Posted by: owizblog | April 6, 2014

Dessication, Disconnection, Death and Hope: Sermon UCB 6 April 2014

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

1

This story of the dry bones. It spooks us, repels us, puzzles and fascinates us. It repels us because it’s about death. It compels us because it’s about life overcoming death. Is it about resurrection? Is it about Easter?

Well, no. In the first place, it’s about a society whose past has alienated it from God. A broken society. And a strange preacher commissioned with an eerie message about the impossible possibility of hope.

Tell me you haven’t already started to hear this in your heads:

Ezekiel connected dem dry bones,

Ezekiel connected dem dry bones,

Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones,

Now hear the word of the Lord.

Toe bone connected to the foot bone

Foot bone connected to the heel bone

Heel bone connected to the ankle bone

Ankle bone connected to the shin bone…

Now hear the word of the Lord.

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.

 

And that’s the point at which it suddenly gets serious. “Now hear the word of the Lord…”

Hear the word of God, says Ezekiel to his sixth-century audience, with the Babylonian catastrophe upon them. Hear the word of God: this is how it is. This is where your drift away from a shared life grounded in God’s justice and fairness, your recognition of the place and dignity of all, has brought you.

And he takes them, where God has taken him, to an arid valley of dry bones, the truth of a people whose life is a wilderness in which they, the community of God’s people, who should be all life, connection and hope, lie desiccated, disconnected and dead.

This, says Ezekiel to Israel, is your truth.

What sense can we make of that? Can a passage from two and a half thousand years ago, that says that, say anything relevant to us? Well, perhaps the best place to start is with the question: what is it like to live in a desert of dry bones? What is it like to live in a society that’s like that?

2

In the novel  Summertime, the Nobel prizewinning South African author J M Coetzee dwells again on the themes that have preoccupied his writing; the tremendous contradictions which arise from the simple fact of living as human beings formed by a society like that of South Africa. Set in the apartheid-era seventies, this brief passage tells of a white – Afrikaans – woman’s experience of taking her elderly and unwell mother in to hospital in Cape Town from the remote rural area in which they live, a long, dusty, bumpy journey by ambulance.

The Western Cape, the magnificent, stark, sun-smitten land Margot, the central figure of this part of the novel, loves for its harsh beauty, isn’t a desert. You’d probably find animal bones strewn across it if you looked. But what’s explored in a masterly way by Coetzee is the sense in which Margot, her mother, the young coloured nurse and driver, driving through this gorgeous landscape are also stuck in another, even harsher wilderness, a desert of culture and the mind, strewn with the bones of so much humanity, compassion, respect, that has died in this strange, deeply damaged – and deeply religious – society. The smile of a young nurse brings to the edge of expression what simply can’t be said in a place like seventies South Africa.

With her husband away and uncontactable, Margot gets the call to that her mother is ill enough to have to be moved to a big hospital.

“Within an hour, she, Margot, has shut up her office and is on the way to Cape Town, sitting in the cramped back of the ambulance, holding her mother’s hand.

“With them is a young Coloured nurse, named Aletta, whose crisp, starched uniform and cheerful air soon set her at ease.

“Your mother will be fine’ says Aletta. ‘Groote Schuur – only the best.’

“At Clanwilliam they stop for petrol. The ambulance driver, who is even younger than Aletta, has brought along a thermos flask of coffee. He offers her, Margot, a cup, but she declines. ‘I’m cutting down on coffee,’ she says (a lie), ‘it keeps me awake.’ She would have liked to buy the two of them a cup of coffee at the cafe, would have liked to sit down with them in a normal, friendly way, but of course one could not do that without causing a fuss. Let the time come soon, O Lord, she prays to herself, when all this apartheid nonsense will be buried and forgotten.

“They resume their places in the ambulance. Her mother is sleeping. Her colour is better, she is breathing evenly beneath the oxygen mask. ‘I must tell you how much I appreciate what you and Johannes are doing for us’ she says to Aletta. Aletta smiles back in the friendliest of ways, with not the faintest trace of irony.

“She hopes for her words to be understood in their widest sense, with all the meaning that for very shame she cannot express: I must tell you how grateful I am for what you and your colleague are doing for an old white woman and her daughter, two strangers, who have never done anything for you, but on the contrary have participated in your humiliation in the land of your birth, day after day after day.

“I am grateful for the lesson you teach me through your actions, in which I see only human kindness, and above all through that lovely smile of yours.”

Things are profoundly not as they should be.

Isn’t that what Ezekiel is holding up to his people, his generation, making them look at it? He sees a people – a society – which is dead. Nothing is related to anything else. Everything is disjointed bones.

And he makes them look. This is your shared life. Dried bones. Meaningless permanence without hope, structure without life, rigidity without connection, the very symbol and substance of a past without a future.

How can life come to an arid, dead landscape like this?

“Speak to them!” says God to Ezekiel. “Tell them! Tell them the truth, and make them face it.” There is something deeply prophetic about the writing of J M Coetzee, because he is telling the truth about how South Africa was, and is.

But telling the truth about how things are only takes you so far. Beyond truth has to be hope – but you can’t get to hope, except through truth. Ezekiel preaches to the dry bones of the community of Israel. And together they come, and they stand before him, in this terrifying, hallucinatory vision, reassembled, but lifeless. So again comes the command “Prophesy!” Speak again, but this time, to the wind. Hebrew uses the same word – the word ruaḥ – for “wind” and “breath.”

