I am fascinated by the power of names. Adam gave names to all the animals, and whatever he called a thing, that was its name. Naming is about understanding things, classifying them into groups that have some kind of meaning in our world view, a mystical, almost magical ability that we human beings all have.
Sermon for 5 Lent; April 2, 2017
Wow. That is a loooooong Gospel. And this comes after a series of long Gospel readings: 37 verses a couple of weeks ago, 41 verses last week, and now 45 this week! I have started to wonder if these ever-growing Gospel readings are a not-so-subtle reminder that we are in Lent just by virtue of their length! Little endurance tests for us. Probably not, but sometimes I wonder... Our lectionary is designed, however, to take us into the Lenten desert, though probably not through the length of the readings as much as it may feel that way to me at times. Our lectionary takes us into the desert through the stories. This Lent, our lectionary has had us head out into the desert with Abraham, leaving behind all that he knew to head off for someplace unknown. Our lectionary had us wander through the desert with the Israelites, feeling their deprivation. Our lectionary had the Holy Spirit lead us into the desert with Jesus to face temptation. And this week, we are plucked up with Ezekiel, and we are plopped down in the desert of the valley of the dry bones. Another desert journey. This is not a literal journey for Ezekiel. Rather this is a vision that God gave him, a metaphor for something greater.
When I imagine this scene, I picture it a bit like the Elephant's Graveyard scene from the Lion King. Simba disobeys his father's orders and goes into the land he was told to avoid. It is dark in the Elephant's Graveyard: the sun does not shine on this place. It is a barren wasteland where perhaps some life - the hyenas - scrape by, but life itself does not thrive. And there in this place, he discovers the skeletal remains of numerous elephants. And there, surrounded by all of this death, he ends up confronting the possibility of his own death. And he confronts true fear and regret and shame for the first time, foreshadowing major themes of the rest of the movie.
Here in the Valley of the Dry Bones, Ezekiel is placed in a dry, desolate place. Not a desert of uncertainty like Abraham stepped into. Not a desert of deprivation like the Israelites wandered through. Not a desert of temptation like Jesus was led into. But a desert of death and destruction, and all of the grief, pain, and fear encountered there. Surrounded by bones - the bones of his ancestors, the bones of his friends, the bones of his people - he is confronted with death - their death, his own death. He is confronted by death. Death, that thing that we try so hard to avoid, But here in the Valley of the Dry Bones, there is no hiding. God puts Ezekiel right in the midst of it all, and makes him confront it. God puts us right in the midst of it all, and makes us confront it.
"Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return," we said as we began our Lenten journey before heading out here to the desert. "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return," as dust was placed on our foreheads in the sign of the cross, a sign of that death and destruction. "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Here in the Valley of the Dry Bones, we again have to confront that dust. And confront our own anxieties about that dust. "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return." This is not what we are trained to do. We do not know how to sit with sorrow. We do not know how to sit in the dust, confronting our own mortality, confronting our own grief, confronting our own pain, confronting this remembrance: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
"Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return" is not the end of the story though. This line that we say on Ash Wednesday evokes our creation, evokes the creation story when God made Adam out of the dust. "Remember that you are dust." Remember that story when God made Adam by gathering the dirt of the ground together to form this human. But as you remember, earth wasn't the only element in that story, there was also wind, as the breath of God was blown into Adam to bring life up out of the dust. And here, in the Valley of the Dry Bones, as Ezekiel is starkly reminded of the dust from which we all come, the wind makes an appearance again, as God again breathes new life into these bones. "Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord."
In this barren wasteland, in this desert, God reminds Ezekiel of hope. God reminds Ezekiel that death does not get the final word: resurrection does. This is the same reminder that Jesus offers Mary and Martha when Lazarus is brought up out of the tomb. Ezekiel's vision. Lazarus' raising. These are just little tastes of the ultimate resurrection in the one who says "I am the resurrection." These aren't Easter stories, these are Lenten stories, because they are just reminders along the journey. We are not yet to the resurrection; we are still in the wilderness. But just as God provided water to the Israelites in their thirst in the desert, and just as God provided angels to tend Jesus in his desert experience, God provides us hope. God reminds us to not just look at the death and destruction that surround us on every side here in the Valley of the Dry Bones, but to look to the horizon of hope so that we can keep putting one foot in front of the other. Look to the horizon of hope so that we can keep moving forward through life's Lent toward the new life of Easter in Jesus Christ. Remember that God will breath new life into our old dry bones and we shall live. Amen.