“Dry Bones Coming to Life”
Ezekiel 37: 1-14; Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook;
Northwood United Church; April 2, 2017
Ezekiel connected dem dry bones Ezekiel connected dem dry bones Ezekiel connected dem dry bones Now I 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 I hear the word of the Lord!
Long before this gospel hymn was reduced to just a silly children’s song to teach about human anatomy. And long before it was used as a song for Hallowe’en time, this song was one of deep faith and promise in God’s presence. “Dem bones” was composed in the early 1900’s by James Johnson, an African-American who was a lawyer, an activist, and a man of deep faith. And long before Johnson wrote this gospel piece, the prophet Ezekiel had this vision which was later recorded in scripture. Just imagine with me the tragic story of their lives…amidst their time of being conquered, of being dragged away in chains to a new land, to live as slaves. Amidst all of this horror and dread, this vision of hope was conceived. At the time the holy land was divided into two kingdoms: Israel to the North and Judah to the South. Israel was defeated by the Assyrians in the 8th century BCE and Judah (of which Ezekiel was part) was conquered by King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians two centuries later. To be sure, this time was one which presented a profound crisis of faith for the Hebrew people. For the Judeans, they had lost the land promised to their ancestors all the way back to the time of Joshua. Their king, who was in the line of Davidic kings, had been tried in a Babylonian court and lay in prison. And their temple ~ the place where they physically understood God to be located ~ lay in ruins. And so, as they lay in exile, as the ruins of the temple lay on the ground, they were coming to realization that the time of God’s presence among them had ended. They were coming to believe they were no longer God’s chosen people. They were coming to a place devoid of hope and future.
(screen) The place the vision occurs…a graveyard. A great plain that is littered with the human remains from the Babylonian conquest. It is now many years later; and the bones are all dried up, bone layered upon bone; It is an inhumane sight of death…yet there is life. In Ezekiel’s vision, the Spirit of the Lord takes him to this place and sets him down in the middle of the plain. He is bewildered, overcome with sadness and grief, devoid of hope. Yet he knows God is still alive! God has taken him on this journey and placed him in the middle of the ruins of his life, the ruins of his culture and God asks: “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel is overwhelmed by this vision. He is overwhelmed that God is still alive ~ God has not died along with the destruction of the temple; God has taken him on this journey. (Can these bones live? Asks God) I don’t know Lord, “O Lord God, only you know”.
I find that Lent is a season in which people tend to be open to going a little deeper with their faith. And I have been having some very significant conversations with some of our folks about their life, their faith, and their hopes. Do Ezekiel’s words speak to you in your life? Have you ever been in a place of peril, a place of death, a place of destruction and simply wondered if there was no hope left? In times of transition with one’s professional life, people sometimes wonder what is out there for them. They wonder about the changing needs of their industry and how they will fit in? They wonder if they will find employment and be able to support their family. In times of personal transition, people worry about getting through the challenging times of life. When we are confronted with personal challenges like addiction or grief and loss we wonder how we will get through another day. When we are confronted with spiritual challenges ~ crises in our faith, these cause us to question our place in the universe and ponder whether we are alone or God is with us.
And yet amidst the faith crisis of Ezekiel and the Judeans ~ amidst their time of existential peril…they are given this vision of hope. And to Ezekiel’s uncertainty and amazement, God promises to bring new life to these bones which seemed dead and gone. God will offer the breath of life to these dry bones. God will lay sinews upon these dry bones. God will lay flesh upon these dry bones. God will put life on these dry bones and there will be a tomorrow for Ezekiel and his people.
Have you ever seen new flesh placed over old bones before? Perhaps it has occurred to you in your own life. I have seen it with widows and widowers who have found a new lease on life over time: peginning again…sometimes picking up new hobbies, new interests, sometimes even a new love, and finding a new depth and meaning in life. I have seen this with people recovering from addiction…some of the strongest people I know have walked the twelve steps and come out the other side to a new life. I have seen it spiritually, when people go through deep, dark, dry-bones periods only later to find a deeper and more meaningful faith on the other side. For me, the valley of dry bones is a powerful image that is so filled with depth, and hope and meaning for us all.
