Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
“Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” Ezekiel 37:5
There is a dominant theme throughout the entire Bible: God sides with the oppressed. Consider the Hebrew Bible. From the story of slavery in Egypt to that of exile in Babylon, the most memorable narratives involve a God and God’s people who stand against systems of oppression. Moses could have remained comfortable within the privilege of Pharaoh’s palace. Yet he risked it all to side with the enslaved. He risked it all to name societal corruption that those in power took for granted as usual.
The Hebrew prophets spoke of God’s care for the most vulnerable in Israel. Men like Amos had little tolerance for those who “trample the head of the poor and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:7). Nor did Jesus complicate or obfuscate his divine call. He inaugurated his ministry by quoting from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18). When we couple this with what has to be considered Jesus’ boldest and bravest parable in Matthew 25, we encounter a Christ who calls us to identify with the hungry, the foreigner, the ill, and the imprisoned. For as we treat them, we treat God.
Many of you know this already. This is particularly true among our graduating seniors. I have taught them. I have learned from them. I have listened to their stories and heard about their commitment to justice and righteousness. Many of them are idealists. As they prepare to go off to medical school, law school, consulting, education, and the performing arts, they desire to use their knowledge to expand access. They have visions of a world where no child has to languish in an under-resourced classroom that will soon be replaced by a jail cell. They dream of a world where families in Korea can visit relatives freely across the North and South; children in remote regions of China and Central Africa can have access to advances in healthcare, and parents in the United States can send their children to school without fear that they will return in a body bag.
Hence, I do not question their desire. Though I do fear eventual despair. Our students have visions of a just world, even as they may underestimate the obstinate structures of injustice. They do have a commitment to more compassionate and loving communities, also as they mentally elide the intransigent nature of suffering and evil. Corruption and injustice are Lernean Hydras of Greek lore. Whenever we cut off one head, it seems two reappear elsewhere. That is the history of social progress. We abolish the serpentine system of slavery in America, and then segregation and a racialized prison system immediately take its place. We overcome select barriers to women in the workplace, and immediately real wages begin to drop the cost of childcare becomes unfeasible. We celebrate technological advances that improve the quality of life and connect us globally to a more beloved community. Though these same technologies make the weapons of international warfare less conspicuous and thus much more sinister. Our fight for goodness and righteousness is not a matter of desire. It’s a matter of inevitable despair. It’s not a matter of dreams and ambition. It’s a matter of moral despondency and ethical exhaustion.
In the words of Langston Hughes:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
These are the questions the prophet Ezekiel wrestles with in this morning’s lectionary text. God takes Ezekiel down and sits him in a graveyard—a graveyard full of despair, despondency, and desiccation. In this particular story, the graveyard represents the entire nation of Israel. God asks Ezekiel, “Can these dry bones live again?”
To understand the point of the story is to interpret the meaning of dry bones in the ancient Jewish context. In several proverbs and many psalms, healthy and dry bones are associated with hope and despair. Cheerfulness, joy, and hope are all signs of healthy bones. This is why the author of Proverbs 15:30 said, “a cheerful look brings joy to the heart, and good news gives health to the bones.” But dry bones signify those who live physically but have died spiritually and emotionally.
So God led Ezekiel to the heart of Israel’s problems and placed him down in the midst of their despair; in the middle of their seemingly helpless and hopeless situation. And God asks Ezekiel, “Can these dry bones live?” God is not asking Ezekiel whether the exiles will survive physically—whether they will have life or not. God is asking the prophet if despite their circumstances will God’s people discover a way to lift up their heads and have life more abundantly? “Ezekiel, can these dry bones live?”
This is the perennial and persistent question that the problems of life ask us each day? Can our dry bones live? Life’s trials and tribulations can sap health and hope from our bones.
High school students across this nation are asking this morning, “Can our dry bones live?” To hear a young woman who lost ten of her classmates and teachers at a mass shooting at Santa Fe High School this week say, “It’s been happening everywhere. I’ve always kind of felt like eventually, it was going to happen here, too” is a damning assessment of the state of our nation. As one student who survived the Parkland, Florida tweeted this weekend, “It’s so difficult to shout #NeverAgain with so much conviction when I am constantly losing hope for our country and government. I can only say the same phrase so many times, but it keeps happening again and again and again and again…” Can our dry bones live?
Families across this nation are asking this question. According to a report released by the United Way this week, nearly 51 million households don’t earn enough to afford middle-class basics. To put this in perspective, we are talking about housing, food, childcare, healthcare, basic transportation and cell phone. 51 million households represent 43% of the U.S. population. And if unemployment is allegedly at historic lows, this tells us something about just compensation within our labor force. Due to gross economic inequality in the U.S., the cost of “living average” has far outpaced real wages. Thus, almost half of American families are asking the question, “Can our dry bones live?”
This is the world you are entering graduates. A world full of ambition and deflation; a world of expansion and negation; a world full of hope and despair. Yet this is not new! Nor are you unique. Sure, our circumstances may be different, and our problems may be particular to this period of time. But for thousands of years, back further than Ezekiel, people with less imagination, talent, and resources have had to look down into graveyards of despair and answer the question, “Can these dry bones live?”
This is the point of the story. No matter how bleak the situation. No matter how dark the night. No matter severe the season, we need not give in to despair. No environment is too arid, no hour too hopeless, and no gravestone is too heavy for us to concede to the worst seasons that life has to offer.
God asks Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these dry bones live?” And Ezekiel puts his faith back in God, “Lord, you know.” So God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, and then I will cause breath to enter the bones, and they shall live.
Ezekiel has faith in God, but a positive end result also depends on his own willingness to act. In other words, God is saying to Ezekiel, “if you give it your best, I will do the rest.” Why? Because our extremity is God’s opportunity. When we have reached our limits, that is when we put our trust in a God that has no limits.
So as we prepare to leave this place—whether you are graduating this year or fifty years ago—I am here to encourage you. Prophesy to the bones. Perform CPR on what may appear to be the corpses of our current condition. Speak the truth in love, hope, and an idea of what is possible. Never cease.
No matter your field of human endeavor. Regardless of your vocation or avocation. When you witness others making peace with a mediocre status quo. When you feel yourself falling asleep to the lullabies of entitlement. And when you see mendacity and duplicity become markers of success and social promotion; you speak to the bones. Speak words of empathy and compassion. Speak words of care and concern for the most vulnerable. Speak words of inclusion and acceptance. Speak words of love! Might there be times when we will be proven powerless to stop injustice? Yes. But there must never be a time when we fail to protest! Shall these bones live? Ultimately, yes. But only if we prophesy to the bones without ceasing. And then we will witness the dry bones of hate, evil, and suffering, revive into dancing, United bodies of loving, kind flesh.
I know this story may seem like science fiction. I understand that telling you to go prophesy to the bones of our arid age may come across as an impotent platitude. Nevertheless, the intellectual activist and artist Walidah Imarisha put it this way. All movements for justice in this nation’s history have been like science fiction movies. We are painting pictures of the not now and not yet to envision what is possible. She calls it visionary fiction. Love, peace, and justice are fictions that we are working to transform into fact. They are more profound truths that we are attempting to realize and attain.
This is why we need you to remember this fact today. We need you to be strong.
We are not here to play, dream, or drift.
We have hard work to do and heavy loads to lift.
Shun not the struggle for it is God’s git. Be strong.
Say not the days are evil—and obsess over who’s to blame.
Then fold up thy hands and acquiesce, and say “What a shame!”
Stand up, speak out, and speak boldly in God’s name!