Ezekiel 37: 1-14

I’m pretty sure that every person here today has heard some version or another of the song My Way. It is, afterall, Frank Sinatra’s signature tune, the one song he sang at every concert. Moreover, I suspect its popularity derives from the fact that it’s not just a good tune, or that in the hands of an artist of Sinatra’s calibre it takes on extraordinary new dimensions, but because it also speaks to the foundational myth of modernity. This is the myth of the fully autonomous individual who, through the sheer exercise of will, is able to shape the world around them to suit themselves. In other words, the myth of the person who can go through the whole of life doing things “my way”.

Toward the end, My Way makes the following declaration:

The record shows I took the blows –
And did it my way![1]

And this declaration is a triumphant celebration of doing it “my way”, without being bound by consideration for the needs and sensitivities of others. Indeed, I think it is a song which the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would have approved of, because it is a celebration of what Nietzsche called the ȕbermensch: the “superman” who, through sheer force of will, remakes the world around according to his own preferences and priorities – and, indeed, that all the “blows” are representative of the “negative” forces that try to restrain or “hold back” the superman’s ego assertion[2].

It’s a bit like the Queen song We Are The Champions, which proclaims:

No time for losers
‘Cause we are the champions
Of the world[3]

That’s a celebration of “our” tribe’s victory over “them”, of “us” over “them”. And in a similar vein, My Way is a celebration of me over the rest of the world. And I think it’s a song that taps a deep human longing to triumph over against the demands, needs, and expectations of the rest of the world.

But compare this triumphalistic, celebratory, self-congratulatory note with what the theologian Gioacchino Campese calls the “Theology of Migration”. Campese argues that migrants and refugees and asylum seekers are themselves the bearers of the imago Dei – the image of God – precisely because they represent what God does in the Incarnation: in the person of Christ God not only joins us in our humanity but makes God’s-self vulnerable to us. This is the vulnerability which, at the end of the Lenten season, will play itself out in the events of Holy Week. Campese argues that migrants and refugees and asylum seekers are themselves the epitome of vulnerability: they come to us needing our hospitality, in the same way that Christ came to people, vulnerable to their responses, seeking to share hospitality. Ultimately, however, in their vulnerability, migrants and refugees and asylum seekers are the essence of trust and hope: in their powerlessness they have only the sovereignty of God on which to rely, a sovereignty that can appear in the hospitality and welcome which those among whom they arrive can extend and provide[4].

But this is not a one-way street. The migrant, the refugee and asylum seeker, in receiving hospitality, can also be empowered to extend hospitality to those by whom they are befriended. In the same way that Jesus called Zacchaeus out of the tree with the words “won’t you ask me to dine with you?” and thereby both extended hospitality to him and enabled Zacchaeus to play host to him, so the “Theology of Migration” articulates an opportunity that is being extended to us: the vulnerability of God that enables to be both vulnerable to God and to the other, whilst at the same time to be the host, to receive God and other in the sharing of hospitality and welcome[5].

The “Theology of Migration” forms a stark contrast to the triumphalism of My Way and We Are The Champions. And we experienced this at last month’s Awaken! multi-age service[6] in our discussion of companioning and compassion: we watched a video in which a man approaches people in a restaurant and asks them for a slice of pizza because he is hungry, only to be rejected. Later, some friends of his give a pizza to a homeless man; and when the first man approaches him and asks him for a slice of pizza, the homeless willingly shares what he has. And this was very confronting and challenging, and the discussion started with articulating all sorts of reasons why you might or might not respond in a particular way. But at the end we came to the realisation that there are two sets of very vulnerable people: the person making the approach and the person being approached.

It is into this space of shared vulnerability that hospitality steps, because it involves a transaction of hope and trust. For the one doing the asking, it is the vulnerability of potential rejection; and for the one being asked, it is the vulnerability of potential exploitation. We tend to think of these things in simplistic, binary terms, of “good” and “bad”; but what is actually involved is a shared communion of exposure and precarity.

And in today’s reading from the prophet Ezekiel, we have a message that is spoken to a people living in the situation of perpetual vulnerability. Ezekiel lived and ministered at the time of the Babylonian Exile, after the capture and destruction of Jerusalem, and the out-shipment of a large section of the population into exile[7]. Interestingly, however, Ezekiel appears to have been a prophet who spoke simultaneously to two communities: to the community of exiles in Babylon; and to the remnant population left behind in Judah[8]. And both populations were marked by the loss of hope, by the presence of despair. We are familiar with Psalm 137 which declares: how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?[9] a passage which gives voice to the despair, the longing, the homesickness of the exiles arising from their sense of loss and separation. But in texts like Jeremiah and Lamentations, we experience the distress and the trauma of the people left behind – a people without the spiritual or secular leadership, without even the support of civil infrastructure as they endure famine and hardship, to provide them with any sense of hope and direction. We’ve all heard the term “internal exile” or “internally displaced person”, and this remnant population were rather like this: they were a homeless people in their own homeland.

And it is to these two traumatized, hopeless communities that the prophet Ezekiel speaks in a series of mystical visions that begin with the words “the hand of the Lord was upon me”[10].  And in today’s reading we have perhaps the most familiar and well-known of these visions: the valley of the dried bones. And this is an image that might well have been familiar to Ezekiel’s audience: because in the ancient world, soldiers killed in battle were not retrieved and buried, but were left where they fell. More than one ancient source tells us of old battlefields littered with the bones of the dead; so the valley of dried bones would not have been to Ezekiel’s audience the somewhat bizarre image that it strikes us as being today. Moreover, the point is that it is a place of absolute desolation: the dead are not only dead but have been reduced to desiccated skeletons. And there is no hope, no possibility of any kind of life, no chance of redemption.

