Dem Bones

Posted on Jul 13, 2015 in Sermons

July 5 Sermon
Greg Jarrell
Ezekiel 37
A couple years back, a neighbor showed up at our house with an unusual offer: two ducks. This might be a regular occurrence out in the country, but we’re city folks.  These two ducklings were American Pekin ducks, bright white and a couple weeks old. They are a domesticated breed, bred for eggs from the females and meat from the males. They were, of course, far too cute to turn down for us, but our chickens tried to kill them. So, Helms built a little house for them, fenced in a little section of the yard, and we hatched a plan. Until they are a couple months old, you can’t tell the gender of this breed. We would wait and do the following: if we had two females, we would keep them for eggs. If we had two males, we would eat duck. And if we had one of each – which is how it turned out – well, we’d figure something else out. So, they grew. The boys played with them, though ducks aren’t much for playing. And then one night, while we were away at youth camp, a raccoon took a fancy to them. IT killed the female and wounded the male pretty badly. By this point they were four months old, nearing full grown. We had come too far to quit on the living one. So we had a funeral and then started fortifying. Our wishful thinking had been that we were too close to town to really have raccoons and other predators around. We’d never lost a chicken that way. But there comes a time when wishful thinking has to end. The duck now lived in a fortress.
 At this point, we were faced with reality – male ducks don’t produce anything. They don’t like being handled and can’t be housebroken, so they stink as pets. And, they have to be fed, which costs money. Eventually we were faced with a choice: I feed the duck, or the duck feeds me. Labor Day was on the way, family was coming into town, and so we set a date for the slaughter of the duck.
There comes a time in each person’s life when one has to decide what is worth fighting for and what is worth suffering for. There are moments in life when a man or a woman must gird up his or her loins and be ready to go to battle. I generally hold to Christian pacifist convictions, which insist on not harming people. This means that when I woke up to scurrying and quacking in the duck fortress around 3AM the week before Labor Day, I had no moral conundrum to resolve. The job had to be done, and the job was hand-to-hand combat with a raccoon. Only one of us was going to eat that duck, and there was no way it was not going to be me.
I won’t describe the scene that followed, though it mostly involved me trying to convince the raccoon to leave by asking it nicely. By a series of heroic actions, namely throwing stones from a safe distance and cursing the whole situation under my breath, I prevailed my will upon the raccoon. I had learned my lesson – the duck didn’t make it through the next day. It made a perfect feast – smoked for hours, fat rendered for frying potatoes later on. And after the last morsels of meat were gone, we boiled the carcass for a while to make a delightful broth that started a number of fine soups.
At the end, what was left was a pile of bones.
I had not seen any other scavengers around since then – we’re a little too close to the city for that to be common – until a recent morning when I headed down the hill on foot, only to find a freshly squished possum at the city bus stop in front of our house. I dreaded having to clean it up later. Because our street is trafficked by a parade of city buses and tractor-trailers headed to the warehouse at the bottom of the hill, I knew I would have to peel it off the pavement.
 It was my pleasant surprise when I walked outside a couple hours later to find something new to our area: three black vultures doing the job for me. In God’s creation, nothing is wasted. They worked at it for a little while, and when they departed, what was left was a pile of bones.
In our reading for the morning, Ezekiel comes upon a pile of bones. Bones upon bones upon bones. These bones seem to have reached their final resting place. There is no life left. No organ, no skin, no tissue. The vultures have long since done their work of turning old flesh into the world that is to come. The bones are dry. Death has won.
 Ezekiel, set down in this curious environment, does not get the chance to ask where on earth he is before God begins questioning him: “Mortal, can these bones live?”. Ezekiel responds in a way that is hard to interpret. “O Lord God, you know,” he says. I do not know whether he says this in resignation to the obvious – “God, you know of course that dry bones cannot live” – or whether he says it with a hint of faith – “God, you know that anything is possible with you.”
