A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.

April 6, 2014

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Ezekiel 37:1-6

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he 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 answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “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” (NRSV).

Recently I shared with you a story from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Speaking of Sin, where she wrote about visiting an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the basement of a Presbyterian church.  She wrote about the young man who shared his story of addiction and self-destruction, and how, more than once, she wanted to jump up and clap her hands over his mother’s ears.  “What am I afraid of?” she asks.  “That someone will be revealed for who he or she is.  That I will be revealed for who I am, and that it will not be a pretty sight.”[i]  And yet, she says, the people in AA believe that their lives depend on doing exactly that: telling the truth about who they are and how they’ve failed.  They don’t try to defend themselves.  They don’t try to blame others.  They just put it all out there—the ugly, unvarnished truth—believing that this is how change begins but believing, also, that new life is possible. 

And that’s what I want to talk about today.

Our Old Testament lesson is from Ezekiel 37, that incredible story about the valley of dry bones, and the question God puts to the prophet is the same question you might ask at an AA meeting, looking around on the faces of people who have tried and failed so many times they don’t know if they have the strength to try again.  “Son of man,” God asks, “Can these bones live?”  (Heavy sigh) “You tell me, Lord.  I don’t know.”  And then God does tell him, he tells him to preach to the bones and say, “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.”  Whether Ezekiel believes it or not, God believes that new life is possible.  He commands the prophet to preach to the bones.  And to his credit Ezekiel does, and when he does, a miracle occurs. 

Those dry bones live.

Earlier in her book Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of the Church of the Savior in Washington, DC, a community dedicated to change in the name of Jesus Christ.  Founded more than fifty years ago by Gordon Cosby, “the church’s efforts are focused on the Adams Morgan neighborhood, where low income Ethiopian, Latino, and Anglo families have all settled in uneasy proximity to each other.  Unlike traditional churches, the Church of the Savior is a collection of independent faith communities, all dedicated to restoring wholeness to people with broken lives.  Christ House is a medical recovery residence for homeless people.  Kairos House is a permanent home for thirty-seven chronically ill homeless men.  The Family Place offers prenatal and pediatric care as well as a whole range of services for families.  Good Shepherd Ministries provides educational and recreational programs for more than a hundred children and adolescents.  Samaritan Inns helps addicted men and women rebuild their lives.  Jubilee Housing rents 284 apartments in eight buildings to low income families at less than 40 percent of the market.  Jubilee Jobs is an employment agency for the poor, and Sarah’s Circle is a residential community for the elderly.”[ii]

You might say the Church of the Savior is working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to that little corner of Washington, DC, and you might say it is succeeding.  Elizabeth O’Connor—a pillar of that church until her death—used to say that when she walked the streets of Adams Morgan she often caught a glimpse of the New Jerusalem, coming down out of the skies.  In a church brochure she wrote:

On these streets are spoken the tongues of many lands and still we understand what people are saying.  Here some of the refugees of the world have found a safe place to lay their heads, cradle their babies, and sell their wares from folding tables and tiny stores. Here the demented can still wander in and out of our shops.  Here some places have been made for the young and the old.  Here the broken are received and the sick healed.  Here the Gospel is being preached and here, faulted as we are, with our own griefs heavily upon us, we are bold to say that God calls us his people and we know that his name is God-with-them.[iii]

But at some point Gordon Cosby must have looked at that run-down, broken-down, deeply divided neighborhood and heard God say, “Son of man, can these bones live?”  (Heavy sigh) “I don’t know, Lord.  You’re the one who knows.”  And God said, “Preach to the bones, Son of Man.  Tell them, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!” And by the power of God, and through the work of that church, the dry bones of that neighborhood have stood up.  They have experienced new life.

In our Gospel lesson for today Martha stands there, weeping, telling Jesus that if he had only been there her brother would not have died.  Lazarus is in the tomb.  He’s been there four days.  He is as dead as dead can be.  But Jesus believes that new life is possible.  He tells Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”  She says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.  That’s what these Pharisees have been telling me all morning.”  But Jesus says, “No.  I’m not talking about the last day.  I’m talking about this day, Martha.  I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even if they die, will live, and those who live and believe in me will never die.  Do you believe this?  Do you believe in the possibility of new life?”  And then Martha said, “Yes, Lord.  I believe.”  And within minutes her brother was coming out of the tomb, and she was unwinding his grave clothes and weeping for joy.

