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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Sunday Sermon--Ezekiel

We are covering the Bible in 2008. We are up to Ezekiel. You can follow our progress and join along by following the readings and taking the quizzes on Bible and Jive.


The text was Ezekiel 37:1-10--The Valley of the Dry Bones.

We played this song for our meditation, Ezekiel Saw a Wheel recorded by Roger McGuinn.


Hope to the Bone
John Shuck
April 6th, 2008


First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Ezekiel begins to prophesy just before and during the Babylonian exile in the 6th century. His message is one of judgment first and then hope. Ezekiel is one of the most colorful prophets in Israel’s history in terms of the metaphors he uses and as well his public demonstrations.

Ezekiel has inspired the imagination of many apocalyptic prophets who find in Ezekiel’s words hidden codes for the end of the world.
He has also been inspiration for movements of liberation, particularly in the African-American tradition. Other writers and thinkers, such as Walter Wink, have found in Ezekiel’s visions a critique of what Wink calls the Domination System.

The first half of Ezekiel is filled with judgment upon Israel for its social injustice and its worship of other gods besides YHWH. Ezekiel, like Jeremiah, uses misogynistic metaphors to describe unfaithful Judah. Ezekiel’s graphic metaphors of the whoring wife lusting after other men and the subsequent punishments to fall upon her is difficult reading, almost pornographic. Ezekiel is a dangerous text for women.

Ezekiel saves some of his judgment for the surrounding nations who laughed at Judah and then received their desserts. The final chapters are those of hope. The metaphor of the valley of dry bones coming back to life is the hope of a restored people.

Ezekiel is a theological innovator. The book begins with Ezekiel having a vision of YHWH. We have to remember ancient near eastern cosmology to appreciate this. During this period the ancients saw the world as flat underneath an inverted bowl. The bowl is the dome or sky or heaven. All of the stars, sun, and moon are within the dome. When it rains the dome opens holes for the water to pour down. The sun travels across the dome each day, then travels underneath the earth and then comes up again in the morning.

Where is the presence of God or the gods in all of this? Sometimes the gods reside within the dome and they come and visit humans at sacred places. Mountains that touch the sky are places of epiphany. Every civilization and every tribe had its own sacred places. These would be places where the gods would come down and visit. Jerusalem was one such place and in particular, the temple. They considered it to be YHWH’s house. They were careful to say that YHWH was not contained in the house, but his presence was there and most especially at particular times and there were appropriate rituals to access YHWH’s power.

YHWH himself was located above the dome on a throne. This is his heavenly court. He is the only one. As the Hebrew people became more and more monotheistic there was less room for other gods. This is why the prophets were so upset that the people would participate in rituals for other gods at other sacred places. YHWH was jealous and possessive.

Ezekiel as well as the other prophets interpreted the sufferings of the people as signs of YHWH’s anger at their unfaithfulness. Here is my paraphrase of the prophetic message. “Thus says YHWH: ‘You want to worship other gods besides me, well then, boom, lightening bolt for you.’”

What happens when YHWH’s house is destroyed? That is an interpretive problem. Either YHWH is defeated by the other gods or YHWH is using the other nations to punish Judah. The prophets chose option two. Better to have a deity who punishes you than to have none at all. I don’t know if we have to make that choice today. But that is how they did it.

Then there is a further problem. Where do we find YHWH’s presence when his temple is gone?

This is where Ezekiel’s vision comes to play. Ezekiel has a vision of a movable vehicle with wheels that can fly around. Ezekiel is carried in his vision by this wheeled vehicle to Babylon. With this creative vision, YHWH’s presence is with the people wherever they may be scattered.

On this wheeled YHWH mobile, Ezekiel is carried over to Babylon where he prophesies in the name of YHWH to the people who are scattered. There, Ezekiel doesn’t need to judge them anymore but give them a word of comfort and hope.

One of the most memorable has Ezekiel carried by the spirit of YHWH to a valley of dry bones. Dry bones scattered all over the valley. YHWH says to Ezekiel, Son of the Man, can these bones live?

Ezekiel is called the son of the man. Theologian Walter Wink has made much of this phrase. For him, the son of the man means more than simply a human being or a mortal as the NRSV translates it. Wink sees this phrase as the essence of humanity. The real human. The human archetype. Jesus refers to himself in the gospels as the son of the man more than any other phrase.

