You Shall Live
September 11, 2022 Rev. Drew Stockstill
“Can these bones live?” That’s the question God asks the prophet, Ezekiel while leading him on a tour of a valley filled with very dry bones. Very dry, meaning it’s been a long time since there was skin and muscle on these bones, and life. Can these bones live? The obvious answer, if you were asking me, is no. But you aren’t asking me, God is asking Ezekiel and because God’s the one asking, well, Ezekiel is wise to answer, “Oh, Lord, you know.” Because we’re talking about God, the God who created life, who values life, who restores life. So, even the largest valley of the driest bones can be filled with life again. And when it comes to God today for anybody who feels too far gone, too spiritually dry, too overwhelmed, well, with God there is always hope, no one is lost, and it’s never too late for hope.
That’s what we are celebrating in this sermon series: Faith. Hope. Life. We are celebrating that it’s never too late for hope, and to ask for help. September is Suicide Prevention Awareness month and we want to celebrate life – honestly, truthfully, and hopefully. To help those who are suffering discover they have a key to hope, a pathway to life, and resources for help that all come from God. And to help anyone listening discover the hope to help those who are struggling to find the hope and the resources they need. Today’s sermon is titled, “You shall live,” because that’s the answer God gives Ezekiel as they survey the Valley of Death. In the face of death, God encourages us, urges us to hope. Despite what we may be feeling right now, however hard, however painful, however dark, you shall live, life is possible, and you can make it through this, and God and his people are here to help.
Ezekiel was a Jewish prophet who lived in Judah about 590 years before Jesus was born. It was a time of great conflict for Ezekiel and all the people of Israel. He had a pretty good life as one of the elites of Judah but that all changed when King Nebuchadnezzar of the Babylonian Empire invaded Judah. The realities of war took over their lives: violence, death, destruction, torture. They were living through hell and giving up hope. Ezekiel was captured with many other elites and taken to Babylon. Life was brutal, they were a long way from home and many began to doubt God, deny God, many began to give up hope completely. They were certainly suffering from PTSD. And after five years of this despair, God began to speak to Ezekiel through dreams and visions. And God’s messages, which Ezekiel shared with his people, while they reflected the dark realities of their suffering, they were also messages of hope. They were images of a future beyond this current moment of suffering. Ezekiel didn’t sugarcoat what they were facing, he didn’t paint rose-colored pictures, he didn’t look on the bright side, he looked at the valley of very dry bones because that’s what people felt, like there was no hope.
Did you know that if you’re concerned someone is thinking about taking their life the most important thing you can do is ask them? Ask them if they are thinking about suicide. Many people who are don’t show signs of it, there isn’t a cry for help, but you can ask. God and Ezekiel start from the place of what people feel like: they are giving up hope. From there they can help. We can be encouraged then to take seriously and frankly what people we care about may be feeling, and if we ask we can help them get the support they need. God invites Ezekiel to really acknowledge the depths of the hopelessness of his people.
There was once a very religious woman who felt called to give her life to God. She prayed, she served the poor, she truly talked the talk and walked the walk and people wanted to be close to her, to follow her ways, and learn from her, to be close to God through her. But even though on the outside she had this faithful life, seemed so close to God, almost like a saint, inside she felt, well, here’s what she wrote to a friend who was a priest:
In the darkness . . . Lord, my God, who am I that you should forsake me? The child of your love — and now become as the most hated one. The one — you have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer . . . Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. Love — the word — it brings nothing. I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.
The woman who wrote about this emptiness, these sharp knives in her soul, this pain, her name was Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu – Mother Teresa. She was known around the world for the way she lived her faith in Jesus, the way she cared for the suffering as if they were Christ himself. In 1979 she won the Nobel Peace Prize. But she wrote to her friend “Pray for me please that I keep smiling at him in spite of everything.” She said that her smile was “a big cloak which covers a multitude of pains.”
