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Overcome: The Fifth Sunday of Lent

April 14, 2011

The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
The Fifth Sunday of Lent, April 10, 2011

Ezekiel 37: 1-14     Psalm 130      John 11: 1-45

A week ago Wednesday, Noelle and I took August to visit the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It was our first trip to the museum together. We went to see the dinosaurs. August is four years old and can already give you a withering look if you confuse a Stegosaurus for a Spinosaurus.

We drove into the city, and the hour of rainy weather with the voice from the backseat proclaiming “It’s taking too long.” was all worth it when we were finally checked in. We took an elevator to the fourth floor, the fossil floor, and August went racing into the Saurischian exhibit, full of expectation. And then he stopped mid-stride, frozen, arms out in caution, eyes wide and lifted up, and said very quietly: “Whoa!”

Before him was our first dinosaur, the Apatosaurus (formerly known as Brontosaurus), stretched out from one end of the room to the other. Upon close examination, we saw on his (or her) front left tibia three long scratches about an inch wide, apparently teeth marks from the fight in which she died. Behind us, on the wall, was the head of a large Tyrannosaurus rex vividly illustrating the kind of jaws powerful enough to scratch bone.

Further in, at the end of the same hall, were several cyloephysis, creatures once thought to be carnivorous because many of their skeletons have been found in the stomachs of larger predators, but since discovered to be herbivores.

Around the corner, in the next room, was the Oviraptor, or Egg Thief, so named because the first complete skeleton was found on a nest full of what were thought to be Protoceratops eggs. This ‘unlikely story’ led early paleontologists to suppose it had died in act of stealing its last supper. But about 15 years ago, the discovery of the first nesting oviraptorids has shown that the original Oviraptor was not, in fact, a thief, but a mother brooding over her eggs.

Bones tell stories. The most amazing story we saw at the museum was in the hall of primitive mammals, written on the fossilized bones of a giant Brontotherium, or “Thunder Beast”. Standing over ten feet high and looking like a cross between a young wooly mammoth and a giant bison, this Ice Age creature has a huge bone at the front of it’s head, and the specimen in the museum, has a broken rib: the fourth rib of his right side, almost three feet long itself, had been broken right in the middle, perhaps in a fight with another animal. But this beast was not defeated; it lived to die another day. We can tell it saw many more years by the odd growth where the bone healed. August simply said “Cooooool.”

Bones tell stories ...

Bones tell stories. As an anthropology student I spoke with yesterday told me, “Pretty much everything we do in our life is written in our bones.” Historians have used human teeth and bones to learn about the general health, diet, diseases, injuries, and habits of earlier generations. The size and condition of bones give clues to lifestyles, work and living conditions at different times. We can often tell what kind of labor people performed by reading their bones.

Other bones tell other stories. The bones of the Holocaust, in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and the other camps tell a story of economic crisis, Nazi power, and the scapegoating of national problems on vulnerable populations. They tell a story of cultural prejudice, ethnic fear, and the long history of Christian anti-Semitism. They bear witness to our ancestors’ refusal to see what they did not want to see, and remind us of our own temptation to turn a blind eye to human suffering. More recently, mass graves in Darfur tell a story of civil war and violence, of colonial legacy and international neglect. They tell a story of hunger used as a political weapon. Bones in Nicaragua, Congo, and Iraq tell similar stories.

Can these bones live?

In one sense, this is just what scientists and historians try to do – give life to the dead, and in an important way that is what they do; they allow the past to speak to us. But I also think of the contemporary national experiments in truth telling and healing like the Truth Commissions in South Africa and in Peru. During the first meeting of the South African Truth Commission, under the leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, they sang the song “bones of memory,” proclaiming: “Watch my eyes, hear my voice, I tell you true: there are tales from these bones of memory.” And in Peru, the vision of Ezekiel was specifically invoked: upholding the humanity of both victims and oppressors, while telling the truth about past injustice, was likened to putting flesh and blood back on discarded bones.

