Date: March 26, 2023 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)
Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Scripture Reader: Don Goodick
Sermon Title: “Can These Bones Live?”
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There is a small Catholic church in the countryside of Rwanda called Ntarama. It is a small town less than one hour drive away from the capital of the country. It may look like an ordinary church from the outside. But inside the church is radically different from what one would expect from a church. It is chaotic, with human clothing, remains, and other artifacts all over the floor. As you walk in, you can see shelves holding hundreds of human skulls on row upon row. Some of these skulls belong to children and adults. Some of them are still intact, and some are broken and partial. Underneath the shelves are the human bones that once were some people’s legs and arms. You might ask, “What kind of church is this?”
In 1994, within just 100 days between April and July, about 1 million people were being slaughtered in Rwanda. Most of these victims were Tutsis, a minority group once selected by the Belgians during the colonial period to rule over the majority. However, when the Hutu, the majority, gained political control, they started spreading hatred against Tutsis, sharing genocide propaganda. In order to justify their massacre, the Hutu extremists called Tutsis “cockroaches” or called them the “enemy within.” People who were afraid of losing their lives, children, and women came to this small church in Ntarama seeking refuge. They thought these extremists would at least respect the sacredness of the church and not invade. However, they entered armed with guns, knives, and grenades and killed about 5,000 people that day.
On April 5, 1995, the Ntarama church was converted into a genocide memorial and was dedicated to the lost souls on that tragic day. One might look around the inside of the church and wonder how one could expect any hope out of this brutal violence of human beings against another. Is there any hope in these skulls of women, men and children? And I believe that is the question Prophet Ezekiel asked when God brought him to the middle of a valley full of bones. God led him all around the valley to show all those bones lying there, just as anyone who visits the Ntarama church could see. Ezekiel says there was not a glimpse of life in them as they were very dry. And God said to him, “Mortal, can these bones live?” (v.3)
Have you ever faced a time in your life when there seemed to be no sign of hope? You just felt that your life was as good as dead? I am sure that you can think of a few. When I took my SAT during my senior year of high school, I thought that the exam was too difficult, and my life was over. After I came home, I told my father, “I guess I won’t be going to college next year. Can I stay with you?” When we are told not to come back to work anymore, we feel hurt, betrayed, and abandoned. When we become seriously ill, it is easy to lose hope and start becoming angry with ourselves and others around us. When you lose someone so dear to you, you wonder how you can continue in your life. No more joy, No more peace, and No more hope.
Ezekiel was a priest in Jerusalem. He was called to prophesy for his people in a time when he saw his people massacred, the temple destroyed to the ground, and his people taken as captives to the land of Babylon. As you can read from the previous chapters of this scripture, Ezekiel expresses anger and frustration. He does not have much hope for his nation as his people were defeated and scattered all over. He misses home, not just the physical home in the kingdom of Judah, but the presence of God whose glory resided in his nation and his city. Therefore, Ezekiel’s prophecy often reflects his feeling of homesick yearning to go back to what used to be in the past. And at least, he gives an honest answer to God, who asks him, “Mortal, can these bones live?” He says, “O Lord God, you know.”
This month marks three years since the pandemic swept across our nation and forced all the schools, work, gyms, restaurants, and churches to close their doors. We might have forgotten about it by now. But in New York City in 2020, between 600 and 800 coronavirus deaths were taking place, forcing the city to store the dead bodies in refrigerated trailers. Thanks to vaccination and treatment, most people do not need to worry about getting gravely ill or dying anymore these days. But several major news reports that there is a mental health crisis among people, especially our young children, as the pandemic is prolonged. In 2021, almost three-quarters of high school students experienced at least one adverse childhood experience, such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, food insecurity, or loss of a parent’s job during the pandemic. As a nation and the world, we all have been collectively experiencing dry bones together.
As God asked, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel answered, “O Lord God, you know,” Then, God told him, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 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.” Ezekiel prophesied as he had been commanded and he suddenly heard a noise, a rattling. He saw the bones coming together, bone to its bone. There were sinews on these bones, flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them.
