By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
Happy Pentecost! I imagine that most of us are familiar with the Pentecost story as told in Acts. It’s an exciting one, with wind and fire and miracles! The disciples are hiding away and then the Holy Spirit, like a rushing wind, fills the room they are in. The Spirit, like a fire, empowers them to share the good news of the resurrection publicly, and in many different languages and throngs of people join their movement. Christians often talk about Pentecost as the birth of the church.
Last time I preached on Pentecost, two years ago, I learned about the Jewish holiday Shavuot. This holiday, observed seven weeks after Passover, was the reason why people from so many places were in Jerusalem. Shavuot is a celebration of God giving the Torah to the Hebrew people at Mt. Sinai. It is a celebration of Divine revelation.
Pentecost is in keeping with that history of Divine revelation within the Jewish tradition. Pentecost does not replace Shavuot. Rather is it an invitation for us to re-place ourselves, as Christians, humbly within the family of faiths, recognizing ongoing Divine revelation across traditions.
But this is not the story I want to focus on today. Rather I want to step into another dramatic story of Divine revelation and the power of the Spirit to transform and re-create. It’s the story of the valley of the dry bones that Dahlia just read. It’s also the story that we hear each year during the Easter vigil. It is a story that begins with desolation and death.
The prophet Ezekiel, quite the eccentric dude, had the ability to see through the devastation of the moment in which he lived. He was given this vision during the time that the Hebrew people were in exile in Babylon. The valley of the dry bones could be understood as a battlefield. Why else would human remains have been left under the scorching sun? The desolation and dryness was also a metaphor for a lack of connection to the Divine. Ezekiel was making plain that the people breaking covenant with God had resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and their exile to Babylon.
Rather than being fleshy and full of breath, the people were bone dry. They were so dry they had come to pieces. This was the image for lack of connection to Spirit. A whole valley filled with bone dry people, who had come apart.
As I reflect on just the last year, the valley of dry bones does not feel like a metaphor from a long ago time. We also live among bone dry people, without a connection to Spirit who are coming apart. A reality steeped in white supremacy, colonization, and Christian triumphalism creates bone dry people.
A global pandemic has raged and the lives of the most vulnerable in this country and around the world have been taken due to a capitalist order that values profit above all.The climate crisis continues to fuel death as oil pipelines rip through sacred land and water. In two days it will have been one year since George Floyd was murdered. Although his killer has been found guilty, the policing system that formed Derrick Chauvin continues to perpetuate deadly violence. Xenophobic hatred has taken the lives of Asian elders and people of all ages, deepy rooted in the white supremacist ideals of this country.
This is the behavior of a bone dry people. This is the reality of a bone dry culture.
So when the Spirit of Life says to Ezekiel, “can these bones live?” Ezekiel answers honestly, “only you know.” Is there hope of new life for bone dry people? The Divine answers through a command to Ezekiel, prophesy to the bones! Speak truth to these bones! Call them to life!
“O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 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.”
In this community we rightly struggle with the title of Lord, given the legacy of coercive hierarchy in Christianity. In this instance, I think of Lord as subverting idolatry, just as Jesus as Lord subverted the worship of Cesar as Lord.
“You shall know I am the Lord,” means for us that white supremacy is not lord and capitalism is not lord and property is not lord. The Spirit that breathes life is Lord, not the systems of domination that take life and breath.
And the bones became enfleshed. They were reconnected to each other. But they still have no breath. So Ezekiel continued to prophesy, to speak the truth. “Thus says the Divine: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” And the breath, the Spirit, the ruach, filled them.
In the fourteen verses of this text, the Hebrew word ruach occurs nine times, and while it is variously translated as “breath” (verses 5, 6, 8, 10), “wind” (verse 9) and God’s own spirit (14), we would lose the metaphorical force of this usage if we neatly differentiated between the meanings. Whether it appears in one instance as breath or in another as wind, it is all the same life giving force. And it is all from God. And it is in this sense that breathing becomes a metaphor for divine presence.
It is the Spirit that gives life and it is the Spirit that will restore the people. No longer a bone dry people, they will find home again. This is a story of Divine revelation coming into the world to transform and re-create a people.
This revelation concludes with provocative imagery of the dead living again through the power of the Spirit.
12 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. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 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.”
To a people in exile, cut off from their land, and utterly subjugated by stronger nations, this promise of a return was miraculous. The Spirit of life will renew a people whose hope is gone and who have been cut off. This vision of restoration is wild and unbelievable. Through divine revelation and power the people are brought back from death. They are enfleshed and given the breath of life. They are promised that they can breathe again in safety.
Taken out of context, these last couple verses, of return to the land of Israel, could be used to justify the violent dispossession of Palestinian people. A similar misuse of the biblical text was employed by settlers in what is now the United States, to justify the genocidal removal of Indigenous people from their land.
In both cases a Christian supremacist ideology is foundational. It is important to remember that it was not primarily Jewish people who proposed that Palestine become the Jewish homeland just over 100 years ago. Rather it was Christians who believed that the second coming of Jesus was only possible if Jewish people returned to what is now the state of Israel.
Furthermore, it is the United States who provides the weapons used to batter Palestinian homelands. As Christians we must reckon with this reality, and name Christian supremacy, just as we stand in solidarity with Jewish and Palestinian peoples against the agression of the state.
A dominating white Christian order is cut off from Spirit and the dry bones continue to pile up. But the Divine calls us to prophesy to the bones, to be crazy enough to envision a different reality. To speak the truth, to live the truth, so that the dead can be brought back to life.
Rather than tumbling into a death spiral of dry bones, our faith compels us to stand shoulder to shoulder with our neighbors demanding an end to resource extraction and claiming housing as human right and unequivocally saying that Black Lives Matter. The Spirit is breathing life, reconnecting our bodies and giving us the power to stand as one united body in the face of oppression and death.
This is what happened with our Anabaptist ancestors as they embodied the truth of new life. This is what happened when confederacies of Indigenous people battled the Christian colonizers. This is what happened when enslaved people broke the back of chattel slavery in this country. This is what happened when workers rose up, demanding a 40 hour work week. This is what happened when Black people catalyzed a movement for deepened democracy in the United States that continues until today.
For our offertory this morning, we will hear a song popularized during the Civil Rights Movement, based on this passage from Ezekiel. The song is called Dem Bones, performed by the Delta Rhythm Boys. The words were penned by James Weldon Johnson in the 1920s in the context of his work with the NAACP. As he organized for the liberation of Black people, this vision of Ezekiel spoke to the power of the Spirit to free those enduring oppression.
The Spirit is breathing life into us even now. The Spirit is calling us to stand with others in this moment of great possibility. We must claim the power we have together to birth new systems. This is the divine revelation of Pentecost for us today. May it be so!