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Monday, March 18, 2013

I will open your graves, and have you rise from them (Lent 5A)


Yesterday's first reading from Ezekiel 37, a clipping from the wondrous vision of dry bones at har-Megiddo (the plain of Megiddo, later known as Armageddon), always fills me with wonder, dread, and hope. Wonder because the vision itself is so stunning as a literary device; the sun-bleached bones of the youngest and strongest of the slaughtered army of Israel’s king Josiah, the prophet set down amidst the ruin and ordered to prophesy to the bones, the clatter and slurp of the bones rising and becoming a nation again when the spirit-breath of Y-hw-h enter into them, it’s an unforgettable vision even at the distance of two and a half millennia. Dread, because the sense of loss is so staggering, the finality of death and the frailty of life are made so clear. Hope, because God’s promise is so clearly and permanently stated, right in the face of our complete powerlessness before death’s power and our own folly: “I will open your graves and have you rise from them. I have promised, and I will do it, says the Lord.”

This morning I was more thinking about just how dead we can be while we’re still walking around and dangerous to each other, and how we need new breath in us as we lay in this killing field, and how only God’s intervention can save us. And sometimes it can be pretty easy to pray “O God, let the people of eastern Africa rise from their graves,” or “Let the nation of Afghanistan rise from its grave,” or “Let people who are addicted to drugs rise from the grave of their addiction,” or whatever our cause du jour might be. And I don’t mean for this to be a political salvo, because we’re all guilty, but this year I feel that somebody ought to just say it: we Americans are the ones who are dead. We deal in death all over the world. We spend more money on weaponry than on anything else in the national budget, and sell the arms to just about anyone. No, we’re not alone in our obsession with promoting fear, threats, stand-offs, brinksmanship, 
embargoes, sanctions, shock-and-awe. But we seem to be the most blasé about being arms merchants and Christians. We are dead, and the name of our death is War. 
Vietnam war memorial, Washington DC

And then the word of God picks us up by the hair on a Sunday morning and carries us on the wind and drops us in the middle of our own killing fields. Standing here in the dry wind, we are overwhelmed by the weight of the death around us. This is a life-forsaken wasteland. There is really only death here, death that has been purchased with trillions of dollars, provided a living economy for millions of us who are living, made a safe place for us to worship on Sunday and think pious thoughts about Lazarus and Ezekiel. Not only does the death seem permanent and ubiquitous, it enables the charade of our own life, letting us feed like maggots on the death of others. And the wind begins to speak to us, “Prophet, can these bones live?”

It’s a trick question, because to answer it in the affirmative is to make it necessary for me to waken. To answer in the negative is to say that my faith is a counterfeit, a sham.

“Prophet, can these bones live?” I answer obliquely, (and this is the place where I think my faith really is, coward that I am), “Only you know the answer to that.” Cripes. I know the answer to that, I’ve been taught it, taught, read it, sung it, prayed it, counted on it for six decades. Of course the bones can live, only don’t make me open my mouth about it. I’ve already tried to say that we only have the right to pray “Have mercy on us!” while we worship the God of life and kill our brothers and sisters at the same time, and it’s as though we say these things and nothing comes out of our mouths but silence, as though the sound stays inside our shouts, and the effort is for nothing. “Prophesy to the bones!” the wind demands.

Is there any way out of this for us? Is the breath of God, roiling the gut and convulsing the lungs of the Messiah, crying out to us here in the darkness, telling us to get the hell out of the festering stench of this desert sarcophagus? Death itself enables the comfort of this place! It’s worse than the choice between water and thirst, or between sight and blindness, or between starvation meals and fleshpots of slavery. If God does the hard work, if the Spirit is ready to put new and authentic life back into us, why is it so hard to get up out of the tomb? How did this death get to feel like life?

It’s not that I don’t want to move. I don’t know what I need. Maybe it’s to make some little leap, or maybe I need a push, or to be carried out of my sleep by the hair to some killing field. I wonder what Ezekiel thought. He is thought to have died in exile himself in ancient Babylon. His tomb is thought, by some, to be at Keffil. Near Baghdad.


(Other posts on 3/4/5 Lent Year A and the Scrutinies here)