Breathe on these Dry Bones - Reservoir Church
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Summer at Reservoir 2023

Breathe on these Dry Bones

Lydia Shiu

Jun 11, 2023

Good morning. I’m Lydia, if we haven’t met, one of the pastors here at Reservoir. My pronouns are she/they.

I want to share with you a text that came to me as I’ve been doing some justice work. It comes from Ezekiel 37.

Let me read the text and pray for us to begin. A quick note, I changed the pronoun of God from ‘he’ to ‘they’ and the phrase “Son of Man” to “Child of Human.” My main reason for this is to neutralize the gender of the divine as well as the gender of the prophet so that more of us that do not identify as “he” pronoun can relate with the text as much as possible. So,

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The Valley of Dry Bones

The hand of the LORD was on me, and they brought me out, by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.

They led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. They asked me, “Child of Human, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”

Then they said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then they said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, Child of Human and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’ “ So I prophesied as they commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

Then they said to me: “Child of Human, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’ 

Let’s pray

God of Hope. God our deliverer. If there are any of us here now, going through a deep valley of what it feels like death, grief, and dry bones, I pray that you will begin to give us imagination. An imagination of how you meet us, of how you comfort us, of how you bring us together bone to bone and breathe life in us somehow. Though some of us may feel cut off, break through our pain, our depression, our apathy, our busy-ness, I pray that you will break through with a glittering beam of light and hope that we will lift our faces in the dark valley, to actually find you there, hear you there, and see you there breathing into us. May your Spirit land on us now, just as it landed in Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, we pray these things in your name, Amen.

Hey welcome to a downer sermon. I’m gonna talk about the valley of dry bones and stuff today, yay. But don’t worry though, it ends with hope, so let’s hang on together. Cause what are we if we’re not a beloved community that is able to

“rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn”?

As a pastor, as I meet with some of you, I’m so honored to get to ask how you’re really doing? Many of our conversations start light… “How are you?” “Oh it’s good. You know, can’t complain.” And as we get into it, things start coming out in between “Yeah it was a hard year losing my dad but I’m hanging in there.” Or “Work is stressful but it’s good, I got to hang out with a good friend this week.” Or “My partner and I broke up a few months ago, but I’m okay.”

When I ask the question, is there anything I can pray for you? People begin to open up about the not so pretty parts of their lives. Although, to me, these are the most beautiful parts because they are raw emotions that many of us sometimes don’t know how to talk about.

  • What do you say to someone that’s had a miscarriage?
  • What do you say to someone who is going through domestic violence?
  • What do you say to someone who is struggling to take care of their aging sick mom?

In “Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Trouble Times” by Soong-Chan Rah, he begins the book talking about church-planting in inner-city Cambridge. In Central Square, the neighborhood sandwiched between Harvard and MIT, which the university students refer to as “Central Scare,” a scary urban neighborhood into which you dare not venture.” Their hope was outreaching “to the inner-city neighborhood and fostering an intentionally multiethnic church community.” And he kicked off the church plant not with missional thrust of gospels, or even the Revelations, the final hope of a thriving city, but landed on a 6-week series on Lamentation to begin their ministry. That it all began with looking deeper into suffering, grief, and lament, and there they found their call for action.

In my own justice work I realize how much I find myself just angry, and wanting to cry. How much I actually feel helpless in working on a ministry area called Faith Into Action! I fell into a specific area of housing justice work that sought to build relationships with tenants of public housing. It involved mainly door knocking. Now doorknocking can be scary but with tenant organizing, I found that they opened doors and talked to me more than I anticipated.

I was met by a Russian immigrant woman, proud of her daughter who had played violin for the Boston Philharmonic, and how public housing had given her a chance to live. I met an older white woman with health conditions that shared that when the basement flooded it destroyed all her late mother’s things, and the most they did was give her a water pump that died after two weeks and put a black trash bag over the switchboard. “It’s still there!” she said to us. I met a younger black man, who mostly was quiet and nodded but did tell us that there aren’t enough parking spots and they ticket and tow the neighboring street relentlessly. They can’t even have friends over because of fear of getting towed.

