May 20, "I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live"

“I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live”

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-4

 

Now I want to start the sermon with a little song, and while I could sing it myself I have instead recruited the very capable Paul Fry Miller to help me out. (Paul sings)

Ezekiel connected dem dry bones, Ezekiel connected dem dry bones,

Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones, Now hear the word of the Lord.

 

Toe bone connected to the foot bone,

Foot bone connected to the heel bone,

Heel bone connected to the ankle bone,

Ankle bone connected to the shin bone,

Shin bone connected to the knee bone,

Knee bone connected to the thigh bone,

Thigh bone connected to the hip bone,

Hip bone connected to the back bone,

Back bone connected to the shoulder bone,

Shoulder bone connected to the neck bone,

Neck bone connected to the head bone,

Now hear the word of the Lord.

 

Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.

Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.

Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.

Now hear the word of the Lord.

 

Songs like that – easy to sing, with a snappy little beat and a nice little tune -- are great for remembering what might be otherwise obscure stories in the scriptures, like this one from Ezekiel 37. And if you learned that song in Sunday school or at Vacation Bible school, you will forever at least be aware of the valley of the dry bones, and Ezekiel calling for the bones to be put back together (in the right order!) and then how the reconnected bones rise up and start walking around.

But, if you stop there – with the Sunday school song – if that’s all that you know of this story, then what you will miss are the complicated and confusing aspects of it – that is you will miss the dynamic between God and Ezekiel – the back and forth, and you will miss catching the feeling of the despair of people who are living in exile, and their perpetual yearning for home and their perpetual need for hope, and you will miss the context of how this scripture speaks to the nationalistic dreams and desires of Israel, and, of course, you will miss the reference to the breath. And I’ve been thinking this week, especially as I could see Pentecost on the near horizon, that this whole story and our understanding of it comes up short without breath.

So, for that reason, and because today is the day when we celebrate Pentecost, that time when the Holy Spirit comes down and animates the church, it seems right that the focus for today is on breath and what that means.  “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live” prophesies the prophet Ezekiel.  

As you know, the picture painted in this scripture text is this vision that Ezekiel has of being transported to the middle of a desert valley filled with dry bones. And as the story begins, the Lord poses a question to Ezekiel: “Can these bones live?” And Ezekiel replies, “O Lord God, you know,” an answer which might mean a couple of things:

It might mean, “I have no idea if these dry bones can live (again), but I’m sure you know, O God, and I am sure you can do anything you want to do” or it might mean, “I’m not sure what you are asking or why you are asking, Lord, and quite frankly I’m not willing to venture a guess,” or it might mean, “I recognize I’m just a bit player in this drama, Lord  – so if you want to tell me my part in this story, I’m listening.”

Maybe all those things are true. Maybe it’s true that Ezekiel knows that God can (and will) do whatever God chooses to do, and maybe he knows that there are times when no guess about God’s will is good enough, and maybe he knows that it is better for a lowly prophet to simply come along as a bit player in God’s story – to be willing to come along even when he doesn’t have any idea yet about what ‘coming along’ might mean.

And so it feels like in his reply, Ezekiel hedges a bit, at least until God gives him the next instruction: “Prophesy to these bones.” And Ezekiel does. He tells the bones what God has predicted – a stirring of what looks to be dead, and a reconnection, a restoring, and ultimately a resurrection of bodies – and as Ezekiel speaks the word of the Lord, suddenly the words come true. The bones rattle as they come back together, and sinews, and flesh, and skin are added. But there is no breath. No animating, enlivening breath. Not yet.

So, God gives the next instruction: “Ezekiel, prophesy to the breath: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” And Ezekiel does, and breath fills the bodies and where there was once only a valley of dry bones, there is now a valley of living, breathing people. “A vast multitude,” the scripture says.

And what does all of this mean? What is the meaning of this vision?

Obviously, it’s a prophesy about people who have been dried out, like bones in the desert; people whose hopes have died, who have been cut off, but finally coming up from the grave (so to speak) and coming back to the land, standing on the soil of home, and living again in body and spirit, as a gathered people, as a community.

“O my people,” says God in the account by 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.”

I said earlier that if you only remember this story by way of the little song about toes and ankles and leg bones and hip bones, that you will miss any number of things about the scripture story – and one of those things is the complexity of it. And not just the complexity of the story, but the complexity of interpretation and application, of direction and timing.

After all, scripture is always an interestingly complicated thing. It tells the story of a particular people at a particular time. And this particular prophesy is a prophesy for the house of Israel – it says so right there in the text. Ezekiel is talking about the revival, the resurrection, and the return of the people of Israel.

Their story at that time is the story of a people who are in exile – the Babylonians have overtaken them. It is a time of lost hope; a story of their despair. Will their community survive? Will it return to times of stability and prosperity? Will God restore them, revive them, put breath back into their bodies?

So, this scripture is a story of the 6th century B.C destruction and exile of Israel; exile and loss, set over against the confident predictions of a prophet – predictions of resurrection; of restored breath and new life.

