Visions of Impossible Possibility

Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Romans 8:22-27

Commencement Weekend and Campus Ministry Sunday
Peace Community Church, Oberlin Ohio
May 27, 2012

Rev. Dr. Andrea C. White, Assistant Professor of Theology and Culture
Emory University Candler School of Theology

Have you ever considered how oxymoronic the phrase “campus ministry” really is? When it comes to Oberlin, at least, the word “campus” conjures up images of all that is entailed in a life of the mind. “Ministry,” on the other hand, is by our cultural standards, a soft word, it is about urgings of the heart. The oxymoron is like the age-old dichotomy that has befuddled philosophers and theologians alike for centuries, the dichotomy of faith and reason, Christ and culture, church and world. The practice of campus ministry is based on a paradox. And what’s worse, the contradictory terms are hierarchical. Ministry is secondary, if not inferior, to the intellectual pursuits of the liberal arts. How do you even begin to think, let alone do, ministry on a campus such as Oberlin College, a community of inquiry that takes so seriously the rigor of critical thinking. Nurturing convictions of faith is not only excluded from such heady endeavors, but is a downright impediment.

By raising this question, I am returning to the problem that occupied my own experience of campus life when twenty years ago I wrote a thesis on faith and reason in analytic and continental philosophy. I won’t take the trouble to flesh out the differences between analytic and continental philosophy, but suffice it to say, it is like forcing a conversation between Democrats and Republicans in an election year. And maybe that is a good metaphor for what Steve and Mary are up to in their efforts to take on campus ministry, their work to encourage unlikely conversation partners and help students fit a life of the mind into the life of faith.

I wonder if Steve and Mary ever face campus ministry and feel as if they are standing in a valley of dry bones—which is by no means to suggest that Oberlin College students are dead. It is to say that the challenges before them are probably not unlike the challenge of a prophet being called to participate in the divine act of resurrection. How to get faith to count for young adults who are passionately engrossed in philosophy and literature and bassoon and music theory and politics and activism and protest. The remarkable thing about Peace Community Church and what it is all about is the way in which it lives and breathes the intersection of body and spirit. It is a living microcosmic model of an all-too-rare working relationship between church and the world. The Christian church is floundering because of the binary and divisive way it conceives of its own ecclesial identity. Either conservative or liberal, the church finds itself choosing between so-called authentic readings of scripture on the one hand or fighting for social justice on the other, as if the two are ever mutually exclusive. But for all these dichotomies that pervade our thinking, the campus ministry of this church shows that Christian faith is a matter for the public square, that however scandalous the cross, Christ has everything to do with culture.

That was the hook that lured me in 1986 when I first walked through the doors of what we then called First Baptist Church—hearing the message that justice mattered to Jesus; that protest was not something you did outside the church, but in and with the church—protest not born of cynicism, but arising out of hope in the Spirit’s power to transform, hope in the outrageous belief in resurrection as impossible possibility.

Now, to be frank, I will take the preacher’s privilege and indulge in a confessional moment to share with you that I first came to FBC because it was where the “cool” people came to church. When you are eighteen and nineteen years old, it takes all of thirty seconds for the antennas to identify who the cool people are and when you are a first-year student, the cool people are to be found among the juniors and seniors. Naturally when you get an invitation to go to church with the cool juniors and seniors, you know the church they are going to is cool too. And they were right. I heard Steve and Mary tackle scripture as if their very being exuded the words on the page. Loving and supporting my classmates, Julie Rusling and Julie Reuning-Scherer and Joyce Stickney, who would go on to become brilliant seminary students, as much as they loved my neighbor, Louie who literally struggled to survive. Their love was a form of protest, protest against all manifestations of church where people look the same.
Last Sunday Steve gave a sermon about the ministry of proclamation and proximity and in that sermon he quoted Baptist minister, Jake Myers who happens to be my doctoral student at Emory University. When I sat in these pews twenty years ago I could never have envisioned that I would be standing behind this pulpit as an ordained American Baptist minister or that I would be on the faculty of a university with doctoral students in my charge. Our passage from Ezekiel 37 is the most well-known resurrection story in the Old Testament and it would be a fitting metaphor for the kind of transformation that took place for me, once a college student who struggled to get out of bed on Sunday mornings to later become pastor of Aldrich Baptist Church and now to work as a professor of theology, training graduate students at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology to become ministers and leaders of the church and professors in theological education. The campus ministry of this church is the starting point of that story, it is fundamental to my personal faith narrative. But the story of Ezekiel is no metaphor. It is not poetry or rhetorical flourish. It is not a message about the power of positive thinking or human aspirations or human achievement. It is a vision about an exiled people, a prophet called to walk in a garden of death and witness the movement of the Spirit. It is a story about the Spirit’s radical intervention, a story that gives flesh—literally—to the meaning of resurrection and what it means to hope in things unseen.
But before we move too quickly to the happy-ending of the rising of dead bones, the ministry of Peace Community Church has taught us to read this story a bit more slowly. The ministry of Peace Community Church teaches us not to let the remains of the alien disappear into a triumphal vision. We have learned that it is only from a position of power and privilege that we are able to remove ourselves from that place where the vulnerable live without hope and vultures devour flesh. If we conceive of an otherworldly end so easily subsuming all that has come before, it is because we are frankly uncomfortable walking among those who have been exiled or sitting at table with those who live in the margins. We cannot grasp the meaning of resurrection without first directing our gaze to the skeletal remains. For when resurrection is granted self-sufficient finality we have domesticated the shame of exile, we have read all traces of the other out of the text. Our passage in Romans 8 urges us, “For if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:25; emphasis added). So it is with patience that we wait for the Spirit of God to breathe upon the slain. It is with patience that we wait for the bones to stand on their feet.
The prophet’s vision is about a community in exile that feels it has reached the end of all hope. Exile is not just homelessness, exile is death. Death in massive proportion and in advanced and final stages. The valley of dry bones is the place where the Spirit appears invisible, if not entirely absent. It describes the everyday existence of the widow, the orphan, the poor, the oppressed, those who are denied a claim to their place, who are vulnerable to the hoarders of wealth and power and vulnerable to the gods of violence.
Womanist scholar, Cheryl Kirk-Duggan minces no words when she describes the god of violence:

