So our lectionary (the set of readings laid out for each of the Sundays of the church year and followed by all mainline churches) listed this passage from Ezekiel as one of the readings for today and as soon as I read Ezekiel’s description of that valley of dry bones I thought, yes!, that’s me right now, that’s us. What an incredibly vivid image for a people sapped of all their life force and energy.
How does that image resonate with you right now? How are you “dry bones”? I went to the dentist for the first time during this pandemic this past week and spent the first 20 minutes of my appointment just getting caught up with my dental hygienist. In normal times our conversation prior to teeth cleaning stayed pretty superficial – our summer plans, how busy we are – but this conversation was different. We talked about our kids and the challenges of online learning and the impossibilities of balancing work with monitoring school from home and caring for aging parents. It was like we’d both come out of the same battle and recognized each other’s scars. We compared our dried and broken bones. I find when I go out for a walk in the evening and run into people I know in the neighbourhood that no one bothers to put on a bright expression anymore. I passed by a woman whose twins are in my son’s grade three class. “How are you?” I asked, but all she said was “eh, you know.”
How are you “dry bones” right now? Maybe your life force and energy are sapped with worry about a teenager who only emerges from their room to eat, or maybe you’re concerned about a parent in residence who has been locked up and alone for far too long. Maybe you’ve been reduced to dry bones by the constant adaptation and innovation required of being a working person this past year, from constantly trying to put on a brave face and an optimistic front and being flexible and creative. Maybe something completely unrelated to the pandemic is making you feel like dry bones right now – a loss you are living with, a disruption to your health and wellness, some change in the equilibrium of your life. Perhaps the unknowability of the future is sapping your life force from you and your energy. What we do know about the future right now is sobering. Even with the uptake of vaccines we’ll likely still be wearing masks indoors for years to come. The CBC has reported that fully 20% of us – one out of every five people – will suffer from mental health challenges in the coming year because of what they’ve lived through these past 14 months. How are you dry bones right now?
This potent image of dry bones comes to us from Ezekiel, who was a priest in the ancient kingdom of Israel centuries before our common era. The people he was describing hadn’t lived through a pandemic but, like us, they had lived through the end of the world as they knew it. In the year 587 BCE, the Babylonian army invaded the kingdom of Israel and destroyed the city of Jerusalem. They burned the temple, considered by the people of Israel to be the very house of God and the center of their religious life. They deposed Israel’s king, bringing to an abrupt end a dynasty of kings who could trace their lineage back to David. The Babylonians rounded up the leading citizens of the Jerusalem, the academics and artists, the government bureaucrats and scribes, and forced them to march out and Ezekiel was a part of this group who were forcibly resettled in Babylon. Ezekiel described this group of people, a people living in exile from their known world, as “dry bones” – “our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off,” he imagined them saying.
Today we’re celebrating a special day in our church year called “Pentecost.” “Pente” is the Greek work for fifty and this is the 50th day after Easter. The first Easter coincided with the Jewish festival of Passover and fifty days after the Passover is another important Jewish festival called Shavuot. Shavuot was originally a harvest festival. About fifty days after Passover was when the first shoots of wheat would start to rise. After the bareness and sparseness of winter this was a recognition that nourishment and growth and revival would come again to people through the land; dried bones would get meat on them again; it was a recognition that what “is” now will not always be. It was one of three festivals in ancient Jewish tradition that required a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Dr. Shraga Bar-On describes Shavuot as a festival of revelation, “a day of restoring the ancient commitment between Israel and God.” In modern times, Shavuot is celebrated as a commemoration of God’s giving of the Torah.
So fifty days after Jesus’ death his disciples and followers had gathered together again in Jerusalem, as was their tradition, to celebrate Shavuot. “Dry bones” would have been a good description of this group. Their known world had completely changed. Nothing had turned out as they expected it would. Their future was unformed, indeterminate. They had been going about their work as best they could, but the death of Jesus – the one whom they’d believed to be God’s Messiah, the one they thought would restore their kingdom that had been ended centuries before by the Babylonians – had caused them to feel like dried up bones; their hope was gone and they felt cut off.
What happened as they were gathered for Shavuot, for Pentecost, gathered together on this fiftieth day, is the same thing that happened to the people Ezekiel described as dry bones: God’s Spirit came to meet them where they were, at the end of their known world, in that place of exile. God’s Spirit, who from the beginning has swept over the face of creation, animating all energy and matter, and moving in the human heart; God’s Spirit, faithful and untameable; God’s Spirit who speaks our prayers of deepest longing and enfolds our concerns and confessions – God’s Spirit breathed into these people who felt like dry bones to bring them back to life.
Today we are celebrating our faith that God’s Spirit continues to revive and refresh all whose bodies feel akin to dried bones, bleached out and done. Out in nature and inside sanctuaries, in solitude and in community, in quiet and in communion, through art and language, in our backyards and on our balconies and out at the Lake, through people near to us and people far away, we trust that God’s Spirit is creatively and redemptively active in transforming us and the world. God’s Spirit is here.
I want to invite you into something a little different today; I want to invite you into a time of meditation. Meditation invites us to hear what is going on inside of us and to hear how the Spirit is speaking to us today. You can close your eyes if that feels comfortable to you. Adopt a posture that is comfortable. Shake out your shoulders and relax your head and neck. If you are distracted right now, that’s okay. Just acknowledge that this is how you are feeling. If your mind is racing and you’re wondering where this is all going, just acknowledge this. Notice where there is tension in you, and breathe.
How are you dry bones right now? What muscles have disappeared from you? What feels exposed in you? What are you no longer protected from? Which bones are broken in you? What in you needs healing? Rotate the bones of your ankles, curl your toes, bend your knees, sway your hips, rotate your torso, raise your arms, wiggle your fingers. How do your bones feel? What would you call what you’re feeling?
I want you to imagine now that a rush of wind is swirling around you – perhaps it has a colour, whatever colour is soothing to you. Imagine this wind gently swirling around your bones. Lifting you. Craddling you. The wind is God’s Spirit. She asks: what do you need in order to be put back together? What word has come to your mind? Speak this word into the wind. What would bring you peace right now, she asks? Speak this word into the wind.
Now, dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. “I will put breath in you,” God’s Spirit says, “you will come back to life.” Breathe in deeply. You are not alone. Breathe in deeply. God’s Spirit is with you. Breathe in deeply. Imagine muscles now, covering your bones. Imagine the words you most need wrapping you like skin – strength, trust, pleasure, comfort, love. Breathe in deeply. I am going to open up your graves and bring you up from them; I will put my Spirit in you, and you will live, God’s Spirit says. These bones will live. Your bones will live. I am with you, God’s Spirit says. These bones will live. Amen.