From the Ground
March 19, 2023
First Presbyterian Church of Metuchen
Written and delivered by: Rev. Ashley Bair
Title: From the Ground
Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Prayer - Loving God, we are thankful for the ways you continue to show us ourselves through these holy texts. May your Spirit breathe on us today. Let us open our hearts and intentions to hear what you want us to hear and move in the ways you want us to move. And to be not afraid, but be bold in your call for us to love in places that seem lost and find peace. Amen.
Dream with me for a moment: You are sitting on a beach. (I know, what kind of torture am I already starting from the pulpit today, stay with me) You are sitting on a beach in the sun, your sun hat is on, there’s a cold drink in your hand, a warm breeze passes by, you can hear the water rushing with the tide.
You are with a 3 and a 5-year-old and while you were resting your eyes, they covered you with sand. Now you are a sand mummy. You “Frankenstein” your hand out of the dirt and take a quick dive in the water before you head home.
The smell of the beach lingers. The water rinsed you, but the sand sticks and you find it everywhere. You find it on your clothes, feel it in between your toes, in your mouth, in your hair, other less desirable places, you take a shower to wash it off and it's still there underneath your fingernails. It lingers around. Sand, dirt, dust have a way of clinging to us. Ever planted flower or vegetable seeds into the dirt? It lingers just the same.
In this Lenten season we started by claiming the power of the dirt. The ashes that made us, we will at some point be reduced to. And we remember that dust is not the end of our story. Somehow, out of the dirt that clings to us, comes life. God has a long tradition of raising life from something that seems lifeless to us. It may have started with the sand, the dust, the dirt. But it continued, maybe because the same sand, dust, dirt that formed us and clings to us, is always waiting for its turn to make something new.
Time and time again in our holy text we read about how God restores lands, inheritances, temples, health, life, and livelihood - and in nearly every example it is for someone living on the margins of society and in nearly every example it is accomplished by someone else living on earth. Is it no different with Ezekiel.
Ezekiel lived sometime in the sixth century BCE - a time when the nation of Judah was in exile in Babylon. The kingdom of David was broken into two, so Israel was in the north and Judah was in the south. Ezekiel was a priest from Judah, who practiced Levitical law, and prophesied during a time when the king of Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar, defeated Jerusalem, Ezekiel’s town in Judah, in a bloody battle. It was a time of really great violence. As a priest and a prophet, Ezekiel was taken into exile and lived in exile with other people from Judah.
So, we encounter the book of Ezekiel as a book of his prophecies that he shared as a meditation on what was happening during that time of violence and destruction. And throughout the book of Ezekiel, he responds directly to the circumstances that he and others in exile confronted, including great violence and temple defilement. The violence was so intense that a few chapters before the portion that we read today in chapter 37, Ezekiel writes about the land and people being obliterated with nothing remaining, and he paints a picture of a world without much hope for a future. Then here in chapter 37, Ezekiel experiences a vision, where he's dropped into a valley of bones that are dry, and led all around by God, in an intimate tour of unburied corpses.
As a priest practicing Levitical law this would have been really distressing to Ezekiel and frankly, I would think distressing to anyone. I'm picturing a dry, dry Valley so dry that even the sinew on bones is dust, and you move on the ground, and you feel the sand gritty on your toes, and it's in your mouth, in your hair, and it's just dry dirt clinging to you. Also, as a priest during that time, Ezekiel would have likely never encountered or engaged with a corpse before because engaging with the dead was not something that a priest did.
In Leviticus 21 it outlines the instructions for priests, and you can go back and read that the priests had a very special responsibility to represent God before people and live that out through ritualistic purity and cleansing and keeping clean and any contact at that time with a dead body was thought to make a person unclean. And it wasn't just about touching a dead body but even being in the same room or walking over a grave or touching a tomb.
I mention this because it's wild to me that Ezekiel, a priest, had a vision in a dusty, dirt valley full of corpses. What's happening there? Ezekiel was a priest who had likely never engaged a corpse before and yet I think he was in such a state, so overwhelmed with the destruction and violence around him and living in exile that he dreamed he envisioned himself being led through a valley of corpses. And God met him there. In the middle of the dirt valley, God said, Can these bones live? Ezekiel, having seen such destruction, doesn’t know. So, God tells him to Call upon the spirit, prophesy to the spirit, that the Lord God proclaims, come from the four winds spirit breathe into these dead bodies, and let them live. And Ezekiel finds himself surrounded by dirt and bones restored to life.
Dropped into the dry valley that represents the violence and loss that Ezekiel and his kin were experiencing, God shows Ezekiel a shimmer of hope, that when all seems lost, even in the dirt, you can still find life. I have to wonder what this might mean for us now. What are the dry valleys that we are dropping into today?
