April 7, 2019: Giving Up Valleys by Rev. Beth Hayward (Ezekiel 37: 1-14)

Don’t you ever wish that the Spirit of God was as dramatic and clear as it was back in biblical times? If I were lifted up from my desk, hands yanked from the keyboard, teacup crashing to the floor and dropped down into a valley of dry bones, whoa, I would not miss that sign. I would know that God wanted me to pay attention. You can almost picture Ezekiel – or me! – scrambling, jumping up, brushing dust from clothes, taking a quick look around. He’s looking around in a panic – like I would be – “Hey Ezekiel, can these dry bones live?”

What would you do under the circumstance? Would you stand there frozen and squeeze your eyes shut, in hopes that this horrible dream would vanish? Would you tiptoe gingerly to the edge of the valley or maybe you’d sprint out of there as quickly as your legs could take you, hands over your ears to drown out the sound of bone-crunching beneath your feet.

”Can these dry bones live?” What kind of question is that? Is it rhetorical? Is it a joke, a trick? Ezekiel doesn’t seem to know so he does the smart thing, he panders to God’s ego (because we all know God has an ego): ‘Oh Lord God, only you know the answer to that.” All the while under his breath he must have been whispering: “Get me out of here!”

As I was mulling over this text in my head this week, even as my vascular surgeon was extracting blood clots from my leg, (which I promise you was not serious, just gross), I was talking about dry bones. I just thought, you know, a doctor like that might have something to add to the musings. But he said to me in no uncertain terms that he can look at all manner of medical ickiness but any time he’s experienced death, he’s left the room as quickly as possible.

Who else might I have consulted? Plenty of you here could have advised me on matters medical – I just ran out of steam. But I do know this: our culture has an aversion to death. We really do, we talk about ‘passing away’ instead of naming. We throw broken things rather than figuring out how to fix. We tell stories of narrow escapes from untimely death. You know the tales of a friend who beat cancer and lived to tell about it, which allows us to avoid the uncomfortable footnote that reminds us of the eventuality that awaits us all. We deny death, and it’s vital role in life, in countless subtle ways each and every day. We look away; we avoid.

Ezekiel’s people were no different. Theirs was a story of death: death of home – the temple in Jerusalem was levelled; death of hope –  would liberation ever happen after all these years? Death of dreams, and possibilities

In the vision, God breaks Ezekiel free of the persuasive powers of nostalgia, breaks him free from the fear of an utterly hopeless future, pulls him bone-by-bone out of death denial, and drops him squarely in the dry bones of the here and now. And God tells Ezekiel to prophesy, to say something, to do something, to confront the death and the denial, breathe a vision that is different from the one that has taken up residence in the hearts of his people.

This is a “how big is your God moment”, if ever there was one. A “how big is your God moment,” like Joseph talked about on the first Sunday of Lent. Every revival, every resurrection begins with the protagonists saying: yes my God is big enough to accompany me through this valley, even this impossible situation. Though I might not be able to feel, taste or touch that truth from my current vantage point, though my head tells me hope is lost, though there is no evidence in my peripheral vision indicating there is any hope for the future, I am going to dare to listen, to, tap into the voice of the holy whispering, to prophesy, to breathe, to say something, to look at the destruction all around and to dare to live like I believe God will never abandon me, todare to know that the holy heart of the universe that is God’s love continues to beat even right here in the valley of dry bones. A how big is your God moment. This is a moment when you are awakened again to the truth that the weight of the world is not on your shoulders alone AND awakened to the truth that God has never and will never abandon.

God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath. Wow. People out there who do yoga – take note! Prophesy to the breath.  And his prophesying to the breath, that is his “my God is bigger” moment.

Listen to these words from preacher and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor about the breath.

If you have studied earth science, then you know that our gorgeous blue-green planet is wrapped in a protective veil that we call the atmosphere, which separates the air we breathe from the cold vacuum of outer space. Beneath this veil is all the air that ever was. No cosmic planet-cleaning company comes along every hundred years or so to suck out all the old air and pump in some new. The same ancient air just keeps recirculating. Which means that every time any of us breathes, we breathe stardust left over from the creation of the earth. We breathe brontosaurus breath and pterodactyl breath. We breathe air that has circulated through the rain forests of Kenya, and air that has turned yellow with sulphur over Mexico City. We breathe the same air that Plato breathed, and Mozart and Michelangelo, not to mention Hitler and Lizzie Borden. Every time we breathe, we take in what was once some baby’s first breath, or some dying person’s last. We take it in, we use it to live, and when we breathe out it carries some of us with it into the next person or tree or blue-tailed skink who uses it to live.[1]

A how big is your God moment reminds you how it is all connected, how we are all connected, how the cycle of life and death of every one of us is connected. All ecosystems are created to harvest nutrients to create new life. It’s just that for us right now, in a world that recycles all the breath, we’re testing the limits.

