March 26, 2023
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Dry Bones —Rev. Brent Gundlah

Right around last Labor Day, after almost two and a half years of managing to avoid it, I finally ended up catching myself a nice case of COVID.

As anyone who’s had this dreaded disease can tell you, there’s not really a great time of year to get it — COVID is lousy regardless of what page the calendar on the wall is turned to when it comes knocking on your door — but you might think that having it in the summer wouldn’t be too bad.

After all, it’s not like you’d be trapped inside the house as you’d be if you were unlucky enough to have contracted it during the cold, dark and snowy winter that we’re currently experiencing here in Utah.

But, as I’m sure you all know, summer here in Utah ain’t no picnic either. Which was great because, when I came down with COVID, it just so happened to be right at the beginning of a heat wave — the one in which the daytime high didn’t fall below a hundred degrees for the entire first week of September.

After a couple days of feeling sorry for myself inside the house, I decided to venture out in order to alleviate my boredom and to catch a breath of fresh air (or at least what passes for fresh air during summer in Salt Lake City, anyway).

I settled into my folding lawn chair and just sat there, baking like a potato in the summer heat, because that was all I had the energy to do at that point. Sure, I was in the shade, but a hundred and five degrees in the middle of the desert is hot and dry no matter where you’re sitting.

I was sick, I was tired, I was frustrated, I was thirsty, I was hot — in a word, I was miserable. Every living creature seemed to have had the good sense to find somewhere else to be that day — well, every living thing besides me, that is. It was about as close as I’ve ever come in my life to Ezekiel’s experience out there in the valley of the dry bones.

But after a few hours of sitting there in motionless self-pity all by my lonesome, I heard a sign of life that made me sit up and take notice. It started out as a faint rustling of leaves in one of my neighbor’s trees that got progressively louder as whatever was making the noise got closer to me. And then it suddenly appeared: up on the power line that spans my backyard was a single, solitary grey squirrel.

Judging by it’s size, it was neither a baby nor an adult but somewhere in between. It’s most distinctive feature, as far as I could tell, was the absence of the bushy tail that one customarily associates with such a creature. All that was present where that large tail should have been was an disproportionally small one, leading me to infer that this particular squirrel had, at some point in the course its short life, experienced an even worse day than I was having.

Now, I’m no expert on mammalian anatomy but even I know that a squirrel’s tail isn’t merely a decorative feature, it’s also a practical one; they use their tails to help them keep their balance as they scamper along branches and, of course, power lines.

As my new rodent friend left the relative safety of the tree and began its high wire act, I watched completely transfixed, with a mixture of worry and awe. Its journey from Point A to Point B sure wasn’t the most graceful thing I’ve ever seen, but it was incredibly inspirational. That darned squirrel used all that it had — every ounce of its life energy and its unusual little tail — in order to hang on to that power line and complete it perilous thirty-foot trek in that oppressive heat.

I actually cheered out loud for that squirrel when it reached its final destination. You could chalk up my excitement to boredom from being cooped-up in the house for days or to delirium from the fever I was running, but there was more to it than that. As it leaned against the telephone pole to which one end of the wire was connected, that exhausted little creature made a point of striking a pose and shaking its poor excuse for a tail — seemingly, to commemorate its recent accomplishment. One small step for squirrel, one giant leap for squirrel-kind — and a triumph for all living creatures everywhere.

Up there in the stillness of the scorching summer sun of Utah, life persisted, life endured — you know, kind of like it did in that valley of dry bones in which Ezekiel found himself long, long ago. Because that’s what life does.

In today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, Ezekiel shares a vision he received from God. In this wild story, “the spirit of the Lord” transports the prophet to “the middle of a valley” full of dry bones. God then asks Ezekiel a rather odd question: “Mortal, can these bones live?”

“O Lord God, you know,” is how he responds. It’s not much of an answer, really, but I can understand why Ezekiel chose to sidestep the question. On the one hand, experience tells us that dead things don’t just come back to life; on the other hand, though, all things are possible with God. On yet another hand, doesn’t God already know the answer?

