March 26: Dry Bones
We continue to gather resources for this quarantine ministry are are now engaged in. Many of our churches have settled into new patterns and rhythms of meeting and worship, mostly via Facebook live streaming and Zoom. I am turning my attention to the financial crisis that will follow this public health crisis, identifying resources for churches that are hit by unemployment, economic dislocation, and a drop in offerings. We are being supported in this by the national denominational leadership — Jeff Woods, the General Secretary, has convened meetings of regional and national leaders for sharing ideas and resources. I hope to have more to say about this next week, as the implications for the local church of the economic stimulus plan making its way through Congress become clearer. For now, we are listing several more options to support churches and ministers on our COVID-19 Response page.
I want to write today a bit more theologically, and perhaps prophetically as well. If you follow the Common Lectionary, then you know that this week’s readings have been hard and greatly to the point of our current situation. Indeed, they have been a little too much on the nose for my taste. The Psalm for the week, number 130, counsels those who are “waiting on the Lord” in times of trouble. The Gospel lesson is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead — how familiar it feels, this story of help that seems to come too late, this story of a fetid and pestilent cave from which we are waiting life to emerge. In my lectionary reading for the week, I have felt the power of this week’s scriptures to mirror the life we are living.
The scripture I want to focus on is the Old Testament reading, Ezekiel 37:1-14, the story of the prophet in the valley of dry bones. We know the story. Ezekiel finds himself in a valley surrounded by dried bones, the remnants of Israel defeated, and he hears the voice of the Holy One of Israel: “Mortal, can these bones live?” He gives the only answer any of us ever can: “Oh Sovereign God, you know.” The Holy Ones tells him to prophesy to the bones, and he does. They clink and rattle and come together, joining with their mates, reassembling. And then the Holy One agains commands Ezekiel to prophesy, this time to the breath. He does, and hears the wind, the ruach - pneuma - Breath of God fill the lungs of the multitude, bringing them back to life.
There are, of course, many meanings we can take from this. It is above all a lesson of Hope, that the Sovereign One reigns, that life is more powerful even than death. The story reminds us (as the epistle reading from Romans does) that human existence is both flesh and spirit, bone and breath. Our bodies, subject to injury and illness, do not determine the final meaning of our spiritual existence. And it is a story of solidarity — God restores life not to the person but to the people. Likewise, God shall restore health to us, as well. But only if we do our part. Like Ezekiel, we too must prophesy.
The lesson I want to take from this story is in what happens before the miraculous reanimation. What happens is this: Ezekiel gets an amazing lesson in anatomy. Ezekiel gets an opportunity, during the time of defeat, to reflect on the structures of his people — the literal bones of his society. He sees how things are put together, and in reassembling them, has a chance to help them come together correctly.
Like Ezekiel, this coronavirus epidemic is giving us an amazing opportunity to learn something about the anatomy of our society. Is it “too soon” to speak prophetically? It is not clear yet what all will be needed — but for now, we have this opportunity to learn, one we should not miss. We need to pay attention to this, so that, as we participate in the reassembly of our people, as we prophesy to the bones and to the breath, we are informed by the lessons we have learned.
We should have learned a few things already. We should have learned that our national systems of public health were unprepared. As Washington scrambles to create an ad-hoc safety net in the face of this crisis, we are learning that our national systems of public support are also inadequate. We are learning again the lesson we should have learned after Hurricane Maria, and the lesson we should have learned after Hurricane Katrina — that disaster preparedness is itself an issue of prophetic justice. What is to the wealthy and the in-group a single disaster is to the poor and the marginalized the beginning of a string of woes, and so they among us are the ones who most depend on our common society being prepared. A just society would have been better prepared for this disaster than we were. That is a lesson it will be crucial for us to learn.
As we work alongside the Holy One to reassemble and reanimate our people, as surely God will do, we need to be on the lookout for the lessons we are learning along the way. The bones of our economy and the bones of our health system have been laid bare for us to see. What will we learn in examining them?
Rev. David Gregg