Can these bones live? (sermon)

After graduating from college, I did a very normal thing, and decided to go live in a monastery for a year, as an intern. And if you know anything about monasteries, you know that there is a very strict schedule for how your time is spent: a very necessary thing when you go to chapel five times a day. So, work is scheduled, prayer is scheduled, and social time is… scheduled.

Every Saturday, the brothers and interns would have afternoon tea in the cloister, and at the end of that hour, the superior would ask a question, as if it had just occurred to him. “Ah, yes, shall we say a psalm? What psalm shall we say?” And there were always one or two jokesters who would pipe up and suggest: “hey, how about Psalm 119?” Everyone would laugh, knowing that we’re not going to say all 176 verses of Psalm 119. “How about Psalm 130?” And so we would always say Psalm 130: “Out of the depths have I called to you O Lord, Lord hear my voice”.

In retrospect, it’s a rather strange Psalm to say to conclude a fun social gathering. “If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand?”, and “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits for him, in his word is my hope.” It’s as if the gathering we just enjoyed is not enough. The teatime is just a promise of something better. Something better, for which we are willing to wait, more than watchmen for the morning. More than watchmen for the morning.

This morning’s readings are all about waiting.

Mary and Martha wait through illness and death and grief, in hope of a future where their brother is alive again.

The bones of the house of Israel have been waiting for years, dry and deserted, for God to speak aloud an unspeakable hope, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

It is not an easy thing, this waiting.

It is not easy to wait.

But we wait, sitting inside our houses, for a future that is perhaps for the first time in our lives, unknowable.

We wait for the lines at the grocery store to slow enough to pack the empty shelves full of food and supplies, wondering when our work will no longer be hazardous.

We wait for more PPE and weigh financial stability and serving others with the risk that we could die from one of the many patients flooding in the hospital doors.

We are waiting for this to end. Waiting for the present to become ‘normal’ again. Waiting for the work to return, for the economy to kick back into gear, for the return to a world that seems increasingly distant.

When we are waiting, when our worlds have been so disrupted, when we are waiting, it is easy to forget what hope even looks like.

One of the things I find incredible about the reading from Ezekiel is how quiet the prophet is at the beginning of the narrative. He is set down by God in “the middle of a valley [which was] full of bones. He let me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’”.

Can these bones live? This first question is spoken by God, and to be honest, I think that’s a bit strange. Ezekiel has been walking around this valley, seeing all of these bones. Why doesn’t he ask about them? Why does God have to bring it up first? I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’d have a lot more questions to ask God about why we’re walking through a valley of bones in the first place. But, Ezekiel remains unnervingly silent.

Why? Does he not feel the need to ask anything of God? Is he silent because he is waiting for God’s vision?

Or, is he silent because he is walking around a valley of bones—the bones of his own people, left exposed to become dry and brittle in the hot desert sun?

Perhaps this graveyard, this overwhelming sense of tragedy and grief, takes the words from his mouth. Perhaps there is nothing to say, nothing to ask, in the face of such hopelessness. Perhaps this is the only future Isaiah expects to see: one of death and defeat, where there are no questions and no answers.

Perhaps some of our days in quarantine feel like this too, this silent waiting. The resignation that this present might be our future… for some time, at least.

Maybe we find, for our own sanity, that we can’t even ask questions about the future. We can’t say a word in the face of such calamity. Perhaps for you, for me, some of our days are about putting one foot in front of the other, and walking through the valley of impossibly dry bones.

And so God speaks into this time of uncertainty, our own inability to imagine a future better than a return to whatever normal was before all of this.

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

When you and I are unable to speak. When we are unable to name our hopes and fears in the face of tragedy. When everything seems so very quiet, God speaks.

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

Here we are. At the end of Lent. Perhaps the strangest, most disruptive Lent of our memories that shows no signs of ending anytime soon.

Except that it is, in fact, ending. Not the pandemic, but the season of Lent is nearing its end. Next week is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week and soon, we will proclaim the good news of Christ who is risen.

It might not feel like we can even get to Easter right now. That we can celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead amidst the death of so many, amidst our valley of dry bones.

And that is okay. I think what is most hopeful is that Ezekiel, in the midst of his grief, didn’t have to speak. It’s okay not to speak right now, not to even know what to pray for, because God has already asked the question. The question that we, in our wildest dreams, couldn’t dare to hope for. The prayer that we couldn’t quite name.

““Mortal, can these bones live?”

I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them:

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.”

In the midst of our valley of dry bones, we hear a word of hope. A promise for the future: the promise that we name in the Nicene Creed, that “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

In the midst of our valley of dry bones, our Lent, we hear the promise of Easter, which will come whether we can celebrate it in person or not.

In the promise of Easter, God answers God’s own question: “can these bones live?”

And in the coming hope of Christ who is risen, we can once again pray for a breath of life to enter our dry bones, to utter aloud a hope, that this too, shall pass.

And so we wait. Our souls wait for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning. Because in God’s Word, in God’s question, in God’s breath of life, in Christ risen and the world renewed, is our hope.

Preached for Lent 5, 2020, on Ezekiel.


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