- Parish House
Sermon for the 5th Sunday in Lent – Year C, Ezekiel 37.1-14
The Rev. Scott Walters
The other day I stepped on a molehill in Alsopp park. Even if you haven’t done that in a while, I bet you remember how satisfying it is to press a little mound of earth back to flat with your heel. What doing so brought to mind was my grandmother, who always said the best way to deal with moles was with Juicy Fruit gum. Anybody else ever hear this?
I never got the details about how the eradication actually came about. This was probably a mercy. Because to the mind of a six year old boy, the best thing about the supposed Juicy Fruit cure for moles has nothing to do with cruelty and death. It begins with the happy image of several moles—buddy moles, of course—scurrying through the incredibly awesome network of tunnels these creatures get to live in. Some kid there is who doesn’t love a tunnel, right?
Well, now add to this scene a stick of Juicy Fruit, twice as long as a mole’s tail. Imagine the creatures huddled around it, removing the giant foil wrapper and enjoying huge helpings of chewing gum together.
That Juicy Fruit was not sugar free gum, and therefore forbidden in our house, also made the scene a little transgressive and even more thrilling. I never imagined where the moles went after Grandma had fed them gum. But surely they went there happy, satisfied, and now as creatures with whom I shared both the love of tunnels and of sugary gum.
But, of course, as that fun loving saint, Paul of Tarsus, put it, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” I don’t think much about gum smacking moles in tunnels these days.
But something else happened this week that added a crack to the hard, reality-obsessed shell of my adult imagination. A friend lent me his copy of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.
Do you know the book? It’s gotten rave reviews. And since I’ve read most of the dust jacket, I feel like I can reference it in a sermon. The premise is that the Underground Railroad that carried slaves to freedom in the 19th century was an actual railroad underground. An actual network of train tunnels and engines and boxcars with engineers hanging off cabooses. It sounds even better than gum smacking moles, doesn’t it? And it’s not a children’s book. It’s a story Colson Whitehead meant for grownup imaginations. A story whose very premise suggests that our moral imaginations might need some liberation.
That’s what I’d like us to think on today. The notion that your imagination is not childish foolishness. Not some nonessential part of the self that we usually dismiss with the deadly adverb “just.” As in, “Oh, that’s just your imagination.” What I’d like us to think on is the notion that your imagination is a part of us that Christ means to heal and expand and maybe even lead us into abundant life with.
“The hand of the Lord came upon me,” said the prophet Ezekiel, “and 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.”
Before you start to extract lessons, before the valley of the dry bones reduces to a metaphor, can you go there in your imagination? I think we’re meant to. This is not a scene presented like one of Jesus’s parables, is it? It’s narrated as a day in a prophet’s life.
So, taking the story on its own terms, Ezekiel is taken to a valley where actual bones lie, weathered and dry. And God tells him to prophesy to the bones. To talk to the bones. God tells him to say, “O dry bones…Thus says the Lord, I will lay sinews upon you and cause flesh to come upon you and put breath upon you and you shall live…” And Ezekiel did that. Ezekiel said that. And that’s what happened, according to the story.
There was a noise, and a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to proper bone, as one translation puts it. The muscles and the flesh and the skin and finally the breath, the spirit, the wind from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
What’s so mind blowing about this scene, especially to modern grownup imaginations, is that God goes to all the trouble to tell Ezekiel how to get a valley of bones to clatter together and stand up just so Ezekiel can understand how dry and dead and emptied of hope Israel is. How cut off they are, from their homeland, from one another, from God. God says, “Let me resurrect a bunch of bodies so you’ll get just how deeply I want to bring you home and restore your hope.”
Maybe that’s part of the power and the point of prophecy. It’s always about more than data. It’s more than information about something that’s happening or something that’s soon to occur. Its message goes deeper. Bone deep, we might say. It’s meant to reach our imaginations, not just the part of our minds where we’re reasonable and rational and sure.
And this is where, whether we are literalists or liberals we can get a story like this one equally wrong. The literalist says, “Well, the Bible says it, so that’s exactly what happened. That’s just how things were back then…” and moves on. The liberal says, “Well, of course it’s only a metaphor. Here’s what it means. No imagination necessary…” And moves on as well.
