by the Rev. James B. Craven III
Readings of the day: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearA_RCL/Pentecost/AProp21_RCL.html
There is a good deal of myth in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, particularly in the Pentateuch, the first five books, Genesis through Deuteronomy. But I always remember what Father Roland Murphy, the Carmelite priest who taught me Old Testament and Hebrew in seminary, told us, “when you hear myth, don’t think fairy tale, think truth.” And he was right. Roland also asked us once, “Did you ever wonder why God chose an insignificant little nation like Israel, instead of mighty Syria, Egypt, or better yet, Ireland?”
My favorite of the old prophets though, Ezekiel, is not myth, but well documented in history. We know for example that Ezekiel wrote between 593 BC and 563 BC. There is memorable stuff in Ezekiel:
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
Christian Barnard, the South African surgeon who did the first heart transplant surgery in 1967 read that from Ezekiel in the OR in Johannesburg. And in the reading from Ezekiel we heard earlier:
Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.
Ezekiel also today gives us for the first time the concept of individual responsibility, that no longer will the sins of one generation be visited on the next generation.
We’ll come back to Ezekiel.
There is an enormous amount of violence in the Old Testament. There are bloody battles galore, thousands killed at a time, tortured and decapitated. Super violent adult stuff. The hordes on both sides, were well armed, but except for David’s slingshot, the weapons were spears and bow and arrow. Suppose they had been armed with firearms, with military assault riffles, Thompson submachine guns, heavy duty handguns, or the like. The body count would have been much worse.
I’m not opposed to guns. With my Navy Expert Rifleman Medal and Navy Expert Pistol Shot Medal I helped keep the Russians out of Chesapeake Bay during the Cold War. And I have shot a lot of beer cans over the years, starting as a boy shooting against a huge bank of mud behind the drive-in movie screen at home, the same drive-in where I fell asleep with a date while watching the Ten Commandments in a 1954 Pontiac convertible.
Guns are frightening though. I will never forget the feeling of a gun held against my neck by an armed intruder, and how what finally made him leave and saved my life was me very shakily and slowly making the sign of the Cross. I remember a wonderful evening years ago with Gene Hermanski, the old Brooklyn Dodger outfielder, at the old ballpark here. He was telling me of the vicious abuse Jackie Robinson had to put up with when he came up to Brooklyn in 1947. When the Dodgers first went to Cincinnati to play the Reds there were credible threats that Robinson would be shot if he took the field that day. The local cops and the FBI took the threat very seriously, and Hermanski told me the tension in the Dodger clubhouse was palpable. Finally he said “I have an idea. We can all wear No. 42 and then they won’t know who to shoot.” That broke all the tension. Brooklyn took the field, beat the Reds and Jackie didn’t get shot.
Do you know there are more shootings in Durham every year than in Canada or the entire United Kingdom? Just think about that, and of course big cities such as Chicago really have huge numbers. Have you seen the lovely small statue of the homeless Christ in front of St. Joseph’s here in Durham? Maybe we could beat our own swords into plowshares, as Isaiah taught us, and have something like that built here at St. Luke’s. I will gladly contribute the three firearms I own, two handguns and a .22 rifle. If you are downsizing and want to get rid of some firearms, let me know. I already have a metal worker in mind for the project. Michael Caputo, a high official in the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, two weeks ago asked wise Americans to stock up on guns and ammunition before the election. You can’t make this up.
Now I promised we would get back to Ezekiel. The highlight of the Easter Vigil liturgy for me is the reading of the nine Old Testament lessons. One is always from Exodus, but my favorite is Ezekiel’s story of the Valley of the Dry Bones. Those dry bones, into whom God breathed life and flesh and muscle, were 2600 years ago the dry bones of the house of Israel, but who are they today, in our faith understanding? Ezekiel wrote 2600 years ago, and when we read him we must always remember when he wrote, to whom he wrote, and for what purpose he wrote. It’s called Biblical exegesis, or reading Holy Scripture with exegetical integrity. Only after we address those questions, when, to whom, and why, can we then work on and ask what , if anything, Ezekiel has to say to us today, in the 21st century AD. Well I think Ezekiel has a great deal to say to us today.
So who are those lying in the valley of the dry bones? Let’s try to name them, and you may well be able to improve on my list. And this may be the only positive aspect to online worship and Zoom preaching, but feel free to mark them with me, out loud, and add your own, as I sit here with my sliderule so I’ll be ready when this technology fad passes. The dry bones of 2021:
Anne Frank, who died at Belsen in March 1945, and the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust.
Father Maximilian Kolb, the Franciscan friar who died in the starvation bunker at Auschwitz on August 14, 1942, and the hundreds of other Christian clergy killed in the Holocaust. In retaliation for one escape, the Nazi commandant ordered that ten would be starved to death, without food or water. One man cried out that he had a wife and children, so Maximilian Kolb stepped forward and said “I’ll take his place.”
Those who died in the Middle Passage from West Africa to America, 1619-1808.
The Sioux men, women and children killed December 29, 1980 at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
Jimmie Lee Jackson, killed by the Klan for registering to vote in Marion, Alabama, February 26, 1965.
Medgar Evers, killed by the Klan in his driveway at Jackson on June 12, 1963
Martin Luther King Jr., Memphis, April 4, 1968.
Those killed in 1898 in the Wilmington governmental coup.
Those killed in the Tulsa massacre and Rosewood, Florida massacre in 1922
The Reverend Dietrich Bonheoffer, killed on Good Friday, April 1945 at Flossenberg, Germany.
O’Neal Moore, the first black Louisiana state trooper, killed June 2, 1965 for arresting a Klansman for spotlighting deer at night.
Jonathan Daniels, the Episcopal seminarian killed by a Klansman on August 20, 1965 in Hayneville, Alabama. The Klansman leveled his shotgun at Ruby Sales, a black teenager. Daniels pushed her aside and took the blast himself. Ruby Sales is now an Episcopal priest.
James Reeb, a Unitarian minister killed at Selma on March 11, 1965.
Harvey Milk shot and killed in San Francisco, on November 27, 1978
John Brown, December 2, 1989, Harpers Ferry, Virginia.
Viola Liuzzo, killed by the Klan on March 25, 1965 in Selma.
Briona Taylor, George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshad Brown, Daniel Prude, and how many other as yet unnamed.
Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, killed by the Klan on June 21, 1964 in Neshoba County, Mississippi
The 9 killed at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston
Emmet Till, killed in 1955 in Money, Mississippi
Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair, killed in a Klan bombing on September 15, 1963 at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
John Lewis, who had his head broken on the Edmund Pettus bridge at Selma on March 7, 1965. John Lewis advocated Good Trouble, which Ezekiel would have endorsed, Christ too.
All those shall live, in our memories, our hearts, and in our lives, and they shall never die. The sea and the earth shall give up their dead:
Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. And they did. The breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great host.
Our list of the slain in the valley of the dry bones is endless and increasing daily with every shooting. Their deaths were very real, as real as real can be, just as Jesus’ death on that first Good Friday was real. But so too is our sure and certain hope in the resurrection of the dead., and the reality of Easter.
So breathe on them the breath of life, the Holy Spirit, and remember that spirit, wind, and breath are the same word in Biblical Hebrew. Lift them up as they come to life again. Hold them in your arms and hearts. Say their names. And may they be our role models and be with us always.
As we read in the psalm earlier:
Show me your ways, Oh God,
and teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth and teach me,
…in you have I trusted all the day long.
And give thanks for our lives and for the lives of all those we love and those we name today.