And the prophet’s preaching summons the wind, and the wind breathes breath and life into what was dead, and it lives. And this is God’s work. It’s what the Spirit does. That’s why the Nicene Creed of the Spirit as the “Lord and Giver of Life.” God, the Spirit gives life. The bringing of connection out of disconnection, order out of chaos, life out of death. Resurrection. Only, here, for a community, for a people. Easter is a millennium and a half away. Yet even here, resurrection is the stamp, the signature activity, of God.

But first we must know that we are dead, and need to be revived.

4

Do we live in a valley of dry bones? Well, here’s a thought.

The truth is, and we all know it, that there are babies being born now, in our society, in circumstances which, statistically, doom them to lives which will in some measure fail; sometimes catastrophically. In our society, lives fail because they never had a chance.

One of the most persistently part-quoted passages in the English language is John Donne’s Meditation XVII. All we ever seem to hear of it is the five-word phrase “No man is an island…” Even the fuller usual quotation is a fragment of the whole – and that’s ironic, when you consider what it cautions against, the amputation of parts from the living whole. Disconnection is death, and death is disconnection and diminution.

No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thy friend’s

Or of thine own were:

Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind,

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.

 

This is the connectedness that joins life to life in any society that isn’t a rickle of dead bones in a parched, sun-scorched valley.

Is it there in our society?

Or is there desiccation, disconnection, death even in the midst of life? And if there is, how can it be nothing to do with us? Privileged, disprivileged, aren’t we all “a piece of the continent, a part of the main”? If not, what does that say about our society? Death, alienation from life, comes in many forms. Anyone’s suffering, injustice, exclusion, diminishes me, diminishes all of us, or we are not, would not be, as a society, what God would have us be. Says Ezekiel… We would be disconnected, desiccated, dead, a rickle o’ banes in a parched valley.

There was a thought-provoking story on the BBC Breakfast programme on Friday about a theatre group which works in prisons – currently Wandsworth Prison. They’re from a charity called “Cardboard Citizens,” from “Cardboard City”, a sort of township of boxes near Waterloo station in London, where many homeless people lived through most of the eighties and nineties.

They help inmates explore through drama the experiences that have been part of their lives before they came to prison – family disruption, insecurity, homelessness – and the realities of life to which they will be returning when they are released.

Inevitably, I thought of our own Pass It On Project. Pass It On is one way we are trying, as a congregation, to follow Christ out into the real world.

So I watched this item with real engagement. These are folk working with people in a desert, a wilderness. Perhaps, through Pass It On, we are, too.

5

I didn’t mention one detail about the work of the Cardboard Citizens’ drama group in Wandsworth Prison.

Do you see where it’s taking place? In the prison chapel. In a space defined by Christ, and more than that, Christ on the cross. People struggling with with truth: what they have done, what life has done to them, people wrestling with the legacy of the world they’ve left behind, the world that’s waiting for them when they get out, their fears, their problems. Isn’t it into this disconnected, desiccated valley of death that Christ comes? Comes in full humanity? Comes to know, to share, to understand, so that the Word of God, spoken in the flesh, addresses with humble but arresting authority, so that nobody can say “What does God know of my life?”

And there, behind the props and scenery, is Christ on the cross. And for Christians, that’s what defines the real world. The intersection of God’s love with the real world, the world not as it should be but as it is, the valley of dry bones, of disconnection, desiccation and death to which life must be brought, and hope, and the trust that joins us together, and joins us to God, and makes us whole, as individuals and as a world.

But that is promise. It isn’t the world we presently live in. It’s hope – the hope of the Kingdom. In this, real world, the shape and form of that promise is Christ on the Cross. And for us, in faith, there is only one way to come to this hope, this wholeness of being, and that is to follow Jesus Christ wherever he calls us, in total commitment. Because that road leads from the real world, desiccated, disjointed and dead, to the world as God will have it be, of connectedness, wholeness and life.

6

And that is a risky, costly calling. Did you hear Thomas’s assessment of it, in our Gospel reading? Lazarus, says Jesus, is dead. And I must go there, to Bethany.

You’re mad, say the disciples. They tried to kill you down there before. What makes you think they won’t try again?

But he goes anyway. And Thomas – doubting Thomas, Thomas who is such a symbol of what faith isn’t, Thomas says “We have to go with him.” In fact Thomas says “In that case, let’s go and die with him…”  Because to stay here, in safety, away from where Jesus is – to remain here is not to live.

Doubting Thomas knows this, that if he doesn’t go with Jesus Christ, where Jesus Christ goes, he will miss the point of his own life, even if following means danger, even death. He still doesn’t know that beyond death, in Christ, is life, but still we need to rethink the idea of “doubting Thomas.”

Going with Christ into the real world, doing there, in its dryness and deadness, his work of loving and including, taking up one’s cross and following, as Matthew and Mark put it, “day by day” as Luke adds, witnessing, in all this deadness, to the life he brings, is very like a prophesying to dry bones. Because prophesying points to the God who comes to us with hope, not out of the dryness of the present, or the deadness of the past, but out of the future which is God’s, and into which he calls his creation.

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