A Country Called Life

Ezekiel 37:1-14

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Intro Prayer: Please Pray with me: Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight. Amen.

It is good to be here with you all on this sunny spring morning. I send gratitude to Dean Hill for inviting me to speak this morning at this historic pulpit and many thanks to all of My Marsh Chapel friends and family who have supported me in my new role as the Chaplain for International students here at Boston University.

My husband, Carson, and I moved to Boston in the middle of June with just enough time to be completely enveloped into the Red Sox fandom as they marched towards the world series-which was truly a joy and a blessing and felt like a right of passage into Boston life. However, this means that this past winter has been our first Boston winter. In some ways nearly 5 months of winter, 54 inches of snow, and endless salt foot prints in our front hallway seemed like a rite of passage into becoming a true Bostonian. But many days, especially nearing February and March, I felt as though the winter was never going to end. I felt as though this must be a winter akin to Narnia-endless snows until some sort of curse is lifted; or perhaps Boston was experiencing a 5-year long Game of Thrones style winter. The phrase ‘winter is coming’ was transformed to ‘winter is here-and with a vengeance’.

I began to feel hopeless. When I came into work on especially chilly days, I would ask my colleagues at Marsh when it would all end. I asked practical questions:  how long winter lasted year, when does the snow turn to rain, what happened the year before and the year before, what is the absolute worse-case scenario I need to emotionally prepare myself for? (could there possibly be snow in JUNE?). They were sympathetic and offered me much comfort but my colleagues and friends also assured me that-to this day- there is absolutely no accurate prediction method for New England weather. I yearned for spring as I have never yearned for spring before. I would sit in my favorite chair by the window and read John Keat’s poem “Ode to a Nightingale” and hold onto his phrase ‘oh, for a beaker full of the warm south’. I wondered after all this winter, how could anything possible grow ever again? How could even the strongest seed take root in such frozen soil and live?

Our text for this Sunday is a familiar one-Ezekiel 37:1-14. We have seen this vision many times before-Ezekiel stands amidst a desolate valley of dry bones and prophesies them to life. . This story has become an important part of our religious narrative for centuries. It’s a passage that holds liturgical importance for both Christians and Jews alike.  In the Christian tradition-this passage is featured every year of the 3 year rotation of the Revised Common Lectionary-we use that lectionary here in Marsh Chapel, as do many other Christian churches around the world. The story of the Valley of Dry Bones falls on liturgically important Sundays in this lectionary: This year it falls on the fifth Sunday of Lent, next year it will be the text for the Easter vigil, and the following year it will fall on the Sunday of Pentecost. In the Jewish tradition, Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones falls on Passover every year. This passage is familiar because we come to it every year as winter beckons into spring.  This passage is familiar because each year we are called to it to find new understanding as winter comes to an end.

Before we explore Ezekiel’s prophetic vision, we need to look at the current state of being for the Israelites for whom the vision was originally shared. The Israelites were a broken people suffering from what felt like an eternal winter in their lives. To paint you a picture-6 years before this vision comes to them, the people of Israel had been captured, killed, and enslaved by evil king. Jerusalem, there holy city has been sacked, burned, and invaded. Enslaved and starving, these people feel as though they have broken covenant with God, and will suffer to the end of their days. There homeland, there family, and there lives lay in ruins. John Calvin, our companion through this Lenten season, states that to the Israelites-dispersion, being carried off to Babylon ‘was very much like death’.  We see in this passage in Ezekiel 37:11 a most sorrowful cry, a true lament. The people cry out,

“Our bones are dried up,

and our hope is lost.

We are cut off completely.”

 

In this lament, the people of Israel are not asking for help, they are not asking for God’s forgiveness; they have no request for a sliver of grace-they simply, mournfully accept their dreary existence and commit to the fact they are already dead. Hopelessness seeps in from the very roots of their souls and evolves into life-less-ness. The very notion of life collapses around them. The people of Israel walk on as skeletons without a joy or a song in their hearts. They are in Ezekiel’s desolate valley; they are the dry bones. When in a vision from God, Ezekiel is brought to view this valley of dry bones, it is not an abandoned cemetery, or an elephant graveyard, or a battlefield he sees, but the dry bones themselves are the people of Israel.

We have all experienced these valleys of desperation, these seemingly endless winters. In the United States we live in a culture supports a system where living and life are two completely different things. For instance, we often say ‘we make a living’ as we talk about money; and comment ‘I need to get a life’ as we talk about social interactions. Living becomes something we simply do; are even obligated to do-and life becomes just one possible, probably unlikely outcome of that living.  I myself have fallen into a negative cyclical rotation of living what was not life-and I see so many of my friends and family struggle with the same habitual system:  we get up, go to work, come home, watch TV, go to bed, get up, go to work, come home, watch TV and go to bed. Once in a while a moment occurs where we question whether or not this is really life at all.

Linked to this system, there is a glorification of busy-ness that runs rampant in our midst. Every time someone asks “how are you doing?” we feel the need to reply ‘exhausted. Busy. Stressed. I’ve done so much today. I have so much to do.’ We feel that if we don’t appear busy, we think we don’t appear to be valuable, successful, or whole. We think that if we aren’t busy all the time, we aren’t contributing members to society.   And while these things may be true-we may have a very busy schedule in all reality and have a lot of things on are to-do lists, but we chug along without really experiencing anything, without really living out life. We exist, we work until we are dry bones, we burn out, and we fall into Ezekiel’s valley-where all seems hopeless, it feels like you can never escape from this tedious cycle, and your life has somehow slipped away from you into rote actions and movement created solely out of habit. Sometimes we don’t notice our own shallow valleys, we just keep swimming and feel that everything will be fine someday. Other times we sink into the dry earth of the valley so deeply that the desolation seeps into our spirits and is transformed into deep depression, unhappiness, non-contentment, or listlessness.

