The first time I remember seeing a dead person was when I saw my grandmother as she was prepared for her wake. We lived five hours away from her, and when the call to go see her came, we were too late, and they had already taken her body out of the hospital. I had seen her at Christmas, when she had shown me her wig and the wisps of hair on her head. More than anything, I remember the way mom had to stop and say goodbye to her mom, to stroke what was left of her hair, to touch her hands. The second dead body I remember seeing was the body of a seventeen year old boy, who had been shot in the South side of Chicago, and was lying in the ER. Somebody was coming to take him away. All I remember about him was that he was very young and kind of small. He was seventeen, and that was the end of him. Since then, I have seen the burial of a casket for a two year old girl, who died of malaria. Her father was a nurse who was in charge of keeping students from dying of malaria. I’ve presided over many funerals, all of them of people who have died after long lives. Not all of them were good people, and not all the people who came to their funerals loved them. But all of them—whether they had lived two years, seventeen, or one hundred—they are all gone. Death was their birthright, their doom, as it is for all of us.
God tells Ezekiel—Mortal—that these bones are the house of Israel, and that God will bring them up from their graves. They are the dead who live outside of the promised land, who have been taken into exile, who live in despair. They are the people without hope. Because that is what death finally kills: hope. That two year old I saw buried in Tanzania—there is no hope for her. I could not begin to imagine what her father felt, whose whole work was to diagnose and administer medicine to prevent precisely this from happening. What hope could he have? That brutalizing cop is dead—there is no hope to change his ways. What about those who remember his legacy? Death ends all things.
Mortal, can these bones live? I think it’s simply another way of God asking Ezekiel if he can have hope—if there is hope for the despairing, if there is hope for the dead. “Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” And God says that he will open the graves and put his spirit within the people, and place them on their own soil: he will, in other words, give the people hope. How does God do that? How does the Holy Spirit come and breathe life into death? We cannot know how. Again, Ezekiel confesses the difference: “O Lord God, you know.” Only for God is there hope in death.
Last month, the Vatican, in which there are many bones of saints, including, somewhere, the bones of Peter, held a workshop on Biological Extinction. It was sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. You can read the schedule and the purpose of the gathering online at pas.va. The preface to the schedule had a title: How to Save the Natural World on Which we Depend. Among the things you might learn if you read the preface is that in 1970 the world was using about 70% of the world’s “sustainable capacity” and that now we are using about 156% of it. In other words, we are devouring the earth so fast, the president of the Pontifical Academy and Nobel Prize Winner Werner Arber has said, “the question is not so much how our grandchildren and children will fare, but whether the world will be able to function sustainably during the remainder of our own lives.” The natural world depends on us, and our societal choices. And it has become clear that our choices will result in a valley of dry bones.
Is there hope for us? I have a hard time seeing it. In my mind these days, all I can see are a few good days ahead for me and my child, a few good days that become fewer and fewer until they are gone. I don’t like to talk about what I foresee after they’re gone. My bones are becoming drier as I speak. How can I hope?
The beginning of the Gospel of John says that in the Word, light and life were brought into being. Last week, we saw the Word bring light when he healed the eyes of the blind man. Today we hear how he brings life to the dead. In the Gospel of John the authorities put Jesus to death because he brings a man to life. If we translate this into the language of Ezekiel, he gives hope to the hopeless.
As a matter of fact, Jesus waits to make sure the matter is good and hopeless. And we have one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the Bible: both Martha and Mary say, “Lord, if you would have been here, my brother would not have died.” This is the same thing many people have said at the grave of someone they love. God, if you had been here, my father, my wife, my child, my friend would not have died. And all Jesus has to offer Martha and Mary is a hope against death: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” And sure enough, Lazarus comes out of the tomb, and the stink of death falls away with the strips of cloth.
Mortal, will these bones live? Will this man rise again? Lazarus isn’t done being dead. Tradition holds that he died a bishop somewhere, either Cyprus or France. Maybe both places claim to hold his bones. Jesus says that this act will glorify him and glorify God. Jesus means that this act will lead to his own death and burial on the cross. In John, the forces of death and darkness kill Jesus because he has overcome them by raising Lazarus from death.
The only hope that I have comes from Christ, who is able to call the dead to life. I must confess that sometimes my imagination fails me. I think of our beautiful planet, and all the beautiful creatures on it, and I know that it all has to die. I know that each of us today must, somewhere, feel the acute pang of loss when we hear this story of Lazarus. No one here is unmarked by death. No one here makes it out of this life alive. So I am left with this simple promise of Jesus: I am the resurrection and the life. And I find that I believe it because I need to believe it. I need to know that there is a way through death to life. And the only way that presents itself is a way of love, that does not deny death, but rather brings life out of death.
Prophesy to the bones, God tells the mortal. Prophesy to the bones and say to them: O dry bones, hear the Word of the Lord. The Word of the Lord is our Lord Jesus, through whom all things were made, and for whom all things exist, the Word of life that brings light into darkness. I need that Word of life for my own dry, dying bones. I need so I know that a future is not only possible, but assured, because the one who has called this world into being has not abandoned, nor abandoned us, but rather calls us through death into life. O dry bones, hear the Word of the Lord: live, walk, and rise. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack