Dem Bones

April 6, 2014   Ezekiel 37: 1-14   John 11: 1, 17-27, 38-44

Rev. Catherine Purves

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.

Now hear the word of the Lord.

     This familiar African American spiritual is based, of course, on our reading from the book of the prophet Ezekiel.  It probably makes you think of dancing skeletons.  That’s what you’ll see if you Google it.  I’m reminded of an anatomy class that I took in college when we were trying to make the difficult task of remembering which bone was connected to which a bit more lighthearted by singing about femurs and clavicles.  It’s unfortunate that such a significant biblical passage, which gave rise to a heart-felt cry on the part of an enslaved people, is now thought of as a vaudeville spoof.  Dem Bones is a serious song.  The vision of Ezekiel is a serious vision.  The raising of Lazarus from the dead is a serious miracle.  When God speaks and acts, amazing things happen to dem bones.

     It is certainly strange that we would try to turn something as serious as death into a joke.  Perhaps you too have heard sermons on these passages that avoid addressing the central issue of death directly.  But these texts are not about an unfulfilled life or about how God and faith in God can give you a new reason to live.  These readings do not deal with disappointments, confusions, or struggles.  They are not metaphors or purposeful overstatements of the human predicament apart from God.  We might try to jolly someone along who is mildly depressed or discouraged by helping them to envision dancing skeletons.  But our texts are not about depression; they are about death, pure and simple.  They are about the reality of death, not apparent death or approximate death, or something like death. 

     Dem bones were very dry.  Everything that had made them living, breathing beings was long-gone, and they were dismembered and scattered throughout the valley where Ezekiel stood.  Lazarus was in the tomb for four days.  According to popular Jewish belief at that time, the soul hovered around the corpse for three days hoping to reenter it, but after the third day the soul would, apparently, give up and leave the body for good.  Dem bones were dry, and Lazarus was well and truly dead.  Not a joking matter.  Not a minor setback on the road to self-fulfillment.

     What we have in our readings are two pictures of the deadliness of death.  Ezekiel’s vision depicts corporate death.  The valley was full of bones; it represented a vast multitude.  God said to Ezekiel, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.”  The raising of Lazarus, by contrast, was the resurrection of a single individual.  The particularity here shows how death can deeply wound the living who have lost a loved one.  Martha and Mary and the crowd who joined them in their mourning are genuinely suffering.  Jesus himself was said to be “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”  The Greek words actually imply something more akin to anger than sadness.  But we are also told that Jesus wept for Lazarus.  In each of these texts death is real, a genuine enemy, the ultimate threat before which we are powerless.  Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.  Those skeletons were not dancing.  No one was dancing.

     Oh, the euphemisms we use so that we won’t have to say the word death.  She passed or he passed away.  He has gone to be with God.  She’s in a better place now.  He’s with his dear wife.  We say these things in whispered tones, supposedly to encourage those who have been devastated by loss.  Do we really think that not saying the word ‘death’ will ease their pain?  Or are we trying to ease our own pain, or our own fear of death by not acknowledging it?

     At the funeral home we embalm our dead and pose them so that it looks like they are sleeping.  We dress them in carefully chosen clothes, surround them with flowers, and comment on how life-like they look.  We arrange photographs and display mementos of the person’s life.  Does that really make death any less deadly?  Do we weaken death’s power with make-up and carefully chosen words?  Or are we simply avoiding the obvious:  Dem bones are dry, and a grave is a grave.

     There’s no use being delicate with death; death is not delicate with us.  I think I prefer Martha’s no nonsense attitude.  When Jesus told them to remove the stone from the tomb she said (and probably not in a hushed whisper), “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.  This is the reality of death that we have to deal with.  Our euphemisms can’t defeat it.  Our efforts to disguise or deny its deadliness are simply delusions.  Death is death.  Ezekiel knew it.  The house of Israel knew it.  Jesus knew it.  Martha and Mary knew it.  And in our heart of hearts we know it too.

     In the face of that stark and undeniable reality, the valley full of dry bones and the sealed tomb where Lazarus’ dead body lay, we are powerless.  African American slaves languishing under the lash and the deadly brutality of slavery were also powerless.  And yet, and yet (!) in faith they sang,

Dem bones, dem bones, gonna rise again.

Dem bones, dem bones, gonna rise again.

Dem bones, dem bones, gonna rise again.

Now hear the word of the Lord.

Hear the word of the Lord.  This refocuses our attention on the only hope we have in the face of certain death:  the word of the Lord.  And that is the literal word of the Lord, the spoken word that was God’s power unleashed in the world.  It was the word that created everything, the word that was there in the beginning, and that spoke human beings into existence in the first place.  It was the active and powerful word given to the prophets that changed history.  It was the word made flesh in Jesus himself.  Now hear the word of the Lord, because the word of the Lord is the only power on earth that can speak to the reality of death, and the only power on earth that can defeat death.

     We are in the habit of referring to the Bible as the word of the Lord, and, of course, it is.  But it’s important to remember that it is only the word of the Lord because the biblical writers heard the actual word of the Lord spoken and proclaimed and they then saw it lived in Jesus of Nazareth.  It is the actual word that our two texts for today are highlighting, not a book that we can read to discover spiritual truths or encouragement.  It was Ezekiel prophesying that literal, spoken word of the Lord that caused the dry bones to come together and to be covered with sinews and flesh and then to be filled with breath or spirit.  It was Jesus, himself the word of God, who spoke God’s will in the face of death, in a loud and commanding voice.  “Lazarus, come out.”  That literal word of the Lord resurrected a dead corpse.  God speaks and God acts.  That is the only thing that can defeat death.  Dem bones gonna rise again.  Now hear the word of the Lord.

     We are able to stare down death because we believe in the spoken power of the word of the Lord.  These two passages show us how death has been defeated both corporately for us as the people of God, the church, and individually as people who must face our own death and who must live with the loss of people we loved.  Death is real.  Death is deadly.  Dem bones are dry.  A grave is a grave.  But God has triumphed over death.  God, who spoke all life into being with a word, can and will resurrect the whole people of God, and each of us individually, with a word, through the living word of God, Jesus Christ.  We need not fear death.  We don’t have to tiptoe around death, or deny death, or camouflage death.  Just as the tomb could not hold Jesus, so death has no claim on us.  Dem bones gonna rise again!  Now hear the word of the Lord! 

                         “You shall know that I am the Lord, 

                           when I open your graves,

                           and bring you up from your graves, O my people.

                           I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live…

                           then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.”