Skeletons (Bones)

A favorite professor of mine challenged us to write our own every couple of years. Now, I realize that’s a bit dark, so I’ve never taken him up on his offer. Here’s how I’d love for it to read: Ryan Snider died at the ripe age of 115. He had been retired for seventy five years (optimistic, right?) and spent his time between his four houses, one for each season. He leaves behind 10 grandchildren and 25 great grandchildren. And also, 15 New York Times Best Selling books. That’s all fantasy. We never know when we’ll go, much less will we have control over what someone else will write about our lives.

I wonder what you would write about your own life. It’s a helpful thought experiment to think about this—not just about the things you’ve accomplished, but about the things you hope to accomplish with the time you have left. We all have dreams, don’t we, about how we might be remembered? More profoundly—when I get to the end, what kind of person did I become? What do I hope someone might say about my character? I’d like to be remembered as someone more than the guy who could put down a case of beer in one night. The humbling part of that exercise is that I realize that my life isn’t bearing as much of those fruits of the spirit as I’d hope. There are a lot of bare limbs and I need a lot more fertilizer, and pruning, and care before I’d like this tree to be cut down. Using Ezekiel’s language—I long for new flesh to cover these bones, a new heart under my ribcage, and the breath of God making me more like Christ.

Ezekiel has something to say about a bare life. He’s writing during this time of exile. Babylon has swept in. Nebuchadnezzar has sealed their fate: Jews have died, the city is destroyed, God’s temple—the very heartbeat of God—is rubble. The people have cried out, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, we are clean cut off.”  Then, Ezekiel is taken into this deep valley. Imagine sitting at the bottom of Linville Gorge, or better yet, maybe the Grand Canyon. It’s beautiful, but it’s deep. The walls are high. There is no life. Claustrophobia sets in because there is no escape. This could be the valley of death mentioned in Psalm 23.

Ezekiel looks around and realizes that there are dead bones everywhere; they’re not even in marked graves. It’s a battlefield that no one’s bothered to clean up. Each skeleton was a person with a family, a story, a heart that beat with passions and dreams. Now, each bone is a mystery. You’d have to pull out the dental records to identify these people. Ezekiel tells us the bones are dry, very dry, as if the marrow was sucked out years ago. Rodents don’t even want these bones. That’s Ezekiel’s vision. And it’s also a metaphor—he’s trying to sketch out the state of Israel.  They’re stripped to the bone, thirsting for life, but there’s no water in the valley and there in way out. It’s a horror movie.

God asks this question: “Can these dry bones live?” It’s an odd question for God to ask. I mean you tell us, God. Can they? Will life ever go back to normal? Can these bones live? “Creation’s bones. Humanity’s bones. Israel’s bones. The church’s. Yours?” A theologian/pastor, Sam Wells, says that it’s the question at the heart of the Bible: Can these dry bones live? I wonder if God is asking us that question.

It’s a question we might ask about the church. Too often, the church looks more like a heap of dry bones than the living, breathing body of Christ. 500 years ago this year, Martin Luther asked that question about the Catholic Church and there was a reformation. It’s about time for another. We are living during a period of Christian exile, aren’t we? The familiar landscape of a ‘Christian United States of America’ is gone. The shared moral vision, if we ever had one, is disappearing. Our ‘temples,’ the churches in which we’ve worshiped, are abandoned or turned into pubs and houses. Children grow up and move away. The tactics that we used the 70s and 80s don’t work. Where do we go from here? The valley is too deep and there’s no breath in the bones. We wonder why folks don’t come to church, but why would people come to a valley of dry bones? I look out at the United Methodist Church and I ask God, “Can these bones live?”

If the church’s dilemma doesn’t strike a cord, then maybe you feel it in your life. Most of us have some kind of death—loss of a job, loss of purpose after retirement, loss of some relationship. Life feels like a broken record that’s stuck on the same note. Every Sunday night you sit on the couch and your heart sinks at the thought of the five days ahead. You’re burnt out, dried up, from giving. Turns out that the well is empty and the forecast calls for another dry winter. You’ve given up hope that God will ever breathe life back into your weary bones. That feels like exile.

