Sunday 29 march 2020
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
The reading from the Prophet Ezekiel assigned for today presents us with a fantastically gruesome image: the valley of the dry bones. Ezekiel is among the Jewish captives in Babylon. They have been forced to leave their homes and resettle in the capital city of the empire that has conquered them. Ezekiel imagines that God has also left Jerusalem and has travelled along with the people to Babylon. God is also in exile along with God’s people.
The passage from today comes in the latter part of the book as Ezekiel prophesies the renewal and restoration of the Jewish people. Ezekiel is actually pretty optimistic, as prophets go. And this story is a part of Ezekiel’s good news.
But you could be forgiven for mistaking this good news for absolute terror. The imagery that Ezekiel uses seems like it would be most at home in a horror movie. During some kind of vision or dream, God transports Ezekiel to a valley, and surrounding him on every side are bones, scattered on the valley floor. They’re human bones, all mixed and mingled with one another. Ezekiel notes that they are all very dry. That is to say, the people that these bones belong to have been dead for a very long time. There is no life left in them.
God asks Ezekiel whether the bones can live again or not, and Ezekiel avoids answering the questions by simply replying, “Lord God, you know.”
So God instructs Ezekiel to start preaching to the dry bones. He is supposed to tell them to come back together, in the name of the Lord God.
So Ezekiel begins to preach and prophesy, and as he is doing that, a terrifying scene unfolds. It starts with an ominous rattling as the bones begin to quiver and shake. But before long, they are rising up in the air, and then flying around, banging against one another. They start to meet their matches, to come together, connecting to one another. And bit by bit, bone by bone, they start forming together, until Ezekiel is surrounded by an army of skeletons. Everywhere he looks, he is encircled by rattling bones, by shades of the dead.
And as Ezekiel watches, organs start to grow on the skeletons, and then sinews and muscles. And now he is surrounded by skinless bodies, the world’s first Body Worlds exhibit. And then skin grows on the bodies, and instead of an army of skeletons, Ezekiel is encircled by an army of corpses. Hundreds and thousands of corpses standing all around him. Absolutely terrifying.
Ezekiel tells us that although these bones have become bodies, there is no breath in them. That’s the ancient way of saying that they are not alive. To be without breath is to be dead. So God instructs Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath.
A quick vocabulary lesson is in order here. Both in Hebrew and in Greek, there is just one word to describe what we think of as three completely different concepts. The Hebrew word that is translated here as breath is רוּחַ, and it occurs 10 times in this passage of scripture. But no matter which version you open up, you’re not going to find ten instances of the word breath. That’s because the word רוּחַ doesn’t just mean breath. It also means wind, and it also means spirit. We think of breath, wind, and spirit as three different things. But in both Hebrew and in Greek, they are all one and the same. The breath is the spirit, the spirit is the wind, and the wind is the breath.
So Ezekiel is supposed to prophesy to the four winds, to the four spirits, to the four breaths, and they are supposed to blow into the bodies, to breathe into the bodies, to fill them with spirit. And in breathing into them, the wind, the spirit, gives these bodies life.
It’s reminiscent of the story of Adam in the garden, and how God breathes into a lifeless body, made of dirt, and gives it life, gives it spirit. And it’s a theme that will be repeated in the upper room, after Easter, when Jesus appears to his disciples and breathes on them, giving them the spirit. Breath is wind is spirit is life.
Almost every part of this story is terrifying, right? Bones, skeletons, corpses. The only part of the story that isn’t supposed to be terrifying is the wind, the breath, the spirit. The breath is what transforms terrifying corpses into living, breathing human beings. The breath is what brings life. The breath is the good news.
And yet, in our current context, the one thing that terrifies us more than anything else is breath. That is why we are all sheltered away in our homes. That is why we cannot gather together for worship. That is why we can’t meet with our friends and neighbors. That is why we dash around a grocery store, trying to avoid others, trying to stay 6 feet apart, some wearing masks and gloves. It’s because we are afraid of breath. We are afraid of a breath that brings death, rather than life.