The struggle, the suffering, the lament, the extended descriptions of why there is a valley of dry bones is not the popular part of Ezekiel. The famous one is the one I read today, dry bones coming alive. You might’ve heard it preach on before. It’s arguably the most popular section of Ezekiel. Do you know what content is in most of Ezekiel, which by the way is the book right after Lamentations? It’s a warning of judgements. It’s prophecies of “the end has come!” It’s full of violent descriptions, symbolism of sexual violence, of condemnation and wrath that befalls Jerusalem. 36 chapters of them is all about that, before we come to this beautiful text about dry bones rising up with new life.

You see, Ezekiel was a priest in exile. It was written during the time where Israelites were deported to Babylon. It’s a story about dislocation, migration, and colonization. That was the bed on which the dry bones laid on. And I can relate somewhat. As someone who has immigrated, though by choice (well not my choice, my parents choice) but really with not much choice, power, money, or options. I resonate with the feelings of being “cut off” from the homeland where you’re originally from and from the state in which you live where you have no voice or power.

‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’

It says.  Koreans especially have a bone to pick, that’s a pun, on this as a country that was colonized by the Japanese from 1910 to 1945. If you’ve read the book Pachinko, you get a glimpse into what it feels like to lose your identity, your people. Or if you are African-American in America of course, the history of slavery. As an Asian-American, it has been very interesting for me to see and experience and participate in the aftermath and post-slavery era we live here in America. And can I just be honest with you? It’s really tough to still see disparity, like the result of redlining that I’ve been pointed out to literally as we walked streets of Arlington, the town where I live.

So in imagining our text today, don’t just skip to the part about when the voice of God comes, the Spirit of God lifting them up with hope. Take a moment to think about the valley of dry bones you are standing on. What violence took place on this land for us to enjoy such prosperity? Ezekiel chapters 1-36 goes into it in horrific language, that I personally don’t enjoy as it often uses degrading metaphors of females. It’s ugly to say the least.

I’m going to share some valleys of dry bones that I’ve been witnessing.

When Ezekiel is quoting the exiled Israelites, the displaced, the deported in Babylon, saying,

“Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.”

When I read this it reminded me of so many of the tenants’ stories. A few weeks ago we played some of the tenants stories in a video. Later that week I got an email from one of our Reservoir members that live in public housing. Here’s what they said,

“My biggest issue is the rodent problem I have been having. I have complained and called their maintenance department numerous times and all they do is make me wait until the following Thursday (during my work hours) to send an exterminator who will only lay down some traps and then tell me that they hope the mice don’t return. How is laying down sticky traps going to keep them from returning?? Then they will offer to put bait boxes in my apartment. Who wants dead rodents in their homes???? On each visit, I have asked them to seal the apartment. They will tell me they can’t find any holes to seal. They say that maybe they are coming in from the heaters but nobody will remove the heaters to look. When they come to remove the traps there are few mice on one trap. Right around New Year’s Eve, they found 4 in one trap while I found a dead one in my bedroom!!! I am VERY squeamish and I was TRAUMATIZED when I saw that in my room! I was shaking, screaming, and crying. My legally blind uncle had to come and dispose of them because when I called maintenance they said it wasn’t an emergency and I would have to wait until after the holiday to get assistance. A dead rodent body in my freaking bedroom isn’t an emergency to them but I was over there hyperventilating….. In the year and half I’ve been there we’ve caught 26 of them! Ewwwww!!”

You know where this is? This is in Somerville. Somerville Housing Authority, this person wanted me to name.

And I’ve also been working with tenants but also Housing Authority Executive Director who feel shamed. One ED said,

“I kid you not, “I feel like a slumlord.”

Slums in Somerville. Slums in Brookline. That’s what we’ve been seeing. 

I share this with you because tenants in these places often feel cut off. Cut off from the system. They complain but it goes nowhere. And often these folks already feel like they can’t speak up in fear of losing their home in the first place.

This text came to me as the GBIO Housing Justice campaign is gearing up for a 1000+ action gathering on June 26th. As I imagine, how could it be that these folks that have been shut down, dismissed, mistreated, forgotten, cut off, could rise up and unite and become a vast army, the Spirit of God gave me this text. 

