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This Week's Sermon !

March 26, 2023- Lent 5 Year A

Ezekiel 37: 1-14
Psalm 130
John 11: 1-45

Is It Really That Hopeless?

Mortal, can these bones live?

The TV show, “Bones,” is categorized as a “crime procedural comedy drama” which ran for 12 seasons. Comedy and crime do not seem to go together but this show did it well! Dr Temperance Brennan, a brilliant forensic anthropologist, and her eventual husband, FBI Special Agent Sealey Booth, and their colleagues solve murders and sometimes leave us in stitches. Dr Brennan has little or no tact, no religion, and few social skills. Booth, on the other hand, is staunchly Catholic, suave and tactful when that is needed. She often responds, “I don’t know what that means” when someone refers to just about anything in contemporary culture. In the show she helps to identify the dead that show up in the vicinity of Washington DC and we have been told that she has helped identify the victims of massacres overseas - where, for example, activities of ethnic cleansing eliminated entire communities. In one episode she and her team identified the remains of a person from just a few bones of one hand. When she is not busy studying current remains to catch killers, like many forensic anthropologists, she studies remains of people dead for hundreds or even thousands of years.

She works with Angela, an artist who can take a skull and using the gifts of modern technology and a bit of guesswork, give that skull a face and often, a name. They seek to bring closure to families looking for answers to the fate of their loved ones. Under their skilful artistry, the bones live.

We have all seen the pictures on the news of the destruction caused by war, by earthquakes, floods and fires. There has been too much of that lately! Though most networks avoid footage of human remains that might be identifiable, if we think about it, we realize that each “death” was a person who was part of a family and a wider community. We wonder to ourselves how a community or a “people” can survive such atrocities, such destruction. We wonder if those bones can live again.

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is a well-known play by William Shakespeare. I first read it when I was in high-school. Hamlet visits a cemetery where the gravediggers are preparing to bury his sweetheart Ophelia, who has drowned herself. In the process of digging the grave they uncover a skeleton - and Hamlet asks whose it is. The answer is Yorick. Hamlet takes the skull from the gravedigger, looks at it closely and says,

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, ....; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? (Hamlet, V.i) 

In the passage from the Hebrew scriptures read just a few minutes ago, Ezekiel is given a vision of a valley of dried bones, representing his people, Israel. God asks “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel responds to God, saying, “only you know.” Upon God’s command, Ezekiel prophesies to the bones and they reconnect and are en-fleshed and appear to be humans once more. Yet they are still not alive; this comes with a further word from God; they regain their “breath”. This vision of Ezekiel is a powerful story of hope in the face of unfathomable despair.

Is this passage something we are supposed to take literally? Was it ever meant to be read that way? Is it something that has metaphorical truth, these thousands of years later?

Many of us know someone whose life was saved by the miracles of defibrillators, skilled doctors and life saving drugs. I was watching the news a few nights ago and found out that there are new concerns in the medical community about “additives” to street drugs which are “Naloxone resistant” - meaning that a timely injection of Naloxone will not be enough to save their lives. Often doctors and EMT’s cannot figure out what exactly has been injected or ingested and how to counteract it. The additives which adulterate these drugs may make them “cheaper” (and thus increase the dealer’s profit) or “more addictive” but are also making them “deadlier”. “Harm reduction” strategies are about keeping addicts alive until they are ready to do the hard work of becoming drug free. Those who work in this area of health care are hoping to bring persons experiencing addiction to a drug free life, but cannot do that if the people overdose and die.

Last Tuesday, I was speaking with a colleague on our weekly Zoom meeting, who said that he has seen this passage lived out many times. He spoke of his ministry of prison visitation where inmates can go from the brink of death as they begin their sentence to fullness of life as they end their sentence and prepare for release. He was asked, “Mortal, can these bones live?” and he responds, “Most certainly, I have seen it!”

Lets talk just a little bit about the situation Ezekiel faced. Ezekiel was an active prophet for about 22 years, 5 centuries before Jesus. I talked last week about Israel being a small country and David being the chosen king. Ezekiel lived about 400 years later in a time when the mighty superpower of Babylon was running roughshod over all the little city-states and in the process created a huge empire. The brightest and best of the defeated nations were captured and taken to Babylon. Israel’s beloved temple, build by Solomon lay in ruins. The Exile is synonymous with a “time of despair.” This vision is his message to the people that, “yes, with Go’s power, these bones can, and will, live”. Yet, we must be careful to keep in mind that it is a vision and no, individual people will not come back to life. It is a powerful metaphor for the people as a whole, to return from Exile and to live fruitfully and abundantly in the land which God gave them.

