Making Our Skeletons Dance

Romans 8.6-11; Ezekiel 37.1-14

Sometimes I’m amazed at how fragile our human flesh is. We have fragile bones that break, fragile lungs that collapse, fragile hearts that miss a beat, fragile minds that freeze with age. Our fragile flesh propels us into selfish greed, succumbs to lust, fixates on wealth, drives us to narcissism or defensiveness or rage or self-harm. 

This year our fleshly proclivities have been on full display during this pandemic on the public stage, as we’re seeing 14.7% unemployment, the highest since the Great Depression almost a century ago; 33 million people filing for unemployment since this crisis hit here. More than 78,000 Americans have died from coronavirus with no nationwide dip in cases. And you probably know what the so-called “Plandemic” is–a viral video that falsely alleges conspiracy theories, such as that wealthy people intentionally spread the virus and that masks don’t really work.  This almost certainly won’t be the last widely spread misinformation campaign about coronavirus. And I don’t know about you, but some days I feel like a total chump: obeying the laws, paying taxes, while criminals get elected and form little clubs to defend each other’s lawlessness, and flagrant dishonesty is touted as honorable.

I don’t know what to say about Ahmaud Arbery’s murder.  I’ve felt what you probably felt: rage, depression, shame, frustration, sadness, and fury.  And that deep terrible suspicion that the murderers would likely never have been arrested if the public had not seen the video when it finally leaked.  It’s 2020, and we are still slaughtering black people who are merely living their lives. My three children, all in their 20s, all jog and run.  I cannot imagine what parents of black young adults feel, how they sleep. I keep thinking of Langston Hughes’ haunting question, What happens to a dream deferred? … and that prophetic final line, Or does it explode?

Honestly, it seems like our flesh has a massive design flaw, like a car that deserves a manufacturer’s recall. Surely our maker must be tempted at times just to leave the heap by the side of the road and walk away. How many times do we expect to get rescued, to be towed back to the dealer?

But again and again, God intervenes for our well-being. Our manufacturer has made a promise to us: God will keep the body as it is, but put in a new engine. That’s what I make of the promise in 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,’ says the Lord.” 

What does it look like to have the Spirit of the Lord within us? The only perfect model for us is Jesus Christ. In Romans it is God’s Spirit that promises to reboot our flawed being: “If the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the Holy One who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through the Spirit that dwells in you.” If we really rely on God’s wild Spirit to guide our decisions and propel us forward, then it will override our flaws. 

I don’t know anyone who does this perfectly, but I’ve seen people who come close. It is a marvel to watch: self-control that serves the larger good, compassion that weeps with those who weep, perseverance that stays to the very end, humility that no human ego can produce. 

I want to be like Jesus; I think some of you do too. But the only way I have a remote chance of coming near that hope is to stop pretending I can fix myself. The only way to re-boot is to acknowledge the design flaw in my sorry self–and pray that the One who made me hasn’t given up on me yet. 

When the promising young Hebrews were dragged into exile in Babylon, they were not kept in prisons or even camps. They were free to marry, build homes, plant crops and exchange goods. Some became quite wealthy. They were also free to assemble, elect leaders, and worship. But the Hebrews had a hard time worshiping in exile because they never got over the destruction of their holy city and temple in Zion.

They were not where they wanted to be, or where they felt they were supposed to be. (Sound familiar?) So they lived with a sadness that ran down to their bones. And they refused to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.”

Most of us could give a speech on things we are missing. We miss going out for breakfast or brunch or lunch or dinner or any food we do not have to cook ourselves. Many of us have not had a french fry in seven weeks. We miss walking or sending our children to school. We miss dancing, parties, and concerts; spring soccer games, graduations, and book stores. We miss real human faces. We want to love Zoom conversations, but it is so not the same. It is hard trying to look more interested than we actually are. I miss real human faces in worship, because I like watching you trying to look more interested than you actually are.

