Summit Presbyterian Church
April 2, 2017
“Now, Hard Part”
On Friday, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article by Jonathan Lai, in the local section, called “Now, Hard Part.” The subtitle was Sorting Old City bones is daunting. It was about a graveyard that was recently unearthed near Independence Hall. (And before I go further, I’d like to thank the Inquirer for running this article two days before Ezekiel 37 came up in the lectionary. I suspect I’m not the only preacher who’s using it this morning).
A year ago, contractors were digging, getting ready to put up a 25-story apartment building, when they hit bones and gravestones. And not just a few, but many bones and coffins; it’s believed they’re from one of the city’s oldest cemeteries, the Old First Baptist Church burial ground. The bones were supposed to have been moved when the church sold the property in the mid-1800s, but apparently many were left behind. A forensic archeologist, a forensic anthropologist, students and other volunteers have been trying to put the bones together, and they’re finding it hard. Hard part: they can’t tell, for sure, which bones belong with each other. The bones were scattered and fragmented; joints are missing; they’re very fragile. They’re also hard to clean: they’re so dry, some of them, that when they’re touched with a wet brush the outer layer begins peeling off. There’s also the hard part of finding money for storage, supplies, and workers — the project will take years. The researchers would like to find out how many people these bones represent, who they are and what happened to them, but they know that they’ll never fully answer those questions. Most bones will only be known as John or Jane Doe. Which is also a hard part.
In Ezekiel’s vision, bones, very dry bones, are also sorted and put together. A valley full of them. Bones put together so that sinews may be laid on them and breath breathed into them. Ezekiel is the prophet that announces this great coming together, but it’s God who’s the forensic archeologist and it’s God who’s the forensic anthropologist, and for God, this is the easy part. For God knows which bones belong to each another. God knows the story of each and every one who was slain in that valley; God knows what happened and why. God doesn’t need to carefully drybrush each bone. Instead, there’s a noise, and a rattling as the bones come together, bone to bone. Then sinews and flesh and skin come upon them. And then, through Ezekiel, God calls the breath, God’s Spirit, the same Spirit that God breathed into Adam, God calls the breath to enter into each one. And then they stood on their feet — a vast multitude. That was the easy part.
Now, hard part: Ezekiel must prophesy to the living. To the living who say: “our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” The hard part: cracking open the hearts of a people who are defeated and despairing and divided. The hard part: tearing down resistance to God’s Word among a people who feel they’ve been abandoned by God. The hard part: planting a new Spirit within them, so that they know the Lord has spoken and will act. The hard part: bringing the living out of their graves.
Let’s begin with those graves. Do you know what I”m talking about, for us today? Ezekiel may have spoken these words over 2,000 years ago you know what I’m talking about. There are so many graves we fall into, coffins that trap us. Grief is one of them: the deep grief that comes from the death of a loved one, or from divorce, or from loss of health and the ability to do things we used to do. Our bones can become very dry. Depression is another one — that deep depression where death looks like a friend and all hope is lost. Physical pain can be another, the kind of pain that isolates and makes us feel like we are cut off completely. Debt, that deep hole — money troubles — you can add to the list.
We’re also in danger of falling into a collective grave — one that is being dug by the powerful and relatively powerful of this world. An Indian writer named Amitov Ghosh just wrote a book called, “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.” In it he asks: given the emergency we’re facing, why are so few people talking about climate change? Why is it nearly absent in works of fiction, in novels including his own - and other kinds of art? He says that when later generations - living, say, when New York City and London have abandoned because of sea level rise, — when later generations look back at our time, on our silence, denial and inaction, they’ll wonder what was with us — our time will be known as the Great Derangement. I haven’t read the book (I’m going to) but I can offer an hypothesis (not an original one) as to why it’s not getting the attention it deserves. It’s too frightening, too overwhelming, too exhausting to even imagine — so before we’ve begun we’re defeated, despairing and divided. We say that our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely — not so different than the first people who listened to the prophesy of Ezekiel.
But listen they did. And they told it to their children and wrote it down, and included it in Holy Scripture. For it was a prophesy that proved trustworthy. God did act, the exiles returned to Jerusalem. Now, the return may not have been exactly what they hoped for or expected: things were not the same, there were conflicts, it was far from perfect. But a new Spirit was planted within them - they rebuilt the temple, back on their own soil. It was a time of rich worship and theological exploration. Now, the returning exiles were not accompanied by hundreds of dead soldiers raised from the battlefield — this was a vision, not an historical event — but it was a vision of God’s power in the most hopeless of situations. A vision of God’s power to bring life out of death. A vision of God’s power that moved and sustained them. A vision of God’s power that would also show itself in the resurrection of Jesus, when the stone was rolled away.
Now, hard part: to trust that vision. To have faith in the power of God to bring us back from our the graves of grief, despair and fear, in our personal and political lives. To open our hearts and lives to the Spirit that God is breathing into us, or trying to breathe into us, if we would stop resisting, so that we may live. The Spirit that assures us of God’s love for each one of us, God’s memory for us, no matter how far our bones may eventually scatter. The Spirit the guides us in the way we should go, and that opens up the scriptures to us. The Spirit that draws us together in love, and grants us joy. The Spirit that gives us the courage to pray without ceasing and to work together in the face of this great emergency: a changing climate in a nuclear armed world. The Spirit that helps us bring about a world of peace and justice, where everyone is able to breathe. It’s hard to trust in that vision — suffering and loss can overwhelm even the most faithful among us. But God promises that we shall live — for although the raising up of the multitude was a vision, it wasn’t a tease. One day, at a time and hour we do not know, in bodies that are different than the ones we have now — we wont’ need our bones — all the world will be redeemed, the living and the dead, in the new creation. In the meantime, we have work to do, love to give, lives to live: for the Lord has spoken and will act. These bones can live.