Some time after I moved here, I was given a beautiful pictorial book titled “Forgotten Saskatchewan” by photographer Chris Attrell. At first I had never heard of many of these places, but now they are somewhat familiar. At first, I was surprised to find, on the page facing the first of many photographs, a quote from Lucy Maud Montgomery, the famous Prince Edward Island author. Then I remembered that her father lived for a time in Prince Albert. She wrote, “Nothing is ever really lost to us, as long as we remember it.” The churches, stores and grain elevators remembered in the book hearken back to the era of a “homestead on every quarter.” The old vehicles are rusting into the ground, the buildings decaying and no-longer habitable, and the elevators abandoned and toppling. No milk-cows graze nearby, no chickens peck at the dirt for seed, worms and laying mash! Yet, I can picture a light in every window, a door opening quickly to friend and stranger and the farm machinery actively working and seeding and harvesting and a farmer bringing the best wheat in the world to be weighed at the local elevator on a Fairbanks Scale, invented for the purpose of weighing large loads. The families that lived in those houses and worked the land were often bone-tired yet proud of the life they found on this prairie. Their descendants have moved on, to live and work elsewhere as one family needs so much more than one quarter to make a living and with increasing mechanization farmers do not need to stable drafthorses on their homestead to work their land. We are here because they laid the foundations for our very different lives. Their bones live on, through us! It’s much more than memory!

I can also picture the proud indigenous tribes tied to the rivers and the buffalo for thousands of years. Their Babylon, the mighty British empire, deliberately slaughtered the buffalo on which they depended and gathered their bones in huge piles of their bones - to eventually be sold for fertilizer or to make china in the factories of England. They tried to kill them with germ warfare. Their children were sent to residential schools to be educated in white ways and languages but were often abused, poorly nourished and and ended up not knowing their own culture while being an outcast in ours. The government was making way for the settlers - who farmed and mined the land. Ironically, many of these settlers would not have survived those first winters without the help of nearby indigenous peoples. In our time, our indigenous brothers and sisters have figuratively taken the bones of their ancestors in their hands and staring into the empty eye sockets, have said loudly and confidently, “yes, these bones will live again”. As settler peoples we can work with them toward true reconciliation, and all the bones can live.

We read this passage during the season of Lent and we are asked to bring to it all of our sorrows, all of our disappointments, all of our seeming failures and all of our grief AND to allow God’s word of life to speak to us.

This passage as metaphor is much more powerful when it is taken as a word of hope for us; not just for a tribe of exiles thousands of years ago but for us in Saskatchewan in 2023! God’s word tells us that we are not abandoned. To the grieving, the word of God allows us to give thanks for a life well-lived and to look to a future without a loved one, or without the family farm, or without a life-long vocation, that gave us identity and purpose. In the words of one of my favourite hymns, God’s word (through the poetry of Natalie Sleeth) says to us, “From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”

To those coping with illness, or feelings of loneliness and abandonment, the word of God comes in Psalm after Psalm, “you know when I sit down and when I rise up,” “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want,” and “I called on God in my distress and God answered me.” It can be as if Jesus has called to us to come out of the tombs that imprison us and has enabled us to embrace life once again.

We can be the agents of God when we welcome the refugee from conflicts beyond their making and when we feed the hungry who have found themselves without the means to keep body and soul together. The early church was known for their care for one another, and in the words of the early Christian writings, the “care of widows and orphans.” These were the people who fell through the very wide cracks in their totally non-existent social safety net.

The enduring message of the scriptures is that our God is a God of life. We are who we are because of our past. What has heppened to us up to this point has made us who we are but we are also a people whol are called to walk into the future with purpose and hope. We know and can experience the love of a God who will not abandon us and who calls us into a future where we will have life ikn great abundance.

These bones will live.

Praise be to God; it is not hopeless, these bones will live?


1995- 2021 The Rev. Beth W. Johnston.

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