Practicing Lent: Being Dust that Lives

This morning a former church member asked me if I could find a favorite sermon of hers that I preached on March 4…. But she didn’t know what year. I searched my documents, and this is what I came up with.

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Broadway Baptist Church
Second Sunday of Lent
March 4, 2012
Brent Beasley

Jane Shaw wrote the book that many of our Sunday School classes and other groups are using for a Lenten study this year: Practical Christianity: Meditations for the Season of Lent. Jane happened to be the director of the Oxford University Summer Programme in Theology that I attended in 2008, and she dedicated the book to one of my professors there, Vincent Strudwick.

This year during Lent, we are going to focus on practices that help us with self-reflection and self-examination.

Practices to help us turn to God, look at our prayer life and at the things that compete with God for our attention.

Practices that help us to look outward at our existing relationships and also to look at our neighbor’s needs and to respond to Jesus’ call to love and serve.

The sermons that I preach this year during Lent are going to be focused on this idea of practices that help us to do these things. The overall series is called “Practicing Lent.” And I’ve taken inspiration from the chapter titles in Jane Shaw’s book, so there will be some continuity with what many of you are going to be studying together.

Today: “Being Dust…that Lives.”

A guy came in to the church from off the street. He wanted to talk to the pastor. I’ll be honest with you; I dread these kinds of situations. In my experience it is always, without exception, somebody wanting to tell me a hard luck story and ask for money.

So this guy came in and sat down with me in my office. I kept waiting for him to ask me for money, but he never did. He’s about my age. Here are the basics of his story:
Kicked out of his house at 14.
Got a baseball scholarship to college but messed around and lost it.
Worked construction all his life.
Traveled around the country to follow the work.
Been in a lot of bar fights.
Arrested several times.
Never had a family.
Living with his girlfriend now.
Has a two year old child.
Been out of work since December.
Can’t get along with his girlfriend and her teenage daughter but doesn’t have anywhere to go and doesn’t want to leave the two year old.
Doesn’t have a relationship with his parents to speak of.

He said, I’m 38 years old and I’ve got nothin’. I’ve got nothin’, and I’ve got nobody. Nobody.

And then he says, OK. I’ve done all the talking. Let me have some advice. Lay it on me. Tell me what to do.

Can these bones live? he might as well have been asking. Can these dry, lifeless bones live? Frankly I don’t see it.

Ezekiel has a vision. He’s down in a valley full of bones. And very dry bones. Bleached white by the sun. There is nothing of the power of life left in them at all. And God says to Ezekiel, Can these bones live?

Can these bones live? That is the question. That is always the question for Israel and for us.
Can these bones live?
Can the power of life override the power of death?
That is the question. Can these dry, dusty, lifeless bones live?

That is the question God asks Ezekiel. And it’s a good question for Ezekiel at that moment. In fact, it is the burning question for Ezekiel and other Jews at this time in their history.

Not long before Ezekiel had this vision of the valley of dry bones, the nation of Israel had been defeated. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had
destroyed Jerusalem and
destroyed the temple and
exiled Jewish people to Babylon.

So the question burning in the hearts and minds of the people was
Can these bones live?
Can the power of life override the power of death?

Of course, these are our questions, too. We are not exiled, but death has claimed a lot of territory in our lives and bodies and minds. Maybe it’s
cancer,
chronic depression,
Alzheimers,
hopelessness.

Maybe it’s not an individual problem but the seeming dry bones of some of our communities or social structures. Just look around.

See the vacant eyes of the desperately poor man sitting on his ramshackle front porch.
See children who are already in the process of having the breath of life squeezed out of them.
See the mug shot on the TV news.

A 17-year-old boy from the inner-city on his way to court after committing a violent crime put it this way: I’ve been dead since I was 12, so I’m not afraid of dying. I’m just waiting to get kicked into the grave.
[Jennifer Vogel, 1994]

There are plenty of dry bones all around us. Shaw points out that dust is that most democratic of substances. We all come from dust. We began the season of Lent with those words: Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return. Each one of us.

Dry, dusty bones are all around us.