I meet with Boston University students every single day of my week, and consistently-at least once a week-I meet with a student who feels so overwhelmed-so incapacitated by busyness and stress at all the things on their to-do list, that they can hardly move; let alone live. I meet with International students who feel like they are just barely treading water to keep up with all the cultural differences, nuances, and systems that they need to embrace to simply keep up with their school work. I see colleagues, friends, and family member who feel plagued in a listless cycle of confounding stress. I’ve found myself in these dark valleys of lifeless living and contention. If you have every found yourself in this valley, you are not alone in this. If you have every found yourself standing amidst these dry bones, know that you are not alone. Thousands of years ago the Israelites found themselves in this dark and dreary place, in the same way we often find ourselves there now. Elie Wiesel, a well-known holocaust survivor, prolific writer, and good friend of Boston University once said about this valley of dry bones-state of being “Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dried bones bears no true date because every generation needs to hear in its own time that this valley exists and that these bones can live again”. Every generation, every culture, every person experiences this valley, this winter. But Wiesel especially notes-that every culture, every generation, every person can live again into a spirit-filled spring.

Dr. Kathryn Pfisterer Darr, a beloved professor of Hebrew Bible at our very own Boston University school of Theology, and one of the leading Ezekiel scholars of our era states that the great hope of this text is that true, fulfilling life is only one breath away. A single breath.  But the difficulty of realizing this hope is that we are so often limited by our own understanding of what our lives can hold, can handle, can truly live out-that our own limitations prevent us from embracing the reality of life-the opportunities we have to live. But God’s understanding, God’s sight and vision are so much greater and wider than we could possibly see. I’m reminded of a tale I once heard while I was living and studying in Tamil Nadu, India. I met a man from the island of Sri Lanka named Jude. One day we began talking about this passage in Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones-we were discussing the limitations of human understanding verses the limitations of God’s vision in the passage. Jude told me this native tale,

“Once many years ago, there were two twins living in a womb. A boy and a girl, who were almost fully-grown. They enjoyed their life, filled with nutrients food, and comfort in the womb. But at times it seemed redundant, dull, and there was no more growing to do. One day, the girl twin said to the boy, “I feel as though there must be more than this. I feel as though there might be something called a mother.” The twin boy retorted “that’s ridiculous-this is all we have. We can see our whole world from here there is no mother. There is nothing else.” A few days later the twin girl spoke again, “I really am starting to believe that something is holding us, caring for us, that we are inside a great mother.” The twin boy replied, “there cannot be a mother, we have lived like this our whole lives-there is nothing else.” But the baby twin girl remained convinced and held onto the belief that something was beyond her limits of understanding, and the mother understood things she could not. Little did they know that at any moment these two twins could be born, into a completely new and different world and would be transformed by it. God shares this same wider understanding with Ezekiel and the entire populace of Israel becomes reborn and transformed in new understanding.

Ezekiel stands before a valley filled with dry bones and God asks, ‘can these bones live?’; wisely, Ezekiel affirms that God’s understanding is wider and bigger than his own and says “only you know, O God.” With that, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to these bones to make them live. As Ezekiel does this, bones are joined with bones, sinews re-grow, flesh clings and thrives-miraculously these bodies are re-membered. In his prolific Institutes, John Calvin states that this vision corrects the unbelief of the people-previously the people of Israel, much like us, believed that they were too far out of God’s reach. Too far gone. The importance of Ezekiel 37 to Calvin is to prove that this is always and forever an incorrect assumption, that we are indeed never beyond the reach of God’s restoration. God is more extensive than they could possibly imagine. They are made whole, the people of Israel are restored to fully human form-not just a slave, or a lost soul, or a skeleton, but fully flesh. God breathes into these people of the valley and they are given breath, spirit, true life. The Hebrew term for breath here is ruac’h-a familiar word meaning breath that we have witnessed many times before. We saw God breathing life into Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:7, much in the same way we see God breathing that same breath of life here in the Israel people after years and years of exile and torment. God is still breathing today into us and beckoning us into the Country Called Life.

This year I have been undertaking a spiritual discipline of reading poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke every morning. Rilke is a prolific German and Dutch poet whose insights I find to be just as poignant and personal now as they were a hundred years ago when he wrote them. Rilke and I have been on a journey together this year, and I feel as though he is teaching me more fully how to live, and especially how to live in the presence of the Sacred. His poem “Go to the Limits of Your Longing” aptly brings forward the hope restored in Ezekiel. The poem reads:

 

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,

Then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,

Go to the limits of your longing,

Embody me.

Flare up like flame

And make big shadows I can move in

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going.

No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the Country called life..

You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

 

We are often called out beyond our recall-called to do more than we can handle. We are beyond our recall when we fill our lives with busy-ness and meaningless motions. At times it seems all we can do is to just keep going. But we are called by the Divine Sacred spirit of God to go to the limits of our longings, to experience every single thing: beauty and terror. When we choose to live we embody the compassion, peace, justice, and spirit of the holy. We can flare up like flames and dance in the fire of life.

Friends, just as surely as today is a spring day-55 degrees and sunny, so your life is only a single breath away, your life is one moment with God’s imbibing spirit away. You are offered the same restoration of the Israelites-the chance to live-to truly live; to step out of the monotonous motions and into a season of spring full of life, full of the spirit of God. Through our endless Boston winter, seeds still have taken root; they are growing and living despite the frozen earth. We have been in the valley of dry bones; we have lingered there, suffered there, but nearby is the country called life.  When we breathe, may we breathe the breath of God and we move into life. May we go forth into this spring seeking out life in the fullness of the spirit. Amen.

Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, University Chaplain for International Students

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