Not an End, A Beginning – The Rev. Michelle Meech
March 26, 2023
Have you heard this phrase before? You’re dead to me. Or he/she/they is dead to me. What do we mean when we say that? Granted, it may not be a phrase you or I have used very often. But at least to some extent, we have likely lived our lives this way.
Because the meaning behind this phrase is, that when someone is “dead” to us, we do not consider their needs or feelings when we are making decisions about how we order our lives. We do not welcome them, and we don’t care if they have what they need. We don’t think of them. We don’t want them taking up space in our consciousness. It’s like cutting someone off. Or, in more contemporary terms, ghosting someone. They are off our radar.
For example, I have said before that I cannot imagine anyone more “dead to us” as a society than people in prison. I’m sure that’s not the only group of people that you or I may not take into account when we consider who has a place at the table.
These lessons – from Ezekiel about the valley of the dry bones and from John’s Gospel about the raising of Lazarus – I usually preach about forgiveness when these lessons come up. Because they are about opening up to new life, unbinding ourselves and unbinding those who have become dead to us because they have hurt us in some way.
But there is another unbinding. About sin… the sin of ignorance, the sin of individual unwillingness, and the collective sin of societal privilege. In particular, the sin of white supremacy. And unbinding ourselves from this is the work of a lifetime.
From the prophet Ezekiel: The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in 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.”
The prophets comprise some of the most fantastical poetry and prose in the entire Bible. Ezekiel’s vision is an example of this tradition. His vision of a valley of dry bones and God’s commandment to Ezekiel to prophesy to them. It’s a piece of scripture so rich with imagery, you can almost see it like a movie –
Ezekiel is plopped down in a wasteland, the air so thick with dust that the sun is not able to cast shadows, it’s grey and dirty. Dry – a parched landscape. The air is still, stifling underneath the cloud of dust that presses down.
And as Ezekiel looks around for something, anything that will give him relief, he steps forward and hears a crunching. He feels the breaking under his foot and he immediately draws it back in confusion and horror and shock. He looks down… to discover that the ground, the grey desiccated ground that makes up the entire landscape as far as he can see, is a never-ending sea of bones; dry, brittle – parched of all life. Long-since forgotten. Discarded.
Even in his horror, he feels drawn to walk around… fascinated and revolted by what he sees. Cringing every time he steps on the bones. And he hears, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
Still sickened and in a state of astonishment and perhaps even outrage, he replies, “O Lord, God, you know.”
Now, scholars read this vision of Ezekiel’s as a metaphor. We’ve talked about the Babylonians invasions of Israel before. When King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, captured Jerusalem in 597 BC, he took many of the leading citizens of Jerusalem as hostages in Babylon where they were held for 50 years – about 2 generations. This was a way to prevent revolt in a newly conquered territory and establish control of the territory under the subjugating nation.
Ezekiel was one of the people captured and taken to Babylon. He was a priest and once captured, became a prophet shortly after his exile. So, this valley of the dry bones that Ezekiel is plopped in the middle of is the group exiles in Babylon. In verse 11, the Lord says, “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.”
The vision is one of hope – that they will be restored and that this restoration is a re-knitting of a body – a community of people, who will be brought out of their graves, resurrected from this exile and returned to their homeland. Verse 14 – The Lord says, “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.”
So, even in the driest, darkest of times, when we have no more life in us, when we are no longer capable of hope… when we have been shut away in our deathly tomb… and we cry out of the depths to God… the message is, that there is, in fact hope. Even though we are not able to call it up ourselves… even though we have no hope in us… God comes to us, breathing life into us, bringing us back to life.
What remains curious to me… is why God needs Ezekiel. Because, if it is God who acts, who brings hope and breath and life to us… then what exactly is Ezekiel’s role? What is important about the fact that God asked Ezekiel to prophesy? Why does God ask this Mortal to get involved?
I think the answer lies in the fact that we have great capacity to hurt one another, as individuals and as a society. As a matter of fact, most of the time when we hurt others, it’s because we are choosing societal norms over the one who is not included in or covered by societal norms. Most of the time when we hurt another, we are choosing to remain safe in our privilege instead of standing up to the injustice of the situation.
This means that we also have an equally great capacity to become healing agents in one another’s lives.
