April 2, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Remembering What These Bones Heard
Today we’re concluding our Lenten series on remembering by celebrating the beloved hymn In the Garden. This is a passionately popular Christian hymn. Many of us love this hymn because we love actual people who love this hymn, so singing it not only invokes an intimacy with Christ, but it makes us think of our mom, or our cousin, or our partner… We might be singing about Jesus: “he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own,” but we’re also thinking of them. What if we’re more connected than we realize…
There’s something else about this song. It takes beauty seriously. There is beauty in the lilting, waltzing melody. There’s beauty in the imagery of the lyrics: the dew is still on the roses, the birds hush their singing…
What’s interesting about this beauty is none of it’s in the biblical version of events. There are no flowers or singing birds in the resurrection stories. In the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene is standing outside the tomb weeping. Jesus says to her, “Why are you crying?” And she thinks he’s the gardener who stole the body. When he says her name, she recognizes him. He tells her, “Don’t hold onto me! I have to ascend to my Father. You go explain everything to the disciples, okay?” And that’s it! There is no “joy we share there as we tarry there…”
The writer of In the Garden did not get this idea from the Bible. He got it from a mystical vision that came to him. So with this hymn, he’s making the case that there is something about the resurrection of Christ that is beautiful. Sure, resurrection might be disorienting and frightening. But there’s something about going to this garden and hearing the Lord speak the words of love; this experience is undeniably beautiful. And this beauty matters.
Today we are remembering this song that proclaims the beauty of resurrection. Today we’re also remembering a story that is not set in a lush garden. It’s a super creepy story of dried out bones rattling and clamoring together, but see the breath comes into these bones. See there is beauty in the word that tells the truth.
Today’s scripture comes from the collection of writings that tell the story of Ezekiel. Now Ezekiel was a prophet who got rounded up, along with many others, in the first wave of the Babylonian Exile about six hundred years before the birth of Christ. The Babylonian army invaded Judah and took the Jewish people into captivity. Ten years later, the army came through again and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem.
It’s one thing for us to hear this scripture read in church on a pleasant-enough Sunday morning. It’s another thing to hear this from the place of exile. Imagine finding yourself in a refugee center. Everybody there is just trying to get their family to safety. You hear the stories of people who paid a smuggler to take them by truck, and the truck didn’t make it. Now everybody’s just trying to plug in their phone charger for an hour, trying to eat some rice, trying to find someone who can get their papers to the right office so their case can be heard. What do you tell your children in this place…
The refugees with Ezekiel were forced to leave their homeland. Now since God had blessed their land, since God appointed their king, when all of that was taken from them, the people wondered if God had left them too.
I’m pretty sure they imagined the possibility that they could be killed. They probably talked to their kids about this. “Look, if something happens to me, here is what you should do….” Okay… What if we all get killed? You know the children were asking. Everybody was thinking through this possibility. Death is what they were feeling and what they were fearing.
And for these refugees in exile, death wasn’t even the worst threat. They could lose their identity as a people; they might come apart from each other and be forever cut off from the LORD. We know this is what they feared, because this terrible forecast made its way into their poetry. It’s not just that we will be killed. It’s that our bodies will be dismembered. Even our bones will be pulled apart and cast off. They will be dried out and forgotten. These are the poems they spoke to each other, the hymns they sang. We come from dust and to dust we shall return. This is where our story begins.
The first thing that happens is the hand of the LORD comes upon Ezekiel, and the breath of the LORD picks up the prophet and sets him down so he’s standing in a mass grave. God makes Ezekiel walk around and look at the jumbled piles of dried out bones, then she asks Ezekiel: “Mortal, can these bones live?”
And if you are hearing this scripture while sitting on a folding chair in a refugee center wearing the only clothes you own, then you know the answer. The refugees in exile knew the question was setting them up to say, “O LORD. These bones cannot live. We have sinned and have been cut off from you, and our people have become bones discarded in the pit.” That should be the right answer. But it’s not what happens.
The LORD our God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, to stand there and tell the pile of bones what’s going to happen to them. Um… okay. When Ezekiel begins talking to the bones, he hears a rattling, and the bones begin attaching to each other —ankles connecting to feet, fingers connecting to hands, ribs getting in order… There were sinews on the bones, and muscle, then flesh started to cover the skeletons turning them into bodies.
Ezekiel finds himself standing in a pile of human bodies. I wonder if he’s looking to see whether he might recognize anybody. Then the LORD commands him: “Call on the wind, mortal! Summon the Spirit and tell it to breathe upon these who were slain.” This is God telling Ezekiel to call upon God.
Maybe it’s not just the children in the refugee center who need to be warned about what could happen. These bones need to hear the truth. The Spirit of the LORD needs to hear the prophet summon her. All this time, God has been hearing what the people were saying in their poems. God knows what they are feeling and what they are fearing, and now the LORD has something to say:
“Oh you human people. You say you are cut off. Even your bones are scattered in the dirt? Let me talk to the bones,” she says. “I will open your graves, I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live. I will place you on your own soil, and you will remember that I am the LORD your God.”
Now there’s a whole sermon somebody could preach on how the church needs to hear this promise and remember the LORD —a whole sermon about how churches in the twenty-first century are starting to feel like piles of bones, and what if the bones need to be told: “Hey! It is time to get up from the dead. Come on Holy Spirit, revive the church!” There’s a whole sermon about hearing God call the time of life.
But what if it’s not just hearing this promise? What if we’re the ones who have to say it…
In our world, it can be especially difficult for tweens and teens to remember a vision of hope. Now maybe that sounds silly to those of us who are older. I mean a thirteen-year-old has his whole life before him, how could he not be hopeful? Well, when you can only back for thirteen years, it changes how you look forward.
Tweens and teens know about death. Death has a way of making itself vividly known. What it means to live is another matter entirely. What if young people need to know, there’s a chance they might live, that even if they feel like death, there is a credible risk that they might get up from the dead? Has anybody told them that?
There are thousands of reasons to be scared for our children —thousands of things we need to tell them to keep them safe: Watch out for bullies. Watch out for drugs. Watch out for getting a D on your chemistry mid-term. Watch out for your sister. Watch out for the police. No wonder it can feel like the end of the world is around every corner, and sometimes it is. But we who have survived our teenage years know there’s something more.
Life is more, and you might come back to life. I know it looks like you are standing in a mass grave, but this grave could become a garden. And who is going to tell them this?
In her poem Good Bones, Maggie Smith wrestles with this question of just how we tell the truth to our children. This is what she writes:
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children.
I am trying to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real [hole], chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
I hope there’s somebody who will tell them. I hope it’s us. Watch out— you might get up from the dead and remember the love of God. You could make this place beautiful. May it be so. Amen.