Hope in the Valley

Hope is a peculiar thing. It is often paradoxical in its ability to manifest amidst the struggles and real pain of life, often in the most hopeless of times and places. 

We were making the long drive that many of you have made, to get a vaccine, down to the southwestern corner of the state in our case, following the gentle contours of the winding Minnesota River, past empty fields and ancient barns. As we drove, the sunlight was blazing and magnificent, yet the world seemed stark and barren under its unyielding brightness. Winter does this, steals away the color, bleaches every living thing until all is a vast, dry, grayness. But as we went south, the fields began to change, dark and solemn, newly tilled, they presented up the stalks of last year’s corn like bones bleached white under the winter sun, protruding from freshly opened graves. It was simultaneously amazing and terrifying. The fields at once reminded me of how much death and loss the year behind us had wrought, how much there was to grieve and how much we’ve been afraid of over this time of pandemic, of violence and racism, of political division and economic uncertainty, the color of our lives sapped and washed away in so many places. And yet, the damp dark soil of the newly plowed fields, empty like the tomb in the first light of morning, also held in it the promise of new life. As we drove toward the vaccine, toward the possibility that life was changing again, returning, I could not help but feel caught between these two fields of reality – terror and amazement, death and new life, grief and hope.

I was reminded of this experience again as I read this evening’s Old Testament lessons, and especially the passage from the prophet Ezekiel, when he is brought by the Spirit of the Lord to a valley of dry bones. While evocative in its own right, the story’s context bears remembering here and now. Ezekiel’s prophecy comes amidst the people of Israel’s traumatic exile in Babylon. The Davidic monarchy is broken, it seems irreparably, and the Israelites are surely questioning whether there is cause to hope or trust in a future as a people. The scene then, in the valley of dry bones, calls to mind the violence and death that have led them to this place of exile, the battles and very real bodily injuries and pain they’ve endured and only barely survived, and the death which has taken so many. The valley calls to mind too, memory of their own broken promises to God, their own lack of trust in his faithfulness, their turning away to the false deities of other peoples. Perhaps this is the field of war, or the place of slaughtered innocents. It is certainly a site of both trauma and shame. And here the prophet is asked “Mortal, can these bones live?” 

Looking out on the fields of last year’s bounty, broken and dry in the thawing freshly tilled ground, on the leavings of what had once been good and green and alive – looking out over the waste of last year, the shattered glass of the Capitol, the torn fabric of our body politic, the empty seats at so many tables, the bodies of black and asian and so many siblings of color crucified by our systems of injustice, our craven worship of guns and profit, looking out at our burning wilderness and whole city blocks razed to the ground, I looked in the mirror and beheld my body changed by the stress and grief of a year and felt the weariness of it all in my bones, and I heard the voice of the Lord say “Mortal, can these bones live?”

Can these bones live? The question lingers almost as a challenge. Can we trust in the Lord, is it possible to hope again? Hope is, as I said at the outset, a peculiar thing. It is far more than wishful thinking or the expectation of things as yet seen. And still, I confess to you tonight, church, that I came to the gospel lesson and found myself wrestling to find hope. The empty tomb, the lack of a resurrection appearance from Jesus, the terror and amazement, all of it leaves one wanting for hope – even the angelic injunction to not be afraid sounds tiny and platitudinal. Yet, here we are, despite all of this, looking for hope, because on this of all years, we need it, we need to hear the promise that “He is risen”, that the empty tomb means something for us, now, here, amidst the darkest and most brutal year many of us will ever live through. We are here because we want to believe that death and pain and sin no longer hold dominion over us. We can feel this yearning, deep down, right next to the weariness in our bones. 

Can these bones live? 

I hope so, I want to believe, yes, I need to believe. 

Hope, says the renowned theologian and priest James Alison, is in part memory. If that is true, it helps me make sense of the women fleeing in terror and amazement instead of shouts of joy and relief. If Jesus was alive and inviting them to again come and follow, then memory must have brought to mind all the challenge and pain, all of the risk and loss that following him might entail. If memory serves me, I can recall these things as well. Yet, I want to call after those fleeing women, to shout reminders of all the times Jesus showed up in the world with grace and healing, with tenderness and love. And, I can’t call after them, but I can call out to you, for you and for me. Do you remember God’s love made manifest in the church? That card written to you as you marked another painful anniversary or the phone call from a friend at church checking in on you after 6 months in the pandemic, the packet of poems and flowers marking the holiday and letting you know that you are seen and known and missed? We have seen the love of God manifest in moments like tonight when we have baptised and confirmed and welcomed new members into the Body of Christ.

For me, the ministry and love of Jesus comes to mind when I think of all the meals and prayers that came our way when Erin was diagnosed with Covid, and the many of you that continue to check in on us as she has made the slow but steady recovery through the long haul. Hope is here, tonight, in the church, in our long memory of how the power and life-giving love of God has shown up, in the midst of the most barren and colorless stretches of life. You see, church, this evening we already know the answer to the question of whether these bones can live, because together, in our living memory, we have encountered the power of the empty tomb – we have seen the new life that is possible in the Crucified and Resurrected Jesus, whose healing, grace, and love, is made known to us in and through one another, when and where we have showed up for and been with one another in our moments of great need and with others in the church and in the world. 

Tonight it is possible to feel the pain of loss, to feel the weariness of the year, to grieve, and even fear, and it is also possible to claim the hope of the resurrection of Jesus, who, by the power of God has trampled down death by death, and who makes it possible, even at the grave, to make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

Amen.

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