Sunday, April 28, 2024
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“I Will Open Your Graves”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, April 28, 2024
Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14

The actor Tommy Lee Jones is known for his blockbusters, but I think of him for this: After The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, he was asked about its similarity to his early movie Lonesome Dove. In both, he was tasked to carry a corpse hundreds of miles across the US southwest. He said something like this: I guess it’s my fate to carry dead bodies all over the desert. You can almost hear him thinking: all those years of acting school and I get every scene stolen by some dead guy. Actors say not to share the stage with a child or a dog—Tommy Lee adds, or a dead body.

Another open grave story. John Henry Newman was about to be declared a saint in the Catholic Church. They opened his grave as per regulation, first time since burial in 1890. The hope was that they’d find something miraculous. Maybe his body would be intact? A sign of sanctity in Catholic land. He was buried with a male friend--lots of speculation this friend was more than platonic. More gay-friendly Catholics might’ve hoped the friend would be intact. What’d they find? Nothing. Not a bone. Altogether dust. As we’ll be too one day.

I had eight or ten open grave stories I could have started with. All macabre by definition: overly interested in the state of the dead. Before you call my shrink, let me defend myself: I spend my life in the Bible. And the Bible is awfully concerned with life and death and the line between them. Take our story for today.

The prophet Ezekiel is sent to a valley of nothing but bones. “There were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.” You might think of Mathew Brady’s Civil War photos before the dead are in the ground, but that’s not quite right. These guys in the photos are recently dead. Still identifiable. But in Ezekiel, there is not a fleck of flesh left on bone. They are in piles, you can’t even tell which femur belongs to which vertebrae, no individual identity left. It might be more like this. When the US army got tired of fighting indigenous peoples on the prairie, they decided to wipe out their food store. Machine gunned bison by the million. Nearly eliminated that species, and certainly destroyed the native cultures dependent on it. What a crime. There is no life in that pile, only ghastly horror.

God asks his prophet Ezekiel, so can these bones live? Ezekiel is no fool. If he says yes, he’s saying something ridiculous. If he says no, he’s telling the living God that he can’t make more life. So, Ezekiel says, “uh, Lord God, you know.” That is how you evade a question.

We’re in a series at our church called More Resurrection. We reflect on Easter not just one day but for 50 days, seven weeks of Sundays, because getting our head around resurrection takes all the time we can give it. Easter isn’t just about Jesus’ bodily resurrection. It’s about all of ours’ too. And the coming renewal of all creation. There’ve been lots of jokes lately about prayer for the Maple Leafs. Can it even help? One friend says sure, but prayer won’t help as much as scoring goals. This story isn’t just prayer for the Leafs to win in 2024. It’s prayer for time to run backwards and the Leafs to win between 1968 and 2023. No one even prays for that. It’s not possible. But Ezekiel knows not to lecture God on what’s not possible.

The people of Judah are in exile. That doesn’t just mean they’re far from home and miss it. When I studied abroad in university in Spain pre-internet, I racked up thousands of dollars in phone calls home. I missed the food, the basketball, the English language, my people. That’s not what we’re talking about here. When God’s people go into exile, they lose the promised land. The temple is no more. The God of Israel has been overcome by the gods of the Babylonians. Israel has lost all this and will soon lose her identity as a distinct people. There is no hope. They are dry bones, not even revivable. Any claim to hope here would be like a Sioux person trying to pick out a specific bison from that pile of bones. Not going to happen.

God tells Ezekiel: prophesy to the bones. Prophesy doesn’t mean guessing the future. It means speaking a new future into reality. Prophecy in the graveyard? Not an overly engaged audience. Anybody who speaks to other people knows this feeling. I’ve preached to many sleeping people in my lifetime. I assume they need the rest. That they’re sleeping is not my fault of course.

O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath 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 in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.

Ezekiel prophesies to the bones. And they start to come together. A rattling, a noise, and the knee bone connects to the leg bone, as the spiritual sings. I grew up thinking that was a silly song about anatomy. Nope. It’s a black church standard about life from the dead. The vast multitude stands at attention. But there is no life in the bodies. An army of cadavers. They’re like video game characters you’ve created. Standing there waiting.

