Ezekiel stands in the middle of a valley.
It is filled with bones and they are very dry.
In the midst of desolation, the prophet is asked: “Mortal, can these bones live?”
These bones, the note in my Bible tells me, are the Jewish exiles, taken away from the smoldering Jerusalem after its destruction and held captive in Babylon. “They have no more hope of rebuilding the kingdom of Israel than of putting flesh on a skeleton and calling it to life.”
“Can these bones live?”
Is there any future after tragedy?
What do you think, Ezekiel?
This past week we have had ample opportunities to reflect on such questions.
On Monday a bomb was found at the home of George Soros, known for his support of liberal causes, recently vilified by our president who, without a shred of evidence, accused Soros of funding the refugee caravan moving through Mexico. Later in the week bombs arrived for Barak Obama, Hillary Clinton, and several other politicians known for their opposition to the policies of the current administration: the dry bones left by the encouragement of violence against political opponents.
On Wednesday, Maurice Stallard and Vicki Lee Jones were shot from behind while they shopped at a grocery store in suburban Louisville, Kentucky. They were African-American. Their assailant, a white man, reportedly said, “Whites don’t shoot whites,” as he headed for his car: the dry bones left by the stoking of the racial hatred that always smolders in our nation.
And yesterday morning there was the horrific attack at the Tree of Life synagogue while its members worshipped together: the dry bones left by the rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric of recent years.
Our nation becomes increasingly unrecognizable as we teeter on the brink. We are cut off—cut off from what decency we once had,
cut off from the basic respect of one another that makes democracy possible,
cut off from a deeply rooted sense that we are a nation of immigrants, all created equal, all endowed with certain unalienable rights,
cut off and led by a man who through of all of this will not abandon his politics of grievance.
All of this has been a long time coming. It is the result of decades, not just a couple of years.
And we are cut off.
Can these bones live?
I planned to talk about the virtue of confidence this morning. And on the surface that seems like the last thing I should be talking about. Were not the shooter in Kentucky and the bomb maker in Florida and the man with the assault weapons in Pittsburgh all confident in their murderous hatred?
Are not those who, referring to Soros, chanted “Lock him up,” along with the president in the East Wing of the White House just this past week confident?
I think not.
Like most virtues confidence seeks a middle ground between two extremes. Too little and it is a vacillating cowardice; too much and it is arrogance. Confidence is not unshaking certainty. Unlike the arrogant—and in a sense the cowardly as well—those who exercise the virtue of confidence are open to the thought that they might be wrong.
Confidence is trust. It is similar to faith, in that both confidence and faith suggest a trust in something—in oneself, in another person, in an institution, in God. It’s said that “Confidence is based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we ultimately lose from risking everything.”
This past week I read a sad and, well, frightening story about the president. In 1989, when Donald Trump was 43, three of his young employees died in a helicopter crash on the way to Atlantic City.
A tragedy like that “can have two effects,” Mr. Trump told Larry King the following year. “You can cherish life more because of it, or it can have the tendency to cheapen it. And unfortunately, [life] cheapened a little bit for me, because these were three incredible people to die like this.”
For a man so rich, life got cheaper.
A few years after that, when asked how he handles stress, Trump replied: “I try and tell myself it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. If you tell yourself it doesn’t matter — like you do shows, you do this, you do that, and then you have earthquakes in India where 400,000 people get killed. Honestly, it doesn’t matter.”[i]
Confidence—neither arrogance nor cowardice—is the virtue that tells us “It does matter”—that even in the face of tragedy and unexplainable loss and deep sorrow we can still choose the good and cherish life all the more.
For the religious person, the awareness that life is brief leads to the sense that the life worth living calls us at times to take action with no guarantee other than the love of God.
Ezekiel stares at that valley of bones.
Can these bones live?
Ezekiel admits the limits of his own faith, his own confidence.
He affirms: “You know, O God, if these bones can live.” Faith finds a trust in God’s love that grows into confidence.
When we stare at our own dry bones, our own dashed hopes, our own broken dreams, it is faith, not certainty, that first feels the reviving breath of God blowing upon us.
When we stare at the dry bones of justice denied, of rights restricted, of truth left in shambles by constant and growing lies, it is faith, not certainty, that first feels the reviving breath of God inspiring our renewed hope.
When we stare at the dry bones of racism, anti-Semitism, a nationalism that encourages the fear of “others,” it is faith, not certainty, that first feels the reviving breath of God enabling us to act in new, life giving ways.
With last week behind us, we approach Halloween—a day that suggests a time of danger and risk, a time when all hell breaks loose, when death and evil seem rampant. That is to say, it suggests a time much like our own.