I share this with you because I remember learning in my preaching class in seminary to have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Because just as Ezekiel wasn’t just talking about the spiritual realm or life after death, just as real as his experience of being exiled, due to real destruction of his town, and real displacement of real people, because of power and politics, the good news and the gospel and the spirit of God working in and through our lives is absolutely about real lives right here in our town, yes in our backyard.

As I was preparing, I cried reading verse 14,

“I will settle you in your own land.”

Do you know what it feels like to be settled in your own room? Your own house? Your own land? If you do, then you know how important that is to you right?

I want to ask you, has

“The hand of the LORD brought you out by the Spirit of the LORD and set you in the middle of a valley”

yet? Verse 1 says,

“They led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley,”

God showed Ezekiel around, back and forth, to really see death. Have you been faced with very dry bones? If so, I grieve with you. No matter if that valley is living in public housing. Or surviving through cancer. Or struggling to have children through IVF and failing, or singlehood through longings of finding a partner, or aching through a foster child you love. I grieve with you as you fight with your brother or neighbor. I grieve with you as you try your best to get through the work day.

But you know what the good news of today’s text is right? Where did the breath of life, the Spirit of God, Ruach, flow through? It wasn’t breathed into the mountaintops. It wasn’t just through beautiful trees and flowers, even as we see and feel them nowadays outside. It’s in the depth of the valley, in the darkness of your bedroom, in the loneliness of your suffering. Just as Jesus resurrected after death, and the Holy Spirit descended upon those who were mourning the death of Christ. It is in the valley, there, the Spirit of God landed, not the mountaintops. 

And what I find funny is that God could’ve just done all this. But the text goes through this kind of tedious process, of bringing Ezekiel to this place, telling Ezekiel to prophesy, and so he does at first and the bones come together, but then they still didn’t’ have any breath on them, and I feel like God could’ve maybe even should’ve just went ahead and do the God miracle of breathing God’s life in them. But God goes on to instruct Ezekiel,

‘Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, Child of Human, and say to it… Come, breathe, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’

God told Ezekiel to tell Ruach, spirit, breath, what to do. It is only then, per a human’s command, that the Spirit of God moves into the dry bones causing them to rise up, a vast army.

Reservoir, I hear the rattling of your bone and your heart. You tell me that you care for the poor, that you care for the stranger, that you care about social justice and equity and diversity and inclusion. I know that many of you have seen and followed God’s spirit to the ends of the earth to sit with and grieve with dry bones of our times. I know some of you have been brought to it by choice or by circumstance.

I also know that many of us, we don’t see it. We haven’t experienced it. By way of privilege or just busy with our own lives, which I get. And I think that the hand of God has brought these stories of public housing to our church, Reservoir Church that is a member congregation of GBIO, because we decided back in 2016 that we weren’t just going to sit back while some Christians spoke for one kind of politics but that we will lean into public engagement that is inspired by the Holy Spirit uniquely through us, doing our part locally. 

And now that we have been brought to the valley of dry bones, now that the spirit of God has invited us to take a look at the conditions people are living in across the street, right in our own towns, how can we deny it? How could we not lament and grieve and call for justice in these troubled times? Could we dare to rise up locking bone to bone, arm to arm, audaciously casting judgment just as Ezekiel did, to the leaders of the modern day Babylon? How do we not get swept up by the breath of God to rise and bring life to this valley? Do we dare?

I know that many of us are already doing various things to bring the beloved community, the kin-dom, the reign of God to this world more alive and real, and there are a variety of things that our church does. And I’m curious, can we also unite together to show the power of Reservoir, coming in 100, 200 strong to unite powers with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, organizing 1000+ together? That’s what GBIO is doing on June 26th Monday night at 7pm at Temple Israel in Boston in person, envisioning a 1000+ vast army for the Housing Justice Campaign. As your pastor, which is kind of a modern day prophet, I beseech you, invite you to come down to the valley with me that day. And just see for yourself what the Spirit of God can do. 

And if you’re not local, or maybe you’ve got your own valley that you’re dealing with, I want you to take a moment to ask God where the spirit of God is breathing right now. What vision is God showing you that there is life, that there is a rousing of life, where you thought you had lost all hope? Where you thought you were cut off? Where is God connecting tendon and flesh to flesh? Do you believe that the Sovereign Lord can bring you up? May it be so, friends. May the Sovereign Lord put their spirit in you, now and forever more. Amen.