The Most Rev’d Dr Jeffrey Driver Archbishop of Adelaide
DEAD BONES IN THE MIND
One of the places where I will launch my boat in retirement as I engage in occasional piscatorial pursuits,is a spit of land on the Gippsland Lakes called “Marley Point”. It’s an English name that means “Pleasant wood by the lake”.
But for years the place had a more sinister name: “Boney point”.
In a dark part of Australia’s history with its original inhabitants, Gunai-Kurnai people were herded out onto that narrow strip of land surrounded by water and massacred.Bones littered the place for a long time.
Scattered and mute witnesses to horror.
In a vision, Ezekiel stands in such a place.The valley of dry bones.Like a field after a battle, with so many bones,they lie there unattended, half buried or not buried,skeletal scattering in a place made unclean by their presence.
Preachers have seized on this passage as a graphic story to illustrate the end times resurrection of the dead, captured in the lyrics of that well known spiritual: “Dem bones, Dem bones gonna walk around”.
But this story is mostly about things in its own time.And in particular it is about what is going on inside the consciousness of the People of God, exiled as they are, in Babylon.
Ezekiel’s vision is about dead bones inside the mind.
Israel had been through a time of massive devastation. Invasion by Babylon in 597. Rape, pillage, deportation. Jerusalem plundered. The temple sacked.
Having been in denial about their impending fate, when it actually comes about the People of God are thrown into a despair that sees no hope.
They are caught in a bleak narrative of death,which Ezekiel gathers up in a sort of mantra,more obvious in the original language,a sort of Hebrew death rap, in verse 11:“Dried up – our bones / perished – our hope / cut off – ourselves”.
The rap of hopelessness. Inevitable ending. No escape.
They were overwhelmed and captive. But not just to the Babylonians! They were captives to their own narrative of hopelessness and death.
Over forty years in ministry,I have heard many outside the Church predict its death. But in recent years,and as our world has changed almost as massively,if not as violently, as it did in Ezekiel’s time;and as tragic revelations of abuse haveshattered confidence in church leadership,there has grown an assumption in parts of our church, of inevitable decline, of dying;an almost subconscious presumption of dyingamong those within.
The narrative of dying. Dead bones in the mind.“Dried up – our bones / perished – our hope / cut off – ourselves”. The rap of hopelessness.
But in Ezekiel’s vision, God questions this resignation to death among the People of God.“Son of Man – Mortal man – can these bones live?”
If Ezekiel was a 21st century Australian Anglican, he might have drawn upon a raft of resources before answering this fairly confronting question.
He might have pondered the General Synod Taskforce Report on Structures and Viability.
He might have read a number of volumes on the mission-shaped Church.
He might have been lobbied with the viewpoint that accepting one particular statement of doctrinal orthodoxy was essential for any sort of life in a dead-bones church.
And he almost certainly would have seen the consumption of a few reams of butcher’s paper, or their digital equivalent.
“Mortal man – can these bones live?” “You know Lord.”
Ezekiel’s response is not a cop out.It is not just the evasion of a difficult question. It is not even the admission of ignorance.
“You know Lord.”
Ezekiel takes us to the deeper place.Beyond our planning, our strategies.Our human efforts to get things right, valuable as they are.
“You know Lord”.
Ezekiel understands that the life of the People of God, comes from God.
The future of the People of God comes from God.The capacity of the people of God to stand comes from the breath of God.
“Prophesy to these bones”, Ezekiel. Let them hear the voice of God!
And in the valley of Ezekiel’s vision, there is the rattling, a stirring. “Prophesy to the breath”, Ezekiel.Let life-giving God-breath enter into them!
And they lived.And they stood upon their feet And there was many of them.
Ezekiel’s vision questions the narrative of inevitable death prevailing among the exiles in Babylon; the dead bones in the mind.
Though all evidence seems to support their hopelessness; the power of Babylon had prevailed, it seemed.God had proven impotent,their faith had proven inadequate.
Israel was going the way of all nations; they rise and fall. A nation ends in exile.The dream is over.
“Dried up – our bones / perished – our hope / cut off – ourselves”.
But then there is still no shortage of dry bones out there.
Our world knows plenty about the dead dry bones of depression, drug abuse, lonely loveless relationships, unemployment, youth suicide and family conflicts that won’t budge.
We know about the dry bones on the road to peace in Iraq and Syria or South Sudan. We know about the violence on our own streets
Dead ends and dry bones are the way of the world. “Mortal man – can these bones live?”
Can those embalmed with greed come alive with compassion? and can marriages dead in the water find new winds of love? and the suicidal young find the clear eyes of hope? and those dry with depression find the sparkle of joy? and can rejected refugees dance on the home-soil of justice and mercy? “Mortal man – can these bones live?”
Into the pessimism that some call realism, comes that penetrating God question, disturbing the acceptance of dry bones endings, reminding God’s people whose they are, and where their life really comes from. “You know Lord”
And so in a valley of bones and despair, a prophet has a vision.
And somewhere in the story a dry old man and a barren old woman give birth to a child and dream of descendants to come like stars in the sky.
And in another place, living water comes from a rock-hard place and a young woman bears a son knowing his love and suffering will break her heart, and a young man stands on a hill and pronounces beatitudes upon the poor and those hungry for righteousness, and woes upon the religious insiders, and on another hill he reaches out and embraces all pain and a garden tomb is found astoundingly emptyand death somehow is turned to surprising lifeand the dry bones of despair are not the end of the story, for the People of God.
My brother and sisters, I agonised about what to say in this last service that I share with you as your Bishop.
There was so much I wanted to say. In the end I chose just to let the lectionary and our readings speak.
As you go into your future,please do not surrender to the narrative of decline and dying. Remember who you are and whose you are.
Lift your eyes beyond the dry bones. And be brave to be the Church of God.
“Mortal man – can these bones live?” “You know Lord.”