Dry Bones, the Spirit and Resurrection

[We are reposting this sermon on the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37.1-14) preached at Wine Before Beer way back on June 16, 2015. The text is in the lectionary again this Sunday and while we have not updated the sermon in light of COVID-19, thought that there was still some resonance, and that folks who want to open the scriptures for their communities at this time, might find this helpful. As with anything on Empire Remixed, feel free to use this in any way that will bring encouragement to your communities.]

Whose bones are these?

Are these the bones of the exiles who died on the march to Babylon?
Or might they be the bones of the thousands crucified under the Romans?

Whose bones are these?

Might these be the bones of 11 million Jews, Poles, Russian POWs,
the mentally handicapped and homosexuals eradicated by the Nazi holocaust?
Are they the bones of the one and a half million Armenians
cut down by the Ottoman empire?

Are these Tutsi bones from the Rwandan genocide?
Congolese bones from the reign of Belgium’s King Leopold II?
Bones of the victims of Boko Haram, ISIS or the CIA?

Are they the bones of the Death Squads in Central and South America?
Is Ezekiel surveying the Khmer Rouge killing fields in Cambodia
where the bones of something like 2 million people were uncovered?

Or are these the bones that continue to pile up in Iraq, Syria
and throughout the Middle East?
The bones of war, the bones of vengeance and ideology.

Whose bones are these?

Are these the bones of untold millions of aboriginal peoples
who have died since European contact
– through disease, starvation or violent attack?

Or more recently, are these the bones of at least 4000 children
who died in the residential schools of our shameful national and ecclesiastical history?
Or are these the bones of some 1200 missing aboriginal women in this country?

And where are those bones?

Whose bones are these?

African American preachers knew whose bones these were.
Long before ‘dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones’
became a funny kid’s song for the campfire or Halloween,
black preachers would draw out the whole detail
of the reconstitution of these dry bones
as a song of liberation.

You see, when a beating from your master,
or a lynching from the local Klu Klux Klan
resulted in neck bones disconnected from the head bone,
and shoulder bones disconnected from the back bone,
then a vision of all of these bones coming back together again
isn’t funny – it’s a matter of life and death.

Or if it is humourous, it is a subversive kind of humour.

But these African American preachers knew whose bones these were.
These were the bones of their mothers and fathers,
their aunties and uncles,
folks whose bones and bodies had been broken
under the violent burden of slavery.

Dem bones, dem bones gonna rise again
Dem bones, dem bones gonna rise again
Dem bones, dem bones gonna rise again
Now hear the word of the Lord.

So whose bones are these?

These are the bones of all oppressed, broken down people.
These are the bones of all who have lost hope.

These are the bones of all who have have been cut off, rejected and despised.
These are the bones of all who have felt their lives dehydrated, all dried out.

The starkness of Ezekiel’s vision is shocking.
Yes, this is a vision from the killing fields, or Auschwitz, or Rwanda.

Dried out bones piled all over the valley, without even the dignity of burial.

Whether this is a literal experience that Ezekiel had or not,
the vision itself is enough of a nightmare to leave a man quaking.
What Ezekiel sees in this vision is the total and utter loss of all hope,
all breath, all life.

And as if to make sure that he gets it,

God asks him what appears to be a ridiculous question:
“Mortal, can these bones live?”

Can there be life where there is no water?
Can bleached out bones, the end of all endings, live?

The prophet replies, “O Lord God, you know”
which I take to mean,

“Damned if I know, why don’t you answer your own impossible question.”

“Well, I’ll tell you what,” says God, “you prophecy to these bones.”
“Let’s see if these bones can live.”
“Let’s do something absolutely crazy here. Let’s prophecy to these bones.”

Ezekiel, being the kind of quasi-psychotic guy that he was,
figures that if a voice has told him to prophecy, then he better do as he’s told.

And as he prophesied,
what was disconnected, comes back together again.
What was dislodged finds its proper place.
What was dried out bone takes on sinews and flesh.
What was a confused mass of bones becomes identifiable human forms.

But there is no breath.

You see there are two insurmountable problems in this valley of dry bones.

The first is that the very aridness of the vision precludes life.
This may be a vision of new creation that is unfolding here,
but in some respects it is even more radical than
the original act of creation.

