Breath and Bones
Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14
My grandfather attended the Newport News Apprentice School soon after the First World War. He then went to work for the Newport News Shipbuilding Corporation, where he worked for the rest of his life. His job was routine and far from exciting, but it was where he made his closest friends. He was a part of a community that he cared about and that cared about him until he died. I am sure that some of you can tell a similar vocational story, but not many can anymore.
The refrain of the old labor song, sings, “We shall not be, we shall not be moved!” A more apt labor refrain today would say, “We shall not, no, we shall not remain.” The late Church sociologist, Loren Mead observes that “in town after town, company after company . . . workers are experiencing downsizing as a shocking betrayal – all the more shocking because of their assumptions about the company as a place of community. They thought they belonged.”
Mead goes on to argue, “Right after World War II a national obsession with finding community fueled middle-class America’s migration to the suburbs. The romantic image of a close-knit suburban neighborhood was rarely realized. With the advent of television and self-sufficient technologies, we have spent more and more time within our houses. Fewer people today describe the place they live as an intimate neighborhood. On the contrary, more people find that though surrounded by houses and lawns and multiple car garages, they live alone” (Mead, The Downsizing of America, p. 47).
So, if you and I don’t necessarily find community in our neighborhoods or on the job, surely, we can find community in the church. A few years back, a Midwest conference of the United Methodist Church had the courage to do a unique survey of people who had visited congregations in that Conference but decided not to join. Few of the visitors described the churches they attended as places where they were likely to find community. Most often, congregations were viewed as self-satisfied conglomerations of like-minded people (see Mead, p. 52).
“The Lord’s hand was upon me, and he carried me out by his spirit and set me down in a plain that was full of bones. He made me pass among them in every direction. Countless in number and very dry, they covered the plain. He said to me, ‘O mortal, can these bones live?’” This vision from Ezekiel is not a vision of the death of a bunch of individuals; it is the vision of the death of a community of faith. Peering out over downtown Babylon, still smelling the ash in the air from the cinders of the torched Jerusalem Temple, wondering what happened to their mighty one nation under God, Ezekiel is writing to people who have seen their community crumble into a bunch of dry, lifeless bones.
Soon after the crucifixion of Jesus, the disciples huddled in a small room in Jerusalem. They waited and waited, just as Jesus told them to do. Time passed and gnawed at them. Questions started to nag them. What would become of them with Jesus no longer around? What if it were all a horrible hoax? What were they to do now?
In Ezekiel, the dry bones were in Babylon. In Acts, the dry bones were in Jerusalem. But you don’t need to travel back in time or across the globe to find dry bones. How well do you know the person sitting next to you, in front of you, behind you in the Cove pews today? Do you know what keeps them up at night, feeling lonely, isolated, sometimes terrified? Look around at our denomination. Fewer Presbyterians sit in our pews each year and if it weren’t for our immigrant congregations, the situation would be even more extreme.
A common lament is sounded throughout the predominately white, mainline church, “What happened to the church in its prime?” Dry bones are everywhere you look. So, what do we do about this problem? For after all, we’re Presbyterians, we’re doers. Faced with a challenge, we appoint committees and commissions. We establish task forces to strategize, organize, galvanize, to pump some life back into these dry bones, to create community where there lives a valley of scared and lonely individuals.
A favorite line of mine from Shakespeare’s, The Winter’s Tale is: “What fine chisel could ever yet cut breath?” (V, iii, 78). Even our finest efforts cannot restore dry bones, cannot create life, cannot create community. Just ask Ezekiel and Luke. Ezekiel tells us: “Thus says the Lord to these bones, ‘I will bring upon you the breath of life . . . and I will put my Spirit into you and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’” In Acts, we hear, “The day of Pentecost had come and . . . suddenly there came from the sky what sounded like a strong, driving wind, a noise which filled the whole house where they were sitting . . . They were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” In Ezekiel and Acts, community did happen by action of a committee or commission or task force; it happened as a gift from the life-giving Spirit of God.
That was then. This is now. Dry bones are all around us. The valley of dry bones has only grown more substantial during two years of being quarantined from each other in the Covid-pandemic. What are we to do to restore community and help those with no community to find one?
The night before Lincoln was to deliver his address at Gettysburg on the occasion of yet another valley of dry bones, a crowd gathered beneath his window. They made such noise that Lincoln was forced to rise from bed and address them from the window in his bedclothes. He spoke:
I appear before you, fellow citizens, merely to thank you for this compliment. The inference is a very fair one that you would hear me, for a little while at least, were I to commence to make a speech. I do not appear before you for the purpose of doing so and for several substantial reasons. The most substantial of these is that I have no speech to make. In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say foolish things. It very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all. Believing that is my present condition this evening, I must beg of you to excuse me from addressing you further.
Lincoln closed the window and went back to bed.
Perhaps on this Pentecost Sunday, the church could benefit from Lincoln’s humor and humility and behavior. Perhaps there is nothing greater that you and need to do than to stop talking for a while, stop singing, stop playing our musical instruments and be still and listen for the ruach, the pneuma, listen for the life-giving, bone-restoring, community-creating, breath of God. Perhaps the best thing we can do is to trust that God’s Spirit is at work even when all we see are dry bones.
Perhaps the most faithful thing we can do is to stand around this table and pray: “Breathe on us, breath of God. Breathe on our dry bones and create a community of hospitality where each person is known by name and knows that they are always welcome; create a community of compassion where loneliness has no place to nestle and no one ever feels isolated, unheard, or alone; create a community of passion where people gather to renew their commitment to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God and do not mistake this community as a place to hide from the world.
If you are worried about the future of the church on this Pentecost birthday of the church, don’t. The Spirit of the living God can spot dry bones wherever they are lying about and can breathe new life, new purpose, new energy, new love into those seemingly dried up, worthless bones.
If you are still worried, then take a long deep breath and join me in the Pentecost prayer: Breathe on us, breath of God. Breathe on us, breath of God. Breathe, O breathe on us, breath of God.