Valleys of Dry Bones

RCL Year A The Church of the Holy Cross
The Fifth Sunday in Lent April 6, 2014

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

Do you believe in resurrection? I know we say we do. When we think about resurrection, we almost always think first of Jesus’ resurrection and its implications for us. We can’t define it, exactly; we just know death was not the last word when Jesus died on the cross. God had the last word, and it was that the hopelessness of death is defeated forever. The last word is not from death but from God.

There are very few allusions to life after death, literally, in the Hebrew Scriptures. The later writings affirm some kind of resurrection of the body on the “last day,” or on Resurrection Day. But because no one has ever experienced resurrection and told us about it, outside Jesus’ teachings before he ascended, we don’t know exactly what we mean by it.

Probably the earliest, and one of the very few, visions of a bodily resurrection is found in our lesson telling about God’s revelation to Ezekiel, in the sixth century before Jesus, of the valley of the dry bones. Israel was in deepest despair. All the educated Jews, and all the leaders of the government and the temple, were in exile in Babylon. God’s temple, the center of the world and the holiest place on earth, lay in ruins. There was no end in sight. Israel was as good as dead. God’s people. Dead, with no hope of ever returning to Jerusalem. No hope of life ever again. The earth, for them, was a valley with no way out, and their bones lay scattered in the valley, empty of their lifeblood, all hope dried up.

And so God called Ezekiel to give the people hope. Because to live, to really live, all human beings need hope. Hope that there is more, something more holy, than the disappointment that is always there in life on earth. Something that tells us good will conquer evil. Someone has said that hope springs eternal in the human heart. If so, God must have planted it there when we were created. God must have known we need hope to thrive.

The ancient Hebrew mind moved and understood in metaphor, and surely Ezekiel understood that God was promising hope to God’s people. They had not been abandoned; God would have the last word. Hadn’t God spoken the last word in Egypt, “I have heard the cry of my people! Let my people go”? Hadn’t God spoken the last word in the covenant at Sinai, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt. You will be my people, and I will be your God”? And hadn’t God been faithful to Israel through prosperity and trouble, through joy and disappointment? God would bring again hope to Israel, breath to her dry bones, life to her body that lay in the grave of hopeless death.

“Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 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.

And God promised, “Prophesy to the breath, the ruach, the desert winds, that they will come to the house of Israel, to the bones that are dried up, to bring the hope that is lost; to give life again and hope again.”

It becomes clear that the resurrection we are talking about is a resurrection sooner than life after physical death. The promise is deeper and broader. God promises to restore hope in the life we are living now.

Because that’s what it meant for Israel, and that’s what it means for any people, to live in a valley of dry bones: that hope is gone, that they are cut off from God, that God doesn’t hear when they call. Our story today is the story of Israel. Where is the picture of a place without hope in our world? Where are the valleys, and whose are the dry bones?

Sudan. People living in camps; fathers and young men being killed; mothers banding together for protection as they go out of the camp to get water and food for their children; children who know nothing but dust and hunger and thirst and fear. If hope isn’t gone from their bones, the supply is running awfully low.

Uganda, Nigeria, the villages of Rowanda. People living in fear of being raped, killed, mutilated; parents living with the daily possibility their children will be kidnapped and turned into child soldiers; famine. If their bones aren’t dry, it’s only because the seeds of hope somehow survive in their hearts.

Places in the Muslim world where women are married as young teenagers, just as Jesus’ own mother was 2000 years ago. Bartered as a business deal between their families and their husbands. Denied education and any hope of life outside a position of servitude. A place of dry bones, but the Spirit is moving in these countries, and things are changing. Women are being given hope.

Syria. War with no hope of an end. People in exile, refugees living in camps among strangers. People living in their own cities and villages expecting a missile to explode next to them any moment. A valley of despair and fear.

There are so many other valleys where the bones are drying. Haiti. India. China. Anyplace we might see on the nightly news. It takes no imagination to see these places as valleys, with no way out, scattered with bones dry from living in a place without hope.

Here in our country, the wealthiest, most progressive country on earth, although that assertion can be questioned. How many places of dry bones can we think of? Our own neighborhood has been such a valley for some people for years. A place empty of hope, except here and there; a perfect place for the four winds of the Spirit to move.

How many people live in homes where the wind blows between the boards, hot in summer and cold in winter? How many people live from one month’s food stamps to the next, skimping and existing on food with little food value, choosing between a meal and medical or dental care? How many search for a job, or lie in valleys of resignation without hope of finding one? How many are caught in the cycle of payday loans with no help of breaking free? How many are trapped in the travesty of human trafficking? How long does it take for these bones to lose hope and dry up?

God called Ezekiel to bring hope to his people. Ezekiel held out the vision that the time of exile would end. God would accomplish it. Finally, after more than fifty years, a new super power won a war, and Israel was freed to return home.

Israel’s story and Jesus’ story, and so many stories of good that is accomplished in valleys of despair, show us that God can bring resurrection in places where people have lost hope. God calls us to embody God’s promise of resurrection to God’s people. I don’t know what we can do for people on the other side of the world to give them hope except to pray that the seeds of hope in their hearts will not dry up, that God will find a way to accomplish resurrection for them.

But here in our own neighborhood in downtown Shreveport there are needs we can see. How is God calling us to give hope to God’s people? Just pick a problem: human trafficking, payday loans, hunger, education, opportunity. We can pray for our people, too, that God will show us just where and how to enter into God’s mission. To keep those seeds of hope alive in the bones that are drying up.

Because it’s true that when we fail to see the abuses that surround us, when our sight is too narrow or too short, we are not nurturing the hope that’s planted in our hearts. We’re not trusting that God will act, that God will use us to keep hope alive. And we know that, just as a limb not used will dry up and become useless and die, hope not fed and shared and acted upon will dry up, and it will be our bones that we see scattered in the valley of our neighborhood.

One more thing: We must always remember that it is only God who brings resurrection. We are God’s partners, God’s instruments, when we hear and respond to God’s call. We enter into a mission that is already promised and begun by God. It is a high calling, to be a partner with God.

So the question is: Do we believe in resurrection? Do we believe God will breathe life into bones dry of hope? Do we want to be part of God’s mission on earth? When God calls us, how will we respond?

The Rev. Mary B. Richard