectedly, and violently, and alone – and left behind a completely crushed and devastated family.
A desert of dry bones, indeed.
Josh’s death also means that when I looked at the OT and gospel texts for today – the texts we’ve just heard, Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones and Jesus’ raising of Lazarus, my heart stopped for a second. There are certain texts which preachers steer clear of, for personal reasons, and these are the kind that I avoid. They’re just too hard – one of my seminary professors refers to the situation as one of “existential dissonance.” My own life experience and that of the text simply do not match up. Not yet, anyway.
Even a year ago, I wouldn’t have tried. I would have just gone off lectionary and preached on something else. But this year – well, Lazarus seems a bit beyond my capacity, but I thought that I might try Ezekiel. And I tell you all this not to be self-indulgent, but because sometimes, as we contend with our own desert experiences, it helps to have something concrete in someone else’s desert to hang onto. To know that while our experiences are unique to us, the realm of the desert is something that we all experience, one way or another.
One of the things I try to do in my preaching is what I call “preaching ahead of myself.” We are all called, I think, to move beyond ourselves, especially in our suffering – to move beyond our own self-absorption into a space in which we might have something to offer others. If I were a nurse, for instance, and my son had died, I would try to work ahead of myself by returning to my unit and caring for other people’s sons, helping them to heal and live. As a preacher, I try to preach ahead of myself by preaching into what I hope, what we all hope, rather than falling backward into the hard specifics of what I merely know.
So once I had decided to give it a try, I started to prepare for this morning by thinking about Ezekiel, imagining him and this bizarre vision of his. I looked at some paintings online; I even found a wonderful short video, which you can probably find as well if you google-image something like “Ezekiel dry bones.” I looked at all these images of deserts and bones, and I thought about all of the people whose bodies I have cared for and prayed with, in my family and in my chaplaincy training at the Cleveland Clinic, and I wondered what Ezekiel thought and how he felt. What did he think and how did he feel when God invited him into this vision in which death becomes life?
And so I went back and re-read the text, and I found out. At least, I think I found out some of what the writer of Ezekiel, perhaps Ezekiel himself, was thinking and feeling as he shaped this vision into words for later generations.
I discovered that at both the beginning and ending of this passage, Ezekiel talks about three things. He talks about bodies, incarnational beings. He talks about Spirit – about breath enlivening those bodies. And he talks about places – geographical places. Body, breath, place – things we all need to live.
It’s not surprising, I suppose, that these matters come up on the fifth Sunday of Lent, the last Sunday before Palm Sunday. Lent begins in the same way: with Jesus, the incarnate one, the embodiment of God, being led by the Spirit, into the desert. Body, spirit, place. Jesus needs those things in order to live, just as we do, and he needs them in a specific way in order to live into his ministry. He needs his body as a source of temptation: a body that hungers, that thirsts, that might triumph, that might be imposed upon others. He needs the Spirit, the Spirit that belongs to and participates in both him and his Father, to lead him. And he needs the desert, that empty, desolate, vacant place, in which to come to terms with the life to which he is called. We heard all of this at the beginning of Lent –
And now we hear it with Ezekiel. The same three requirements for life are brought to bear. “The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.” Me – Ezekiel is the person, the ordinary, embodied human being. So ordinary and embodied that he describes his encounter with God as a physical one: The hand of the Lord came down upon me. As metaphorical as that statement might be, we visualize it, don’t we? We see God’s hand - the same hand that reaches out to Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel - we see that hand clamping down on Ezekiel’s shoulder. The hand of the Lord came upon me –
And he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord – there’s the first appearance of the Spirit who will be so ey to this passage. The Spirit leads Ezekiel just as it leads Jesus. Just as it leads us.
Now we like to think that with the Spirit’s leading, we will be directed to good places. Joyous places. Places filled with possibility.
Not desert places.
And yet, the place to which the Spirit leads Jesus is the desert. And the place to which the Spirit leads Ezekiel is the valley of dry bones.
Imagine this valley. You don’t need all those internet images. Just close your eyes for a moment and imagine: the bare ground, sandy here, rocky there, stretching before you for miles. Perhaps in the distance some mountains, but they are barren, rocky. The colors? Greys, browns, deadened colors, colors as devoid of hope as the ground itself. And the silence. The oppressive, weighty silence.
And then you realize: the ground before you is littered with bones. All sizes and shapes of bones, grey and brown and bones bleached to white.
Now me – as you might guess, I see this scene pretty literally. And perhaps some of you do as well. It depends, I think, upon what the barren, desert places are in your own life right now. What bones cover the ground, when you have the courage to look there? What disappointments? What frustrated hopes? What losses? What lies around, lifeless and hopeless, in your own existence?
Oh, this is a hard one, isn’t it?
God knows it is hard. And God tells Ezekiel to speak to the bones, and he does, and they begin to get up and be melded together again, muscles and tendons appearing and skeletons being reconstituted.
Now how do you think Ezekiel feels?
I’m guessing that he’s reminded that bodies are not enough. It sounds as if these bodies are complete – but they do not live. They do not live until God tells Ezekiel to speak again, so that the winds will come and breathe life into these bodies. Wind, breath, spirit – all the same word: ruach – in Hebrew. The cultural memory is triggered: In the very beginning, according to Genesis, “a wind from God swept over the waters.” Now a wind from God sweeps over the desert valley. In one of the Genesis stories of creation, God breathes life into God’s first human creation. Now God’s Spirit breathes life into an entire population. A population of bones. Bones in the desert. Bodies, spirit, place.
Where are these places in your life? Where are the places in which bones lie, in which the wind of God needs to rush in, into which the Spirit of life needs to breathe?
This is the why of Lent. We know that without the cross, there is no resurrection. We know that unless we look deeply into the desert places in our lives, there can be no wind of life.
“O my people,” says God through Ezekiel. “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.” Bodies, spirit, place.
We can hear this story literally, as the Israelites would have done, as Zionist Jews do today. Real people, enabled by the Spirit of the Lord, are returned to their land, to Israel. Or we can hear it as God’s engagement with us, regardless of the geography of the matter in question. We can hear that God cares about who we are – embodied people, animated by God’s own Spirit. We can hear that God cares about where we are, because embodied beings have to be somewhere. We require place. If we find that we are standing in the middle of a dry valley, we can hear that God is laboring there. If we stand on the precipice overlooking the valley, afraid to move, we can hear that God is ready to force air into our nostrils. If we have crashed onto the plain, we can hear God saying, “Oh, my people.”
What did Ezekiel think? What did he feel? Was he terrified, watching those bones being re-assembled into bodies, and listening to those bodies being re-animated by the wind? Was it all that he could do, to stand there and not run away? Or was he filled with hope, astonished by God’s love and God’s willingness to try again with God’s people?
In another two weeks, we will celebrate a similar story – a story in which a body is reconstituted, breath is released – and people do run away. At least, some of them in some versions run away, before they all get it right. And when they do get it right, and are able to grasp the reality – body, spirit, place – then they will recognize, and perhaps we will as well, that God still sighs, "Oh, my people.” That God still seeks to transform valleys of dry bones into meadows of life.
This is what I mean by preaching ahead of myself. I mean this: that our God, who sees the starkness, the emptiness, the shattered lives strewn across the deserts of human existence, says to us: This is not the end of the story. This is the Lenten journey, this is the journey through the wilderness but, Oh, my people, this is not the end. My hand will roll a stone away from a tomb, and you will know that your God speaks and acts. You will know that you are beloved and that you live, O my people.
Image: Barry Donaldson, Ezekiel Speaks to the Dry Bones