“This world with devils filled should threaten to undo us,” is how Martin Luther put it in his great Reformation hymn.
Over 500 years later, that still rings true, doesn’t it?
The devil of white nationalism is stirring.
The devil of racism prowls about our nation.
The devil of homophobia stalks the country.
The devil of anti-Semitism will not relent.
The twin devils of arrogance and cowardice are afoot.
Last week the bombs arrived, the guns sounded. “There’s no blame. There’s no anything,” the president nihilistically insisted. This man who often tells us that “nothing matters” pushed away any suggestion that his harsh rhetoric, his casual endorsement of violence, played any role in the events of the past week.
When the winds blow and the waters rage, the psalmist does not make promises about what will be. The psalmist reminds us of who God is: “Be still, and know that I am God.”
There is One greater than the storms that rage.
There is One greater than the tumult of the nations.
There is One greater even than us and our problems.
“God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.”
Martin Luther based his hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” on Psalm 43, which we read responsively this morning, beginning with that glorious affirmation: “God is our refuge and our strength.”
Sometimes these words are a solid conclusion.
Most of the time, we speak them as a statement of faith in what is not fully known or seen. They are an affirmation of our confidence in the face of all that threatens to undo us.
So listen and watch this week as Halloween arrives once more.
On Halloween we find the confidence to mock evil rather than to submit to its control over our lives and our world. Yes, it is a small thing, really, in the face of the great evils that we face. But if an eight year old can dress up as death, well, maybe, death has lost its sting. If a child can be a ghost, then, maybe, all that haunts us isn’t as scary as we think. And if a skeleton can walk down your street, maybe we will find the confidence to say: “These bones can live.”
When all that threatens can come knocking at our doors, we find that we can handle it.
We mock the evil around us and within us as a step—just a step—in following the way of Jesus Christ.
Our confidence and our imagination start to develop. We start to envision great good—to truly discover how we overcome evil with good.
We reclaim the ancient vision of dry bones receiving the life and the spirit of God. This vision of the triumph of good—of resurrection—invites us to live in confidence.
The choir director at a church I once served told me about what he called a musical “trick” that Martin Luther used in composing the music for “A Mighty Fortress.” A few measures before the end of the hymn, Luther shifts from a major to a minor chord. Listen for that when we sing in a few minutes. That shift induces a sense of foreboding, a feeling that all is not right.
Normally a composer would then stay in this minor key—and we would continue to feel uneasy. But Luther doesn’t continue in this minor mode. He quickly turns it around so that we end up with a sense that “everything will be O.K.”—that, as the final words tell us: God’s “kingdom is forever.”
Luther's hymn speaks of the mighty power of the living God overcoming all the evils that fill this world.
It speaks the word of faith in an uncertain time—which is why this hymn was so beloved by those German Christians who were part of the resistance against Hitler some eighty years ago.
This hymn speaks the word of faith in an uncertain time—which is why we are still able to sing it today.
For several years now, our nation and our world have been in a minor key.
Will everything be O.K. as Luther’s music suggests? We can never be certain. It’s a matter of faith.
At all times, and in these days especially, we need the virtue of confidence—a faith that lets us act in the face of all that threatens.
We don’t know how the elections will turn out,
we don’t know what the markets will do,
we don’t know how much longer we will be in Afghanistan,
we don’t know when or where the next pipe bomb or gunman will appear,
we don’t know when we shall die.
We live by faith, with confidence in God’s grace and merciful goodness. And so we are those who cherish this life that we have been given; we are those who cherish the life that others have been given.
When we realize this—and that’s not always easy to do— we are able to move forward. It’s not that there is any less fear or uncertainty. But we recognize that there is something—Someone—greater than our fear; Someone who calls us out of uncertainty into loving engagement with other people and with this hurting world.
So we live by faith—confronting our fears even if we aren’t able to overcome them.
Will everything be all right?
I don’t know. No one does.
I only know that even now, especially now, we live by faith. We recognize that, as Luther’s hymn put it, “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing.” All our struggles—to love our neighbors, our small efforts for peace and justice, our work to confront and overcome racism and hatred—all our struggles are not losing battles because we find our confidence in God’s grace working in us and through us.
We live by faith—faith in the God who is our refuge and our strength, a very help in times of trouble. We live in confidence that dry bones shall live.
[i] Dan Zak, “It doesn’t matter.” “We’ll see.” The Trump Doctrine is sounding more fatalistic every day. Washington Post, 10/18/18 https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/it-doesnt-matter-well-see-the-trump-doctrine-is-sounding-more-fatalistic-every-day/2018/10/18/218d3b8a-d14d-11e8-83d6-291fcead2ab1_story.html?utm_term=.cb727d0ec7c9