Can These Bones Live? A Climate Change Sermon
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14
As most of you know, so much of the Hebrew Bible is shaped by one nation-changing event: the exile of the Judeans to Babylon. This actually happened in two waves. The first happened after the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem, forcing the Judean king to surrender. The Babylonians only exiled the king and the ruling class. The most powerful people, essentially, but Jerusalem was mostly left intact, functioning, still its own nation, though controlled by the Babylonians.
Ezekiel was part of this first group. He was a member of the high priesthood who held power in the Temple at Jerusalem. So he was in exile in Babylon when he wrote his prophecies. But he was also still in frequent contact with those left in Jerusalem. And when he heard what was happening there, he didn’t feel good about it. The first half of the book of Ezekiel is him saying, “Y’all aren’t living right, and it’s not going to end well.”
In chapter seven, we hear:
Thus says the Lord God: Disaster after disaster! See, it comes. An end has come, the end has come. It has awakened against you; see, it comes! Your doom has come to you, O inhabitant of the land. The time has come, the day is near— of tumult, not of reveling on the mountains.
That Ezekiel was worried is a bit of an understatement. He was predicting the greatest tragedy for the people of Jerusalem: the destruction of their Temple, the beating heart of their faith and nation, the physical representation of who they were.
But no one believed him. Ezekiel called them to live in integrity with their faith or else there would be catastrophe. There would be devastation. But no one took him seriously.
Journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in her book The Sixth Extinction:
Human activity, the consumption of fossil fuels, the acidification of the oceans, pollution, deforestation, and forced migrations threaten life forms of all kinds. It is estimated that one-third of corals, freshwater molluscs, sharks, and rays, one-fourth of all mammals, one-fifth of all reptiles, and one-sixth of all birds are heading towards extinction.
Just last week, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report essentially telling us that we are at the final crossroads of climate disaster. This may be our last chance to make meaningful changes to slow the warming of our planet. And if we don’t, the devastation for all life on earth will be unimaginable. It might be gradual. We may not see its full effect in our lifetimes. But it will be catastrophic.
I wonder if, in 2,500 years, the people left on this planet will read the words of these scientists and journalists as prophecies.
As it turns out, Ezekiel was right. In 586 BCE, nine years after the first exile, the Babylonians swept into Jerusalem a second time, destroying the Temple, and exiling all but the poorest and least powerful of the city. It became a ghost town, a shadow of its former glorious self, a testament of doom for the people of Israel.
Today’s reading is from the second half of Ezekiel, after the Temple has been destroyed, after the second and larger exile. After the utter devastation of Jerusalem. And this reading is, in a word, stunning.
The hand of the Lord came upon me and brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’
I can interpret this passage for us today in two different ways.
The first is when I’m thinking about those people on this planet 2,500 years from now. I don’t know what this Earth will look like if we don’t slow the amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere. The bones of coastal cities underwater, most likely. The bones of forests now dust in the desert. The bones of all those species now gone forever. The bones of us after unprecedented heat waves and hurricanes and famine. The dry bones of a world that could have done things differently.
Maybe that’s worst worst case, I don’t know. I’m sure all of this will unfold in ways we can’t possibly imagine.
But my second, more optimistic interpretation has us in the valley of the dry bones right now. The bones of our stuck ways of being. The bones of our small imaginations.
Ezekiel called the people of Jerusalem to live more faithfully or face destruction. And now, we are being called to live faithfully. To be stewards of this creation God gave us. To care for all our neighbors, not just our own families, not just our own country, ALL our neighbors. Because while wealthy countries like the United States create the vast majority of carbon going into the atmosphere, it’s the poorest countries that are bearing the brunt of the first impacts of our changing climate.
Can these bones live?
“We are not on the right track but it’s not too late,” said the co-author of the UN report and water scientist Aditi Mukherji.
It’s not too late.
“I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.
God’s spirit is in us. Bringing our dry bones together, covering them with sinews and flesh, breathing the breath of the four winds into lifeless ways of being and barren imaginations.
Though I hope we’re each doing everything we can to reduce our own carbon emissions, I think we all know that this is bigger than our individual actions. A 2017 study showed that “just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.”
Our call to live in integrity with faith means, yes, praying and worshiping together. Yes, it means making individual choices to love our neighbor and care for God’s creation—like flying less, driving less. And sometimes that call to integrity and faith means talking to your elected officials. Locally and nationally. Voting in every election with God’s creation at the top of your priorities. It means dropping into bigger movements to shift the national consciousness. It means checking out where your money is invested and if it’s supporting companies who are pumping our air full of carbon.
Our faith is not a passive faith. We are called to live God’s love in everything we do.
These bones can live. Even after all the damage done.
Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 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.