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Lent 5 – 3/29/2020 – St. Paul’s

Like many of you, at least in Marfa, we are obeying the stay in place order passed by the City Council. FYI…I did get permission from the Mayor and City manager to live stream from St. Paul’s. We find ourselves possibly battling fear as the news headlines grow darker and grimmer and the Coronavirus gets closer and closer.

I know that in many parts of the world including our country, doctors are being forced to make horrific decisions about who will receive medical care, and who will die. We know that countless people are getting laid off without warning, facing illness without medical insurance, caring for the infected without adequate protection, watching helplessly as savings drain away, and mourning their dead without the dignity of funerals or memorial services.

As Debi Thomas says: Here we are, Church.  Here we are in crisis, watching the world reel and lurch in ways most of us have never experienced before.

This is what Ezekiel wants us to face up to. The prophet Ezekiel has a vision in which God shows him how things are and talks to him. The setting is a valley. Have you ever stood at the bottom of a deep ravine in the Big Bend Park and looked up at the cliffs on either side, high above, in front and behind, and thought, There’s no way out of here? Ezekiel’s thinking the same thing. There’s no way out of here. I’m in the valley. The valley of death. There’s bones everywhere. This is the wreckage of the once mighty people of Israel.

At the Battle of Balaclava, in 1854, during the Crimean war, the six hundred members of the Light Brigade mounted a cavalry charge into a precipitous valley. There was only one problem. The valley was overlooked on three sides by enemy guns. It was a catastrophic mistake. What ensued was a grotesque and wholesale massacre. 

Alfred Tennyson described the scene in these words.

Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do & die, 

Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them Volley’d & thunder’d;

Storm’d at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of Hell Rode the six hundred.

Ezekiel is transported into the valley of horror, into the jaws of death. But it’s even more chilling, because the bones he sees there are dry. That means they’ve been there a while. Israel’s dead; it’s been dead for a long time; and there’s no escape. That’s what the valley of the dry bones means. And God asks Ezekiel an absurd question – a 

question that sums up the Old Testament, the story of the heart of God being yoked to the children of Israel, and the folly of those children and the breaking of that heart. This is the question: Can these dry bones live? Israel’s bones. Humanity’s bones. Creation’s bones. Your bones. This is the question at the heart of the Bible: Can these dry bones live?

While you find yourself, sitting around home, you might want to watch the 2004 Swedish film As it is in Heaven. It portrays a gifted orchestral conductor named Daniel. Bullied at his elementary school in northern Sweden, Daniel blossoms in adolescence as a famous and acclaimed musical protégé. But his adult professional career becomes hugely demanding, and he develops debilitating stress-related nasal haemorrhages, resulting in a heart attack on stage in his 30s. Forced to retire, he buys the old elementary school in his native village in snowy northern Sweden, and takes up a simple life. He eavesdrops on the local church choir rehearsal, and finds himself persuaded into becoming their conductor.

In no time his genius galvanizes the choir, and he seeks to give them a whole new outlook on music and on life. At the same time the members of the choir, as they begin to dream, expose all their fragilities. One is enraged by a lifetime of being teased about his weight. Another can’t find a love with her husband that transcends his inhibitions. A middle-aged man finds perfectionism cripples his ability to relate to others. A young woman is left heartbroken after a two-year romance with a man she discovered to be already married. An innocent boy fails to understand why his learning disability means he can’t join the choir. And one woman with an angel’s voice has a husband who beats her brutally.

The violent husband Conny turns out to be the same bully who tortured Daniel when they were both growing up. In his jealousy of what’s happening to his wife, Conny tries to drown Daniel. Meanwhile Stig, the local Lutheran pastor, is equally enraged by the charismatic conductor, and closes down the church choir – only for its members as one body to march down the street to Daniel’s house and reinvent themselves as Daniel’s choir.

Daniel believes music opens people’s hearts. He’s alarmed when the choir enters a major international competition at Innsbruck in Austria, because he believes music isn’t about winners and losers. But he can see how the prospect inspires the singers, so eventually he agrees to the long journey. He teaches each of the choristers to sing from their souls in a way the judges will never have heard before. In Innsbruck, just before the performance, Daniel has another heart attack and hemorrhage. The choristers, unaware of where he is, carry on without their conductor, singing wordless music from the depths of their being and electrifying the whole auditorium. Judges, other choristers, audience, and everyone present are on their feet, joining in and applauding wildly. Daniel hears the theatre erupt with joy as he dies, alone, in a rest room below.

