Breathing Fresh Air

Breathing Fresh Air

Homily for the Great Vigil of Easter

April 8, 2023

Breathing Fresh Air

Homily for April 8, 2023
The Great Vigil of Easter
Ezekiel 37:1–14

When Things Fall Apart, by the American Buddhist author Pema Chodron, begins on Chodron’s front porch, with Chodron greeting her husband as he arrives home.  That day, as her husband got out of the car and walked toward the house, he announced that their marriage was over, that he had found another woman and was leaving.  Chodron was still for a moment, then picked up a rock and threw it at him.  Though at first Chodron was enraged, of this and of other experiences of things falling apart, Chodron later was able to write:

Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self-contained and comfortable, is some kind of death.  It doesn't have any fresh air. There's no room for something to come in and interrupt all that. We kill the moment by trying to control our experience.

For the prophet Ezekiel, from whom we just heard, things fell apart.  Like Chodron’s, Ezekiel’s is a story of love spurned—in Ezekiel’s eyes, by allowing Jerusalem to fall to the Babylonians, God betrayed not only Jerusalem but also Ezekiel personally.  Like Chodron, Ezekiel’s first response is anger: anger taken out not on a husband but on his fellow citizens and on his fellow priests and indeed on the entire system of Hebrew cult and worship: “Disaster after disaster,” prophesies Ezekiel (7:5), “Behold… Your doom, it comes” (7:10).  And Ezekiel famously described a chariot with wings, symbolizing the glory of the Lord, that lifts off and moves away from Jerusalem to perch on a mountain east of the city (chapters 10–11), which could be a sort of prophetic way of giving everyone the middle finger.  For Ezekiel, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, things fell apart.  With Ezekiel, who seems to have enjoyed his self-contained and comfortable life in the Temple, there was no room for something or someone to come in and interrupt.  Having relished being in control of his own experience, with Ezekiel there was no room for “fresh air.”

The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel tells the story of Ezekiel’s gradual conversion from his trying to control his experience to allowing God to control his experience.  In the early chapters his book, Ezekiel frequently seems myopic and self-centered, and his often-labored writing drags us through the scrunched chambers of his heart, through his anger and his blame and his refusal to take responsibility.  And yet, if we can bear with him, we see Ezekiel begin to grow and change.  We see, for example, in chapter 18 how Ezekiel’s anger begins to become tinged with compassion.  No longer will “the son suffer for the iniquity of the father” (18:9), he writes, but “the righteousness of the righteous shall be their own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be their own” (18:20).  And in the chapters that follow, though to be sure there are more diatribes against Israel (and other nations), and more prophecies about the end of Jerusalem and its Temple, yet Ezekiel’s words become more sorrowful rather than angry.  Though Ezekiel does prophesy against them, he also laments for the people of Tyre and of Sidon and even of Egypt, all of whom were conquered by the Babylonians.  And in chapter 36, in a reading we heard this evening, might not Ezekiel’s prophecy about the people being given a new heart, a “heart of flesh” and not of stone, instead reflect more on Ezekiel, that he is being given a new heart and is being transformed?  Coming out from under the huge weight of his wrath, as Ezekiel grows in his understanding of God’s love, compassion and capacity to create something new—as Ezekiel begins to understand how much fresh air is with God—Ezekiel’s blame and rage recedes and is transformed slowly and with great difficulty into genuine love for his people.

In tonight’s reading from chapter 37 (Ezekiel’s famous passage of the dry bones), we see a “new” and converted Ezekiel acknowledge that God—and not he himself—is in control: “Mortal, can these bones live?”  “O Lord God, you know.”  In tonight’s reading we see Ezekiel not enraged but readily doing as God commands: “’[Mortal], prophesy to these bones…’ So I prophesied as I had been commanded.”  In tonight’s reading we see Ezekiel not centered on himself but having concern for his fellow Hebrews: “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel…”  We see Ezekiel not with anger at but new-found hope for and belief in his fellow citizens : “Prophesy to these bones and say to them… you shall live…. And they stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”  And we see Ezekiel, witnessing the coming to life of the dry bones, come to understand that with God, no matter how dead, dry, disjointed or broken our “bones” may be, yet with God there is fresh air enough to restore them to life.

We all have places in our lives where things have fallen apart; we all have “valleys” in which are scattered many “bones,” and well we might wonder with Ezekiel if these “bones” can live.  If the story of Ezekiel is any indication, “Yes, with God’s help these bones can live.”  The process of letting go and allowing God to control our experience is not always easy; indeed, as the story of Ezekiel suggests, allowing God to breathe into us fresh air is often a difficult process and slow and painful and a journey of many years.

In an earlier chapter, Ezekiel offers an image of what it might feel like to let go and allow God to take control of our experience.  From chapter 8:

I looked, and there was a figure… like a man…. It stretched out the form of a hand to me and took me by a lock of my head, and the spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and brought me in visions of God to Jerusalem…

Ezekiel envisioned God holding him by a lock of his hair.  Being held by a lock of one’s hair surely is not comfortable; indeed, it is probably quite painful.  And yet… Even as God dangles Ezekiel by a lock of his hair, even though Ezekiel clearly is not in control, still God is holding Ezekiel.  Though things had fallen apart, though Ezekiel knew pain and loss and anger, yet somehow, somewhere deep within, Ezekiel could envision that the healthiest, most life-giving way forward—painful as it may be—was to let go of trying to be in control and to let God hold him.

Because of what God has done for us in Christ—because of Jesus’ resurrection that we celebrate this evening—the answer to our question, “Can these ‘bones’ live?” is, “Yes, these ‘bones’ can live.”  These “bones” that are dead and dry within us once again can be brought together, stretched with sinews, covered in skin, have life breathed into them and stand on their feet.  As we like Ezekiel can let God hold us, as we can allow ourselves to come to terms with God and not ourselves being in control, God then has the space to breathe fresh air into us, to take us up from our graves, and to stand us on our feet.  And then we with Ezekiel shall know that not we but only God is the Lord.

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