And God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to those dead, hopeless bones. To a modern audience this seems like an absurd commandment: why on earth would anyone waste their time prophesying to bones? But this image makes me recall a principle to which I was introduced when I was a ministry candidate at Theological College: that one of the tasks of preaching is to speak the word of life to those who are already dead. Meaning that the point of preaching is not to demonstrate the preacher’s acuity or show off their oratorical skills; neither is it to confirm the congregation in their assumptions and preferences. It’s about declaring God’s Word of Life to those who are in need of life; a reminder that we are all called into the life of faith, not because we are perfect, but because we are profoundly imperfect and need the Gospel to appreciate the possibility of resurrection life through faith in Christ.

And this is what is happening in this image from Ezekiel: preaching the word of life to those who are dead. And thus we read of this extraordinary image of the skeletons revivifying, of bone coming together with bone, of sinews and flesh appearing. But these re-animated beings are still dead: they have no breath. And the word “breath” – ruach in Hebrew – means both breath/wind and Spirit. These re-animated beings have no life because they have no Spirit within them. And so Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy the word of life, of breath, of Spirit.

And isn’t it a curious thing that, right at this moment in time, much of our pop culture is centered on, and articulates itself through, the phenomenon generally known as the “zombie apocalypse”: the scenario in which, due to some disease or catastrophe, most of the human population become “undead” beings, with only remnant populations of “real” humans are left alive? Moreover, these zombies are “undead” precisely because, while being “alive” in some sense, in another they have no life, no hope, no Spirit. What is more, their existence is entirely destructive. But the image we have in Ezekiel is of the dead, not being made “undead”, but being brought back to life – life in all its fullness and meaning, to the promise and prospect of new horizons, new futures, new ways of being[11].

So what, then, is the word which this passage from Ezekiel speaks to us today? The simplest and easiest conclusion to draw would be that passages like today’s reading are “about” refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers; and especially in the Australian context, about the asylum seekers which successive Australian governments have locked up in indefinite detention in offshore processing centres. It would be all too easy to suggest that the return to life which today’s reading depicts is an assurance to those detainees that, their present circumstances notwithstanding, God will somehow make things better so that they will experience liberation and release.

But such an assurance is, in my view, an example of what the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have rejected as “cheap grace” – precisely because it’s the kind of promise and assurance we can make without it having any impact on us, without any kind of cost to us being associated with the warranties we offer to those in desperate need. Rather, I think that the image of the bones in the valley of the dead is an image, not of the people in the detention camps, but of us – of the Australian nation and people. We are the dead; we are the dried and desiccated bones of the hopeless and the helpless. The systemic and deliberate cruelty which our nation is extending toward asylum seekers and others, as well as the justifications we use to rationalise and sanitise this cruelty, speaks to the fact that we as a people have lost hope. We as a people have lost trust. We as a people have lost faith in the capacity of love and vulnerability to transform both ourselves and those who come to us. Like the Hebrew communities of the Exile period to whom Ezekiel prophesied, we are consumed by despair and a narrative of lament without hope. But the word of life which God speaks to us through today’s reading is that if change is to come in our nation, and for the circumstances of asylum seekers and the other suffering communities among us, then we are the ones who must change – we who must respond to that Word which draws us out of death and into life.

The reading from Ezekiel is not concerned with the making of simplistic promises as a meaningless response to situations of suffering. Rather, it proclaims the necessary transformation that must occur if we are to respond to the Spirit of God that already moves amongst us, and which calls us out of the valley of bones and into the place of life. The ones who bear the image of God are the ones we imprison because they come to us in need; and we are the ones who must turn away from this culture of death, turn away from being corpses and zombies and become true human beings. Ezekiel speaks to our despair and our fear, and in doing so issues an invitation: liveHear the breath, the Word, the Spirit of God and live and give life to those who come seeking hospitality in their vulnerability – and who offer you the chance to do the same

[1] Anka, Paul My Way, adapted from the French original Comme d’habitude by Claude Francois and Jacques Revaux

[2] According to Sinatra’s daughter Tina, Sinatra himself came to loathe My Way, regarding it as “self-serving and self-indulgent”. See “Sinatra ‘loathed’ My Way”, BBC News, Monday 30th October 2000, located at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/994742.stm, accessed 30.3.17

[3] Mercury, Freddie, We Are The Champions, 1977, released on the album News Of The World.

[4] Campese CS, Gioacchino “The Irruption of Migrants: Theology of Migration in the 21st Century”, Theological Studies (73) 2012, p.3-32

[5] Ibid.

[6] Awaken! is a monthly multi-age service operated as a joint initiative of the Mountview, Blackburn North-Nunawading, and The Avenue Uniting Churches in Melbourne, Australia

[7] Wallace, Howard “Year A: Lent 5 – Ezekiel 37: 1-14”, located at http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/LentA/Lent5A%20Ezek37.html, accessed 30.3.17

[8] Ibid.

[9] Psalm 137:4

[10] Wallace, Howard, op. cit.

[11] Ibid.

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