God’s response opens the possibility of faith. It is a possibility that must be made real by prophecy. Prophecy is not predicting the future. Prophecy is naming the present truthfully. Prophecy is faithful speech believing that the truth so named will incite our imaginations and move our dry bones back to God. Prophecy makes God’s future possible in the present by stating the hard reality of our past. The prophets are not popular people. Telling all those hard truths, even with great creativity, can make the prophetic vocation lonely and dangerous.
God instructions are simple: Prophesy to the bones.
God’s instructions place the responsibility for reassembling the mess in the Valley on the human one there. The one who, if he stood long enough, would return to bone himself. Ezekiel can choose whether or not to engage in this action. There is no coercion on God’s part, simply an instruction: Say to the bones, “Bones, hear the word of the Lord.”
Each of us will one day face the moment of our deaths. After we breathe our last, they’ll place us in a box and put us in the ground. And it won’t be long until the scavengers do their work. Soon you and I will be nothing but a pile of bones. And we’ll be bones far longer than we were whole bodies. Bone ossifies. In the right conditions it fossilizes. It resists being eaten by all the little microbes that will feast on our organs and make short work of our flesh.
If some curious crew digs up my box, or yours, years down the road, long after the elements have washed our tombstones smooth, they’ll know nothing about us. Not how smart we were nor how much money we had. Not how many degrees we were granted and from where. Not whether we loved well or laughed a lot or just acted like a crotchety old stick in the mud. Not how good we looked or how many countries we traveled to or how much time we spent at the gym. They’ll know nothing except that some bones were stuck in the ground.
All of those things they won’t know about us are in some sense dressing on our bones. Almost everything will be lost to history.  Nor will they know, of course, what color our skin was. We will all just be some dry old bones. Race is not in our bones. In fact, it is not even in our genes. Physiologically speaking, race is an illusion. There is no science that indicates it has any physical basis in reality. Genome mapping has demonstrated that there is more genetic variation in a single flock of penguins than there is in the entirety of the human race. In any room of diverse people, there is likely to be more genetic similarity in people of different melanin levels than there is within people with the same melanin level.
Yet, because we have believed the lie of race, it has very real consequences. It has social and economic impact that privileges some at the expense of others. Years of disadvantage send some to their graves far earlier than others. According to Mecklenburg County, the average age of death in the Grier Heights neighborhood is 61. In Eastover, it is 82. The difference between living on one side of Randolph Road or the other is 21 years of life. Race is not a lie we can live with.
God asks Ezekiel whether the bones can be turned back into bodies with flesh and sinews and tendons and ligaments and organs and blood and breath. Can they live after death? I believe God is asking us, with our bodies of flesh and sinews and tendons and ligaments and organs and blood and breath, whether we can live before we become just another pile of bones. We have a system that some of us clearly cannot live with, and if some of us cannot live with it then none of us can live with it.
In the text, God calls to Ezekiel and places the responsibility on him to begin constructing life from dry bone. I believe that God is calling us – calling as clearly today as we have heard in generations. God is placing the responsibility on us to breathe life into every suffocating place in our land, beginning with ourselves and our churches. Our work is to be sure that all can live before they die. Our holy and righteous call is to hear the prophets calling us today. They are grieving prophets, like Jeremiah, like Trayvon’s mother, like Clementa Pinckney’s daughters, like Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more. They are boisterous prophets like Amos, like Malcolm, like Baldwin, like Bree Newsome,  full of courage and of righteous discontent. They are imaginative prophets like Ezekiel, like Martin, like William Barber, calling us to live into God’s dream for all of God’s children.
And hearing those prophets, our call is to act. To act for justice. To act to end the racial caste system. To act to save our own souls adrift in a world of illusion. To put our feet in the streets and our hearts and minds to the work of compassion . To act like we mean it when we say “with liberty and justice for all.” To dismantle everything that gets in the way of achieving that dream.
This all sounds impossible. But race was constructed, so it can be deconstructed. The same goes for every principality or power that binds God’s goodness in our world today.
I imagine Ezekiel there in the valley. God questions him, “Can these bones live?” He responds, “O Lord, you know.” Surely he said this with a wide grin, knowing that he was about to be present for a revival that the history books would never believe.
This is what the Lord says: I will put my Spirit in you and you will live (37:14). May it be so.