To go deeper, one more level of bad news— there’s the existential angst, if we’re honest, that when we die that we’ll be forever exiled. No longer will we walk on these mountains, or throw a fishing line in the river, or feel the touch of a loved one. The end, is the end. The God who promised to never let us go turned out to be a sham. I’ve asked God the same question at every funeral I’ve presided: “Is this the end? Or, can these dry bones live? And not only the bones in the ground, but how about the bones that stand around and weep?” Will we ever live again?

Ezekiel 37 starts with death. It’s a grim picture. And that’s the truth: there is often bad news before there is good news. It’s the fundamental Christian message: ultimate hope is found on the other side of death. The problem is that you sometimes have to die. Churches die, jobs die, loved ones die. There’s a cross before the empty tomb. Here’s the good news: there is an empty tomb.  Ezekiel sees bones, but God sees life.

God calls Ezekiel to preach to the bones and so he does. Then, there’s this great rattling. Flesh begins to appear. Arteries and veins carry the blood throughout the body. Ligaments connect bone to bone. Muscles start to move. All is well, but there is no breath—God’s life giving force. If you don’t have the breath, then you’re just a pile of bones. Ezekiel preaches again, this time he asks the ruach—the breath, the wind, the spirit—to come into the bodies. God’s ruach comes. It’s the same Spirit that hovers over the water at creation, the same breath that fills the dirt and creates life, the same Holy Spirit prophesied by Joel. There is life.

Ezekiel gives us an early image of resurrection. The early Israelites had no real theology of life after death; this was a vision. God is showing Ezekiel that God has heard their cry and God is going to open the grave and bring them up and back to the land of Israel. God says, “You shall know that I am the lord when I open your graves and bring you up from the grave.” Exile does not have the final word.  Resurrection is the word that God alone is capable of making everything new out of places that feel dead. God never throws in the towel. And he says that you shouldn’t, either. God’s people are to never give up on people, families, communities, or countries. There are so many places that feel dead, but God sees the bones as a blueprint for something new. We show up in hospital rooms when there is no cure, visit folks during their fourth stint in rehab, or go behind prison walls when the key was thrown away. The world sees a graveyard, but we see new creation.

I love this image: Coventry Cathedral in England was bombed in 1940 and only a shell of the Cathedral remains in a pile of ruins. In the 60s, a new sanctuary was consecrated outside of the old foundation. In the new worship space, there is a clear glass screen, engraved with angels and saints, that overlooks the ruins. There, engraved on the glass, is Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Augustine and Patrick. There’s Osburga, who founded the first religious house in Coventry. The cathedral is an portrait of the already and the not yet.  Stand inside the cathedral, you’ll look out at the brokenness of the world and pray that God will come down into our brokenness and make something new. But, you can also stand in the ruins, the pain, and the heartache and look inside of the Cathedral to see God will build a new world in the shell of the old. One day, God will wipe away the tears and build something new. Coventry is Ezekiel’s dry bones—it is our hope.

Today is All Saints Sunday. We think about the loved ones who have gone before us into the great unknown. We gather to remember, share, wonder if their bones will live. And Ezekiel reminds us of the singular hope of the entire Christian faith: God will not abandon his people to the grave. We read this story and we see Jesus. He was the one who was stripped to his bare bones. Jesus was exiled; he walked through the valley of death carrying the sin of the world all the way to the cross. God asks, “Can these bones live?” And then Jesus says, “Watch this,” and he walks out of the tomb.Ezekiel’s vision culminates in nothing less than Jesus, who rescues us from all of our exiles. Life can be made new. One day God will breathe the power of the Holy Spirit and the bones will wear flesh and walk out of their graves.

One last thing: ancient pagans and Jews used to build cemeteries outside of town because the dead were unclean. Christians did the opposite; we started building churches and holy buildings on top of cemeteries because the dead were so holy that they could make the rest of us holy, too. It’s interesting that if you go to the bottom of Duke Chapel, then there’s a crypt; three presidents are buried there. I’m still wondering they’ll hold a spot for Coach K, the holiest saint of all, according to the Crazies. It’s a beautiful image that the saints are the bones of the church and their gravestones are the foundation. We can’t see them, but they’re beneath us holding us up and giving us our structure. Who, in your life, became your foundation and held you up like bones?  Across the street there are saints who have gone before us and now they’re looking over at us. They don’t need our sorrow if we believe Ezekiel. They know that bones can live. It’s we, the living, who need the comfort. They’re looking over at us—at our church, at our lives, at our world—and they ask, “Can yours? Can your bones live, today?”

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