“Breath”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

May 24, 2015 Pentecost Sunday

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-12

 

The year was 1862. The place: Henrico County, Virginia. The Civil War was a year old by then, and the Union Army was pushing into Confederate territory, commanded by Gen. George B. McClellan (great-grandson of Woodstock’s own Samuel McClellan). Near the Chickahominy River, they collided with Gen. Joseph E. Johnston and his Confederate troops. Fighting commenced on May 31 and continued into the next day. When the bullets stopped flying, both sides claimed victory; the battle was ultimately inconclusive. But what was clear as day was the scope of the devastation the fighting had wrought: more than 11,000 casualties in less than 24 hours.

The Battle of Seven Pines, also known as the Battle of Fair Oaks, was the largest battle in the Eastern Theater to that point in the war, and one of the most brutal. Alfred Waud, an artist who was on special assignment covering the war for Harper’s Weekly, sketched the aftermath of the battle. His drawing shows a field strewn with lifeless bodies, both human and equine. The soldiers are being carried off on litters, one by one, to be buried. The horses are being heaped on makeshift pyres to be burned. The survivors, now tending to the wounded and the dead, appear weary, downcast, utterly exhausted. Gen. McClellan later wrote to his wife: “I am tired of the sickening sight of the battlefield, with its mangled corpses & poor suffering wounded! Victory has no charms for me when purchased at such cost.”

This scene of devastation would have looked familiar to the prophet Ezekiel and his audience. They were survivors, too—survivors of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army in the sixth century BCE. Buildings were leveled, fields were torched, livestock were stolen or slaughtered, and anyone who fought back was killed or taken into exile.

The invading conquerors showed little concern for the ones they killed. When a battle ended, they tended to their own casualties, but the bodies of their adversaries were left where they had fallen, minus any valuables the victors could strip. With the survivors being carried off into exile, there was no one left to bury the dead. Nature being what it is, before too long, the skeletons would be picked clean by vultures and other scavengers, and the bones would be desiccated by the heat of the sun.

This is the scene Ezekiel’s audience would have envisioned when he spoke of a valley full of bones. In their mind’s eye, they would have seen a battlefield. They would have seen their land devastated, their homes destroyed, their families scattered, their friends dead and desecrated. Can these bones live? The obvious answer would be a resounding “No.” Of course they can’t. They are dead, picked clean, devoid of flesh and sinew and skin. The victors have taken the spoils; violence has had its day; war has had the final word.

But Ezekiel’s picture ends differently, because Ezekiel is not a war correspondent, but a prophet. He does not stop with the world as it is, but continues right on into the world as it could be, the world as it should be, the world as God intends it to be. He tells of an anti-battle, an undoing of the devastation of war. The bones come together, and sinew, and flesh, and skin. And then those bodies are reanimated, resurrected, by the breath of God. What was scattered is gathered; what was divided is united; what was torn apart is made whole again.

The word that is translated here as breath is a rich one. In Hebrew, the language of the prophet Ezekiel, it is ruach (רוּחַ), which is variously translated as breath, spirit, or wind. We English-speakers think of these as three distinct concepts—breath, spirit, and wind—but in Hebrew, they are one and the same. That wind that stirred over the face of the waters, way back in beginning—ruach. That Spirit that rested on the prophets and the judges, that anointed them to lead their people in the ways of God—ruach. That breath that reanimated those once-dry bones—ruach.

It is that same breath, spirit, wind, that appears again in our second reading. In Greek, the language of the Book of Acts, the word is pneuma (πνεῦμα). Pneuma also means breath, spirit, and wind, all rolled into one. In this story, translators have chosen to render it as Spirit with a capital S, in deference to understanding that developed in Christian tradition that Pentecost is the day when the Holy Spirit was given to the early church. But it could also be translated, as in the story from Ezekiel, not as spirit, but as breath.

In the story of the day of Pentecost, devout people from all over the known world had gathered in Jerusalem for the festival. They crowded the streets of the city, speaking different languages and dialects, wearing different clothing, eating different foods, practicing different customs. With so many people from so many cultures all crowded in together, I think it highly likely that there were some disagreements that arose, some fights that broke out. Someone was offended by a gesture that seemed perfectly appropriate to the one who made it. Someone else had his foot stepped on and couldn’t understand the apology because it came in a different tongue. The seeds of misunderstanding and mistrust were already planted and beginning to flourish.

And then the pneuma, the breath of God, comes rushing in—and suddenly, everyone can understand one another. Each one hears in her own language, though they are speaking in many tongues. And suddenly, Lo siento is I’m sorry, and Merci is Thank you, and a wave is a greeting and not an insult. And all those different kinds of people—Iranians and Iraqis, Palestinians and Turks, Egyptians and Libyans, Romans and Greeks and Arabs—suddenly they can all see each other as the sisters and brothers they are. What was scattered is gathered; what was divided is united; what was torn apart is made whole again.

In both of these stories, the arrival of the ruach, the pneuma, causes the people of God to draw breath—a holy Breath—and speak. Ezekiel prophesies to the bones as the Lord instructs him to do. The disciples proclaim the gospel in various languages, as the Spirit gives them ability. Could God have done these things all by Godself? I imagine God could. But instead, it seems that God prefers to work through human breath, human spirits, human voices.

That same ruach, that same pneuma, that same holy Breath, desires to enter into us, to breathe in us, to transform us, to inspire us. On this Pentecost Sunday, which, this year, coincides with Memorial Day weekend, we, too, are called to draw breath and speak. In a world addicted to violence, God’s Breath stirs us to pledge our allegiance to the Prince of Peace. In a world divided by race and class and gender, God’s Breath moves us to speak in ways that can reach across the chasms and build understanding. In a world where there is far too much suffering, God’s Breath equips us to speak words of hope that are enacted in works of justice.

That same ruach, that same pneuma, is at work in us when we tell our whole truths, not just the sanitized versions of our stories… when we speak out against bigoted remarks, even when they come from the mouths of our friends or family… when we contact our public officials about issues that are important for the most vulnerable in our midst… when we sing a lullaby to a crying baby… when we whisper comfort in the ear of a dying elder… when we say those most important three words, “I love you”… when we speak the names of our beloved ones who have died, on the front lines or on the home front… when we pray and sing and preach and call for a world where swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, a world where—at long, long last—we study war no more.

God could do all these things by Godself. But God prefers to work through our spirits, our voices, our breath—to gather the scattered, to unite the divided, to make whole what has been torn apart. You, too, can be part of the movement of that reanimating, reuniting, resurrecting Breath of God. All you have to do is draw breath and speak.