I gotta say if I’m preaching near a graveyard and folks start clawing out to the surface, I’m shutting up.

We are in an era of zombie movies. I’ve gotten more preaching mileage out of zombies than you could ever imagine. Quoted one in a wedding homily once. Ask me about it later. In zombie films the dead become undead and come back and eat the rest of us. George Romero started it with The Night of the Living Dead in the 70s.  In one of his movies the zombies invade a shopping mall, wandering around to muzak. That’s us, brainlessly shopping, barely alive. In the spoof Shaun of the Dead, two friends debate which of their record collection to throw at the zombies. You can’t waste a favourite vinyl on the undead, can you? Maybe the dead aren’t scary, maybe they’re funny: projections of our own fears about life and death.

Well, in Ezekiel we have an army of the undead, now with sinews and skin, standing at attention. This is a Mathew Brady photograph where the Civil War dead rise and stand to their commander’s orders. It’s the pile of bison reanimated and ready to thunder across the endless prairie again. This reminds us of the way God creates in Genesis. “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” First God makes a person from dirt. Then God blows life into them. And there is humanity. Here in Ezekiel, God is remaking humanity. First a body. Then life, wind, breath blown in. Ezekiel is now glad he didn’t answer God’s trick question. Apparently, God can raise the dead, even if we cannot. God has done so. The bones have rattled back into skeletons and are wrapped up in skin. Israel is about to rise again. In fact, she already has.

Much of the Christian faith has concentrated on souls rising from the dead to go to heaven or the other place, the one with the people with the pointy sticks. This story isn’t about that. It’s about bodies raised and made alive again. The language is aggressively, bluntly physical: “I will open your graves.” Ezekiel tells us, this is God bringing Israel back from exile. She is so defeated as to be gone, not exist. The ten northern tribes had already been defeated, carried off, and are no more. Won’t that happen too to these southern tribes in Babylon? They’ll cease to exist also. Not so, says God. I will bring you all back, raise you up, and give you life. And sure enough, Judah comes back from exile. Seventy years in Babylon, and Babylon is defeated by Persia under Cyrus, and he gives the Jews permission to go home. Life from the dead. Skeletons made into humans and communities.

Notice a few things: There is no individual salvation here. Not one of these skeletons is named. Israel is raised as a people. No one of us without all of us. This is why black Christians sang about all those bones connected. It’s a prayer for all people to be delivered from slavery together. We do have stories of slaves mailing themselves to freedom, including one Henry Brown, nicknamed Henry Box Brown, mailed from Virginia to Philly then moved to Ontario, became a speaker on the abolitionist circuit. Good for him. Ezekiel’s hope is so much bigger. Freedom for all enslaved. Black Christians know in their bones they are in this together, bound to one another by abuse, longing for freedom as a people.

You’ll remember when Rabbi Yael from Holy Blossom preached for us last summer. She’s coming again this summer, bless her. When she’s asked how she is these days, after the October 7th attack by Hamas and the subsequent war in Gaza, she says not “fine,” but “I am as my people are.”

In western cultures when we introduce ourselves to new people, what do we say? We say what we do. We ask others what they do. Our jobs. status. That’s a western individualist answer. When new people meet in non-western cultures, they usually say who their family is. I’m from this people. We live by this river. My grandparents were these people. I am my relations. That’s Israel in this story. A community, a nation, a whole graveyard emptied out, not “here lies this individual.”

Ezekiel prophesies to the standing cadavers, and God sends breath in them, and they live. All Israel resurrected. Not just the two tribes of Judah exiled in Babylon. But the ten northern tribes too. This can’t happen. But of course, piles of bones don’t become people again either. What does this all mean? God tells the prophet:

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.

Resurrection is coming. All the dead will rise and become a people on their own land again. Seems beyond unlikely. A zombie apocalypse seems more likely. This is a hope gaudy enough to be worth having. W.H. Auden said, “nothing possible can save us. We who must die demand a miracle.”

