Can These Bones Live?
Updated: May 25, 2021
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14
We moved into in-person worship last Sunday and forgot to hit the record button on Zoom, so there is no video this week. Our apologies!
Today’s scriptures are an absolute embarrassment of riches. In the gospel, Jesus promises the disciples that the Spirit will come and guide them after he’s gone. In the Acts, that Spirit comes and helps a disparate people really understand one another and come together. Even the Psalm today is a lovely reflection on the stunning works of God on the earth. But this Ezekiel reading. C’mon. Is there a more evocative passage in the whole Bible?
It would be very easy to pluck this story out of its context and apply it wholesale to today’s joyful regathering after a long time apart. But I think it would be all the richer to recognize where Ezekiel is coming from when God shows him this vision.
Like many of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, Ezekiel is a prophet of exile. He’s living in Babylon after having been torn away from Jerusalem which has been destroyed by the conquering Babylonians. And he’s wondering, will we ever get to go home? If we do, what will it be like? How will we rebuild? Who will we be when we return? Can these bones live?
Because the bones, they’re very dry. And it’s implied that these bones were left in a place of battle—a battle that was lost. A battle where the soldiers were overcome, cut down, and left where they fell. Decisions had been made. Plans prepared. Priorities set.
And it led the people here. To death. To decay. And finally to bleached, lifeless bones in a dusty valley.
This is the story of my people, Ezekiel says. “Can these bones live?”
God answers, “I will put breath in you, and you shall live.” This story of the valley of the dry bones doesn’t hinge on the people, it hinges on God. God’s breath, more specifically. The Hebrew word here is ruach. Wind, breath, Spirit. Ruach is the word used in the first chapter of Genesis when “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, and a wind from God—the ruach—swept over the face of the waters.”
God’s breath is a creative force, one that turns the formless void into ocean and sky and trees and life. God’s Spirit is a force that transforms, leading a people out of exile and bringing them back home—but not the same as they were before.
So today marks, for this community, a return from exile. We return from our own Babylon, which is Zoom, to come back to a sanctuary and a worship that is the same but different.
But let’s remember: some Israelites stayed in Babylon because they thrived there. Or because their bodies wouldn’t let them come back. So they built their life differently, too. The breath of God moved through them, kept them connected to their faith and their people even from a distance—even on Zoom. Sometimes the decision to stay is just as transformative.
For the past few months, we’ve been hearing that there’s “a light at the end of the tunnel”, and now it seems for many of us that the light is pretty bright now. For some of us, that means we can again walk in a world that has seemed pretty dark, and it feels good to be able to see again.
The darkness was pretty terrible for some of us. Isolation is literally the worst thing for certain people. This week, I listened to a story on This American Life about a grandmother struggling with dementia. When her living facility locked down and she couldn’t have visitors, her health deteriorated shockingly fast. She died six months into lockdown.
I know I saw similar decline and desperation in our community among people with depression and other emotional struggles. Not to mention the more practical harm the pandemic did. Isolation meant a lot of people could no longer work or go to school. People fell behind on rent. Children fell behind in their education.
But for others of us, we got used to the dark. Or maybe we even liked it from the start. Maybe we’d been longing for it all along. We realized that the darkness is actually a lot easier on our eyes than the glaring pre-pandemic light.
Working from home meant that life got a lot easier for a lot of disabled people. No more struggling to get to their job in a world not built for them. No more navigating a workplace that didn’t understand their different needs. Minimizing social interaction was helpful for a lot of neurodivergent people—people with autism or social anxiety.
For these folks, this shift back to “normal” is like a light switch was turned on in the dead of night, and the light hurts.
Some people want to tear off their masks and burn them. Others never want to step inside a public place without one again. Some people want to hug every person they see. Others have finally felt free of the social obligation to touch or be touched.
All of these experiences are valid. Pain is not one size fits all. Harm is not one size fits all. Transformation is not one size fits all.
The valley of dry bones was filled with a people who were quite literally deconstructed. Every part of them was stripped away, even the marrow deep inside their bones had dissolved. There was no life left in them. But then, “suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them.”
Their bodies returned intact, but they still had no breath, no ruach—until the prophet cried, “Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”
Then they were brought back, but they were not the same. Because our pain, our suffering is meaningless without transformation. Ezekiel wasn’t just talking about coming back to life, he talked constantly of Israel changing, transforming, doing things differently when they were given new breath.
If we’re just hoping to get back to normal, if we are not transformed, then we are letting the Spirit pass us by. Because the Spirit doesn’t just bring us back to life, it calls us to new life. God’s breath is a creative force.
That is the great call and great gift of this moment. To come out of exile not to return to business as usual, but to return with a new understanding of what it means to be in community, what it means to authentically love one another.
And that love is not one size fits all. It’s a meet-people-where-they’re-at kind of love. It’s a meet-ourselves-where-we’re-at kind of love. The Spirit calls us to love people the way they say they need to be loved, not the way you or I think they need to be loved. God’s breath calls us to listen to the needs of our own hearts and bodies and to tend to those with intention and gentleness.
Now is the time to pause and acknowledge the pain of the last 14 months. It is time to let the Spirit wash over us and transform that pain into deep, authentic love.