In Ezekiel’s vision, God told him to tell those dry bones that God will breathe life into them—that these bones can live.

And Ezekiel spoke those words to the valley of bones.

And as Frederick Buechner memorably described it: The first thing that happened was a sound of rattling and clicking like the tide going out over a million pebbles on a beach as the bones started snapping back together again.

The next thing that happened was a million reassembled skeletons pulling on skin like long underwear.

The last thing that happened was
the color coming back to a million pairs of cheeks
and the spark to a million pairs of eyes and
the breath of life to a million pairs of lungs.
[Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Tresasures, “Ezekiel”]

Can these bones live? The answer is yes. And if we believe that—that these bones can live—if we believe that, then it makes a difference in the practices we engage in today. It makes a difference in real, practical ways.

The volunteer tutor was asked to visit a nine-year-old in a large city hospital. She took the boy’s name and room number and was told by the boy’s teacher that they were studying nouns and adverbs in class.

It wasn’t until the tutor got to the boy’s room that she realized the boy was a patient in the hospital’s burn unit. No one had prepared her to find a nine-year-old so horribly burned and in such great pain. She felt she couldn’t just turn and leave, so she gathered her courage and entered the room.

Hi, I’m the hospital teacher, she stammered. Your teacher asked me to help you with nouns and adverbs. And, clumsily, she launched into the lesson.

The next morning a nurse called the tutor. What did you do to that boy? The tutor immediately began a tearful apology, but the nurse interrupted her.
No, no, no. You don’t understand. We’ve been very worried about him. But since you were here, he’s fighting back, he’s responding to treatment. It’s as though he’s decided to live.

The boy explained that he had given up hope, until the tutor came. I figured they wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a kid who’s dying, would they?
[“Hope in the active voice,” Connections, Solemnity of Christ the King, Nov. 1998.]

Hard as it may sometimes be, we don’t let the magnitude of the problems that surround us paralyze us with hopelessness because we know that these bones can live.
We work on nouns and adverbs,
we take care of our neighbors,
we love our family,
we tutor one child out of thousands who need it,
we visit one sick person at the hospital,
we give out one sack lunch,
we plan for the future
because we are not without hope.

All of the good and small acts we do every day are not rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. They are not wasted activity. You and I are not living on a sinking ship, even though it may sometimes feel that way.

Because these bones can live.
Can the power of life override the power of death? Yes.
Is there a future for those in the power of death? Yes.

Because we have a God who when he exhales breathes out life.

Breathes out life into dry bones.
Breathes life into bone dry people.
Breathes life into bone dry communities.
Breathes life into bone dry churches.

The breath of God brings color back into pale cheeks.
The breath of God brings a spark back into vacant eyes.
The breath of God brings air back into depleted lungs.

God breathes life.

Some of you have dug holes for yourselves so deep they feel like graves. How will you ever get out? Can you? Listen, nothing can save you that is possible. We who are as hopeless as dry bones require a miracle.

The message of Ezekiel is, If God can restore lifeless bones and buried bodies to life, then there are absolutely no limits to God’s power. Ezekiel is here challenging his fellow exiles to view their circumstances not through their own, limited vision, but through God’s eyes.

I remember reading somewhere about a woman who was devastated by her divorce. She became so despondent that she was just almost paralyzed. But finally she left her children with her mother and took a long trip out west to think and pray.

One day she found herself sitting, high up a mountain on a rock ledge, just staring into space. Suddenly, as she was praying, she realized what her eyes were focused on. She was looking at a small tree that was growing out of the crack in a huge boulder. She wondered at the ability of that tree to grow on a rock!

And suddenly she realized, If God can make a tree grow out of a rock, then surely God can bring something good out of the dryness of my life!

And she got up from that place with hope in her heart.

The God who raised Jesus from the dead seems not to be out of business. We are created from dust, yes. But we are also created in the image of God. There is more possible in our lives when we look to God and not to ourselves than we ever imagine.

Make this one of your practices this Lent:
admit every day that you are dust…
and accept every day that, out of dust, God creates life.

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