Please pray with me as we begin. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Who remembers the old tune “Dem Bones?” Now, because I can’t stop humming it this week, I figured you should join me. Delta Rhythm Boys
How many of you had any idea what that song was about when you first sang it in VBS or Sunday School? Not too many of us, I’m sure. I always thought it was something maybe my mother used to help her pass her med school exams. No, not really, but as fun as that song was, I never gave its meaning in relation to our faith a single thought.
Of course, if you never made the connection before this morning, you probably figured out today that the song comes from our Old Testament lesson which is found in Ezekiel. In the story, we see a vast plain strewn with bones…dry, sun bleached bones…something like horror story meets the Wild, Wild West…dry, dusty, lifeless bones as far as the eye can see.
But maybe what you didn’t know is that in this lesson, the bones represent the people of Israel. At that time, they had been devastated: the Temple was destroyed, the people were (mostly) taken captive into Babylon, and life as they had known it was over…a desperate situation. In fact, being cut off from the Temple meant they could not seek God, and being cut off from God meant personal and spiritual waste. Exile.
Exile. What does that mean? What do you think of when you hear that word? Outcast. Despair. Scattered. Alone. I think we have all been in places, maybe not dots-on-a-map places, but times and places where we have lived in exile.
Can you think of a time when you were cut off from all you held dear? When you felt scattered, cast aside or pushed away, relationships broken? Or maybe you have just been far away from anyone you love from anyone who can call you to life by calling your name…can you remember a time of spiritual desolation? When have you been dry as sun-bleached bones?
For me, an experience of exile comes every two years or so as we move around the country as the Navy dictates. It’s always hard to leave a community into which we have grafted ourselves, and it always takes a little while to feel fully grafted into the new one…and those in-between times can feel desolate, indeed.
Maybe for you it is the reality of loving someone who is bound by addiction to substances or to actions…alcohol, food, gambling, or spending. Or maybe you are an addict yourself. Maybe for you it is the idea that you are unlovable so you hide to protect yourself. Maybe your exile is a terrible, life-sucking job. Or the loneliness which settles in after you’ve lost your husband or wife, your life mate. For many in our community right now, exile looks like a seven story pile of slurry and mud and feels like despair as they continue to search for the bodies of neighbors and loved ones in Oso. Exile comes in many different looking scenarios, but they are all terrible and desolate for the ones living there.
In the year 2000, Dreamworks released a movie starring Tom Hanks called Cast Away. If you haven’t seen it, that’s your homework for the week. In the film, Chuck Noland is a time-obsessed systems analyst, who travels around the world solving efficiency problems at FedEx depots. He is in a long-term relationship, and although they want to get married, his schedule interferes with their relationship. Even on Christmas Day, he leaves to solve a problem in Malaysia, and his plane crashes in the Pacific Ocean. He is able to escape the plane, and after a terrifying night clinging to a raft on the open sea, he finds himself washed up on the beach of a deserted island.
Several packages from the crashed plane wash ashore. He opens most of them searching for things to help him live or to help him signal for rescue or to help him escape. He leaves one package, with a pair of wings painted on it, unopened, and he muses aloud about what the package could be or from whom it could have been sent. During a first attempt to make fire, Chuck receives a deep wound to his hand. In anger and pain, he throws several objects, including a Wilson volleyball from one of the packages. A short time later he draws a face in the bloody hand print on the ball, names it Wilson and begins talking to it.
As years pass, Chuck has changed to adapt to his situation. He looks drastically different, but the real difference is in the skills he has developed for survival, a key portion of which is his relationship with Wilson who has become a key figure in our hero’s sanity. Eventually, enough debris washes up on shore that Chuck uses his developed skills to build a raft. He takes Wilson and his mysterious winged package and boards the raft in an attempt to escape. After some time on the ocean, a storm nearly tears his raft apart, then "Wilson" falls from the raft and is lost, leaving him overwhelmed by loneliness and despair. Eventually, as all hope appears to be lost, Chuck and his winged package are picked up by a passing ship and returned to civilization.
There he learns that he has long been given up for dead; his family and friends had held a funeral, his fiancé has married. So he buys a new volleyball and sets off to deliver the winged FedEx package to its sender.
Now, I won’t completely ruin the story for you, but I think it is fair to say that this movie was a modern day retelling of our Ezekiel passage. Chuck is indeed in exile and as he returns from physical exile, he discovers that he has been assumed dead and so they’ve moved on…he’s been cast away by those he loves, and so the emotional exile continues.
Where is God in all of this?
In Cast Away, God says, “Chuck, don’t give up, I’m giving you a great imagination, a volleyball, and a winged package of hope.” (Sometimes God is a little less direct than we’d like.)
In our Old Testament lesson, God speaks directly to Ezekiel and to the valley of the bones…to those in desperate isolation…and God says, “Watch this: I’m bringing the breath of life to you and you’ll come to life. I’ll attach sinews to you, put meat on your bones, cover you with skin, and breathe life into you. You’ll come alive, and you’ll realize that I am God!”
By the grace of God, hope remains alive in the most seemingly hopeless of situations.
So, too, if we cling to our faith and leave our hearts open to one another, we discover that hope never dies even if our spirits become dry as bleached bones. Even in exile, whether caused by war or a decree, a storm or a landslide or addiction or by our own breaking of relationship, there is hope to be found in the grace and faithfulness of God. “I’ll breathe my life into you and you will live. I’ve said it, and I’ll do it. I promise.”
God will breathe life into us, we will be connected, and we will walk around! Dem Bones, Dem Bones gonna walk around, now hear the word of the Lord.* God does breathe life into us, and we do live.