It is interesting, in the Talmud, the Rabbis suggest that engraved into each of our bones is the very depth and essence of who each of us are. The raw essence, the raw material of who we are is always there and never shifts or changes, God just fashions and shapes new possibilities for us as we move into our tomorrows. I find this text to offer some interesting insight into the life and future for our churches as well. The truth is that we are a rapidly changing community in the church. And in some cases people might even say that many churches have become reduced to a graveyard, a valley of dry bones compared to what they once were. Churches that were once overflowing with children in the 1950’s now have few if any young families in attendance. Churches that once had large choirs singing their favourite anthems, now have empty choir loft and choral robes in mothballs. The churches are still standing, a sign of what once was, yet they are a skeleton of what once was. The hope, the promise, the good news is that God will continue to put new sinew on the church, God will place new flesh on the church, God will place new life on the church ~ IF we let God do what God wants to do. A month ago, our Presbytery gathering hosted Rev. Rob Dalgleish, the director of EDGE (a UCC initiative for revitalizing missions in churches). Some of you might be wondering where the money goes when we close churches, well…this is an example of where it ends up. Rob is a creative minister with a Masters in Business, he offers some unique perspectives and some hope for the future. EDGE offers guidance, coaching and … money. Funding to get fresh new initiatives off the ground. In his presentation, he shared some unique innovations in ministry (new flesh and sinews on old bones) in forms of churches that are doing “skateboard church”, “rock-jam church”, and “yoga church” to just name a few.
A lot of the research that they have been doing has been with the churches in the UK as they are about a decade further into the post-Christendom decline than we are. An initiative that is in the UK, that you may wish to do a little looking at yourself, is called “fresh expressions” (www.freshexpressions.org.uk) and they have been doing a lot of sharing of ideas and resources. Interestingly, the fresh expressions movement is certainly new flesh and sinew; however, it is laid upon the faithful old bones of what we know as the church. They view four components as key in moving forward: The initiatives must be “Missional”. They must be there to serve the needs outside of the church. Secondly, they must be “contextual” They must be coming as a result of listening to the people’s needs. Third, they must be “educational”. They must be focused on the forming of disciples. And lastly, they must be “evangelistic”. They must help form, shape and re-form the church. New flesh, new sinew laid upon the bones of the church. While the flesh and sinew may look different, they are laid on the faithful old bones of what was and always will be Jesus church!
I find it full of hope to see the changes today. Six years ago, this sanctuary was as quiet as a graveyard on a Sunday afternoon. Now…we have an equally lively faith community who gather here around the medium of jazz music for our Jazz Vespers in the Valley service. New sinew and flesh laid upon old bones. Who knows what the future holds? I find it full of hope to see the changes today. We began offering Mindfulness meditation over the Lenten season and 21 people have joined us so far! Some from the community, some from Sunday morning, others from Jazz and we have formed a special community of sharing and depth. I was chatting with one of our long time members at the end of last week’s gathering and we both noted ‘something powerful is happening in this group’! I have increasingly been thinking that we need to be offering a mid-week gathering opportunity for spiritual gatherings. Could you imagine what a community ministry opportunity it might be if you came to Northwood on a Tuesday night and mingled for tea, and then had the opportunity to break off into a variety of different spiritual practice opportunities: meditation, centering prayer, yoga, taize chanting, healing touch. Who knows where the possibilities might lead?
I was laying some fertilizer and seeds down on my lawn yesterday and I noticed the most beautiful thing. I noticed the signs of spring. Amidst the rainiest March in decades, the clouds had cleared away revealing the blue sky, the daffodils of spring are starting to be seen, and the buds forming on my cherry trees promise that they will soon begin to blossom once again. Signs of hope will be found for Ezekiel and for his people; signs of hope will be found for you and I in our struggles; signs of hope will be found for Christ’s church. For upon the dry bones of the past, God will lay new sinews, new flesh, new life. Thanks be to God!