Okay, there’s the story in all its glorious strangeness. What do we make of it?

When it was written it was a vision of the impossible becoming possible. God is going to remake us out of bones. But then it became possible. Cyrus and his Persian empire defeats Babylon. Cyrus has no particular animus toward Jews, sure, you can go home, I don’t care. And Judah trickles home. Rebuilds the temple. Starts life in the promised land again. Not quite Ezekiel’s apocalyptic vision of the raising of all the dead. Just hard-nosed geopolitics: the Babylonians were in charge, now the Persians are, Jewish people leak back to their land. Ezekiel’s full vision is not yet fulfilled. The dead are still buried in Babylon. The ten lost northern tribes are still lost. I’ve told you before Israel at this time had no sense of heaven or hell, no strong sense of an afterlife, just a shadowy waiting room called Sheol. Scholars think one reason a notion of resurrection grew up was that God hadn’t been faithful to his word yet. We’re mostly in exile still. Many have died. Has God’s promise failed? No, not yet. God could still be planning on raising us from the dead. To make good on his word. God’s promise can’t fail. It just hasn’t succeeded quite yet. A buddy of mine lost a finger while woodworking. He says, don’t worry I’ll get it back in the resurrection. I think he even means it.

What else does this story mean? Well, churches in North America and western Europe are in a hard spot. Declining attendance and social standing. If you see old photos of Toronto, church spires are the tallest buildings by a mile. Now, not at all. In my neighbourhood there are four proud 19th century church buildings. Someone stretched the budget to glorify God. Three of them are now condo complexes. Former churches make great condo space. Former churches are also great for nightclubs. Three of the four great downtown cathedral churches in Glasgow Scotland are nightclubs. You know what else they’re good for? Wall climbing. Laser tag. Skating rinks. Toy stores. Restaurants. Recording studios. I’ve seen all the above. The fourth church in my neighbourhood? St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church was built by Irish immigrants and is now full of Vietnamese immigrants. God does that sort of thing. Refreshes churches with people their forebears co­­­­­­uldn’t have imagined. That fourth church in downtown Glasgow? It’s an African immigrant church that’s booming and asking itself, how do we reach out to these lonely old white people? Just think how folks in those churches prayed for their kids to come back, the pews to be filled. God has answered their prayer not how they wanted, but better. One preacher says this:  

The best way to find out whether people really believe in the life-giving, flesh-finding Spirit of the risen Christ is to see what they do about the homeless and the poor, about those exiled from warmth, and comfort, and security.

We Christians can’t help but see Jesus’ resurrection in the story in Ezekiel. But Jesus is raised as one Jew. Not a multitude. Not an army. Not the whole nation. Not yet. One of us is raised. The rest of his body, us his members, will likely lie in our graves for a while. St. Paul speaks of Jesus’ resurrection as a down payment. A first installment. N.T. Wright says the New Testament’s hope is not life after death. Most people believe in that already, it’s not particularly distinctive. The New Testament’s hope is “life after life after death.” The raising of all our bodies. A whole new creation. Heaven is still a waiting room. The dead look forward to the resurrection too. Jesus’ resurrection is a promise that it’s coming. In fact, it’s started already.

Here’s the final point for today, the payoff. My preaching crush Fleming Rutledge points this out. Did these bones do anything to deserve being raised? Don’t be ridiculous. Bones don’t do things. Did God create out of nothing because the nothing deserved it? It’s a ridiculous question. Resurrection is something God alone dreams up. When God summons us to new life it’s not because we deserve it. It’s because the God of life can’t help himself. All he does is summon things out of non-existence into being. Christian faith isn’t about our experience of God. It’s not about us at all. It’s about the God who raises the dead. And sometimes you can even see it. In a slave spiritual celebrating resurrection in the face of oppression. In a man mailed to freedom, become a civic leader in Etobicoke. In a neighbourhood restored, good news to the poor, immigrants refreshing a church that otherwise would have closed. God does that sort of thing you know. He’s still in the resurrection business. And that’s why we are too. Amen.