The hurting part is easy. We do it without thinking. As a matter of fact, it’s usually because we aren’t thinking – or because we are making thinking errors – that we end up hurting one another to begin with. We say something or do something in reaction or response rather than taking a moment to consider the full situation. Or we are too cynical or jaded to care. Or worse, we have come to believe that being considerate of others is somehow an infringement on our own rights. Like I said – thinking errors.
You see, the hurting part is easy.
The healing part, though… that takes more. It requires a strength that we don’t think we have, a vulnerability that we don’t think we can expose, and a commitment that we don’t think we can make.
And it requires repentance. Metanoia. A turning from our current line of thinking and toward God’s dream.
In short, healing requires Christ – the incarnate God. And so that means, healing requires us. This is why God needs Ezekiel.
Most of Jesus’ ministry was about healing – through the healing of individuals, Jesus healed deep wounds in the human race that were and that are still occurring because we continue to make thinking errors – either willingly because we don’t want to let go of privilege or unwillingly because we haven’t taken the time to listen to others and reflect on our own lives.
What was so miraculous about Jesus, and what is so important for us to understand about the Incarnation is this: Jesus showed us that the capacity to share God’s healing, life-giving breath is very much a human capacity. That we have within us, the capacity to call on God’s healing, breath of life in our world even when all we see is an endless wasteland valley of dry bones.
But it’s not easy. Reconciliation, forgiveness, boundless compassion. These healing capacities that we are called to incarnate are incredibly difficult, sometimes even more so than others. But they are the foundation for Resurrection – for our resurrection in Christ.
Today Jesus meets Lazarus in the tomb. It’s a mysterious and fantastical story – much like the work of the prophets. And whenever I read it, I’m struck by Jesus’ command: “Unbind him, and let him go.”
This signifies to us the importance of the community. This story is not about Lazarus, but about the community who, even though this person is moving, they are unable or unwilling to see that he is still bound up. He is unable to live. Jesus could have taken the cloth off of Lazarus but he doesn’t. He says: You must unbind him. You must let him go.
What we have to understand, my beloveds, is that white supremacy is a system… not individuals… this is a system in which we live… that insists that others must be dead in order for white people to live. Dead to rights and privileges. Dead to justice. Dead to fair treatment and equal pay. Dead to healthcare. Dead by the school to prison pipeline. Dead by physical violence.
Privilege, by its very nature, insists that someone is “outside” so that those who have a foot “inside” will do whatever is necessary to keep that foot inside and do whatever is necessary to keep others “outside.” To keep others dead. Not considerate of their needs or feelings. Not considerate of the situations in which they live. Not caring about their lives. Dead to us.
Christ is saying to us, Christ has been saying to us: “Unbind my people, let them go.” When we do, we will all be truly unbound.
It begins with telling the truth. The truth about who we are and who we have been in our collective lives. We cannot become the Beloved Community without doing this work.
If you read my missive in the St. John’s newsletter this past Friday, you know that I attended the Service of Apology for Slavery that was held yesterday at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC. A service that was presided over by the Bishop of our diocese, Andy Dietsche. It was a formal apology for the church’s participation in slavery and for continuing to participate in the long shadow of the legacy of slavery that is the valley of dry bones: The oppression of people of African descent, the biases that inhabit us both conscious and unconscious.
From the acknowledgement that New York City was the largest slave port even after the abolition of slavery in the state of New York to the ongoing revelation that so many of our buildings and congregations were built with money that came from the slave trade to the appalling truth that even today, there is a vast inequality between the roles that Black people are invited to take on in the Episcopal Church and the roles that white people are invited to take on in the Episcopal Church.
The Valley of Dry Bones. Crunching beneath our feet as we make our way into it.
Most importantly, both Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and our diocesan Bp. Andy, reminded us that an apology isn’t the end. An apology is a beginning. The beginning of an amendment of life. “Mortal, can these bones live?”
Bp. Curry even went so far as to say that this apology is a kind of sacrament, an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual work that we have begun. Not the end. But a beginning.
The beginning of an amendment of life in which see this valley of dry bones before us and we take up the courage, like Ezekiel did, to prophesy until we can feel the rush of the Breath of God and hear the roar of these dry bones clanking together, becoming miraculously resurrected as sinews and flesh start to form once more.
Not the end. But a beginning.