05/26/2019 Sermon

Rebecca Barnes

Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church

May 26, 2019

From Dry Bones to a People of Hope


I was blessed to be able to travel to Anchorage and Palmer Alaska in February to learn about the effects of the climate crisis in that part of the world, and how it impacts our Presbyterian sisters and brothers in Yukon Presbytery. The Presbytery of Yukon stretches from Anchorage all the way north and encompasses four language groups. We met in Palmer, AK (the potato capital for the state!) and enjoyed the great hospitality of the United Protestant Church (Presbyterian). I was glad to get to know Presbyterians from the town of Gambell on St Lawrence Island, those coming from the North Slope burrow, those from churches in North Pole and Fairbanks, and Presbyterians around Anchorage. This presbytery has four distinct language and culture groups: Inupiat Eskimos are in the north and speak Inupiaq; the Yupik Eskimos are in the west and speak St. Lawrence Island Yupik; in the Interior and South Central are Koreans and English speakers.

I was awed by the geography—both physical and spiritual—that shaped these people of faith and was happy to share in return how my geography has been the Ohio river, clay-filled soil, and rolling hills. The physical world around us shapes us and interacts with our faith, just as our faith calls us to care for the physical world—whatever waters and hills or glaciers and mountains might be called home. Part of being God’s church together is telling and hearing the stories of who we are and how we came to be. Just like someone from Kentucky has a lot to learn from someone in Alaska, we also have much to learn from these ancient words and stories that hold the promise and hope of God’s everlasting love, and show us who and how God wants us to be in God’s world. Let us pray.

Genesis 2:4b-15

In the day that the Lord[a] God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,[b] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 10 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. 11 The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; 12 and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13 The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. 14 The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 1

Ezekiel 37:1-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

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. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 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[a] 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[b] 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:[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.”


The Bible tells us that God needs care-givers for creation, people alive with hope

In these stories, when God wants something more than what God is seeing, God’s secret recipe seems to be: organic material (such as dust or bone) PLUS a little Holy Spirit breath, and voila: there is my human!

In Genesis, God has made this creation full of intricacy and beauty, and yet God looks around and wants more. While God made the heavens and the earth, and the rain upon the earth, in verse 5 we learn there wasn’t anyone to till the land to help it flourish. So God shaped Adam, the human one, from the adamah—earth. God then fills that human one with God’s ruach (breath, or spirit). The purpose of all this activity is someone to till the garden. We now know that the Hebrew verb “till” actually translates “serve”—as in the younger shall serve the elder, the subject shall serve the king.  It seems that God imagines the creation could be a healthier, more thriving eco-system only if God gathered up some dirt and blew some divine breath in it, to make a servant for the garden. So God did, and Adam was formed, and formed in relationship with trees and rivers. We were made as part and parcel of God’s creation, and entrusted with our original human vocation, to be earth’s care-giver.

Sadly God’s recipe doesn’t seem to be long-lasting. By the time the prophet Ezekiel is writing generations later, we read that these human creatures aren’t feeling the breath of God residing within. In biblical texts, dry bones represent disconnected, isolated, hopeless spirits. Ezekiel is a priest writing from exile within a community mourning the destruction of their temple. They do not have the military power or political clout. They live as conquered people. And these bones weren’t just strewn about as one biblical commentator notes: God had to open graves, which means these weary spirits had fallen so deeply that they were buried, under the ground. Hope is gone, the sinews of relationship that bind one person to another in community have died, and the bones lie around separate from one another. The question becomes not what happened but, what can happen: can these dry bones live again?

In our world, we forget our job to care for creation, and it and we suffer

From Alaska to Kentucky, I’m guessing we know, like in Genesis, we have a wondrous creation, a really amazing world. Mount Denali, the Kenai fjord, Kentucky bluegrass–this earth is filled with creatures who are brilliant, beautiful, and funny. Natural systems that are complex and awe-inspiring.

As God noticed, creation is beautiful but the job of care-giver…well, God might need a “help wanted” sign. Because, we look around and notice that the earth’s designated care-givers have for a large part seemed to be aggressive or apathetic users of resource, with comfort and convenience valued over connection.

Humans sadly have seemed to want to be master, not servant. We’ve decided the earth is there for us to carve up, extract from, pollute. We build economies, governing systems and corporations without thinking “does this go with, or against, nature”?  Do we know that anything that goes against nature, actually goes against our nature, adam from adamah?

We seem stuck in this situation where we human ones who have power to shape and alter landscapes seem to be using our agency for the worse, rather than for the better. We have a world where those who cause the least damage to the earth—native and indigenous peoples, those living on island nations—or on an island halfway between Alaska and Russia—are the very people faced with the worst perils of glacial melt, sea level rise, coastal erosion, drought and fire.