Do you see the similarity in all imagination-free scripture reading? It explains, and then it moves on. And here may be the cost. When your hope and life are dried up to the bone, you don’t need explanations. You need encounter. You need presence. You need some flicker of possibility that even when I can’t feel it or see it, there is a deep and gifted goodness to this life. You need an opening in the imagination that there is still a God given coherence and interconnectedness to things, even when our fears and wounds and grief leave us feeling cut off and alone and confused.
Last Thursday a bright, winsome, and life filled young man from Little Rock named John Barker died unexpectedly. I mention this because some of you knew John, know his parents, his family, his friends. More personally, I tell you this because John is the first real friend our son Alden has lost. And he went in such a sudden and senseless way. To say that a diaspora of Central High School grads feel like a collection of dry and lifeless and disconnected bones today is not unfaithful to Ezekiel.
And as a parent looking in on a tragedy like this, what becomes blindingly obvious is that what’s needed in the face of bone deep human grief is not explanation. It’s not information about how the nervous system works or advice about first aid procedures and safety equipment. What’s needed is simply presence and love and your own grief and confusion. At least that’s what we hope is most needed. Because that’s all it seems we have to give.
But the stories and prophecies of scripture begin right there too, don’t they? They begin by taking us into experiences of shame, of guilt, of exile, of betrayal, of loss. They take our imaginations into the experience of spiritual dryness and hopelessness first. They first tell us that other humans have been here, other minds have been clogged up with grief or confusion or helplessness. They help us feel we’re not alone before they do anything to help us move toward anything like hope.
And quite often the stories of scripture don’t put the world back together in careful, rational ways. They offer to the imagination some fantastical vision of a wholeness that we couldn’t make for ourselves. Dried up bones clattering back together and standing up. An executed man three days dead walking out of his tomb.
So maybe the first gift of these stories when we don’t know how to put the pieces of our lives back in order is a deep sense that maybe we don’t always have to. And perhaps the second gift is not just the possibility of a future you can’t yet imagine, but a glimpse of the weird miracle that delivered your own life to this moment.
Because, when you think about it, for all its strangeness and impossibility, Ezekiel’s vision also looks a lot like what life actually is, only sped up.
Your bones do grow and assemble out of nearly nothing. Flesh and sinews and skin and breath all come into us, and none of that is our doing. Speed up the tape of your life and you’ve got a vision just as weird and wonderful as any Old Testament prophecy. Speed up the tape and what you have is the miracle of John Barker, way too lanky to lope as gracefully as he once did down a soccer field. Grief doesn’t deny that miracle. Grief honors its loss. Speed up the tape and you have the divine gift that your life, grown as it has into this moment, is too.
So maybe we can learn to trust the miracle that brought us to today somehow holds the uncertain future we can’t quite see as well, even on the far side of death.
Isn’t this what Ezekiel was trying to deliver to the wounded imaginations of his people way back when? He didn’t raise those bones from the valley floor as a permanent army or as a promise to his people that they’d never suffer or die or grieve. No. He wanted their imaginations to open ever so slightly to the possibility that God and goodness and love could still be present even in the driest of times…to open to the possibility that God still speaks and acts and can still open up a future we can’t quite imagine.
I don’t know where you are. I don’t know whether your life feels dry as bones or full of possibility and hope. Maybe you’ve suffered what seems like an unsurvivable loss or pain. Or maybe it’s just that the variables and possibilities and demands of this moment are too many for you to see how they could fit together into a livable future.
But what I hope we offer one another as Jesus’s people is something more than explanations. Something more than cold facts, be they pious ones or rational ones. What I hope we offer each other is a loving, faithful, accepting presence. And within the safety of that unconditional acceptance, may come the permission to let one’s imagination run a little wild if need be.
It worked for the ancient Hebrews more than once. Some time after Ezekiel, the Talmud worked on a kink in his vision. How would the bodies of Jews who died in exile ever make their way back home? Well, the Talmud described a great network of underground chutes and tunnels that God would excavate and through which the bones of the righteous would roll and roll and roll until they reached the promised land, regained their breath, and stood again.
Most of the time my grown up imagination is sufficient; the one that says, “I don’t think that’s how we make it home, if we do.” But some days, when I can’t see the way forward, hope may begin with the six year old in my mind, or maybe the ninety year old in the pew beside me saying, “Maybe not. But what if?”