The story displays how dry bones live. The Swedish village is a valley of dry bones. Each member of the choir is a fragile mass of washed up humanity. Daniel is exhausted, body and soul, a valley of dry bones all in himself. This isn’t a story of a village or a choir or a conductor coming back to life. This is about the infusion and discovery of life that was never there before. The song the choir sings at the Austrian festival is a kind of music no one, not they  themselves, not Daniel, not the audience or judges, had ever previously heard. The iron grip of the violent Conny and the small-minded Stig had impoverished the village as long as anyone could remember. Now the people had a song in their soul, and that song brought their bodies to life. The dry bones at first clumsily banged against one another; but gradually they found their sinews and muscles and cartilage and flesh and skin and worked out how to live like never before.

Look down at yourself, right now. Is what you see a valley of dry bones? Are parts of you dry – really dry, neglected, abandoned, left for dead? Is your heart a place of carnage and destruction, a valley that’s given up reasoning why, but just riding on to do and die, because it’s the path of least resistance, because that’s what keeps the peace, because you haven’t got the strength to imagine anything beyond the valley? Beyond this pandemic? Have you given up believing God will ever bring you to life?

Perhaps you have friends, associates, colleagues, peers, like the choristers in the movie had one another. But maybe, like the choir, you’re only living a half-life with one another. Maybe right now in the midst of this crisis you’re a singer without a song, with tired lungs and a weary throat, without trust in those around you, or hope in yourself, or true direction to look up to.

Today, it isn’t just COVID-19 that we need to worry about, not just our physical health, but the mental, emotional, and spiritual health of the people in our communities and around the world. We are still on the upswing of a devastating attacker, that is trapping us fearfully in our homes and costing us money, jobs, relationships, and a certain future. The longer we remain isolated, the more devastating the effects of the virus will feel. It’s normal to feel bad in a bad time.

Despite the resilience of the human spirit, the songs sung from balconies, the attempts to create online connections, people will inevitably feel more depressed, more alone, more fearful than they may have felt in their lifetimes. This is the time when people need hope, love, and faith. They need to know that this situation is not endless, though it may last a long time; that this time is not the worst, although it may get still worse than it is now; that their plight is not hopeless, though they may feel sorrowful and without hope at the present time.

We all need reassurance during times of stress and strife. This is a time when we not only celebrate our discipleship but recognize our humanness. It’s okay to feel afraid. It’s ok to feel worried. It’s ok to feel sad. It’s ok to feel down. Even people of God, people who know God, follow Jesus, feel anchored in their faith, believe in resurrection, need reassurance from God in times of dark valleys. This is one of those times.

In Ezekiel 37, God needed first to reassure Ezekiel, to show him a future of resurrection life and hope, so that he could go out and console the people of Israel. Even prophets can become desolate and worried. Even Christians can feel hopeless and anxious in times of desolation and death.

God shows Ezekiel that the Holy Spirit has the power to raise up not just the desolate but the dead, those who have been utterly defeated. God proves to Ezekiel that the breath of God can breathe life into anything, even into the most dire of times and circumstances, even into the most hopeless of people. God proclaims in the midst of death that graves will be opened and God will raise us up, that God will replant us into a good and fertile place, that life will be good and joyful again.

As the Coronavirus continues to spreadLook at your life. Look at this valley of dry bones. Feel the hand of the Lord come upon you. Hear the Spirit of the Lord whisper in your ear, this very moment. Listen to this question the Lord is asking you. Beloved child, can these dry bones live? Look down again. Are you looking at a valley of dry bones? Have you been dragging this sack of dry bones through the valley for longer than you can remember or just since this corona virus became known? Why pretend any longer?

Ask yourself the three questions:

Am I truly willing to learn new music during this time of challenge?

Am I willing to be let the Spirit make music out of my dry fragile flesh?

Am I willing to share this music with others and keep my safe distance?

Just as the Lord whispered to Ezekiel, he’s whispering to you: I am going to open your grave, and bring you up from your grave. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.

God is saying to us through Ezekiel: Prophets, awaken! Rise up now from your own fears, and hopeless valleys. Proclaim the coming of the Lord, and a future of health, happiness, and love.

Let us pray:

This hour we turn to you, 

O Lord, 

in full knowledge of our frailty, our vulnerability, 

and our great need as your mortal creatures. 

We cry to you, as one human family, 

unsure of the path ahead, 

unequal to the unseen forces around us, 

frightened by the sickness and death that seem all too real to us now. 

Stir up your strength and visit us, 

O Lord; 

be our shield and rock and hiding place! 

Guide our leaders, our scientists, our nurses and doctors. 

Give them wisdom and fill their hearts with courage and determination. 

Make even this hour, 

O Lord, 

a season of blessing for us, 

that in fear we find you mighty to save, 

and in illness or death, 

we find the cross to be none other than the way of life. 

All this we ask in the name of the One who bore all our infirmities, 

even Jesus Christ our Risen and Victorious Lord.