Hearing about Mother Teresa’s internal pain, her struggle to cover it up with a smile, her struggle with faith, it sounds like she spent much of her life in this spiritual valley of dry bones. Perhaps God would ask her, “Mary, can these bones live?” She longed for her spiritual life to come into full bloom, and yet…God you know. But she persevered, she thrived even. She knew she could share her pain, her depression, her darkness with others. Her trusted friends gave her the space and permission to be honest and they were there for her, and so in reality through them so was God. With the truth of all she had felt inwardly publicly known, and her incredible faithful perseverance, Pope Francis named Mother Teresa a saint six years ago this month. Even the saints experienced despair, doubt, and internal pain. And Ezekiel shows us how God works wonders even in those places of greatest hurt.
Listen again for the Word of God for us today from Ezekiel 37.
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 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.” 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. 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. Then he said to me, “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 these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 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.’ 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. 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, says the Lord.”
God who created all life, God who keeps the stars in the sky, God who watches every eagle in flight, and who catches every sparrow that falls from the sky, our God the giver of life can restore life. Even the driest bones, lifeless bones, get new life. Muscles become strong again, flesh alive again. If you feel like you’re standing alone facing death, if you feel like Saint Teresa and the people of God, completely cut off, with a forced smile that covers the pain, well know that God does see you, God is with you, and God sees the potential for new life in you. Beyond this present suffering there is new life.
Howard Thurman was a brilliant theologian, scholar, civil rights leader, pastor and so much more.
He was probably the greatest theological influence on Martin Luther King. He was born in 1899 in Florida and
was at times raised by his grandmother who had been a slave. Thurman put himself through school working as a janitor. He graduated valedictorian at Morehouse, was on the faculty at Howard, Morehouse, and Spelman, and became Dean of the Chapel at Boston University; he spent time with Gandhi, founded and an interracial church in 1944 all during a time of intense racism and segregation in this country. He is a man who knew great struggles, who was raised by women who knew even greater suffering. And he soared. In his most important book, from 1949, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” Thurman writes about exactly what it is that gives people the strength to survive and even
thrive against great odds. It’s something that I think is also true for those who find themselves in personal pain and suffering, who nonetheless keep going, what we call resiliency. He writes, “I have seen it happen. In communities that were completely barren, with no apparent growing edge, without any point to provide light for the disadvantaged, I have seen children grow up without fear, with quiet dignity and such high purpose that the mark which they set for themselves has even been transcended.” He says it is “the awareness that a man is a child of God…[God] who is at one and the same time the God of life, creates a profound faith in life that nothing can destroy.” He says the essence of the religion of Jesus of Nazareth is this: the God of life of the grass and the sparrow and the stars, who “leaves his mark in every living thing. And he cares for me! To be assured of this becomes the answer to the threat of violence – yea, to violence itself. To the degree to which a man knows this, he is unconquerable from within and without.”
And how do we come to know this? How do we find this assurance? Thurman says he received it from his mother, this faith, this hope. And he says it’s highly contagious. He says for us to share this faith, to share this encouragement with others gives them the “Key for unlocking the door of his hopes."
This is what Ezekiel does for his people. His vision of hope, of optimism, gives people a key to unlock their hopes for a future beyond their current suffering. God says the people were crying, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ So, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy, give them hope, tell them life is coming back, this is only for a time, I’m going to bring them out of these thoughts of death, I’m going to put my own spirit in you, so you know you’re not alone, so you can live, hope, flourish, Oh my people.
We all have a part to play: to ask if someone we are concerned about is suffering, to show our care for them by being with them in their place of pain, to bear witness to their valley of dry bones, and like Ezekiel, to speak words of profound hope even from the place of greatest despair, and to help them find treatment. For those needing to hear that hope today: receive the key, you are a precious child of God, and we together as a people will get through whatever you are facing, and God will bring us through.
 https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/faith-and-character/faith-and-character/mother-teresas-long-dark-night.html  https://apnews.com/article/eb58c9fae2ae441abc040d6f205b3197  Howard Thurmond, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” 1949, pg. 55.