Barbara Brown Taylor says that the possibility of new life, and the promise that it is attainable, are both contained in the word salvation.  “The root word is salus,” she says, “or health, which points back toward the [idea that our main problem is sickness, and that what we need is a cure], except that this health plan is truly comprehensive.  Physical health cannot be separated from mental and spiritual health, nor individual health from the health of the whole—the whole community, the whole race, the whole earth.  In Hebrew scripture, salvation comes as the gift of shalom from Yahweh, who intends to heal the whole creation.  In Christianity, salvation comes in the person of Jesus Christ, who intends the same thing.”[iv]

Salvation is a big word.  It’s about life, and health, and wholeness not only for the individual, but for the whole world.  And yet when we talk about salvation in the church we often talk about being saved from our sins, or being saved from Hell.  And when the street corner evangelist asks, “Are you saved?” we know he means, “Are you sure that you are going to Heaven when you die?”  But that’s not what the word usually means in the Bible.  In fact the concept of life after death didn’t develop until the Old Testament was almost finished.  The first unambiguous reference to an afterlife is in the Book of Daniel, the last of the Old Testament books to be written (ca. 165 BC).  And in the New Testament, when Jesus says to blind Bartimaeus, “Your faith has saved you,” he doesn’t mean that Bartimaeus has been saved from hell; he simply means that he has been restored to wholeness: he can see again.

Think about the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, for instance.  If you had told them they could be saved from their sins they might be grateful, but they might also say that what they really needed to be saved from was their slavery.  That’s what they were crying out for day after day.  But when God heard their cries, and brought them out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and led them through the Red Sea on dry ground, and washed up the bodies of their enemies on the other shore, they sang a song of celebration, and this is what they said:

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
 horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my might,
and he has become my salvation (Exodus 15:2-3).
Think about those exiles in Babylon, and how Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of dry bones was, for them, a promise of salvation.  A promise that God wasn’t going to leave them to rot in exile, but rather restore their life and bring them home.  And think about how salvation came to Mary and Martha’s home on the day Jesus raised their brother Lazarus from the dead.  He didn’t raise him up to eternal life in heaven, but to the wonderful, ordinary, everyday life he was living before.  In other words salvation is more than being saved from our sins, and more than being saved from hell. 

Barbara Brown Taylor says that based on her reading of Scripture it seems “entirely possible that Jesus might define salvation as recovery from illness or addiction, as forgiveness of debt, as peace between old enemies, as shared food in time of famine, or as justice for the poor.  These are all outbreaks of health in a sin-sick world.”[v]  Marcus Borg affirms that in its broadest sense the word salvation is about wholeness and healing.  “It is: light in our darkness,” he says; “sight to the blind; enlightenment; liberation for captives; return from exile; the healing of our infirmities; food and drink; resurrection from the land of the dead; being born again; knowing God; becoming ‘in Christ’; being made right with God (that is, ‘justified’).[vi]  While our usual understanding of salvation is included in this list, it isn’t the only thing on this list.  There is more than one way to be saved and more than one thing we need to be saved from.

  • I think about the man who stays in his office, long after quitting time, wishing that he didn’t have to go home.  His marriage has become toxic, and the air of his home impossible to breathe.  He looks at the picture on his desk, the one that was taken on his wedding day, and wonders: “Can these bones live?”
  • I think about the single mother, sitting at her kitchen table, surrounded by stacks of bills.  She looks at her bank balance, and how little there is to work with.  She thinks of her children, and all she dreams for their lives.  She shakes her head and wonders: “Can these bones live?”
  • I think of the pastor who looks out over a sanctuary that is nearly empty, with only a few elderly people sitting out there, looking up at him hopefully, wondering if he has a word from the Lord.  He takes a deep breath and says it like a prayer: “Can these bones live?”
  • I think of the woman who steps out the front door of her East End home, who settles on the front steps with her coffee, who looks out over her neighborhood and notices how dirty and run-down it is, how different from those neighborhoods in the West End.  “Can these bones live?” she asks.

Salvation begins, apparently, by telling the truth about the way things are, but also by believing that they can be different, that new life is possible, and being willing to do the work it will take to get you there, but it continues by believing that you do not work alone.  “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” Jesus says.  “Not you.  Me.  But the one who believes in me—who puts his faith and trust in me, who loves me and leans on me in times of trouble, that one—even if he die, will live.  Even if everything he is trying to hold together falls apart, even if everything he has tried to build comes tumbling down, even if the breath should leave his body and his body turn to dust, I am the Resurrection and the Life,” says the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin: the Lost Language of Salvation (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 2000), p. 57.

[ii] Ibid., p. 55.

[iii] Quoted by Taylor on page 55 of Speaking of Sin.

[iv] Taylor, Speaking of Sin, p. 58.

[v] Ibid., p. 58.

[vi] Borg, Heart of Christianity, p. 175.

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