Dry Bones? Rotting Flesh? We Can Work Around That.   Leave a comment

The following is the text of a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on 2 April 2017

Biblical texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; John 11:1-45

The actor Ray Wise is probably best known for playing “Leland Palmer” in David Lynch’s Surrealist television show Twin Peaks. You may have heard that Twin Peaks is coming back to television next month, with most of the original cast picking up the story 25 years later.

In recent interviews, Ray Wise has told the story of David Lynch taking him out to lunch a couple of years ago and saying, “We’re bringing Twin Peaks back, and we want you to come be in it again.”

Wise replied, “But David, I’m dead! Leland died!”

With a mischievous grin, Lynch said, “We can work around that.”

Today we are beginning the fifth week of Lent, our time of engaging with our mortality; repenting of our sins, individual and corporate; and renewing our life in preparation for the joy and resurrection of Eastertide. And in today’s readings we get two hard-to-believe stories that foreshadow the mystery of Easter.

Sometimes the Prophets seem a bit like Surrealist filmmakers as they retell their visions. Ezekiel gives us here one of the greatest mystical encounters in the Bible, rendered in wonderful poetic language: “The hand of the Lord… set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones… there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.” These bones are long dead—they have not seen blood or marrow or life for years, maybe centuries. “He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’” We might add, for clarity, “only”: “O Lord God, only you know whether these bones can live.” But there’s an almost comical subtext here: “You tell me, God! They look pretty dead.”

Erica and I visited the Catacombs in Paris last fall: it’s a series of human-made caverns and tunnels that began in the middle-ages as an underground limestone quarry, that two centuries ago was used as an ossuary—a resting place for the bones of the dead.

So when you visit them today, you walk through chambers with thousands of dissembled skeletons stacked en masse. It’s quite a breathtaking sight, and really a sort of Ash Wednesday experience: someday we, too, will be a pile of bones.

But this is now what comes to my mind when I hear this story: thousands of lifeless, scattered skeletons that could not possibly return to vitality—and yet in this story, they do.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live…

So I prophesied as I had been commanded… And then an astonishing thing happens: the bones assemble themselves into skeletons, and muscles and skin form on them. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, and as he does, the breath enters the bodies of the Dead and they live.

Ezekiel engages our imagination with this outlandish vision, that we might have a sense of God’s power to resurrect the dead.

Ezekiel is speaking here of a spiritual resurrection: the People of Israel are in exile and captivity, and deep despair.  They have let their relationship with God fall into disrepair: “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’”

Or as the Psalmist puts it: “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord…

And yet God promises here that they—and we—can return to spiritual life and right relationship with God.

Today’s Gospel reading brings us from the mystical to the miraculous: Jesus, arriving intentionally too late to cure Lazarus’ illness, weeps at his gravesite, and then asks that the stone sealing the tomb be rolled away.

Martha, ever the pragmatic one, warns Jesus that there is a four-day stench of rotting flesh built up. Like the dryness of the bones in the valley, this is a great storytelling detail: in case you weren’t sure: there is no hope of life beyond that stone. Lazarus is unequivocally dead.

But Jesus prays; then he calls to the corpse in the tomb: “Lazarus, come out!

So too, Jesus calls us out of our graves. From the times, the places, the ways in which we find ourselves spiritually dead, God calls us forth individually and communally to new life, to resurrection.

Many years ago I was suffering from depression. And at that time I heard these stories of the Valley of Dry Bones and Lazarus with new ears, finding tremendous resonance in them for the death I felt I was experiencing; the stories gave me hope of a spiritual resurrection.

Whatever depths of pain, grief, loneliness, and despair you may be in, God can raise you into new life. In God’s Kingdom, even death is not an obstacle. Dry bones? Rotting flesh? We can work around that. We can work through that.

Our parish has been experiencing a kind of death and resurrection over the past year-and-a-half as we said goodbye to a beloved rector and look forward with hope to a new one.

And many of us are feeling that our very nation is dying in some ways right now. But there is always hope of resurrection.

As Christians, we are always practicing resurrection. Both in the sense that we practice our faith, which is based in resurrection; and in the sense that we might practice a speech or a musical instrument.

In vowed religious life we have a saying: “Every day we begin again.” We are all continually practicing dying and being resurrected into greater faithfulness to Jesus Christ, until the day Christ comes again to lead us all into the final resurrection, living in unity and peace with all of God’s people.

There’s another common element in these two stories that we often overlook: did you notice how both the bones in the valley and Lazarus return to life? Through the will of God, manifest through the words of a human being.

God doesn’t simply animate the skeletons—as God could no doubt do: God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to them, and to the breath. Remember that to prophesy is to speak for God; the Hebrew word that we translate as “prophet” literally means “spokesperson”.

In the Gospel story it’s important to consider Jesus’ dual nature—fully human, fully divine. It may be the divinity of Jesus that resurrects Lazarus, but it does so through Jesus’ human voice: Lazarus, come out!

And it’s not just Jesus who does this: He commissions the disciples to raise the dead, and we have examples in Scripture of at least Peter and Paul doing so.

All of this means two things: first: God loves and can resurrect you.

And second: as we are disciples, called to follow and emulate Jesus, this points to our own calling to be agents of resurrection. We can help raise the spiritually-dead through God’s love as it is manifest in our words and actions—our care for our beloved siblings—known to us and unknown. We can pray, and prophesy to the Spirit to reanimate our loved ones. Sometimes it is enough simply to see and acknowledge the death they are experiencing. To be present with them, and weep with them, as Jesus did and does.

As with so many other stories in the Bible—the Virgin Birth, the Feeding of the 5000, the Parting of the Red Sea—whether you are a pragmatic Christian who sees these stories as legend and metaphor, or a mystical Christian who sees them as mysterious and real—we can all believe in the truth of these stories, which is that God can do the impossible; God loves us enough to do the impossible; and more often than not it is through us mortal human beings that God will do the impossible!

“Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people… And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live… then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

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