Matters of Life and Death – A Sermon for April 2, 2017 (Lent V) – The Rev. Pan Conrad

Imagine what it would be like to have Ezekiel’s vision, set down in the middle of a valley filled with dry bones. You can close your eyes and picture it, imagining the sight of those bones and the sound of the wind, but there’s no way we can imagine what Ezekiel might have felt without knowing a little bit about him. It was a really bad time for guys like Ezekiel, and I do mean guys. If you’ve read that whole book of the Bible, you’ll notice a really male perspective of lost honor and displacement: those who held the power, the educated, economically advantaged and elite of Judah were exiled when Jerusalem fell in the sixth century before the common era. When the Babylonians occupied Jerusalem, Ezekiel was one of those elite—a priest, in fact, who was sent into exile. There was no sense that Israel would ever be restored, and Ezekiel, had no power, no job and no respect. God did not call him by his name, addressing him simply as “Mortal.”

Would he have felt the ghosts of the once living all around him? Would he have begun to feel dried up like the bones? Would he have felt the despair of Judah through his own layer of hopelessness? Did he share that feeling of “being cut off completely?”

Last year, I was doing some field research in the badlands region of eastern Alberta, Canada in a beautiful and desolate place called Dinosaur Provincial Park. As I walked through what are now canyons cut into what used to be the subtropical coastal plain of an inland sea tens of millions of years ago, everywhere I looked there were the bones of beings that once roamed the earth. As I looked at these bones, I could feel ginormous hadrosaurs lumbering along in the forest. I imagined that if I looked up, I’d see pterodactyls soaring overhead. In the midst of these 75 million year old bones, I felt like I was treading upon sacred ground, and was mindful about where to put down my feet. When I knelt down and touched the bones I knew without doubt that this was Holy ground indeed. I heard a voice inside my heart say: “it’s all holy ground.”

It wasn’t the bones themselves speaking to me. As I interacted with the landscape, the Holy Spirit blew in from all directions, and emerged from my relationship with those dry bones and sensibly breathed life into them. Oh, not physically as a viable prosaurolophus, but they were nevertheless transformed for me. I was awed by their significance to matters of life and death. Those dinosaurs came alive for me because the Holy Spirit used my relationship with them to awaken something in me… the realization of how transient our time is on this amazing, yet fragile Earth—our island home, as the Eucharistic prayer reads.

In those moments when I’ve encountered what feels like pure holiness, like that day in Dinosaur Park, it feels like time is suspended—like I’m momentarily floating in eternity. And I start to get a little confused about life and death. Because, in a timeless moment, boundaries get fuzzy. Oh, I do get it that those dinosaurs are done, and they are not coming back, but in my dialog with the landscape and the bones and the Holy Spirit on at least that one occasion, the air was spinning around in my head as the winds blew in from every direction. And what had been dried up, finished and lifeless DID come to life for me. It’s a similar thing when you’re engaged in the act of creating a work of art. You might have a block or a dry spell when you’re working on a drawing or a story or a piece of music. Sometimes if you just noodle around and interact with the medium, the art comes alive. This kind of thing happens in all kinds of relationships—not just between artist and medium or scientist and dinosaur bones, but also between people, places and things—all of the bits of God’s creation—because God IS the medium in which all of these things reside.

Relationship is the structural framework in which God becomes visible. Even in the nature of God’s own self: the Holy Trinity is pure relationship! For Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, life was the consequence of the relationship between the bones, the prophet, the Spirit and the master architect! When the bones assembled, it was because Ezekiel interacted with them and prophesied as God commanded. They had just lain there in their absolutely desiccated state, no hope for restoration. God could have made them spontaneously assemble, simultaneously breathing life into them, but instead, brought Ezekiel into the process, instructing him to say: “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

And that’s when the parts all came together—sinews and flesh, complete with skin! But just because the hipbone was connected to the thighbone—they weren’t people yet. They were still sort of like mannequins. So once again God gave Ezekiel a role in the process, commanding him to prophecy once again—this time, not to the bones, but to the breath—to the Spirit that makes us come alive. So Ezekiel did as he was told, and BAM! They stood on their feet—the whole house of Israel filling the valley before him! Do you see what happened here?

Ezekiel, the former priest, thrown out of Jerusalem at the time Jerusalem fell was living in exile. Neither he nor his people— had any hope— they were conquered and scattered. He was given no special treatment or respect, yet in his vision, when God set him in that valley, bones as far as the eye could see, he was called into active participation in the restoration of hope. God commanded him to prophecy both to the bones and to the breath. God called him into a relationship with those bones and Spirit (or breath), because God emerges—is made visible in relationship, bringing life to all the participants in that relationship. God spoke to that mortal and restored his hope and the hope of the people. To those whose bones were dried up, whose hope was lost, God said through just a mere mortal, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”

We are all of us dry bones, when we feel isolated, marginalized or maybe even without hope. But we reside in the medium of an unfathomably amazing God, who wants to interact with us, speaking through us, one mortal to another, saying, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” Maybe you are the person who has lost hope and feels cut off. And maybe you’re the mortal who God has called to restore that person’s hope. We bring each other back to life with the agency that our Creator gives us. It doesn’t matter which one we are, because like Ezekiel and the nation of Israel, both will have their hope restored and come back to life. Because it’s the fact that we are in dialog, in relationship, that’s important. If God has promised mercy to any of one of the beloved children who feels their bones have dried up and that hope is gone, and if that same God should call upon you or me to speak up so that hope and life can be restored to someone else’s dry bones, then who are we to break God’s promise?”

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