mortal, these bones are alive
Greetings, friends. It has been some time since I’ve sent a dispatch from this newsletter, and I’m grateful to be saying hello. My summer was functionally the shepherding of two summer camps bookended by two cases of Covid (one awful, one very mild). Mercifully, the camps were successful and I am feeling 100% after recovering. Merciful, too, that I was able to finally get to Scotland for just over two glorious weeks in August. My husband and I have had a bank account called “Jacobite Gold” with funds for a trip since 2019. You can imagine what happened to our plans in 2020 and 2021.
The Scotland trip is worth a post itself, but primarily today I wanted to share the text of a sermon I preached this morning at the baptism of the child of two dear friends. I am currently on an Amtrak train somewhere between NYC and Philadelphia, and I’ve been turning these words in my heart as the various New Jersey shore towns speed by. When I preach, there is usually portions during which I go off-script, but I think the text will give you the spirit of the offering. There is a video somewhere — I’m sure full of my unbridled enthusiasms. You could probably find it if you’d like. But here is this for now.
I have been praying earnestly with the the entire book of the prophet Ezekiel this past month, and I preached on Ezekiel 37: 1-14. The sermon is below the scripture. I have more to say about this, I think, so I will see if additional writing emerges from what has been enlivening my heart. My apologies in advance for the errant em-dashes. It is how I write these things.
37 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. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath[a] to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you and will cause flesh to come upon you and cover you with skin and put breath[b] in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded, and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them, but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath:[c] Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath,[d] and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people, and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord when I open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I have to believe that when Fr. Keith and Fr. Kevin were making plans for the baptism of their son, their hearts were immediately inspired to turn to this day - October 1st. Because, of course, it is the Feast day of St. Therese of Lisieux. For two servants of God in sacerdotal ministry, how could they not be compelled by the young French saint who longed to live her life alongside God’s altar? Saint Therese was so captivated by the Mass that she wrote, “I longed for the everlasting repose of heaven, that never-ending Sunday of the Fatherland!” Therese is writing here not only about her desire to worship and pray in this life, but also of death itself – that final threshold of heaven – over which the faithful will step at the conclusion of these mortal years into the eternal Sunday – the eternal life of worship and praise of Almighty God whose heart itself is Life.
Saint Therese, as a young Carmelite, was well-studied in the theological and spiritual apprehensions of death. But she also knew it physically. She sensed it within her own body as tuberculosis consumed more and more of her breath. She felt it in the blood that ran hot through her fevers. She would die at the age of twenty-four, but not before writing - with the passion of a child and wisdom beyond her years - “O my soul, this world is thy ship, and not thy home.”
Therese had received a great blessing. She could see something that is very difficult for most of us to see. She could see that no matter how dark it seemed in the valley of the shadow of death, it was, in truth, a level place: The words of the prophet Isaiah were true - are true even now: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;...And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Today, in the Old Testament, the prophet Ezekiel speaks to us from the shadow side of this valley. From where he stands, it is not yet a level place, but a chasm — a wasteland of humiliation. In this 37th chapter, in the midst of all of the thoroughly weird details of this text, we can forget that the prophet Ezekiel is preaching to the dead. This is not death in the abstract here. These bones in the valley around him are the long lifeless bones of the Israelites – these are his own people. Jerusalem has been destroyed, Israel has been sent into exile, and this valley of bones is not so much a stroll through the family graveyard as it is a cosmic encounter with what looks like the death of God. What could Israel do now that the Temple - the dwelling place of God himself - had been destroyed? What could Israel do now that their family ties had been broken and their children stolen from the cradles of their bedrooms and their faith? What could the people of God do now that the feet that danced and the arms that once lifted in praise were little more than rubble and ash?
“Mortal, can these bones live?”
This is the question that is at the heart of all of scripture. “Mortal, can these bones live?” From beginning to end, the story of our creation and preservation has been a story of human captivity by the forces of sin and death. We know this valley. Good Lord, do we know it. Every day we take Ezekiel’s hand and tiptoe through the mess of the ways we continue to try to hide ourselves from God. We have touched the edges of death - sometimes we’ve stood looking down upon it, mere inches from the edge of a cliff. Sometimes it is we ourselves who are valleys of decay, our spirits haunted by fear and desolation, by the darkness we feel sometimes when the world around us is mean and loud – and our own minds are meaner and louder still. We hold Robbie so close to us today, dreading the hour when someone will have to tell him about the bones.
But we also get to tell him about the blessing. “O dry bones, hear the Word of the Lord.” This is something that is very difficult for most of us to see. Something is coming: breath and flesh and life. Thus says the Lord God; “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people…. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” Ezekiel kindly offers us a foretaste of something greater yet to come. In the valley, the bones assemble, the sinews and blood are revived, breath restores the bodies of Israel. And yet God points ahead of them. For as marvelous as it is to see these graves opened and empty, he is pointing further – more marvelous still – to the very last grave that will be emptied. If the question at the heart of all of scripture is - can these bones live?- the answer at the heart of all of scripture is Jesus Christ.
This is not in the Bible, but I like to imagine that that very first breath of the lifeless bones in Ezekiel’s valley was the very same breath of Jesus upon the moment of his Resurrection. I imagine him there, lying upon the stone, a burst of sudden consciousness in a body that died and yet now feels like new. One first breath - not his alone, not just the animation of one set of lungs, but the swell of salvific air to be breathed forever into the bodies of the whole world he has redeemed. “Can these bones live?” “Mortal, these bones are ALIVE.” Jesus Christ - in his incarnation, his life, his death, and his Resurrection - is God’s resounding “yes” to this question. It is his “yes” of finality. His “yes” of power. His “yes” of salvation. His “yes” of blood and breath and bone.
This is our inheritance in baptism. This Sacrament is our incorporation into the resounding “yes” of Almighty God through the Resurrection of his Son. We gather to celebrate with Robbie and his family today because what we do here together is Robbie’s welcome across that threshold of sin and death into the fullness of eternal life, and I couldn’t possibly think of a better reason to throw a party. Robbie, “This world is thy ship, and not thy home.”
The Sacrament of baptism is, at its heart, a descent into the grave and an emergence into the light of eternal life. Our sinful hearts are made clean. Our death is destroyed by the death of our savior. This is fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy up close. What once was dead is now vibrantly alive, and oh what life this is.
It is vital for us to remember - all of us - that there is no promise of a half-life in the kingdom of God. There is only Life. There is no salvation by halves. There is only Salvation. In Ezekiel’s valley, we do not just have an errant foot bone sticking out of a hip – these bones are rising up in their creator’s image again, restored to wholeness and to their vital power.
And so if there is no salvation by halves, there is no proclamation by halves. This is the song that we are to sing with our bodies – with every drop of blood, every bone, and every breath that is in us. Our baptisms are not just a nice day with nice clothes where we see a nice baby and then step back out into the valley. Our baptism is not an event or even a moment, but instead a condition of being. This is our full, whole, enduring proclamation that Jesus Christ has risen from the grave and conquered the terrors sin and death forever – for all who would dare to look up from the dust and lift their eyes to behold his face.
“And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live..and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.’”
Robbie, we receive you into the household of God. Your grave has been opened. Come up from the waters…and live.
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