You see, at the first creation, there was water, and from water springs forth life.
But not in Ezekiel’s vision. No, these bones are ‘very dry.’

The second insurmountable problem,
the second thing that makes it impossible for life to emerge,
is that there is no breath in these bones
no breath in these bodies,
no breath in this valley.

Except, of course, the very breath, the very Spirit of God,
that brought Ezekiel here in the first place.

So it is that breath that must be called upon;
it is that Spirit that must come and animate these zombie-like bodies,
it is the Spirit that will set them free,
it is the Spirit who will bring about resurrection.

And here’s the thing.

The only culture in history that has not understood
that life is animated by spirit,
that the very being of all of creation is sustained in some way by spirit,
is the materialist culture of the secular west.

Only in a modernist culture,
rooted in its own vision of human autonomy,
a culture that has de facto killed God,
do people think that they have their lives in themselves.

Everyone else in the world and throughout history
has known better.

“So prophecy, mortal, to the breath.”

“Say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord God:
Come from the four winds, O breath.
Come and breathe upon these slain,
that they might live.’”

Come from the four winds, O breath.
This is a breath that blows from the four directions.

This is the breath of creation.

Here is something that our First Nations brothers and sisters
know so much more powerfully and intimately than do their
European conquerors.

The Great Spirit, the Spirit that is the breath of creation,
is the Spirit of the four directions, the four winds.

For Ezekiel, and for Israel after him,
this was a powerful prophecy of resurrection.

And while later (mostly Christian) interpreters,
took this to be a vision of individual resurrection,
of individual salvation,
that was not the initial point.

This is a prophecy of the resurrection of a people,
of a community.

This is not a prophecy so much about life after death,
and certainly not of life after death in something called heaven.

No, this is a prophecy with real historical and geo-political meaning,
both then and now.

“Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.”
These are those who have lost hope, who have been cut off completely.
These are those who have no future because they have are the casualties of history.
These are those whose imaginations have been left dehydrated by their own exile.

And if they are to be resurrected,
if this community is to enter history anew,
if those who have been exiled and cut off,
if those who have violently been abused and discounted
are to experience resurrection,
if they are to have a new breath of life blow through them,
if their graves are to be opened and death be overthrown,
if they are to be placed back on their feet,
all bones, sinews, relationships and life reconnected and restored,
then they will need to have place to stand, a place to till, a place to love.

“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.”

There can be no resurrection without a new creation.
There can be no new creation without bodies.
And there can be no bodies without soil.

So black preachers who sing about
dem bones, dem bones dry bones,
coming together into resurrection,
called their people to love their bodies,
bodies taken as mere sources of labour at best
and objects of derision, rape and hate at worst.

And they knew that it wasn’t enough to imagine restored bodies,
without a restoration of life in the land.

Communities subjected to violent oppression
can only be raised to new life in places of care and stewardship.

There could be no resurrection of ‘dem bones’
without emancipation of those bodies,
without a setting free of those bodies
into a life of racial, political, and economic justice.

Resurrection is always a matter of social, economic and ecological justice.
And such justice is at the heart of the Spirit who renews all things.

So also have the elders in the First Nations communities known
that without the Great Spirit blowing from the four winds,
and without a deep reconnection with the land,
there will be no reconciliation and no true resurrection
for their people.

And, my dear sisters and brothers,
what is true of the descendents of African slaves and the First Nations,
what is true for Cambodians and Rwandans,
for Jews and Palestinians,
for dry bones communities throughout the world and history,
is true for us as well.

We may well experience our lives as dry bones.
We may well go through times when it feels as if there is no hope,
that we have been cut off in so many different ways,
that we have lost our vitality, our direction, our very spirituality.

And if that is you,
then come to the Valley of Dry Bones.

Ezekiel has a wacky message for you.

If that is you,
then listen up,
maybe you can start to hear the rattling,
maybe you can sense the wind starting to blow,
maybe you can have some inkling of new hope,
maybe things will start to come together,
maybe your life can be animated anew by the Spirit,
maybe hope will be born anew,
and maybe, just maybe,
you’ll find yourself called again to the land of the living,
called to your place in God’s good new creation.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

One Response to “Dry Bones, the Spirit and Resurrection”

  1. Jacqueline

    Still urgently relevant. Blessings , gratitude


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