The ancients had no concept of contagion. If you were sick, it might be because your humors were out of balance, or it might be because you were possessed by some kind of evil spirit, or might be because the gods were angry with you. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t because microscopic viruses were being passed from one person to another through sneezes. Ancient doctors would never have recommended washing your hands, or sneezing into your elbow, or maintaining 6 feet of distance between yourself and another person.
Do you know what the hymns suggested for today are? Let’s see, there’s Breathe on Me, Breath of God. There’s Let It Breathe on Me. There is, Spirit of the Living God, Fall Afresh on Me. There is Oh, I Know the Lord Laid His Hands on Me. None of those are going to work today, are they?
Because everything is crazy. Everything is crazy. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that we’re getting bad advice from public health officials, and I’m not saying that we should let down our guard when it comes to social distancing. We absolutely need to take this crisis seriously. We absolutely need to maintain social distance, not just for our own health but especially for the health of the most vulnerable in our communities. The threat of COVID-19 is very real, and the precautions we need to take with it are very serious. But that doesn’t make this situation any less crazy. And I think we need to acknowledge that it’s crazy. It is bizarre.
Sometimes we have a tendency to minimize what we’re going through. It’s not really that big of a deal. I shouldn’t be struggling with this. This shouldn’t really be hard. How hard can it be to stay home and watch Netflix?
But it is hard. Social distancing is like chemotherapy. It is a necessary and life-giving treatment. But it’s also poison. It is hard.
I can’t remember where I heard it now, but some expert was saying that what we are experiencing right now with social distancing is something akin to grief. And then someone corrected them. It’s not something akin to grief. It is actually grief. We are grieving the loss of relationship. We are grieving a loss of freedom. We are grieving a loss of security. It is real. It is actually grief. And it is hard to deal with. Grief makes ordinary things extraordinarily difficult.
We are just in the beginning of this crisis. We are still in the valley. We are still surrounded by the bones. And because of that, it is normal for us to be afraid. It is normal for us to be affected.
We know that God always brings life out of death. We know that we worship a God of resurrection, a God of new beginnings.
But for the most part, we’re not there yet. We are still in the grief. And in fact, the grief is still developing.
It has a name, actually: ambiguous loss. Ambiguous loss is the experience of the loss of something that does not have clear boundaries. It’s very common in the experience of adoption, for example, when a child experiences the loss of their first family, but not through death. Those people are still out there, and it’s unclear what those relationships will be like in the future.
That’s what we’re experiencing. We are experiencing the ambiguous loss of people, support groups, activities, special events, parties, employment, school, trips… all kinds of things… but our loss doesn’t have clear boundaries. Most of these things aren’t gone forever. They’re still out there. But we don’t know when we will be able to get back to them. Will it be two weeks? Will it be two months? Will it be six months? Will it be years? We don’t know. And that’s part of what makes it so hard to cope with.
So what is the answer? How are we supposed to deal with this? The answer is something that is very dear to our Christian heritage, and especially to our specific Lutheran and Methodist heritage. The answer is grace.
A lot of times we feel like we need grace from God. We feel like we’ve done something wrong and we want God to forgive us. Right now, though, what many of us need is for God to help us have grace with ourselves.
It’s okay if it feels hard now. It’s okay if we aren’t able to get done all the things we feel like we need to get done. It’s okay if we haven’t completely adapted to an online environment. It’s okay if we are having trouble with feeling alone. It’s okay if we get frustrated with being in constant contact with our families. It’s okay. It’s a lot, and it’s ambiguous, and it’s messy, and it’s confusing.
Sometimes I’m doing pretty well. Other times, I’m really struggling. I don’t know anyone who isn’t struggling. And it’s okay to admit that. It’s okay to have grace with yourself and with those around you. Because God offers us grace. Even in the hardest of situations, God offers us grace. Even when we have really done something wrong, God offers us grace. And certainly, in this time, when we are all experiencing trauma and ambiguous loss, God offers us grace.
So let’s try to follow God’s example. Let us offer grace to one another. And let us offer grace even to ourselves, as we continue to walk in the valley, as we continue to watch for the morning.