But (and this is the interpretive question for us, the complicated part) how do we carry this scripture story – and it’s promise -- into the present day? Who is it a story about now? Who is in exile? Who needs God’s justice? Who is without hope? Who lives in a valley of dry bones waiting for restoration? And I guess there is this question as well: Who are God’s broken people? And how will they breathe again?

I have been heartsick this week listening to news reports from Israel and Palestine, especially the killing of people at the border of Israel and Gaza – dozens of people shot down by soldiers as they approached and protested at the fence.

It’s a highly politicized situation – with confusing and contradictory accounts of what has happened and why. But the fact of the matter is that 2 million Palestinian people live in a very small patch of land (about 140 square miles) with no prospects for work, for resources, for quality of life. And that patch of land is a land of exile, not their home. They were forced from their homes seventy years ago, forced to flee, forced into exile. And now they live and die in what is, in some ways, very much like the world’s largest open-air prison. A valley of dry bones. A desert.

“Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” In the sixth century B.C. that described the house of Israel. Who does it describe today? Who needs the breath of life today? Who thirsts for a taste of freedom? A taste of hope?

In the valley of dry bones, there is no life. There is no breath, there is no justice, there is no hope -- unless something changes – some miracle of resurrection, some miracle of Spirit-breath.

We all breathe every moment of every day. But we, here in this place, in this community, we breathe the air of freedom and opportunity. We breathe the air of safety, of leisure, of relative control over our choices and their consequences. There is no barbed wire, no tear gas, no fires, no shrapnel, no rubble. We breathe the air of hope and possibility. We breathe the air of goodness, of kindness, of community. We breathe the breath of life.

And as we think about valleys of dry bones – the one in the scripture story and the ones in the world today – we must not take our breath, our life, for granted. And we must not assume that because we have such abundant opportunities to breathe the fresh air of freedom and hope, that we are more deserving of such things than other people some place else in the world, or even that our living, our breathing, is guaranteed.

The truth is that every breath we take is a gift, a grace. Every bit of breathing, combined with movement, and freedom, and choice, is a gift. That is true symbolically and systemically, but it is also true personally and quite literally.

I spent some time with Karen Sare this past week asking her some questions about her understanding of breathing, about breath and life, about struggle for air and energy, about limitations and fears and miracles, and what she no longer takes for granted. It’s been a little over a year now since she had her double lung transplant and it is more than fair to say that she knows something about breath, about breathing, about living in a valley of dry bones and then living a resurrected life.

I asked her if she thinks about her lungs all the time. She said yes, and part of that is because she’s not sure yet if she trusts them. She’s grateful to her new lungs and grateful for them, but she’s still learning to befriend them.

I asked about the forward and backward nature of the journey and she talked about months of physical therapy to even get onto the transplant list, then surgery and not being sure if she would live or die, and then weeks to get out of the hospital; then more rehab – months – and set backs and more surgery. It’s a story of struggles – one after another, of feeling betrayed by her body, of side effects of the surgery and the anti-rejection drugs, a story of confusion, hallucinations, sleeplessness, of being ashamed and exhausted, determined and uncertain – all for the privilege of breathing.

I didn’t ask her what kept her going, but she answered that question anyway: wanting to see grandchildren grow up, putting one foot in front of the other, having a lot of time to think and pray, ponder and just breathe, because she didn’t have the strength to do anything else, walking outside for the first time after the long spell following her surgery and noticing that everything was more brilliant than it had ever been before, coming to a place of understanding that the Spirit would breathe for her and when the Spirit breathes for you, all you can do is focus on letting go and loving everyone, and becoming more grateful and more gentle.

I asked her about grief. What happens to you when your old lungs – your  lungs -- are gone and now you are breathing with new lungs into a new life? Can you be sad and happy at the same time? Grieving and grateful? She answered me with a poem by Mark Nepo from a book titled, “Surviving Has Made Me Crazy.” The poem is “How to Mourn a Miracle.” It goes like this:

There are so many I should be/calling, thanking, writing long/thoughtful letters to. But I feel/so wispy, like a robe of myths/baking on a dock while what/wore me swims upstream.

And what would I say?/I’ve been away and now/I’m home? That their care--/don’t ask me how – has made it safe again? At dinner I drop/my fork, unable to drop my thoughts./In the hospital , the forks were/bent and spotted. I feel my organs/all the time. They speak to me.

Why does light stop me now?/When seeing the blood of a sunny/day melt the grass, I am crushed./Why is everything/I want to say red?

You don’t put sinews and flesh and skin onto bones and then resurrect a body with breath without some consequence. Is the consequence grief? Is it gratitude? Is it hope and freedom? Is it trust?

When will we learn that everyone breathes the same air? That everyone needs to breathe? That we need to breathe and that when we cannot do it for ourselves, the Spirit breathes for us?

Last Sunday I said that whatever else you do this week, I hope you will pray. Today I want to say that whatever else you do this week, I hope you will breathe. Maybe it’s the same thing.

 

Amen.

 

Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

May 20, 2018