Text: Ezekiel 37: 1-14 Can these bones live? That is the question that God asks the prophet Ezekiel when his fellow Jews are quarantined in Babylon, isolated from friends and family, forced to assimilate or to drown in despair.
Can these bones live? I cannot help but wonder if God is asking that question today to millions of Americans who wonder how they will make the mortgage, avoid bankruptcy or foreclosure, cover the tuition, buy the groceries, pay all the tax and insurance bills in light of the economic chaos set loose by Covid-19.
Can these bones live? Ask that question to those waiting for a ventilator to treat their respiratory distress or for an available test to see if they have the virus or to all who are quarantined at home for God knows how long and to those who have no home to which to be quarantined.
Can these bones live? How can you walk through a crisis in faith when you cannot stand beside someone who lifts your sagging faith? How can you pray when you are at loss for words and are not even sure that if you had them that anyone is listening? Can these bones live?
Soon after the Nazis invaded Poland and darkness was quickly settling over all of Europe, W. H. Auden wrote the poem, “September 1, 1939.” It begins with a “Can these bones live?” refrain:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Auden captured the despair that was falling like a pall over the world of his day with words that have a haunting resonance in these bizarre days.
Long before Auden’s “unmentionable odour of death,” Ezekiel the prophet is standing in a Babylonian graveyard of dashed hopes when God asks him what seems a stupid, insensitive question: “Mortal, can these bones live?” For a prophet living as a hostage, far from home, that question is a no-brainer. Amid the day to day reality of lifeless zombies sleepwalking in someone else’s land, remembering the hellish vision of the temple and the city of Jerusalem afire, the nightmarish memories of young men being tortured and young women being abused, Ezekiel does not need to think twice about how to answer God from the graveyard. “Can these bones live?” Of course not, God, next question.
If God had showed up on that dark night before the darkest day, the night when the cock crowed for the second time and the apostle collapsed onto sharp shards of betrayal and denial, do you think it would have taken Peter more than a split second to give God a definitive answer? Can these bones live? Of course not, God, next question.
If the centurions on duty on the darkest day, the day when they poked and prodded, tortured and crucified Jesus, and then spread out a picnic while he bled to death, had been asked by God, “Can these bones live?” do you think they would have even batted an eye before answering God? Of course not, God, next question.
Whatever this ancient parable of Ezekiel in the graveyard is about, it is not about the power of positive thinking, the public deception of telling frightened people that all will be well when all is not and will not be well. This parable is not about what we can do to pump life into dry bones ourselves by singing peppier songs or reading more upbeat books or by devising more sophisticated strategic plans.
That same God who asked Ezekiel such a strange question is still speaking during this time of national quarantine with medical and economic fears at the panic level, with “social distance” the new normal, amid a pandemic resulting in more deaths with each hour, and a global lethal virus leaving us with more questions than answers, during a time to quote Auden when “our clever hopes expire.”
Track the entire biblical story and inevitably when “our clever hopes expire,” God’s hope burns the brightest. Notice that God does not wait for Ezekiel to answer the haunting question, “Mortal, can these bones live?” God does not wait for the prophet to hem and haw until he finds the courage to tell God the truth, “Of course not, God. Next question.”
God does not wait for Ezekiel because what God has to say does not depend on what Ezekiel thinks or what the far from home exiles in Babylon think. God is speaking to a community of dry bones whose clever hopes have expired, a people who have decided that living in isolation, making peace with being in exile, strolling through the graveyard, is the necessary “new normal.”
In the middle of the graveyard, God speaks again to Ezekiel. This time, it is not a question. God tells the prophet to get busy doing what prophets do, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: ‘O dry bones . . . I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live . . . and you shall know that I am the Lord’.”
What immediately follows is a series of sounds, faint at first, bone against bone. Then there is a stirring of wind in the still, dark, dank graveyard of hopes and dreams. In a place where there has been not so much as a breath, breath arrives, not because the exiles catch a second wind, not because all is now well and they are back in the comfortable confines of their Jerusalem homes, not because they have decided to repent of all they had done to lead them into exile. No, even into their isolation and exile, breath arrives because God breathes on them and when God breathes on us, on our communities of faith, there is life even in exile, in isolation, in quarantine.
Pope Pius V put Ezekiel’s miracle in the form of this prayer, “Have mercy on your people, Lord, and give us a breathing space in the midst of so many troubles.” Pope Pius does not pray for an end to the troubles, but that the breath of God will animate us to face whatever troubles come our way.
Auden ends his sobering poem in anything but a sobering way:
Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
In this extreme season of Lent in which we find ourselves, perhaps the best spiritual discipline we can practice is to show “an affirming flame” trusting that the breath of God will feed that flame, trusting that even when we run short on breath, God does not, trusting that just as God revived exiles isolated from home and devoid of hope, God did more than revive Jesus. God resurrected him with the strong breath of new life and unlike testing kits, gloves, and ventilators that are in deadly short supply in this pandemic, God’s breath of new life is not in short supply.
So, what would it look like to fan “an affirming flame” today? It might mean embracing this forced season of stillness to feed the flame of faith and hope. I commit to fan “an affirming flame” by posting a midweek Lenten reflection weekly for you to watch as we travel this precarious road together.
Every Sunday in our forced time apart, Beth Neville, Linda, and Heather have committed to fan “an affirming flame” of music, by playing and singing at 11 a.m. from the Cove sanctuary and connecting us virtually.
You too can fan “an affirming flame.” Join me in praying Cove’s church directory. Begin each day praying for several of Cove’s friends and family. After you pray, pick up the phone and check in on a few of those for whom you just prayed. If not a phone call, write them a note of love and concern. If you find that someone needs groceries or prescriptions delivered to their door, tell me and we have Cove volunteers ready to do shopping and delivery. Let your flame of faithfulness burn brightly despite all the news seeking to extinguish it today.
“Can these bones live?” Absolutely, because even though you and I are walking through the darkest season of Lent that I can remember, Christ is Risen, Pentecost has come, the breath of God still rattles worn, fearful, angry, scared dry bones and fans in us “an affirming flame.”
No matter how dark the night, let your flame of faith burn, my Cove family and friends. Let it burn!