But there are other and very different stories too, of the dead. What of the Japanese washed ashore after the Tsunami? Or the nuclear power plant workers found three weeks later in the basement of the turbine building at the No. 4 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant? Or the 32 United Nations workers who died in the plane crash earlier this week during terrible weather in Democratic Republic of Congo, many of them personal friends of  Alice (a church member)? Or the 12 killed in Afghanistan in vicious and wild retribution for the actions of Terry Jones, the hate-mongering, evangelical Florida pastor who held a public and widely publicized burning the Koran on March 20 and its subsequent political publicizing by President Karzi? And what of those who are dying right now in the Ivory Coast, or Libya? And what of the 16,000 children who will die today, today, from hunger-related causes?

Before these dead (and dying), we stand with Jesus, and we weep.

Can these bones live? O Lord, you know!

At the White Plains Presbyterian Church, we have been journeying through Lent looking at the ways we both consume, and are consumed by, the market culture around us. We are over-stuffed, but under-nourished; over-worked and under-paid yet unable to stop “doing”; we overlook others, and fail to see the collisions that result as opportunities to see anew and rightly.

We have heard Isaiah ask “Why do you hunger for that which does not satisfy?” and prayed with the early Christian ascetics “God make us truly alive! God, wake us into glory.” We have answered the question, “What would I do with an extra hour a day?” as a first step toward understanding God’s gift of Sabbath time, and we have come to the Lord’s table in order to focus our attention on the blessed and broken body of Christ, given for us, so that we might truly “taste and see” God’s goodness.

Under-nourished, over-stuffed, over-worked, over-looked; and this Sunday we confess that as we look at the scope of the suffering in the world, suffering which also touches us personally, we are over-come; for we realize that fundamentally, we are unable to help ourselves.

Can these bones live? These old, dry, lacking-marrow, sun-bleached bones? Can these hungry bodies, thirsty souls, grief filled and tired lives, can they live? Really live? This is where the Fifth Sunday of Lent brings us: we are like the whole house of Israel. “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, we are cut off completely.” Can we live?

O Lord, only you know.

My friends, only God has the power to wrest life out of death. Bones cannot take new flesh, the dead cannot cry out, and we cannot turn back the clock. Only God can breathe renewal into human life; send the Spirit; raise the dead.

“Confronted with the multiple problems of our society, whether of health, economics, social justice, or the environment, a conventional response is to ask ‘What do we do?’” But in our scripture passage this morning we do not (get to) ask the question. God does. The question is put to the prophet, and to us “Mortal, can these bones live?”

From our place of despair, from our places of utter hopelessness, grief and loss, how do we respond? Ezekiel’s response is, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, “prudent but exactly right:” Lord God, you know, “not because God has information but because only God has the power to make life happen.”

This does not mean that we can do nothing or that there is nothing for us to do. It rather is a confession that life comes from God. Ezekiel’s vision reminds us that we are not God.

  • We cannot satisfy ourselves;
    We cannot fill ourselves;
    We cannot accomplish all that God needs done, by ourselves;
    We cannot produce the vision-without-which-the-people-perish, by ourselves.

We are relieved of the burden of being God so that we can get on with being truly human. It is not our job to resurrect the bones. We are not God in this story. We are the bones. It is God who gives us the power to live that we might, together live for the world amidst the horror, hatred, and suffering. God humanizes us so that we see and reach out to our sisters and brothers not as magicians and miracle workers, but as ministers, as flesh on bones to flesh on bones.

When we “Hear the word of the Lord.” we make ourselves available for what God will do next, not only with us, but with others and for others.
And what happens then? The bones rattle. There’s a rattling of the bones. Can you hear them? Bone on bone, sinew and flesh.

And God breathes into them, just as God breathed life into Adam (at the Creation); as the resurrected Christ will breathe life into the fearful disciples (after Easter in the locked and hidden room); and as God’s Spirit will blow through the church (at Pentecost).

  • Breathe on me;
    Breath on us, breath of God,
    Fill us with life anew,
    That we may love, as thou dost love,
    And do as thou dost do.
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