Today’s sermon from Ezekiel 37:1-14
Willie was a slightly gruff little old man. A no nonsense hard-working army veteran with a passion for learning, a witty remark for almost everything, and, a purpose.
He was a family man, a provider, the head of the house. He worked most of his adult life for the Tennessee Valley Authority and when he retired he filled his time with welding projects and auto repair projects for friends and family.
Willie and his wife, Earlene, enjoyed a comfortable life in a modest home. They were active in their church community, and they loved each other very much.
They had three sons and several grandchildren, and they enjoyed having their family members over for meals whenever possible.
In their happy world, Earlene cooked and manage the house, and Willie took care of the financials and the handiwork.
One day, when Earlene got sick, Willie’s purpose and identity shifted from provider and handyman to full-time caregiver.
The day Earlene was memorialized and returned to the earth, was the day that will he lost his purpose, his identity, and his will to live.
The loss of identity is one of the hardest personal crises someone can face in their life.
I’ve been there myself. After devoting my life from the ages of six through 18 to studying to become a concert pianist;
when I got weeded out of music school, part of me felt lost, disjointed and disconnected from myself as I was and myself as I had become.
All my dreams and plans had to be reshaped and remade. It was disheartening and hard.
The loss of identity and purpose can take many forms. Indian doctor Atul Gawande says in his book, Being Mortal, that aging can be viewed as a series of losses.
You may have experienced some losses in your life as you have journeyed along through life’s different stages:
getting older, and losing some of the independence that you have held dear for a long time like the ability to drive, or the ability to live in the place of your own choosing.
Losing some, or all of of your eyesight; or hearing.
Sometimes, in retirement, people seem to feel like they have lost a version of who they were as an employee of such and such company.
They often find themselves wondering how to proceed without knowing who they are or who they will become without that job to give them identity and purpose.
The loss of a spouse can create a very painful crisis of identity and purpose, like it did for Willie.
And sometimes, if you have been a caregiver for someone, losing that person that you love and losing your identity as a full-time caregiver can be excruciatingly difficult.
It is very hard to feel unsure of where you fit in your own life, and in the general scheme of things, when so many things are being taken away from you one at a time.
Sometimes, for whatever reason, people may even lose access to their place of worship and their faith community.
Each experience that we have in life creates different emotions within us, and makes us feel different things.
The good experiences that we have create within us a sense of joy;
and, on the contrary, bad experiences, like the experience of loss… any kind of loss in life can feel a lot like despair or loneliness.
For some it can feel like becoming useless or irrelevant.
And, for some like Ezekiel and the people of Israel, the loss of identity and purpose can feel like death: a dry, lifeless, and brittle existence that feels far, far away from God.
Ezekiel is a prophet. One of those really weird ones who has crazy visions that sound a lot like riddles that nobody knows how to put together.
He knows what the people are saying about him. He has had a lot of visions from God for the people of Israel, and they’re only reaction was to label him a riddlemonger and turn a deaf ear.
As the Lord continues to give him words for the people, and as the people continue to turn a deaf ear,
Ezekiel sits in his recliner at home, munching on some bread and honey and reflecting on why in the world he was chosen to be the prophetic voice of God to a people who seem to have no interest in hearing it.
As a young man, Ezekiel was taken into exile; forced to leave his home and go live in Babylon against his will.
He, and other exiles with him, felt the burning stinging of loss. The loss of their home, and more importantly, the loss of their religious identity.
For the people of Israel, three key components of worship were held in highest importance to them.
The city of Jerusalem, the temple in Jerusalem, and the monarchy… The Kings from the family line of David, which God had appointed for them.
Not only were they far away from home, forced to live in a strange land and away from their community and place of worship, during that time, the temple was destroyed.
They may as well have been a pile of dead, lifeless, brittle bones; strewn about, forgotten by God left to a meaningless purposeless existence of despair and lost hope.
And, tonight, as Ezekiel ponders in silence what it would mean for Israel to have there hope restored, the presence of God enters into his space, surrounds him and wrap him up in peace.
This peace that comes from being in the presence of God is so restful, so restorative, so inviting, that Ezekiel’s eyes grow heavy and close in rest while his heart remains open to the spirit of God’s leading.
And the Spirit of God leads Elijah into the deepest recesses of his consciousness and presents him with another vision; another opportunity to hear the word of the Lord for Ezekiel, for the people of Israel, and for us.
As the blur in his mind’s eye begins to clear and come into focus, Ezekiel finds himself at the edge of a valley.
Bare branches pepper the dusty landscape, and the spirit, like a gust of wind, swirls around Ezekiel and downward to the center of the valley.
He obediently follows after the twirly gust; finding himself now standing in the center of the valley.
