God is not a magician: so why a valley of dead bones?

God is not a magician. God doesn’t do tricks like making a valley full of dry bones come back to life. God is not a sorcerer from an old Disney animated film who magically makes dead bones reassemble, mysteriously coming back together to form real live human beings. Sure, an animator can make that appear to happen. But in real life, we can’t make dead bones come back to life. Why? Because God is not a magician. Pope Francis said so and I agree – at least on this one point of theology: God is not a magician.

So what do we make of today’s story from the Jewish Bible” the famous story of Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones? Sure sounds like God’s making magic to me. Perhaps we should start by considering the context of this famous scriptural text. Scholars say this teaching dates from around 587 BCE, (Before Common Era). Those were difficult days for the people of Israel. Their country had endured years of warring disputes and battles. Some of the battles were as bad as the Civil War battle of Gettysburg which left thousands of dead bodies spread over the fields and valleys of that rural land.

In those days, the Babylonians were the region’s superpower. But King made a slight tactical error and decided to fight the reigning superpower. Thus the Israelite army fought the Babylonians and the Israelite army lost – and they lost big time: the Israelite army was wiped out, and all their young warriors were killed. Only unlike at Gettysburg, what was left of Israel didn’t have the ability to bury the dead. Instead, they were left in the desert, covering the sands as far as the eye could see in all directions. But that was only one of the indignities visited upon ancient Israel. Their temple was destroyed, their capital sacked and their people left in absolute poverty. The Book of Lamentations tells us: “All the people grown as they search for food but no one gives them anything.” Perhaps the “lucky ones” were those who were taken as prisoners back to Babylonia. It seemed the People of Israel had become like those dead bones strewn across the valley floor.

Faced with this pain, it seems reasonable that some Jews began to lament. “God can’t help us,” some said. “God won’t help us,” others argued. “There is no God. God is punishing us for our sins. We are here to rot and die in the desert. We have become like dry bones,” a few argued. Into this comes the Prophet Ezekiel. Listen again to his amazing story. And remember, since God is not a magician, this can’t be a historically accurate story. Instead, it is a teaching story which we have to figure out for ourselves.

Ezekiel says God brought him to 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.”

Ezekiel says God said “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 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 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.”

Ezekiel says God said: “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

Ezekiel says God said “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.’ 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. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 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.”

But if this isn’t history – if it didn’t really happen – why is it in the Bible? I suggest it is here because the very essence of God is to take that has died and make it come alive.

Look around: we live in a neighborhood of people who are little more than dry bones moving around in joyless circles.

Look around: we live in a state beset by drug addiction caused in part by people’s need to self-medicate because if they don’t their pain and loneliness is unbearable.

Look around: we live in a nation which is surprised to learn of the ‘new’ problem of opioid addiction. All that’s ‘new’ about this epidemic is the demographics of who is dying and their drug of choice.

Look around: we live in a valley of dry bones. And the question for each of us to answer is: what are we going to do about it? How will we respond? What hope can we offer – or even find for ourselves?

One answer comes from Ezekiel’s story: his teaching story that shares a metaphor for moving from the dry bones of our lives to the full and joyous life God intends for each of us. “Metaphorically speaking,” Ezekiel is asking us, “if God could make a valley of dry bones come to life, what more can God do with your living body, with your life, with your help?”

Our answer to Ezekiel’s question can’t come from one person or in one sermon or on one day. How we as St. Cyprian’s decide to breathe new life into our community should come through the community working together to plan our next steps. That is the work Ezekiel leaves us.

For almost 40 days we have walked through a Justice Lent. Next Sunday – Palm Sunday – we remember one of the most successful performances of street theater in history as we make the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Then we walk through Holy Week, ending our Lenten pilgrimage on Good Friday.

Everything changes on Saturday evening with the Great Vigil of Easter. On that most holy night of our church year, we will gather here to recommit ourselves to being part of the body of Christ in 21st century San Francisco. And we will be symbolically washed clean of things that have held us back as we are sprinkled with holy water. This clears the way for us to come together and celebrate a jazzy Easter Sunday here at 10 a.m. That is how we can transform our Justice Lent onto new ways of being spiritual in the months ahead. I hope you will join us for these remarkable points along the way to the Kingdom of God.

Let us pray: God of compassion, you know our faults and yet you promised to forgive. Keep us in your presence and give us your wisdom. Open our hearts to gladness, call dry bones to dance, and restore to us the joy of your salvation. May the People of God say: Amen.

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