As the Francis Ford Coppola film Garden of Stone opens, the helicopter camera pans across row on row of white grave markers gleaming in the sunlight on the rolling terrain of Arlington National Cemetery. As the camera begins to move in, faint music catches the ear. A military band is playing “America the Beautiful.” The camera slowly pushes in closer on a solemn scene. We see a flag-draped coffin being carried from the cemetery chapel by six men outfitted in crisp, tailored service uniforms. The burial detail moves with precision to the hushed commands of the trailing officer. White gloved hands lift the coffin onto a horse drawn wagon. The procession begins to move toward a gravesite among the sea of white markers. At the grave the small group of mourning family and friends gather. The chaplain speaks familiar words. The flag is taken and smartly folded into a precise triangle by two soldiers, then presented to the young widow with tear stained cheeks. Her sadness becomes our sadness.
Situated just across the Potomac River on 624 acres that overlook the halls of the United States government, Arlington National Cemetery is the resting place for more than 300,000 men and women who served their nation in wars dating back to the Civil War up to today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is peaceful in its way. Also sobering. A reminder of the human cost of war.
Cemeteries evoke deep emotions about life and death. In the story we just read from Ezekiel, God takes the prophet to a cemetery of sorts: “the middle of a valley, full of dry bones.” Now I will tell you that to dwell on the literal in this passage would be to dance on the head of a pin and miss the point. The “valley of dry bones” is not actual skeletal remains that look like a bleached-out steer skull in a Georgia O’Keefe painting. The valley of dry bones is more a vision, a grand metaphor, a symbol of the desolation the holy city of Jerusalem. In the year 587 BC, the Babylonians crushed ancient Israel and laid waste to their capital city and holy temple. What Ezekiel is describing is an unsettling dream – and as in many dreams, unnatural things occur.
At the time Ezekiel wrote down this vision, he was preaching God’s world to a people who felt as though their lives were like those dried out bones as they languished and wasted away in exile in a foreign land. They lamented all that was lost…their homes, the sacred Temple ruined, a way life that had once been so much sweeter. They not only lamented their past; they lamented their bleak future as well. Their hope for a better tomorrow had perished and the present weighed heavily on their spirits.
In the dream God takes Ezekiel by the hand and shows him a scene that causes the hearts of the defeated people of Israel to ache…life reduced to dust and desiccation. God asks him a question that is almost absurd. “Zeke, can these bones live?” It is a ridiculous question. The answer is obvious, isn’t it? Of course the bones can’t live! They are simply what they are: sad remains, long past the life stage of flesh and sinew, nerve and muscle, blood and cell. If I were to put myself in Ezekiel’s place in this dream, I believe I would have likely thought to myself, “What’s the point?” So if God asked me the question, “Can these bones live?” I would have been tempted to answer with an emphatic NO.
But Ezekiel was not so inclined. Instead he answered, “O Lord God you know.” Of course, it’s not clear what he means by that answer. He might be saying, “God surely you know. How could I know?” Or he might be saying something like, “O Lord God this is a real puzzler. It sure doesn’t seem to be within the realm of possibility.” Which is a better answer because it doesn’t presume the way it is now is the way it is necessarily going to be.
Can these bones live? It is a provocative question. Eli Weisel, in an essay on this dramatic passage calls it “one of the pinnacles of prophetic literature, perhaps unequalled in its strange mixture of poetic realism and mystical inspiration…All the events, all the prophetic visions in the Book [of Ezekiel],” he says, “can be inserted in their proper calendar…with one notable exception: the vision of the dry bones. And we understand why: that vision, that hope is not linked to either space or time. That vision, that consolation, is offered to every generation,” Weisel says, “for every generation needs it – and ours more than any before us.”
Our generation certainly needs a vision of hope on this Memorial Day weekend 2009. The nation is experiencing a valley of dry bones as the unsettling news of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan shakes our hope in a resolution that will enable our troops to return home from the dangers they face daily…to come back to life with friends and family that we enjoy while they serve. As well, you could also say that the current economic downturn is like a valley of dry bones. Questions not unlike “Can these bones live? are being asked about the shrinking job market facing many people…from the assembly line workers in shuttered auto factories, to college youth graduating with degrees that do not assure them of a job in their chosen field.
