Many of us hearing todayâs Old Testament reading from Ezekiel â that rich and vivid story about the valley of dry bones â instantly remember the words of a song learned in childhood. These words:
The toe bone connected to the foot bone,
The foot bone connected to the ankle bone,
The ankle bone connected to the leg bone,
The leg bone connected to the knee bone,
The knee bone connected to the thigh bone,
The thigh bone connected to the hip bone,
The hip bone connected to the back bone,
The back bone connected to the shoulder bone,
The shoulder bone connected to the neck bone,
The neck bone connected to the head bone,
Less easy to recall, however, are the songâs opening words:
God called Ezekiel one morning,
âGo down and prophesy.â
Ezekiel taught the Zion the powers of God,
And the bones begin to rise.
Weâre going to walk around with-a dry bones.
Why donât you rise and hear the word of the Lord?
The words, of course, come from an old negro spiritual. There can be little wonder why it emerged out of the experience of African Americans in the southern United States. It welled up from the midst of a people trapped in that dark period of our history when slavery still prevailed â when whites stole the labor of captive Africans, who as slaves, mostly embraced the Christian religion of their masters.
It is easy to understand why those who had, against their wills, been removed to North America found in the stirring words of Ezekiel great cause for hope â easy to understand how they translated that imagery into a song that could help them walk as human beings in the cotton fields of oppression. They understood, like no others on this continent, the experience of Ezekielâs people.
The Israelites of old were also a people enslaved by foreign masters. They had been forcibly removed from their native land into exile, far from their beloved home and accustomed ways, compelled to toil in the service of a conquering nation. Though alive, they felt like they were dead. They were a people without hope. Like a nation of dry bones, they cried out in their misery as all enslaved people must.
In todayâs Old Testament lesson, we hear the prophet Ezekiel sharing in vivid detail how God carried him in a vision to a valley full of dry bones â bones symbolic of the rotted bodies of a subjugated people. Then, as the prophet watched in astonishment, the bones were covered with muscle and flesh, and once more encased in skin. They were alive again!
Then Ezekiel prophesied as God instructed him. He told the people of Israel, enslaved in exile, that this vision was Godâs way of saying that their lives, all but dead from depression and distress and despair, would have breath put back in them and flesh and muscle returned to their bones. They would be a nation reborn. For those slaves of old, those Israelites separated from home and in bondage, Ezekielâs vision gave new hope as they dreamed of a time when they would once again be free and whole and could return to their beloved Jerusalem.
There is little wonder why American slaves embraced this story from the Old Testament as their own. And despite their misery, as they suffered cruel injustice, they gained the same hope as the ancient Israelites. They knew that their God gave them a reason to live despite the fact that they were enslaved; despite the fact that in spirit and emotion and self-esteem they were mere skeletons of the powerful men and women they had been in Africa; despite how often they thought their fate was doomed; despite how much they felt they were as good as dead.
Despite all this, their religion gave them the hope of hopes, empowering them to sing with joy, and happiness, and trust â to sing a truth that they would indeed rise like the dry bones of Ezekielâs forsaken valley.
But what is the lesson for those of us who live in a day when human slavery is considered unthinkably obscene? For us, not forced into exile or bound in chains, what can we learn?
Above all, we can recall, as our Lenten discipline reminds us, that we, too, are often subjugated by strong powers â the powers of evil â leaving us enslaved in sin: the sin of selfishness; the sin of neglecting those in need; the sin of lying, and cheating, and stealing; the sin of greed and prejudice; the sin of ignoring God again and again.
Such spiritual enslavement turns us away from Godâs ways and separates us from our Savior. It leaves us in a land as desolate as Ezekielâs valley of dry bones â spiritually dead, mere skeletons who have lost our religious muscle and skin of faith.
What hope is there for us who have erred and strayed from Godâs way like lost sheep? The hope is that which Ezekiel envisioned and that which the North American slaves sang about. In our own barren valleys of the soul, we can follow them, gaining strength by realizing there is renewal. We can find new life for these dry bones of ours. We can find the will to move beyond spiritual despair and to embrace the hope that lies in a loving and forgiving God â a God who takes our pitiful spiritual skeletons and gives them flesh and muscle, who takes the spiritually dried-out bones of our faith and gives them life in all abundance.
Our African American brothers and sisters from a terrible time in the past reach out to us in this generation to take heart from the word of the prophet. They remind us that God treats us the same as those dry bones of Ezekiel, offering us rebirth, again, and again, and again. When we stumble, our Savior is there, calling us out of the slavery we have created for ourselves into the light of love and forgiveness. They remind us that as we, through self examination and rising up to hear Godâs word, find the Lenten valley of our sinful dry bones, we can, through repentance and the grace of God, go walking with lives restored.