You- or I – may, some day, hear God, or someone asked: “Can these dry bones live?” Or maybe, it will be more the whisper of some other question: Can this overheating planet live? Oh God you know. Can this culture of consuming live? Oh God you know. Can a people who do everything in their power to say death has no part in life live? Oh God you know. Can my family, with the gaping hole of grief or brokenness live? Oh God you know. Can I, in this current circumstance live; I mean really live? Oh God you know.

Those bones, the moment Ezekiel prophesied to the breath and they found their voice again, what did they say? Did they say thank you? Did they say this is awesome? Did they say, what shall we do now that we live?  No, they said “our bones are dried up, our hope is gone, there’s nothing left of us.”

We live in a time that is wrought with things to make us anxious. I hear your cries of lament. I hear so many cries of lament that the ringing in my ears can reach a feverish pitch. I know you hear the cries too. The state of the very world, the dire warnings come in weekly news flashes, one week it is that the ice is melting too fast and the next that Canada holds the honour having its average temperatures rising more quickly than the rest of the world.

And in response we bring our canvas sacks to the grocery stores and if we have the privilege we purchase electric cars, all the while knowing deep down that death is all around, that there is no hope that our bones are dried up and there are bones of death further than the eye can see. And if we aren’t paralyzed by the thought of it all then we numb ourselves with the illusion that it is life as usual.

And those cries reverberate and echo and are reflected in the cries of lament that are deeply personal, that really are our personal crosses to bear. Those cries of lament for the state of the world have a connection like the ripples of a pebble thrown into a still pond, where right at the heart we lament the loss of our loved one, and perhaps the loss of one’s health, and the loss of futures we once took for granted or at the very least futures we hoped for.

I don’t want to be over dramatic and I certainly don’t want to suggest that I have any claim on the spiritual gift of prophesy but I do think long and hard and I pray often about you this beautiful community of people who come to this place for so many reasons. Many of you come here when your hearts have been ravaged by loss, or you come here looking for something more, or your show up because someone said, I think you might find some of what you’re looking for in this place, or you come here because you’re trying to make meaning in a world where options seem endless and confining all at the same time.  And I pray about the future of this place. And I do endeavour to pay attention to the breath.

I have been meeting with a small group to test and flesh out an emerging vision for our community. It’s early days; it’s an evolving process and you, in due course, will be invited to contribute to this vision. I want to share a glimpse, just some early thoughts and images with you. There is something from the field of dry bones coming to life that seems to call to this moment.

This vision that I am extracting from the laments, like Ezekiel looking for the breath in the valley, it is about looking for hope, real hope, hope that is not an escape but a promise in our context. We can’t escape the things that scare us, the laments, the heartbreaks, the dire forecasts that flow at us more quickly than we can comprehend. This can’t be a place to get away from it all or to be inoculated against the world out there.

Instead building capacity in each and every one of us

  • to stand in the valleys,
  • to name the truths all around,
  • to practice burying what is dead and
  • to name where there is life

And yes I hope building capacity for each and every one of us to prophesy, to speak and act and live from the promise that we are all one, and that we are connected one to another and indeed to the bones below our feet and the earth below the bones AND most certainly to the breath.

Today the sermon is titled “Giving up Valleys” but let me review that now – there is no shame in rethinking an ongoing process – it really isn’t about ‘giving up the valleys’: they are part of life, some are much deeper than others, some full of dry dead bones, but even so that is a part of the cycle of life.The question is not to avoid, or give up the valleys of life, but what will we do when we find ourselves there? How then shall we live? How shall we stand there, will we learn to breathe deeply enough that the air that has been the first and last breath of those who have come before might be exhaled in words and deeds that say yes my God is big enough, big enough to keep my fears in check, big enough to partner with me to offer vision and hope, big enough to breathe out a revival of spirit that is neither an escape to some dead nostalgia nor an escape to some fairy tale future, but a revival of the here and now that is resilient and real and honest and hope filled all at the same time. So let us breathe life into death, let the valleys be lifted up, let every one sing a revival…

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc., Plymouth UK, 1999.