“Can These Bones Live?”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

May 27, 2018

Ezekiel 37:1-14


The hand of the Lord came upon me, says Ezekiel, and God brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.

Now, we could have a whole conversation about this story, about whether or to what extent it actually happened, and about how on earth we are supposed to interpret this admittedly weird series of events.  Did Ezekiel really fly through the air to land in a faraway valley, or did he have a vision or make the trip in his mind’s eye?  What does it mean to be brought out by the spirit of the Lord, anyway?  Did those bones literally come back together, or are we supposed to understand this as some kind of metaphor?  What is God up to, creating a multitude of zombies?

But those questions aren’t the ones that interest me today.  Today, I want to talk about the bones.

It was a valley full of bones, human bones—once living, breathing Children of God—remains left to lie where they had fallen.  A vast multitude of people—sons and daughters and siblings, spouses and parents, grandparents and friends—felled by some unknown hand and left there.  Not bathed, not shrouded, not coffined, not buried, not cremated.  No marker placed to signify that this is hallowed ground.  Never identified and never mourned.

It might have been a battlefield; it might have been a village wiped out by violence or pestilence; it might have been the scene of a natural disaster—we don’t know.  What we know is, it was a valley full of human bones—once living, breathing Children of God—now bleached and desiccated by the sun.


Have you ever seen a scene like that?

Have you ever been brought up short by the enormity of the world’s suffering?

Have you ever come face to face with the devastation we humans wreak upon one another, with the cruelty and hardship and ugliness of which we are capable?

Have you ever been confronted by your own mortality, your own vulnerability—and the mortality and vulnerability of the ones you love, the ones you cherish beyond life itself, the ones you would do anything to protect?


On this Memorial Day weekend, I am cognizant that those of you who have served in the military, or whose loved ones have served or are serving, may know this moment, this scene, in a very particular, very deep way, and you may be feeling that especially this weekend.  I am also cognizant that there are many ways in which many of us may have had this kind of Ezekiel moment.

I felt like Ezekiel, walking among the bones, when I visited the Vietnam Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.  Now, those remains, of course, have been tended and mourned, unlike the scattered bones in Ezekiel’s dry valley.  But those white marble headstones, placed with military precision, filing off in all directions, row upon row upon row, as far as the eye can see…  And that polished black granite, so smooth you can see your own face in it, inscribed with 58,000 names, letter after letter after letter, Child of God after Child of God after Child of God…  They left me with a pit in my stomach at the scope of the human cost of our society’s perpetual reliance on war.

I felt like Ezekiel, walking among the bones, when I visited an inmate at a state prison in Massachusetts to support him as he worked on his college degree during his incarceration.  After being patted down and metal detected and ID checked, I would hear the loud clang of the metal door as it shut behind me, and my echoing footsteps as I walked to the other end of the long gray corridor, where I would wait for the guards looking down at me from above to buzz that door open and let me through, and then I’d hear that one slam shut behind me as well.  I would spend an hour with Alex, surrounded by other inmates and their visitors, all of us crammed in together, sitting in uncomfortable chairs that were bolted to the floor.  And then I would walk out again, back through the clanging doors and metal detectors and pat-downs, with my heart aching and my mind filled with the faces of Child of God after Child of God after Child of God—predominantly poor, disproportionately black and brown, often with mental illness or developmental disabilities—withering like those dry bones, treated as though they are worthless, as though they are irredeemable.

I feel like Ezekiel, walking among the bones, when I see yet another school community shattered by bullets and guns.  Another round of terrifying stories of crouching behind desks, hiding in closets, barricading doors against a lethally-armed child.  Another young person saying, “I wasn’t surprised—I knew it would happen here eventually.”  Another round of thoughts and prayers without meaningful action.  Another round of funerals.  There were very many bones lying in the valley, and they were very dry.

I feel like Ezekiel, walking among the bones, when I am called to be present with another family who has lost a loved one to addiction.  I feel like Ezekiel, walking among the bones, when I hear stories of immigrant children taken into custody, separated from their parents, and then exploited, abused, mistreated, neglected.  I feel like Ezekiel, walking among the bones, when yet another #MeToo story comes out, when yet another #BlackLivesMatter protest is necessary, when Flint, MI, still doesn’t have clean water, and thousands in Puerto Rico still don’t have electricity.

I imagine Ezekiel walking among the bones with a pit in his stomach and an ache in his heart, saying, “Didn’t they care?  Why didn’t somebody do something to stop this?” yet at the same time, feeling overwhelmed, discouraged, worn out, powerless in the face of so much tragedy.


And then God said to Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

And then God says to me, “Jocelyn, can these bones live?”

And then God says to you, “Church, can these bones live?”


Do you believe, God asks, Do you believe me when I tell you that the way things are is not the way they will always be?

Do you believe, God asks, Do you believe me when I tell you that there is yet hope for this world?

Do you believe, God asks, Do you believe me when I tell you that what is broken can yet be made whole, that what is torn can yet be mended, that when it seems like all is lost, you can yet be found?

Do you believe, God asks, Do you believe me when I tell you that even in your deadest places, new life can be born?

And are you willing, God asks, Are you willing to help me make it happen?


See, God didn’t bring together bone to bone, sinew to sinew, all by Godself.  God didn’t knit those skeletons back together and cover them with flesh all on God’s own.  God didn’t breathe the breath of life into those lungs all alone.  God had Ezekiel’s help.  And God has yours, and mine.

God could presumably have spoken directly to the bones if God had so chosen—but God chose instead to speak through Ezekiel.  God could work miracles in the hopeless places in our world all by Godself if God so chose—but God chooses instead to work through us.  Because God knows that there is something holy about mortal flesh and blood, about incarnational connection from one person to another.  God knows that the Word sounds different when it comes out of the mouth of a person you love.  God knows that the world needs to hear the good news through us.  And God knows that we need to be the ones to tell it, to have some small part to play in the healing of the world.

So God puts prophetic words in our mouths and asks us to speak them.

God puts tender actions in our hands and asks us to do them.

God puts loving thoughts in our hearts and asks us to live them.

God gives us a story to tell:  a story about the wolf lying down with the lamb, about swords beaten into ploughshares, about nation no longer lifting up sword against nation nor studying war any more.

God gives us a song to sing:  a song about the powerful being brought down from their thrones, and the lowly lifted up, the captives released and the hungry filled with good things.

God gives us a promise to share:  a promise that grace is real, that mercy is holding this world together, that miracles are possible, that hope is tenacious, that the One who brought us this far will never leave us or forsake us, for God loves all that God has made, and God is not done with us yet.


It is not an easy job:  to go to the valley of the bones, to walk among them, to look—really look—at them, to engage wholeheartedly with their suffering.  It is not a simple task:  to listen closely for God’s word so that you know what to say, how to bring about hope and redemption and resurrection life.  It is not a risk-free path:  to speak, as boldly as you can, to use your voice and your body to proclaim God’s truth.

But it is the job for which you, and I, were made.  It is the task to which you, and I, are called.  It is the path on which you, and I, cannot but journey, for the very Spirit of the Lord compels us to go.

And when we do, friends… when we do… we get to be part of nothing less than restoration and redemption, reconciliation and resurrection.  We get to help bring about hope where all seems hopeless, love where all seems lost, life where death seems to hold sway.  We get to help promises be fulfilled—from the long-ago valley of dry bones to the war zones and disaster areas of this day, from the prisons to the schools, from the emergency rooms to the detention centers, from the halls of power to the forgotten places, and even in our homes, in our communities, in our families, in our lives.  We get to join with God in the holy work of renewing this whole earth.

Don’t you want to be a part of that?


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