Delivered at Ames UCC
on December 3, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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When we are born, our bones are small, like us. They are weak, like us. Over time, they grow as we do, in whatever way we do. Some of us get quite tall, some of us stay small. The strength of our adult bones varies according to our genetics and our habits. Weight training helps. If our bones break, they can often be repaired through surgery, pins, casting, traction, implants, and time.
Our bones keep aging along with our skin and our hair and our organs. They say now that the image of an older person falling then breaking a hip is wrong: it is actually that the hip breaks and then the fall happens as a result.
Then we die.
Different things can happen to our bones on death. Some of us here will be embalmed. Our bones will be laid to rest with flesh for company, in a box in the ground. Some of us will be cremated, and our bones become like the dust with which we are anointed on Ash Wednesday.
Some cremated bones are buried in a small box in the ground. Some are set free into air and soil. I have an urn in my office with the residue of many loved ones that I have had the honor to release back to our mother.
So whose bones are filling a valley, whose neglected bones are we looking upon today?
You’ll remember that three weeks ago we heard God speaking through the prophet and priest Jeremiah, before, during, and after Jerusalem’s fall to Babylon. Jeremiah’s audience in the aftermath was the elite who had been forcibly displaced into exile. Just because the elite had lost their nation, they had not lost God.
God told the people newly in exile that they should settle in, plant a garden, have kids. They were not home so they needed to make space for survival until they could find their way back.
It was a story of removal.
Then Last week Brett preached about three of those exiles—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—and their response to the pressure of religious assimilation by Babylonian culture and authorities. They chose a furnace over one more compromise, and lived to tell the tale.
It was a story of resistance.
Today, Ezekiel gives the exiled a vision of return. A return as powerful as the resurrection of the dead.
Though some bones are thoughtfully and carefully tended to and laid to rest, others are abandoned, hidden, or crushed. The bones of people flung into mass graves, for example. Or those of theatres of war that are left to be buried by the elements. It seems that those are the bones Ezekiel sees and those are the bones to whom God speaks: the dead of war.
Now, the historical record and our scripture both show that Jerusalem does rise again. The exiled do return and the nation rebuilds, albeit with some struggle. But the dead do not rise up. The dead never do. So why is this the metaphorical oracle that Ezekiel offers?
Consider the role of bones in life: They support the workings of the rest. They make our blood possible. They give muscle a place to cling. They allow us to chew and so receive nourishment.
And our bones surround what needs protecting: our brains, our lungs, our hearts. Our skeletons are inanimate without all of that soft tissue. Once animated, they are the guardians of that pulsing, tender life.
In the case of war, as happened to Ezekiel’s people, human will, imperial domination, has denied skeletons their special task have denied the natural order. Those left behind feel that vicious and senseless loss, in their own bones. War can make the hearts of survivors become like stone, dead pendants dangling in a cage of ribs. The hearts of survivors may harden, with no sense of blood pumping through those veins, only the dusts of fear and anger and resentment. Survivors become as skeletons strewn on a plain.
God is telling them that though they may feel dead, there is yet new life.
In the previous chapter God says through Ezekiel:
And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh; and I will put My spirit into you. (36.26–27a)
However much Christians have made faith in God into an issue of “afterlife,” the bulk of our scriptural evidence and lived experience tells us that God’s investment is not in resurrections of the dead but resuscitations of the living.
And God’s revivifying offer is not only for the immediate survivors of the Babylonian war. The exiled lived in Babylon for generations. That first group did settle in, did have children. Those children never saw the killing fields around Jerusalem.
Neither have we. Yet many of us here have been in other wars, the wars of this century and the last’s. And all of us here are witnesses to our current wars as well as the renewed threat of nuclear war, and a renewed national tolerance for the kinds of fascism and white supremacy that have often preceded war.
Ezekiel’s people were not the first nor the last: There has not yet been a generation who has not been cut to the bone by war and yearned for peace.
I know precisely how ridiculous and naïve it sounds to say that, given all of human history. And I’ll sound even more foolish by adding that our hope for peace is through God, even though competing notions of God have sometimes been the cause of war.
Trust me when I say that any doubt you are having now, or any critique you find coming to your tongue, I have already felt and already said, maybe even as recently as this morning.
But I also know that the only name I have for what has revived me when my heart starts to harden, for what daily resurrects my capacity to say no to tyranny and yes to all people, is a peace that passes all human understanding, a peace that IS God.
Jeremiah witnesses a brutal removal. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego demonstrate resistance. Ezekiel sees a coming return. This Advent season we prepare for Jesus’ birth and his own removal, resistance, and return.
Wars and those who start them have yet to completely win. The exiled of Jerusalem did go home. American chattel slavery did end. The Nazis have been defeated before.
We are all going to die some day, so we must answer for ourselves the question of how we want to live, how we will live in the lead up to and in the midst of our generation’s wars.
Let us accept God’s renewal of heart and gift of the Holy Spirit. Let them animate our capacity to be guardians of pulsing, tender life. It is our time to resist, to risk fires. If we do, maybe our bones will serve as a memorial to a lasting peace.