Often, God calls us to proclaim hope in God and the good news of Christ in the middle of what seems like despair, hopelessness, and death. I once heard about Dr. Tony Campbell, a professor of preaching at Boston University, a long time ago. In his class, he would always begin with a couple of students preaching sermons. One day, a student, who was assigned to preach the sermon, approached Dr. Campbell and said, “My mother passed away yesterday. I am still trying to understand what happened. I just cannot preach today.” Dr. Campbell looked at her and said, “Yes, you are going to preach today. Your job is to preach the good news in the middle of the bad news.” Somehow, she did preach. And Dr. Campbell gave her a big hug saying, “That, my friend, was one of the best sermons I have ever heard.”
I believe that that is ultimately the task God has called all of us as God’s people today. We are called to prophesy, proclaim, and speak of life, healing, and hope when our world rages in fear, brokenness, and death. Therefore, Walter Wink, a New Testament scholar, says, “It is the prophetic task, in a time of unraveling hopes, to declare the unimaginable, to assert the rationality of the unthinkable, to call the people to new hope, grounded not on the past but on sheer faith that God is about to do the impossible.” We are people who dream the dreams of God, and see the vision of God to glimpse what God will do for God’s world that God called “good.”
God told Ezekiel to prophesy one more time, “Prophesy to the breath, mortal. Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” Ezekiel prophesized to these bodies without life. Then, the breath came into them, and they started standing on their feet, making a vast multitude. This is the breath, the wind, that hovered at the beginning of the world. This is the breath of God that turned the disciples full of fear into disciples as witnesses to the resurrection of Christ. Here, God sends the breath, the Holy Spirit, and breathes into us. In a world driven by violence, division, hatred, anxiety, and fear, the Holy Spirit breathes into us and helps us to bear the fruit of love, joy, and peace.
“Can these bones live?” God asked, and Ezekiel answered, “O Dear God, I do not know, but you know.” In Rwanda, the new government formed after the tragedy has been working very hard to rebuild the relationship between the Hutus and Tutsi. In a recent article from National Geographic, a journalist writes about his experience of visiting the church that once witnessed the unspeakable evil. He saw that today both Hutus and Tutsi fill gather at the church, as the body of Christ, women in sundresses, men in suit jackets, and children of all ages. They sing hymns, clap their hands, share the bread and cup, and recite the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The dry bones have been turned into living bodies of healing and reconciliation.
As I was preparing my sermon this past week, I realized that it has been almost one year since Aldersgate made the announcement that Pastor Lisa, who had ministered here for 13 years, was being appointed to another church. For some of you, I am sure that it was difficult to accept the news and wonder who your next pastor would be. I hope my time here with you for the past months has not been an experience of dry bones. For me, I have been grateful for these past months that my family and I have been welcome to Aldersgate as a new family. I love to see all your faces, sit with you, talk with you, and serve with you together. I come to church everyday not because it is my job. But I love to be here. I love to hear the sound of the door opening. I love to sit in the sanctuary and pray in silence.
Recently, there was a survey by a research group called Barna. What they found out was that after two years of pandemic stress and deep divisions in society that also crept into the church, many clergies were burned out. When the pastors were asked if they had seriously considered quitting, 42% said yes, especially the younger ones. I do not think that it is just clergy. Many people are experiencing burnout, chronic anxiety and depression, and fatigue. As a pastor, we are told that we need to take care of ourselves by practicing self-care. We can do it only to a certain point. But eventually, it is God who restores us in the meaning of our life, the direction where we are going. And I am grateful to God that so many of you help me experience the love and restoring power of God through your kind words, hugs, and even some food.
And God continues to call people like you and me to make a new family in God because God commissions us to prophesy to our community and to our world. God told Ezekiel, “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.” Wherever we witness the dry bones, God calls us to pray, prophesy, and live out the good news of Christ that God turns hatred to embrace, sorrow into joy, and death into life. And we can boldly proclaim the vision of God of healing and restoration today because Christ, whom God raised from death on Easter morning, empowers us to proclaim joy, peace, and life today.
 Peter Gwin, “Revisiting the Rwandan Genocide: How Churches Became Death Traps” in National Geographic(https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/article/revisiting-the-rwandan-genocide-how-churches-became-death-traps?loggedin=true&rnd=1679791474018) Accessed on March 25, 2023.