The metaphor of the valley of dry bones is about real life. One commentator put it this way: “who among us has not stood at some time or other by the grave of their hopes? Who has not faced a situation in which any possibility of recovery seemed to be ruled out in advance?” It happens! It happens to us now, and it has been happening for centuries – from the beginning of God’s people of Israel right up to this very moment. Ezekiel brings to us who have and are passing through a valley of dry bones a message of hope.
God tells Ezekiel, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon those slain that they may live.” And Ezekiel reports “I breathed as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” Can words and the breath of God’s spirit bring life out of the dry bones of despair?
Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, Beloved, is a story about the harsh world of slavery in an era thankfully gone by. Baby Suggs is a former slave and an “unchurched preacher, one who visited pulpits and opened her great heart to those who could use it.” In one scene in the middle of the book, Morrison captures the way words of hope and love can restore flesh to dry bones… “When warm weather came, Baby Suggs, holy, followed by every black man, woman and child who could make it through, took her great heart to the Clearing – a wide open place cut deep in the woods, nobody knew for what, at the end of a path known only the deer and whoever cleared the land in the first place. In the heat of every Saturday afternoon, she sat in the clearing while the people waited among the trees. After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched her from the trees. They knew she was ready when she put down her stick. Then she shouted, ‘Let the children come!’ and they ran from the trees toward her.
“‘Let your mothers hear you laugh,’ she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling. Then ‘let the grown men come,’ she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the trees. ‘Let your wives and your children see you dance,’ she told them, and groundlife shuddered under their feet. Finally she called the women to her. ‘Cry,’ she told them. ‘For the living and the dead. Just cry.” And without covering their eyes the women let loose. “It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great heart.
“She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure. She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.” (p. 87-88)
Hope is in its own way is elusive in this way…If we cannot see it, we cannot have it. With faith in God, who is always working for our good, even when we cannot see it, with faith we can imagine the possibility of dry bones coming to life. As a matter of fact, I believe that is what we try to do here each and every week we gather for worship. Beneath our pleasant appearances, weeping, crying, dancing we come. Like Ezekiel in the valley of the dry bones and Baby Suggs in the Clearing, together we sing, speak words of hope and love that we might grab hold of a hope that tells us: These bones can live!
Ezekiel gave witness to the power of hope that makes possible the improbable. He heard the voices of naysayers who insisted “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.” But he preached the power of God to give back life. “Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, O my people; and bring you up from your graves, O my people…and you shall know that I am the Lord…”
There’s an old story about the elderly pillar of the church who had just been part of a discussion about all the things that were going wrong. “Well, if it’s as bad as all that, then, heaven help us,” she responded. Which is exactly the point of this passage from Ezekiel. Heaven will help us.
Last Sunday along with friends and neighbors, Sue and I stood on the street outside the church to watch the Kenilworth Memorial Day parade go by. There were fire trucks, boy scouts, girl scouts, Indian guides, village officials, retired military men, and Father Bob Myers and Dr. Andrew Chaney. The occasion brought together the community of the living in remembrance of those who died in giving their all to defend and protect what we deeply value. At the ceremony, names and addresses of those who died from Kenilworth were read as commemorative flags were placed in the ground by Boy and Girl scouts. And as in the movie Garden of Stone, taps was played at the close.
You know the tune of Taps, but do you know the words? To the 24 bugle tones of Taps, these words invite us to remember that our God is the God of the living and the dead. They read…
Day is done, gone from the sun.
From the hills, from the lake,
from the skies.
All is well, safely rest.
God is nigh.
Fades the light;
goeth the day, and the stars
Fare thee well; day is done;
night is on.
Thanks and praise,
for our days,
‘neath the sun,
‘neath the stars,
‘neath the sky.
As we go, this we know,
God is nigh.
We don’t hold in our hands the power of life and death. God alone holds such power. What God does put in our hands is hope – hope that in us and through us, to lift us up from a valley of dry bones. Blessed Be. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.