Pentecost B, 2021

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Texts for Preaching: Ezekiel 37:1-14

Since it is Pentecost
I am going to preach my core theology —
my bedrock.
You have heard it before,
one way or another,
because I like to think it is biblical bedrock too.

I spend a lot of airtime
pointing to where the Bible is metaphorical
and even mythological,
but today,
with that reading from Ezekiel
we can actually stand on a fixed date –
even a fixed day.

Ezekiel begins his book of prophecy
by telling us:

“In the thirtieth year,
in the fourth month,
on the fifth day,
while I was among the exiles
by the Kebar River,
the heavens were opened
and I saw visions of God.”

That would be July 31, 593 BCE.

But now that we know where we are starting,
I want to jump
twenty-seven centuries later,
to the 1800’s,
in The United States.

Imagine yourself as a 19th century slave-owner
in the Southern United States,
and you want your African slaves
to have religion.

As a pious, church-going Christian,
probably an Episcopalian in those days,
you feel an obligation to proselytize your slaves
and give them a chance at Salvation.
I know, the irony and hypocrisy
is mind-boggling,
but it was a dominant concern.

So, you read Bible stories to your slaves,
and one of your favorite stories
is Ezekiel and the Valley of the Dry Bones.
Then, sometime after you read them the story,
you hear your slaves singing
about “those bones…”
and how those bones will live.

And you feel all warm inside,
and proud of yourself
for having taught your slaves faith.

Or just to add breadth to this imaginative escapade,
lets say you are a European Colonialist in Africa
and you own thousands of acres
on which you farm and mine,
and you use local labor
to extract the resources of the land,
to send back home to
Britain or Germany or Belgium.

And let’s say part of your personal ethos
is to support the local missionaries
whose job it is
to make good Christians of the natives,
which of course means to “civilize” them.
You hear the minister preach to your workers
from Bibles stories like Dry Bones,
and you think it is quaint.

Okay, that is Ezekiel as viewed from the box seats
at the symphony or opera.
Now, let’s hear Dry Bones
from the point of view of slaves,
and those whose land has been stolen from them,
even as they are forced to work the land
for those who stole it.

Slave owners and Colonialist are deaf
to certain notes
in the Biblical score.

They hear a good cinematic story,
and see a Disney-like animation
of scattered and dusty dry bones
miraculously bouncing up
and being woven back to life.

Like a scene from Fantasia,
piece by piece,
organ by organ,
ligament by ligament,
the bodies re-integrate until suddenly
the wind infuses
the dead with Life.
It is CPR
from the lips of God
to the dry bones.

But the slaves hear something else.
The slave who is planting cotton,
or the Chinese railroad worker in South Africa,
or the Indian miner in Congo
all hear something different
from what the slave-owners
and the Colonialists hear.

Yes, they hear the poetry of the dry bones.
But underneath it,they hear the music.
They hear a drum
beating a steady rhythm
to which those in the box seats are deaf.
They hear God, and feel freedom pulsating.

Did you ever wonder
why 19th century slave Spirituals
were so dominated by Old Testament themes?
Or did you ever wonder
why Latin American and South African
Liberation Theology
is so infused with the stories of Israel,
even more than those of the New Testament?

It is because their ears perked up
when they heard their oppressors
glibly reading stories
about a people called Israel
who were once slaves…
who through an act of God, escaped…
who formed a small but mighty nation…
who fell to another Empire
and were taken away in slavery again…
who sat by the Rivers of Babylon and wept
because they thought
they would never be free again…
who heard the question,

“Mortal, can these bones live” and knew the answer.
Unlike their oppressors,
they knew that God was talking to them
about their freedom.
”Slave, can you be free?”
“Indigenous person,
can your land be restored?”
Can your bones live?
Can the scattered,
dry bones of your people…live?

Whether it is Ezekiel prophesying to the Exiles
that they can be restored,
or the bereft disciple being promised
they have a powerful Advocate even without Jesus,
the Biblical story challenges us
with the question:
Can God act?
Does God act?
Will God act?

Okay, let’s bring it forward.

Each and every one of us
has a personal Valley of Dry Bones.
A painful grief…
a debilitating depression…
a captivating addiction…
an acute loneliness…
a broken relationship…
an open, oozing wound of the soul…
Do we believe that God can do a new thing?

Do we believe
that God can and will do new things
even with us…
even within us…
even for us?

Now let’s climb up to a 50,000 foot view
and look out upon our national
and even global

Valley of Dry Bones.
Wars waged for corrupt reasons…
an abatement of civil liberties and human rights…
cruel disparity of wealth…
segregation along every conceivable
social boundary…
crime and violence of a breadth and brutality
that boggles the mind…
environmental degradation for profit
that is threatening us all…

Do we believe that God can do a new thing…
even for us…
even with us…
even to us?

Here is my assertion:
History itself is the poetry of God doing new things.
Hold that for a moment,
swish it around in your brain
and let it palpitate in your heart:
History is the poetry of God doing new things.

I know. Believe me, I know.
That is not an easily ingested idea
in our world of quantifiable,
and economic reality.

How do you prove God is doing a new thing?
And when the new things are taking place,
and they can no longer be denied,
how can you prove God is the author
or even an invisible hand guiding in the market?

Going back to the 19th century,
there were many victims of Colonialist oppression
and the atrocity of slavery
who could not answer,
“Yes, these bones can live.”

And yet,
there have always been those who could:
Frederick Douglas, said yes.
Susan Anthony, said yes.
Dorothy Day, said yes.
Dietrich Bonheoffer, said yes.
Mohandas Gandhi, said yes.
Martin Luther King, Jr., said yes.
Abraham Heschel, said yes.
Nelson Mandela, said yes.
Desmond Tutu, said yes.
Alicia Garza, said yes.

They were all too experienced
in the true and painful ways of the world
to be engaged in wishful thinking.
Instead, their “yes” was authentic hope.
Wishful thinking says, yes, and waits for it to happen.
Authentic hope says, yes, and helps make it happen.

The case I want to make –
and it is not likely to ever be proven
or replicated in a laboratory
nor generate a computer model –
but the case I want to make
is that nothing is hopeless,
because if we human beings
move together for reconciliation and peace
then God is present
and God acts.

But likewise, if we do not, God does not.

God is not an enabler of co-dependency.
When we humans act together
and move together
and struggle for all the right things together,
then God acts
and it happens.
That is what hope is made of.
Slavery did not end
by God waving the proverbial hand
to make it disappear.
Slavery was made illegal by a mighty,
sustained, and costly human effort
in which God was present
and through which God acted.

Colonialism did not come crashing down
because God loved it one day
and dismissed it the next.
Colonialism began disintegrating,
and still is,
with a concerted struggle
by millions of people
to cast it off
and lift it up
and through them God acted.

If we want to slow and survive climate change
then we human beings
simply must come together
and struggle for liberation and restoration
so that God will act
and make it possible.

It is true on a personal level as well.

Whatever has dried out your bones,
whatever pain
whatever grief
whatever wound
whatever sorrow…
keep working it,
keep struggling with it,
keep reaching out and asking others
to join your struggle and help you,
and if you do,
God will act.
Indeed, even now,
God has acted through your efforts.

Ezekiel or Pentecost,
that is what this is all about:
we act and God acts.

Like I said, there is no proving it
but I believe it.
I have seen it.
I say, “yes” to it.
“Can these bones live?”