A guest post from Rev. Tom Snyder, Pastor Emeritus and Visitation Pastor, First and Christ United Methodist Churches, Ashland, Ohio.
Last week, Pastor Laura White from Christ UMC invited me to be the liturgist for last Sunday’s service. My part was an opening prayer and reading this prophecy from Ezekiel. Kitty videoed me – it took two tries – and Laura planned to work the video into the flow of the online service. Long story short: it didn’t work. Gosh, I even took a shower, shaved, and put on a tie and sweater for it! Well, I was so pumped by reading one of my favorite Hebrew scripture narratives that I did not want that energy to go to waste: thus this week’s meditation.
When I was in seminary, my revered Old Testament professor, Dr. Harrell Beck, preached a chapel sermon on this text to a group of mostly future Methodist ministers. His memorable opening sentence was: “When Ezekiel was appointed to First Church Death Valley….” I have remembered that for over fifty years. I am sure across the years a number of pastors have felt like they served the same appointment! That is indeed where God’s prophet Ezekiel found himself: in a valley of death littered with naked, parched, dry bones. The prophet did not just wander in there: he was brought there by the hand and the spirit of the Lord, who gave him a tour and posed a crucial question.
“Mortal, can these bones live?” (As I approach age 76, believe me, this is more than a rhetorical question!) Cautious Ezekiel answers: “O Lord God, you know.” The Lord goes on to trust the prophet with addressing the lifeless bones with the promise of regeneration, renewal, strength, hope and a renewed sense of the very reality of God. Hearing the prophecy, the dead bones rattle, connect, become muscled, and enfleshed. They look whole, but there is no life in them, so Ezekiel is commanded to pray breath enter them, the breath that breathed creation, the wind of the spirit, the sacred spirit that this moment invigorates you and me. The bones rise and stand, and what was expressed as hope and promise becomes reality.
In Ezekiel’s prophecy, the bones are the house of Israel who, as the Lord’s spokesperson, he addresses. However, across the ages oppressed, besieged, weary people of God have identified with the lifeless bones littering an arid valley floor. Slaves sitting in the balconies of their masters’ churches hearing this text would return to their hovels singing with hope, “”Dem bones, dem bones gonna rise again!” Imprisoned German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, could write from a Nazi prison where he would later be hanged: “…through every event, however untoward, there is always a way through to God.” Dry bones infused with hope are invigorated with spirit, and live.
We are living in a time of deep crisis. That word comes from the Greek krisis, which means a split, break, division, a disruption. Our lives have been disrupted by a pandemic which has challenged our families, routines, employment, health care system, religious institutions, educational systems, our culture, economy and national identity. Can these bones live? Theologian and author, Frederick Buechner, wrote that frequently before scripture is good news, it is bad news. Ezekiel, once the prophetic denouncer, now becomes the agent of hope. Through him the Lord promises new life, a renewed spirit, and a reassurance that the God who promises is the God who will act. While we do the necessary, difficult, inconvenient, practical, loving, common sense, critical things we are called to do in the face of Covid-19, my prayer is that we join Ezekiel and be agents of hope, empowered by
the life-giving promises of God.
Faithfully, in love, Pastor Tom+
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)