Sunday, April 02, 2017

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Ezekiel 37
The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”
11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

This song was recorded by numerous artists, including Rosemary Clooney, The Caravans, The Delta Rhythm Boys, Deep River Boys, The Four Lads, The Kingsmen, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Fats Waller, and Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians.

They just don’t name bands like the used to. And this is not a complete list of the artists who have covered the African-American spiritual “Dem Bones.” You know it:

Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.
Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.
Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.
Now hear the word of the Lord.

Now, we could have a bit of a debate whether “Dem Bones” is truly an African-American spiritual since it was written in the early 20th century in the style of other spirituals, but did not come out of the same period.

Traditional African-American spirituals are folk songs written anonymously during the long period that Africans were enslaved in the US. Oddly, where Africans were enslaved in other parts of the Americas, under the Spanish or the English, no such musical tradition developed.

Scholars argue, of course, about this difference, whether it was the extended duration of US slavery, or the greater embrace of Christianity among American slaves, or other theories—like songs were used as coded messages for escape. Indeed, a song like “Wade in the Water” was very likely a coded reminder to wade near the shore of rivers and lakes as a means to throw off tracking dogs—crucial advice for escaped slaves.

And other spirituals, like “Over my head” have sparked even greater debate. The lyric is “Over my head, I hear music in the air” three times, and the concluding like “there must be a God somewhere.” The first time I heard this song discussed, it was escaped slaves hidden in the basements on the Underground Railroad, ready to taste freedom in Canada. Other interpreters have taken a grimmer angle, arguing that prior to departing from Africa, slaves were held in the fortified basement of a church, and the lyric is a cry of despair. It seems to only underline the complexity and sadness of this history.

Back to Dem Bones, the song follows the familiar pattern whereby the fourth and final line of the refrain contains the heart of the message. The poet builds toward the message over three lines and gives the point of the song, in this case “Now hear the word of the Lord.” Dem Bones even takes this a step further, concluding the intro with the same line, and also each of the twelve line verses, verses that famously give an overview of human anatomy.

And “hear the word of the Lord” is one of those markers in scripture that functions as an early form of highlighter. Whenever we see this formulation (most often in the prophets) we know that the instruction that follows is particularly important to the story. In the same way, whenever Jesus says “You have heard it said, but I say unto you...” we need to pay close attention. Of course, Jesus uses ‘word of the Lord’ too, in perhaps the most creative example of heckling in the Bible:

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said, “Blessed is the womb that bore You, and blessed are the breasts that nursed You.” 28But He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of the Lord and obey it.” (Luke 11)

I think these are all fine blessings, and someone should tell Hallmark.

Listen again for the key line in our passage, this time from the NRSV:

God said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, [only] you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath[a] to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath[b] in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

And perhaps we should note too the rhetorical question that prompts this dialogue: “Mortal, can these bones live?” Notice the irony in the question, calling the prophet by the name “mortal,” the one who will some day be bones himself. “Mortal, can these bones live?” is a question for the valley of dry bones, but it is a question for Ezekiel, and for everyone who hears this passage.

And the prophet acknowledges, correctly, that only God knows. Only God knows if this valley of bones can be transformed into flesh and breath because only God has the power to bring about this transformation. Only God can take what is dry and broken and dead and gone and make it into a new people, a people resuscitated for God alone. Ezekiel admits this and follows God’s command to share the transforming word of God.

This might be the moment to back up, way back, and look at the context. Ezekiel and his class are exiles, carried off by the Babylonians as a punishment for Israel’s disobedience. God has second thoughts about the exile, but not in the tender way it is described in Isaiah. There is not “comfort ye my people” in Ezekiel, only a God worried about God’s reputation:

“Therefore say to the Israelites, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone...Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, people of Israel! (Ez 36.22, 32)

Imagine the parent who says “I’m going to clean up your mess, but you’re still in trouble.” The mess was continued disobedience, even in exile, and God’s desire to stop it. The solution is a return, and God’s hope that by ending the exile people will return to God and God’s way. And this isn’t just the disobedient exiles, it also includes those left behind, the non-elites who were never carried off in the first place. In chapter 37, God says “these bones are the whole house of Israel.”

And it’s to these poor folks I want to turn our attention. We don’t know much about that majority group, those left behind when the elites were carried off. We only have the elite perspective in exile, and stories like Daniel and the Lion’s Den, stories about living in the court of a foreign king. What were they doing in the forgotten homeland, when the elites were no longer there to provide leadership? What happens in such situations?

We know that when leaders are absent or preoccupied, the people become restless and open to the loudest voices. When leaders are absent or preoccupied, people who peddle fear and mistrust find an opening. When leaders are absent or preoccupied, it becomes easier to question the integrity of the whole system. When leaders are absent or preoccupied supposed “strongman” figures appear, offering themselves as the only one to solve the problems of the age.

I think you see the problem, both ancient and modern. We live in an age where the first question is still relevant: “Mortal, can these bones live?” Can the tired bones of the body politic be brought to life, where integrity and honesty are leading themes once more? Can the tired bones of a consumerist society be brought to life, where there is more to life than a trip to the mall? Can the tired bones of a society with ‘compassion fatigue’ find a way to be open and generous once more?

“O Lord God, [only] you know.” But just a chapter earlier, God has given the answer, the word of the Lord:

26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. 28 Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.



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