As a minister I know that often, when people’s lives have been interrupted by a great tragedy, they stop coming to worship. I used to think this was because they were embarrassed by their loss of a loved one, or a job, or health. But I’ve discovered that more often the reason people stop worshiping is that they have lost their vision of God. To stand in worship beside so many who are singing praise to the Lord just creates too much existential contradiction. It’s a tragic irony of the soul that, in the times that we most need to worship, we can find it the most difficult.

Like the exiles in Babylon, we try to numb the spiritual pain by making life more comfortable. We work hard. We collect a lot of things. We buy houses, plant our roots, live quietly, and try to make Babylon as nice as we can. But however nicely we decorate it, Babylon is still not our home. And the day we deaden our longing for God is the day we spiritually die. Then the rest of us begins to slowly die, from the inside out.

Eventually things got so cozy for the Hebrew exiles that even after they were encouraged to go to Jerusalem most of them didn’t want to go back. The old dream of living in the Lord’s presence had died buried under piles and piles of coping devices.

So one day the Spirit of the Lord grabbed hold of his prophet Ezekiel, and took him to a valley filled with dry bones. The Lord asked Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Looking around at all those skeletons, Ezekiel thought hard and said, “Ah, Lord, you know the answer to this one.” Then the Lord told him to start preaching to the bones. The Lord even gave him the message: “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live … And you shall know that I am the Lord.”

To those of us who were children in the 60s, this image of a valley of bones recalls the skeleton warriors scene in the1965 movie, Jason and the Argonauts.  I heard the stop-motion animator genius Ray Harryhausen speak about this scene, which took 4 months for him to film. The movie is 55 years old and it’s still amazing and sort of scary to those of us who saw it as kids.  Seeing a pack of skeletons with swords give a Wilhelm scream gave 7-year-old me the willies. And when Ol’ Zeke’s dry bones come to life, it’s always Harryhausen’s skeletons that pop up for me.

How foolish this must have looked. The Lord’s prophet, standing in the middle of a pile of dead bones, is telling them not to give up hope. If I were Ezekiel, I would have gently suggested that the Lord first bring these bones back to life, and then I’ll do a little preaching. “See,” I’d say, “See what God can do?” But that is not the way of God, who calls us to believe without seeing. That is because the Lord’s words always make room for hope. And it is the hope that brings us back to life. Hope rises up from our bones, and chooses to believe in spite of how it is.

Walter Brueggemann has written that hope proclaims that the way things appear is precarious. So we dare not absolutize the present. Don’t take it too seriously. Don’t bank on today because it will not last. So hope is revolutionary. That is why the poor are great at hoping, and why we in the middle and upper classes who are coping well in Babylon have such a hard time with hope. We think we are doing well enough. Our only worry is that we will lose ground tomorrow. But if we turn against tomorrow, we turn our back on hope. It is then that the human spirit begins to wither away.

The apostle Paul told the believers in Rome that the one “who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through this Spirit that dwells in you” (Rom 8.11). The church has always found its life not in what it sees today but in the Spirit of the God who raises dead hopes. The day we lose our ability to envision a better tomorrow is the day we deny that we really believe in the resurrection.

Why does the church keep pouring out its little cup of water into the Middle East, the Sudan, and other desperate places of the world where hope has run dry? Even though we cannot visit now, why do we keep praying for those dying from the Rona in hospitals when we have no miracle drug to take away their pain? Why do we commit ourselves to the political process when there is so much cynicism and a malaise of despair in politics today? Why? Because God is not done.

So we will take our stand beside Ezekiel and proclaim our hope to the dry bones. “Thus, says the Lord, I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live!” You who gave up hope, who gave up dreaming—who have settled for a comfortably routine life of work, bills, and dirty laundry. You who think your best years are behind you. You who think the Lord God has forgotten all about your little life.

To you, we say, “Arise!” Arise from the heap of discarded dreams. Arise to discover that the Holy Spirit is breathing life back into you. Arise to live with magnificent hope! Because the world is dying for you to believe God is not done.