To Divinity and Beyond! Freedom

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent:

Can these bones live? (Ezekiel 37:1-14)
Unbind him and let him go. (John 11:17-45)
You are in the Spirit. (Romans 8:6-11)

We begin tonight with a traditional African-American spiritual that you may know. Dem Bones – also called “Dry Bones” – was written by James Weldon Johnson – an author and songwriter who died in 1938. The song is allegedly used to teach basic anatomy, but it’s really not very correct. It’s a fun song anyway, so let’s try it.

Ezekiel connected them dry bones
Ezekiel connected them dry bones
Ezekiel connected them dry bones
I hear the word of the Lord.

I am a big fan of mystery shows. Each night you’ll find Wanda and I glued to the television watching shows like Bones or Law and Order or NCIS. We like each show for different reasons – including the eye candy that is Dr. Temperance Brennan or Special Agent Ziva David, or the parade of nice looking assistant DAs that work with Jack McCoy on Law and Order. What else all these shows have in common besides beautiful women and snappy writing is that they all open with a riddle – and a dead body or two. Each episode, though, begins with the same question: “Who done it?”

As you wind your way through the hour, clues begin to crop up, along with a red herring or two that try to throw you off the trail of the real killer. By the end, though, the killer is revealed, the mystery is solved, and in the end, our heroes go out for a drink or congratulate themselves on another job well done.

Our reading tonight from the Hebrew Scriptures opens in a similar way – with a riddle. As our scene opens, we find the prophet Ezekiel at what looks like a major crime scene – a valley full of dry bones.

“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

Here’s the mystery that needs to be solved – here’s our set up for the plot. “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel ducks the question a bit answering: “O Lord God, you know.”

Then, the Holy answers the question by telling Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, to say “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live.” And lo and behold, the wind kicks up, the bones begin to rattle around, to connect themselves, and grow new flesh over the old, sun-dried, bones. Imagine the camera circling the bones as they come to life, dance around, and begin to put on their skin. Cue the music!

Your toe bone connected to your foot bone
your foot bone connected to your ankle bone
your ankle bone connected to your leg bone
your leg bone connected to your knee bone
your knee bone connected to your thigh bone
your thigh bone connected to your hip bone
your hip bone connected to your back bone
your back bone connected to your shoulder bone
your shoulder bone connected to your neck bone
your neck bone connected to your head bone
I hear the word of the Lord.

Them bones, them bones gonna walk around
them bones, them bones gonna walk around
them bones, them bones gonna walk around
I hear the word of the Lord.

This is the central question as we consider our divine characteristic of freedom: “Can these bones live?” Before we can answer that question, it might be worthwhile to explore how the bones came to be lying in this ancient valley in the first place.

The history of the Jewish people is one of trial and tribulations. The prophet Ezekiel was one member of this community that was taken into exile in 597 BCE after the Babylonians conquered them and took over their land. The invasion of Israel was brutal, leading to famine, disease, and despair. The Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem, razed their temple to the ground, killed thousands and forced the rest into exile.

These are the bones that God shows Ezekiel in this passage – the bones of his dead countrymen, slaughtered for their land, slaughtered for their different beliefs, slaughtered just because they happened to be in the way of a powerful Babylonian army bent on domination and destruction.

This passage is a favorite during Lent because we get to see the dead reanimated. We get to see these dry bones get up and dance, put on their skin, and breathe once again. We get to understand what it means to have true freedom.

Wait, how’s that? How does this passage promise us true freedom? Certainly, this passage doesn’t promise Ezekiel that all those previously dead Israelites will literally rise from the dust.

Instead, it is a promise to the Israelites, and to us, that if we put our complete trust in the Holy, we will be set free – these bones will, indeed, live in a new and animated way from any way of living we’ve ever known before.

Trust. This is the key to claiming our divine characteristic of freedom because when we trust that the Holy is in, through, and around us at every single moment, freedom means that we have a security that we’ve never known before. In an old Peanuts cartoon, Charlie Brown is asked what “security means.” He says it’s like riding in the backseat when you’re a kid. You’re parents are in the front seat and you can sleep, worry-free, because they are taking care of everything.