It could be the true human, the human as we are meant to be. Ezekiel sees in his vision, the YHWH mobile being driven by a figure that appears to be a human being. We often use the phrase, “Well, I am only human” as a way of dismissing our human nature, as sinful and whatever. We can often fall into a trap of disparaging humanity. But I am not sure if doing so helps us much.

If Wink is correct, the use of the human being in Ezekiel is different. This is a celebration of humanity. This is what humanity is and could still become. In the Call to Worship, I borrowed a phrase from Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, “the seed of humanity” as a translation for the son of the man. That doesn’t apply only to the person of Ezekiel, but to the authentic human within each of us. Who are human beings? We can love. We can create. We have incredible capabilities. We have consciousness.

Yes, we are fragmented. We are scattered. We may feel there is no life in us. We may feel as dry as bones in a valley. But that is not the end of the story.

YHWH tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones. Speak to the bones. Ezekiel speaks to the bones twice. After the first prophecy, they gather and rattle and connect and sinews grow on them and flesh covers them. Then YHWH commands Ezekiel to speak again. “Prophesy to the breath,” YHWH tells Ezekiel. Ezekiel prophesies and the bones become alive with the breath of God.

Why all of this speaking? Why does YHWH need Ezekiel? Why couldn’t YHWH speak to the bones himself? Why bother with words at all? Why not just bring them back to life?

I don’t know for sure. But I think it has to do with the power of the word. Genesis tells us in the beginning that God spoke, and there was Light. The word of God creates. In the Gospel of John, the Word of God becomes flesh and pitches his tent among us. The ministry of Jesus is largely one of words.

There is great power in the spoken word. Power to create. Power to destroy and power to heal. Words are used to deceive. Words are used to speak truth. With words we can tear down and with words we can build up.

With words we can make others feel small and with words we can enlarge one another.

This weekend about 20 of us are participating in a workshop called Creating a Culture of Peace. It is our second workshop of three. It is a workshop that is an introduction to active non-violence for personal and social change. When we think of active non-violence we might think of Ghandi and Martin Luther King. We might think of activists, bus boycotts, lunch counter sit-ins or protests of some sort or another.

It is that. Active non-violence is a tactic. But it is much more than that, I think. It is about the words we use and how we use them. It is about the transformation of the self as well as society. It is about speaking words that heal rather than hurt. It is not only about the words we speak out loud, but about the words that go unspoken. The words that are under our breath.

It has to do with the words and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.

It has to do with the words we use to describe the truth of our situation.

It has to do with the words to use to point to what we might become.

We watched a film. One of the sections was about the lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville. Lunch counters were segregated. Students at Fisk University set out to change that. They were able to make the change, in large part, because they did not demonize their opponents.

The goal was not to tear down the city but to build it up into what it could become. The goal was not to call the power structure racist and be satisfied with a certain sense of superiority. The goal was for all to recognize the hurt that segregation caused, and to build a new community in which all participate regardless of skin color.

The goal of active non-violence is the redemption of everyone. The scene that I found most touching and healing in the film, was when finally, the students had the attention of the mayor. After several months of sit-ins, publicity, arrests, finally, on the steps, I believe it was of the courthouse, one of the students politely and assertively asked the mayor, in front of the television cameras. “Do you think segregated lunch counters are just?”

The mayor said, “No.” And both of them smiled. It wasn’t a question of either/or—either us or you, but both you and us. Active non-violence is about change over the long haul. It is not about winning or losing, but about restoration.

Can these bones live?
These bones of ours that have been scattered by injustice, fear, and violence.
Can they become whole again?

Can they have life breathed into them again?

Can we become a society and a world in which we can continue to speak words of truth to one another?

Can we speak honest words from our own vulnerability and woundedness?

Can we speak and hear from each other about what is true?
Can we speak about hope and restoration?

As we speak, will we speak with love?
Will we recognize the sacred in each other and in ourselves?

Prophecy to the bones, you seed of humanity.
Don’t be afraid to speak.
Speak the truth.
But speak these words out of love.
Speak words of healing and hope that all may have life.

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