All around him are bones. Mounds of them, void of marrow and blood;
dry, brittle bones strewn around like forgotten keepsakes, long outgrown by their owners.
As the spirit twirls around the bones, Ezekiel follows close behind.
Standing there in the middle of this valley, surrounded by dry, very dead bones, in this place of lost hope and despair, the word of the Lord unmistakably cuts through:
“ you, who are made of flesh and bone, tell me something, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel is puzzled and troubled by the question. “what does that even mean?” he thinks to himself, before he answers “you alone know, God.”
Next comes the hauntingly refreshing, bone chilling word of the Lord:
“ prophesy, you who are of flesh and bone, prophesy to these dry and dead bones and say this to them:
oh dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. This is what the Lord says: I will fill you with breath, and you will live.
I will put flesh and muscle on you, and cover you with skin.
I will breathe air into your lungs and you will live, and you will know for sure, that I am the Lord.
The dust that has been raised from the thunderous voice of God commanding this prophet to speak life into these bones finally settles back to the earth.
Ezekiel stands in the valley before these bonds, and prophesies as commanded. At once there is a rattling.
The bones, once dry, become plump and lustrous, bursting with blood and marrow.
They find each other and, so as not to be separated again tendons connect them to each other,
muscle covers the bones with a protective fibrous layer, and each bodily form is sealed with a covering of dewy pink flesh.
Ezekiel stares at the bodies before him. They look restored, but remain lifeless, breathless, spirit-less.
God says to him “prophesy to the breath and say to the breath, come from the four winds, oh breath, and breeze the Spirit of life into each of these who were once dead, so that they may live.”
And as he speaks the last words, a great gust of wind comes into the valley and the sound of breath entering the bodies is heard.
The bodies, now fully alive and filled with the breath and Spirit of God, stand up on their feet.
God says to Ezekiel:
“You, made of flesh and bone, these bones are the people of Israel. They have cry it out to me, our bones are dried up and our hope is lost.
We are isolated, completely cut off. Our temple is destroyed, our lives have no meaning, we have no purpose and we may as well be dead.”
So, I want you to say to them: this is what the Lord God says:
‘I am going to reach into your hearts and bring you out from your graves of soul death, you are my people.
I will bring you out of this feeling of despair and isolation, and you will know that I am the Lord.
I will put my Spirit within you, and you will live, and you will see your life as I see your life:
full of meaning and purpose, you will have a place to worship and you will have a community to worship with.
You will enjoy the comfort of home, and you will be able to thank me with all your heart.
Because when I do this for you, when I restore your help,
you will know that I am the Lord who has said all of these things and then I will do what I have promised you.”
If there’s one thing to be learned from Ezekiel, it’s this:
God may lead us to the most unsightly places to meet with us, but we can trust that even in the driest, deadest places –
God will always show up, a refreshing presence that longs to restore us to hope amidst despair and life amidst the deaths we experience in our faith.
The word of God through Ezekiel teaches us that when we are living in the presence of God, God’s spirit will always be there to breathe into us new life again and again:
sometimes by giving us a new framework to view our lives, sometimes by creating a new and more fulfilling reality from broken dreams.
For Willie, the spirit of the Lord breathed new life into his brittle existence after Earlene’s death by giving him a new purpose:
companionship to isolated elders – particularly those living in nursing homes. He would visit them, play cards and bring cake.
By allowing the spirit of God to breathe new life into his broken heart, Willie was able to become the presence of God to some of the people who needed it most;
and through Willie’s ministry, their dry bones were moistened with marrow and filled with hope.
Today, on this fifth Sunday in the season of Lent, we reflect on the spirit of God at work within our own lives and the life of our church.
Scott Boulevard is preparing to begin a season of discernment; a time of asking of God “what would you have us to be and to do?”
Not so long ago, this congregation’s worship space was leveled to a pile of bones –
but you,the people of this church, made of flesh and bone, allowed the spirit of God to transform you into a people who live in the presence of God,
taking it with you wherever you go and letting it permeate your ministries: deacons, care partners, church at home, Wednesday bible study and Sunday worship.
As Ezekiel and the exiles found hope in the dry bones that lived again, so we find hope in the ever-present movement of the spirit of God among us;
in the once dry bones of a people without a building of their own, which now run rich with the marrow of hope for the future of our ministry.
Norma connects to Ruth through our deacons ministry, Angie to Catherine, and Pat to Anne in Care Partners.
Greg and I connect with each of you to show our care for you, and to partner with you in our church’s care for one another.
And so, as bone connects to bone, we connect with one another; each bringing a different gift to the body of Christ that is our church.
A whole body of many live bones imbued with the spirit of God.
Thanks be to God for this fresh breath of restorative hope.