In any event, God commands Ezekiel to tell these piles of bones to stop lying around and get back to living; and then God restores them to life. Like I said, it’s a wild story. This kind of stuff doesn’t exactly happen every day — well, at least not to me anyway.

Then again, this the same God who created the heavens and the earth out of the formless void and the darkness.

Its the same God who said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

It’s same the God who made living beings to fill the air, the land, and the sea.

It’s the same God who gave life to a chosen people through an elderly, childless couple.

It’s same God who parted the sea and liberated people from slavery in Egypt, and then led them through the wilderness to new life in the Promised Land.

And it’s the God who showed us the way to eternal life in Christ.

Sure, it’s all pretty strange; and absolutely none of it makes any sense; but, like I said, everything is possible with God.

And in the more peaceful, joyful and prosperous seasons of our lives, this is something that we seem to understand and acknowledge with relative ease. But every now and again, amidst the depths of despair we experience wandering through our driest deserts, life can seem absent and God can seem distant — and in such times we need to be reminded that God is always present and that life endures. That’s what Ezekiel’s ancient prophecy is really all about.

As he tells the Israelites about his strange vision, he’s speaking to a people who have lost all hope, and here’s why: Their land has been conquered once again (this time, by the Babylonians) and their temple, the very center of their life together, has been destroyed. Families and communities have been separated by either death or distance; many of their loved ones have been killed and many of those who survived have been forced into exile in a far-off land.

The dry bones over which God and Ezekiel meet represent the broken spirits of the Israelites who are going through some pretty terrible times. The matter under discussion is an immediate and pressing one for those to whom Ezekiel is speaking. Can the bones of their society somehow live? Can these dry and lifeless people experience life anew? As farfetched as it must have seemed to them right then and there, the answer is actually “yes.” It was true then, and it’s still true now.

There are signs of it everywhere, if just take the time and make the effort to look; even in our driest deserts, where death seems omnipresent and all hope seems lost, God is always present and life endures.

In a world still reeling from the effects of COVID;

in my backyard sickbed in Sugar House on a scorching summer afternoon;

in the Salt Lake Valley where one of our greatest natural resources is on the verge of disappearing;

in the church — here and elsewhere — as attendance and participation aren’t what they used to be;

there are reminders all around us that God is always present and life endures.

But here’s the catch: God actually seeks our participation in all of this.

Let’s just say that you believe in the whole idea of an omnipresent and omnipotent God — a God who is everywhere, knows everything and can do anything. Such a God could have made those dry bones come to life in the desert without any help from anyone — heck, such a God could have made it so that those bones never got dried out in the first place.

But what does this God do? This God calls upon Ezekiel — who, incidentally, wasn’t exactly a guy that anyone was going out of their way to hang out with — to be a partner in this whole life-giving endeavor. “Prophesy to the bones, to the breath, to the people; go give them all a pep talk and I’ll take care of the rest. Your do your part and I’ll do mine.” For whatever reason, this is the way it’s goes in God’s realm: We call out to God for help, and God calls right back out to us. You know what they say: Teamwork makes the dream work.

“Dear God, please see us through this pandemic!”

“Why don’t you love your neighbor as yourself by staying home, putting on a mask, and getting vaccinated?”

“Dear God, please make violence and war end!”

“Why don’t you stop shooting at each other?”

“Dear God, please don’t let the Great Salt Lake dry up!”

“Why don’t you be better stewards of the resources I gave you?”

“Dear God, please help that little squirrel with no tail make it across that power line!”

“Okay, but why don’t you cheer for him like he’s your kid playing quarterback in the Rose Bowl?”

“Dear God, please help our church survive and prosper.”

“Okay, but why don’t you get out there and help the least of these?”

God is always present and life endures. And God needs our presence in order to make life thrive. I’ll be darned if I know why, but it’s true.