This is what true freedom is, Jubilants – the assurance that our dry bones will live. However, most of us are like Charlie Brown who realizes that kind of true, divine freedom is scary. Instead, we argue, along with poor Chuck, that when we grow up we can never ride in the backseat again – meaning that at some point we begin to think that we can’t rely on the Holy to be the security we need for real freedom. We think that growing up means taking over some of that responsibility for our own security – for making our own dry bones live.

Instead of continuing to trust that the Holy is on this journey of life with us – we insist on climbing out of the backseat and taking over – afraid that freedom depends solely on us and how we live our lives. Jubilants, real freedom isn’t found in the driver’s seat – it’s found in the back seat, where we can trust that the Holy is guiding us, creating with us, and giving us the security we need to be truly free.

Jubilants, I invite you to curl up in the back seat, where your dry bones can find true freedom and life.

Breathe deeply.

Disconnect them bones, them dry bones
disconnect them bones, them dry bones
disconnect them bones, them dry bones
I hear the word of the Lord.

Your head bone connected from your neck bone
your neck bone connected from your shoulder bone
your shoulder bone connected from your back bone
your back bone connected from your hip bone
your hip bone connected from your thigh bone
your thigh bone connected from your knee bone
your knee bone connected from your leg bone
your leg bone connected from your ankle bone
your ankle bone connected from your foot bone
your foot bone connected from your toe bone
I hear the word of the Lord
I hear the word of the Lord

“Can these bones live?” In answering that question we sometimes get hung up on the flesh that covers those bones. The apostle Paul knew a lot about how our flesh tempts us away from real freedom. It is our flesh, our bodies, that cry out against freedom sometimes – wrapping ourselves in inviting pleasures that bind us, addictions that won’t let us go, and the overwhelming fear that if we truly live, our flesh that is the center of our earthly life, will somehow suffer.

Our bones are housed in these cases of flesh, but Paul reminds us that we “are not in the flesh.” Instead, we are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells within us. It is this indwelling Spirit that allows us to go to divinity and beyond! It is this indwelling Spirit that allows us to put aside this prison of flesh and let our divinity soar – to let our divine nature shine through so that others may see that our bones are fully alive because we live, and move, and have our being in the Holy.

We are free, Jubilants, because the divine dwells within us. That spirit gives us life so these dry bones can truly live in freedom.

Breathe deeply.

Amy Ray and Emily Saliers met in grade school in Georgia, but they didn’t start playing music together until they were both in high school. In 1985, they debuted as the Indigo Girls and released their first album, Strange Fire, two years later. They hit the big time the next year and have released a dozen studio albums since then. Tonight’s second song is from their 2004 release “All That We Let In.” It’s called “Rise Up.” Let’s try it.

[Verse] Dog at the window still, looks all day never gets her fill
Cause a glance means a chance,
to break the birds out congregating
I have seen a look like that,
you licked your chops from where you sat
Make your kill for a thrill, and you don’t mind waiting

[Chorus] Rise up your dead,
there’s life in the old girl yet,
Rise up your dead

In our Jesus story, we find our guy in the town of Bethany, just two miles outside Jerusalem. His friends Mary and Martha had sent word to him earlier that their brother Lazarus was ill and he was needed, yet he waited four days before answering their call. By that time, Lazarus had already died and been put in the tomb.

Martha seems a bit bitter about, scolding Jesus by saying: “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” However, her next statement echoes Ezekiel’s answer God. “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”

She wants to know, can Lazarus’ bones really live, but she trusts that the Holy is already at work – and all she needs to do is curl up in the backseat and experience real freedom.

Jesus assures her that these bones of Lazarus can live, but doubts about this kind of real freedom keep creeping in. When he asks them to roll away the stone from the tomb Martha hesitates – not because she doesn’t believe Jesus can raise her brother – but because she knows after four days, her brother is going to stink to high heaven.

How often do we let our own freedom slip away because we’re afraid of the dirty, stinky, jobs of life? How often do we walk away from a miracle in our lives because receiving it might get messy? How often do we remain shut away in our own tombs because others might complain about the aroma of our own lives?

I can see Jesus rolling his eyes at Martha. How can you expect a miracle in your life, how can you expect to experience true freedom, if you won’t open yourself up – stink and all – to the power of the Holy that already dwells inside you?

Finally, the tomb is opened and Jesus speaks: “Lazarus, come out!”

And he does, but he can’t just stroll out of the tomb, stretching and smiling.

