A Sermon that was NOT preached on Passion Sunday (The Fifth Sunday of Lent) during
The Great Pandemic of 2020,
The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
March 29, 2020 11:00 am
The readings for this day are Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, and John 11:1-45.
Mortal, can these bones live? Ezekiel 37.3
Just as Wolfgang the Wolf wondered if the olive tree would come back, so the prophet Ezekiel is asked if the dry bones would live again. The dry bones are a metaphor for the people of Judea who were in exile in Babylon. Would the people of Israel would ever return home to Jerusalem and Judea? Would they ever rebuild the Temple? Would the Judeans survive as a distinct people?
Ezekiel lived in the first half of the 6th century BCE. He was an adult and a priest in Jerusalem when the Neo-Babylonians came and besieged it in 597 BCE. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquered the city, and King Jehoiakim of Judah appears to have died in the siege. His son and heir, Jeconiah, along with the elite and perahps some ten thousand other Judeans were deported to Babylon. as well, the Temple of Solomon was emptied of its treasures. Jehoiakim’s brother and Jeconiah’s uncle, Zedekiah, was appointed king by Nebuchadnezzar, although he ruled over only the poorest of the people who remained. While in exile in Babylon Ezekiel began to have his visions. Ten years after the first seige and conquest Zedekiah revolted, and Nebuchadnezzer again came and took Jerusalem by force. This time he destroyed the Temple, tore down the walls, and ravaged the city, driving out the survivors from the city. Zedekiah watched as his sons were executed, and then he was blinded and taken as a prisoner to Babylon, where he eventually died. Even more people were taken into exile in Babylon. The House of David and Judea seemed to come to an end.
It was reasonable for Ezekiel to despair. The practice of moving populations around, and cutting a people off from their educated upper class, was common in the ancient Middle East. The Assyrians had done the same with the northern Kingdom of Israel, removing the people from Samaria and placing them in various centres far to the east, in what is now Iraq and Iran. We hear of Israelites being recruited by the Assyrians for their armies after their deportation, but after that they disappear from history, presumably being assimilated into the peoples surrounding them.
The Judeans, the last of the people of Israel, seemed as good as dead. They were suffering, And yet Ezekiel had hope, a hope that was given to him in the vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones. “Can these bones live?”
“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. Then he said to me, “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 37.4-10
Ezekiel is told that “these bones are the whole house of Israel”. Just as they came together and lived and breathed, so would Israel live again – a hope that was later fulfilled after the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians and Cyrus the Great told the Judeans they could go home.
Of course, the vision of bones coming to life may also be a vision of the Resurrection – the coming to life of the dead to receive judgement from God. This feeds into the Gospel reading, where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead as a preliminary to his own resurrection. We are not given the sense that Lazarus is raised to eternal life – but that he was dead and now lives is a prefiguring of Jesus and a witness to who he is.
This vision was interpreted as hope by another people who were also suffering a long passion. In the 1920s an African-American writer and songwriter namedJames Weldon Johnson recalled how the Black preachers of his youth preached on Ezekiel 37, not just as a text about the resurrection, but about the rebirth and rising of a people sore oppressed; what the Judeans were in the 6th Century BCE the African-Americans were from the 17th to 20th century in America. He wrote the lyrics and melody which then went through various interpretations. While often reduced to being a child’s tune and stripped of any deep meaning, Gospel singer Albertina Walker took it back to its inspiring roots in the version here from 1972.
Her (perhaps improvised) lyrics at the end are fascinating:
We got some deacons in our church, sure ain’t nothin’ but a dry bone.
We got some mothers in our church, sure ain’t nothin’ but a dry bone.
We got some preachers in our church, sure ain’t nothin’ but a dry bone.
Come on and hear the word, hear ye! C’mon and hear ye the word of the Lord!
A Vast Multitude
Today we are required, under penalty of fine and possible arrest, not to gather in our churches, and to remain in our homes except for essential reasons. We might feel we are in a kind of exile, forbidden to meet for meals and coffee, prohibited from our usual activities, needing a permit just to walk the dog, and required even to refrain from gathering for worship. For many of us this raises all kinds of concerns for our church here and beyond. In an era when church attendance is already in decline, this is all quite inconvenient.
Of course, for some, it is more than an inconvenience. Those of us with health issues or are above a certain age are more likely to become very ill, and the mortality rate is frightening. The pandemic does not spare prime ministers and princes, and even the healthy can succumb to it. Many of our friends and relatives are incapable of working, or have to find new ways of accomplishing their tasks; people are spending all their time on internet video conferences, trying to teach, meeting with students, and carrying on as if this is all quite usual. People’s investments are in freefall, and the value of pensions, paid in sterling but spent in euros, is going down. Children are home from school, and families are spending more time together than they are used to, and not surprisingly, tensions are rising. Frontline workers are stressed, wondering if they are overexposed to infection.
Can these bones live? Even in this exile we can still have some hope. In the United Kingdom people are applauding the NHS. In my home country of Canada people are practicing radical “caremongering”, a spontaneous effort to ensure that everyone is alright and has what they need. The Church has rediscovered the fact that it exists even when it is not in the building or carrying on its liturgies.
Just as an olive tree recovers from a severe pruning, so we will come back. The pandemic will end. The economy will roar back. Greece will get back to tourism and great food. And the Church will come together, and these dry bones will once again stand up and put on flesh.
As we suffer the indignities of this pandemic, let us not forget the promises of God. Hear the word of the Lord!
A Note on the Calendar: In the liturgical tradition of the Western Church (Roman Catholic, Anglican Lutherans, and others) this was commonly known from Medieval times as “Passion Sunday“. It was a time in Lent when various practices began, such as veiling the crosses in the church. In the liturgical renewal that began of the 1960s, and was implemented in the reforms of Vatican II in the Catholic Church, and in many provinces of the Anglican Communion, it was felt that this name properly belonged to the Sunday before Easter, as it was the traditional day on which one of the synoptic gospel passions would be read. In the Anglican Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church in the United States this Sunday, then, is simply called “The Sunday of the Passion”. In the Church of England there is a desire to adhere to the older tradition, and this time is known as Passiontide – the week leading to and including Holy Week. There is a consequence shift in the practices in Lent in the resources of Common Worship.