What are the places that have literal or seemingly, no return? The places where restoration seems just too difficult? I don’t think it’s an overreach to say the past few years have been wild ones.
In the US alone 1,121,512 people have died from Covid.
400 people a year die trying to cross the US border.
Today is March 19 and so far over 6,000 people in the US have died from gun violence.
33.8 million Americans are hungry and living with food insecurity and in food deserts.
The World Health Organization expects that Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250 000 additional deaths per year.
When we consider war and the impacts of mental health and poverty, we are not that far from violence and destruction.
The valley is vast, the valley is wide.
As I notice that we are in a valley of sorts, I take note that as Ezekiel is in the valley, God continually calls on Ezekiel to be the one to call on the Spirit for help to bring life to a barren place. Earlier Ezekiel was prophesying about obliteration, and now God says to Ezekiel call on me and let the spirit help you bring life. I wonder what that must have been like for Ezekiel to envision this and be so overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all. I hear something in Ezekiel that resonates with me: I hear the overwhelming nature of his experience. I hear him when he says, “God, I don’t know, God, you know!” How many times in the past few years have I said or felt something deep within me like, “God, I don’t know, God, you know!”
How many times in the past few years have I had to wonder: how much longer would it be before I could hug someone I loved? How much longer will it be before there are no violent borders? How much longer will it be before everyone is fed? How much longer will it be before classrooms and grocery stores and bible studies and movie theaters and malls and parking lots are without weapons? How much longer until everyone is safe to live and safe to thrive without fear of dying on the ground?
Can these bones live?
It’s poignant to me that God led Ezekiel through all the parts of the valley, to see all the bones and things that were dried up. There wasn’t any part of the vast multitude that wasn’t beyond restoration. As the people here on earth called to minister together, what does it mean for us to be led through the valley? To see the violence, destruction, death in our own midst? To feel the dry dirt cling to us like sand, dirt, dust do? What will it take for us to ask the Spirit to help us bring life to these dry, dusty places?
I must ask myself; do I believe the bones can live? Because isn’t that what God is really asking Ezekiel in this passage - do you believe that life can happen, even here? Even in mass deaths by pandemic and disaster and gun violence and deep isolation and loneliness - do you believe that life is still there? God is asking us to be the ones to work with the Spirit to bring life to dry places. It is our job now to be the ones to bring hope to hopeless situations and pour life into dry valleys. Even in our frail state.
I can’t list every way we do that; I hope you will know what to do when you see it. But I can say that believing you can do it is just as important as the doing itself. No matter what valley we find ourselves dropped into, God says look for life, look for hope. As God told Ezekiel, “The people have said all hope is lost, but I will bring life to the people.” Truthfully, I hear the people here, when we are in the driest, barren places, having hope, believing, can be the most challenging part. Do we believe that dry bones can live? How do I believe that? Where can I find the hope that life can be found in the valleys of death?
I turn to journalist Krista Tippett who wrote helpfully of hope, “I should say that hope for me is distinct from idealism or optimism. It has nothing to do with wishful thinking. It is a muscle, a practice, a choice: to live open-eyed and wholehearted in the world as it is and not [just] as we wish it to be…. [Hope] is always messy, never linear. …. Yet I know that in life and society, wisdom emerges precisely in those moments when we have to hold seemingly opposing realities in a creative tension and interplay: power and frailty, birth and death, pain and hope, beauty and brokenness, mystery and conviction, calm and fierceness, mine and yours.”
Hope is a muscle, a practice, a choice. So, how do we practice hope and faith?
As Presbyterian prophet Fred Rogers said when you are feeling hopeless, “Look for the helpers.” Practice looking for life-givers. And if you don’t find one, the helper is you.
I look to the dry valleys, and I can see healthcare workers risking their lives to save others, I can see neighbors doing each other's grocery shopping, I can see people turning guns into garden tools, I can see people in the kitchen making soup, setting tables for strangers. If I practice looking for it, I can see it. And by recognition of the big and small ways we bring life to each other. I find my hope. I find belief that through us God will make the bones live. Merely saying words of life made all the difference in Ezekiel’s case. Maybe it could for you, too.
As we prepare ourselves, in this season, for the coming death of Jesus, we remember the ways God has risen life from the dust. From ash you came and to ash you will go again. And from that ash, mixed with bones and dirt and manure, some seed will be dropped in, and sprout and rise to life, blossom, pollinate, become a vital part of its ecosystem until its time is no more, and it returns to the ground, for the next one to find its life. Thank God, the dirt sticks to us.
Can these dry bones live? God, you know. Amen.
Speaker: Rev. Ashley Bair
March 19, 2023
Rev. Ashley Bair
Interim Associate Pastor
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