We believe that people should have clean air, clean water, and daily bread, but divorcing our well-fare from that of the earth, we consume the world’s energy sources in ways the earth cannot sustain and we have a world much less stable for our children and grandchildren. Now to be fair, deep down, none of us want for people to go hungry, get sick, or not have work. We don’t want culturally-important, subsistence hunting of wales in North Slope Alaska or walrus for St Lawrence Islanders to be harder—fewer to find because of lack of ice and harder to lift weight onto that ice, and men in skiffs out to sea for days in dangerous waters. We don’t want Kentucky children with asthma from coal ash dust or factory particulate matter.  We don’t want the extensive, expensive damage that winter storms caused on St Lawrence Island when the storm blew across salt water instead of what should have been winter ice. We don’t want bird populations—the eggs of which are important to the diet of native Alaskans—dying off because their food web has changed from warming waters. Or king crab population reduction–a major food source and staple of the state economy—because of ocean acidification. We don’t want Kentucky fish and waters to be filled with toxic selenium from mining.

We live in coal country, and Yukon Presbytery is in oil country, and we want to be careful not to demonize the past: these industries have complex history in our communities. Yet we recognize some significant problems and complexities emerging. We have to figure out how to chart a healthy, positive path forward for future generations.

Let’s be honest: we can feel trapped. The climate predictions, the powers and principalities around us, the short timeline. Not knowing the way forward, we are buried in graves of our own doing. We have distanced ourselves from the earth and from one another. We even have distanced ourselves from God, in false pride as masters of the earth or in false shame and despair of not being worthy of God’s breath in us. Dry bones in a despairing world.

The Bible tells us that God will help us, but it’s our choice to fulfill our roles

When we are disconnected, desiccated bones, despairing of any future—God says, “no, we haven’t reached the end of the story, don’t get stuck in this part, I’ll do what I do (you know, dust + Spirit), and then I will remind you to do what you are called to do.”

We cannot stay where we’ve been—dust without breath, a valley of dry bones, a crucifixion without resurrection, this world of pain and despair. We are the earthlings that God made from earth, the dry bones to which God added sinew and breath. These texts remind us that the breath that blows through us, and the world, is God’s.

We confess sometimes it is easier to hide from God like Adam and Eve, or to lay sluggishly around like dry bones. It is hard to be mature and accountable, to repent from our mistakes, to risk believing new life can emerge. Change is hard, walking into a new future without a clear roadmap is scary. The change we sometimes propose—like grandiose technological fixes that won’t require us to sacrifice our current consumption—those aren’t the solutions God has in mind. It is going to take work. So, we confess and then we work.

And, we trust. When we struggle, God will remind us that God’s promises are not done. The Holy Spirit is both our Challenger—pushing us past anxiety or apathy or cheap fixes—and also our Comforter: “do not fear, I am with you.”

Alice Walker says “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” When we remember to let it be God who breathes and acts through us (and not our own egos), we will have plenty of what we need, to change the way things are.

The brilliance in Ezekiel’s story is that while God could speak and the bones react, God gives the task of prophesying over to Ezekiel. When Ezekiel prophesies, the hopeful movement begins. God’s action visible in our action. God’s presence and love and care for creation lived through our human vocation of presence and love and care for creation.

God is already empowering us to act

Thanks be to God, there are people who are prophesying and working in our own time. In February we had young people who are part of the Sunrise Movement come to our Sunday School. These youth are bursting with passion around making a safe and healthy future for Kentucky, and they are making a difference. In Alaska, students are learning about the new potentials for renewable energy, both wind and solar.

The way young people push boundaries, won’t take no for an answer, that is one of God’s “fail-safes” in this world. Others are: the way the earth itself heals, the way indigenous communities keep sacred wisdom, and how our minds birth innovative, creative new ideas.

God is creating all kinds of new possibilities. From Alaska, we can learn community-scale power systems that don’t rely on massive infrastructure or even a road system! We can learn from people who pool oil resources to heat a tiny church once a week for worship and microwave the baptismal water to room temperature. Churches in Alaska are lowering their carbon footprint, brainstorming how to turn a garden into a community farm, and even working on how road kill (moose) can become additional gleaned protein.  From KY to AK, there is so much that can be done.

God made and filled humanity with breath but does not force the choices we make with these material bodies and spirit-enlivened breath. God reminds us of our holy vocation but won’t coerce us to become community one for another, or to prophesy hope to the world. So the question is: will we step into who God created us to be? Will we risk becoming alive again, infused with the Spirit, doing the hard work of change? Will we prophesy that there is still hope, even in a time of climate devastation, still time for humans to be care-givers pursing just solutions for all? When God asks us “O mortal, can these bones live,” may we prepare ourselves to answer with a resounding: “yes!”