No, if you can imagine it, he probably literally hopped out of the tomb because, as the scripture tells us “his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.”

Even if we realize our true characteristic of divine freedom – we don’t just come out of our tomb dancing like those dry bones. We stumble into the sunlight – unsure of where we are or what’s happening. We aren’t truly free until we hear Jesus’ words:

“Unbind him, and let him go.”

Breathe deeply.

[Verse] When it bums you out, all the hunters sprung to pounce
And at best it’s a mess like a nest infested
You remember there’s more than this
There always was and always is
Tend the artist in your charges, you are full invested

[Chorus] Rise up your dead, there’s life in the old girl yet,
Rise up your dead

[Bridge] And if you need to, read your mindless mag
Call me up for tickets, we’ll go see Sugarland
And it gets better even when it’s been a drag
Just move through the madness,
you move your body to the band and Rise up

Put yourself in Lazarus shoes – or grave clothes – for a moment. One minute he’s out cold – literally cold. He’s wherever we go after death – heaven, hell, limbo, Nirvana, the great Void. Suddenly, he’s back in his body – lying on a cold slab – bound up tight in his grave clothes.

It reminds me of the old joke: “What would Thomas Jefferson be doing today if he were alive? Scratching madly at his coffin lid.”

Lazarus was probably like poor old Jefferson – terrified to find himself in a grave – and all bound up so that he could hardly move. So, he struggles to get up because he hears his friend Jesus calling out to him: “Lazarus, come out!”

What goes through your mind at that point? I thought I was dead, now I’m alive and Jesus is calling me. I’m all bound up, can’t move all that well, but I’ll do anything it takes to get out of this tomb!

And don’t we feel that way? We ache for freedom from our own tombs all the time, we can’t seem to get out fast enough – but there seems to be something holding us down, binding us – keeping us from that true freedom.

As Lazarus emerges from the tomb, just steps from true freedom, he realizes what really, in truly, keeps us from being free. Fear.

When Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go,” I can only imagine the fear that coursed through Lazarus at that moment. “But, wait!” he might have screamed, “not yet! Not here!”

You see, we may bury our dead in suits or dresses, but the only suit Lazarus has under those grave clothes is his birthday suit. If they unbind him – he’ll be naked – in front of all those people!

In the end, isn’t that what really stops us from claiming our divine characteristic of freedom? Our fear of being naked – of being revealed fully to the world? Isn’t this the true barrier – the real tomb – that keeps us from going to divinity, and beyond?

Freedom however, demands our vulnerability. Freedom demands that our bones fully live, out in the open, where everyone can see us. Freedom really means that we have nothing else left to lose – not our dignity, not our pride, not our shame.

Have you ever met someone who is a true free spirit? Someone who seems to move through this world with no worries, no concerns – and somehow they make ends meet, they have all they need and they trust that whenever they have a need it will be met? I’ve met a few people like that and I am mystified by them – and I envy them, because they have found the key to go to divinity, and beyond.

That key, I’m convinced, is the ability to trust the Holy while they sleep peacefully in the backseat, unconcerned when the ride gets rough, because they know any challenge they face out here is better than being bound up tight in the tomb.

Can these bones live, Jubilants? Only you can answer that question. If you want freedom – if you want to go to divinity and beyond, I invite you to give complete trust to the Holy. You can’t be free while you’re bound by anything in this world – not your job, not your relationships, not your bank account, not your obligations, not your friendships, not your worries or concerns. Anything that keeps you from fully living into the life the Holy has given you are just grave clothes. Cast them off! True freedom is all about living naked and open in this world – ready to rise up your dead and twirl with this world.

Freedom is scary. Freedom can be hard to embrace because it seems we have to give up so much to get it – but once we let go and fully trust in the Holy, only then can we see when we are truly free – there’s nothing to give up, and everything to gain.

Jubilants, can these bones live?

Rise up your dead, rise up your dead, rise up your dead
Rise up your dead, rise up your dead, rise up your dead

Oh, come on! The summer’s coming;
The rain’s been heavy and the river’s running.
Loose the cuff; it’s been tough, but it’s fast improving
Oh, we got sticks to haul up piles;
We got stories that lead to smiles
We gotta twirl with this world; I can feel it moving

[Chorus] Rise up your dead, there’s life in the old girl yet,
Rise up your dead

Oh, Yeah!