Violence titillates and terrorizes us. Packaged in celluloid and running for one hundred and twenty minutes, sagas of blood, guts, and gore with fast action, terrific cinematography, a provocative and sultry music score, and actors exhibiting . . . high-profile careers are the things that make for an Oscar. That same ethos packaged in a forty-ounce bottle, a one hundred-proof flask, or a [container] of nose candy, thrust on our neighbors or the folks down the block, next door, across the street, . . . or in exclusive [condominiums] . . . , reeks of . . . dehumanization . . . . Such deviant conduct results in domestic abuse, [violence, addiction, even murder]—making violence a number one public health menace. Violence is a public health crisis. . . . An adrenaline rush compels [people] to kill spirits, minds, and bodies.1

Such violence is personal and individual, it is also communal and systemic. And our globalization means we are no longer innocent bystanders. Our culture celebrates wars, marvels at ethnic cleansings, seeks human sacrifices and gawks at ritualized murders and interracial violence. Cheryl Kirk-Duggan boldly speaks out: “Our nationhood is rooted in violence. This union developed on lands taken from native peoples, moistened by their trail of tears. Much of the labor in this country constructing buildings and railroads, producing goods in factories and through farming, has been accomplished through subjugation and slavery. We have canonized and ritualized this violence in our national anthem with ‘bombs bursting in air.’”2
The church in the world is rarely triumphant. The church in the world is gritty and raw. The church is called to get its hands dirty. It is called by the Spirit to walk in a mass grave of very dry dead bones. In the face of such desolation and despair, for those who are charged with the preservation of the faith, what is reasonable to expect? “Can these bones live?” “O Lord God, you know.”
Then God says to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones.” And it is at this point that the vision looks utopian in the most pejorative sense, hopelessly idealized and completely removed from reality. The nation is not dying, it is dead. Israel is actually defunct. So when Ezekiel is called to partner with God in this radical intervention, his response requires an almost unimaginable risk.
It has been quite a while, probably a few years, since my seven year-old daughter declared the story of David and Goliath as her favorite Bible story. It has always worried me that she is drawn to a story of conquest, but last Sunday I was confronted with something even more worrisome. My daughter formulated the theological question, that million-dollar question that befuddles each and every one of us. “Mom,” she said, “the story of David and Goliath is about a little boy trusting in God, but what about Goliath? Doesn’t God love him too? Why does God want Goliath to die?” I knew the question would come sooner or later, in some form or other, but I did not anticipate precisely how unprepared I would feel. I am a professor of theology after all. The question came as I was focused on picking up my four year-old from daycare and rushing to get both girls strapped into their car seats, so we would arrive at their dentist appointment on time. I’m thinking about fluoride toothpaste and Mara is thinking about death and divine justice.
“Can these bones live?” God asks the question when the prophet Ezekiel is led by the Spirit to the middle of a valley of bones, dead and dry. The question is less about God’s capacity to revive the dry bones than it is a question of whether the God who is committed to God’s people is giving up on them or whether God is to give them life anew.3 “Can these bones live” is not a question of divine power, but a question of justice. Are the dry bones the result of unjust suffering or righteous condemnation as a consequence of sin? If God allows the chosen people of Israel to remain in the grave, there will no longer be a witness in the world to the divine glory. God’s care for this particular people is paradoxically the guarantee that God’s providential care is universal. From the compost of dead Israel there is hope for the rest of the world.
The reviving of the dead bones is about the Spirit’s transformative power to make us completely new when all hope is lost and signs of life are utterly absent. Still, the ultimate goal is not the human benefit of new life, but the rescue of God’s name. Ezekiel’s vision sees that God is exiled along with God’s people. Divine presence is not visible. God explains, “ I will cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, [so that] you shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 37:6; emphasis added).
After we have gazed at the skeletal remains of an exiled people, we come to see that hope is political and resurrection is subversive, and it is in these divine acts that we see God. Resurrection is subversive because it contradicts the political reality and social order and in so doing it gives hope to the oppressed that transformation is possible. Resurrection of these dead bones is the impossible possibility.
Hope is deeply theological and political. It is not wishful thinking or an optimistic outlook. Optimism, after all, has its downsides. Optimism for a better future can overlook the suffering and injustice in the present. On the other hand, optimism that recognizes injustice can become despair when unexpected difficulties set in. Theologian Kathryn Tanner suggests that perhaps what Christian hope needs is a less optimistic world-view. What is our vision of God’s future? Sometimes what we envision as God’s future mirrors life as we know it. Since there are masters and slaves on earth, there are masters and slaves in heaven. In this case our moral imagination does not expand beyond what we already know. In this case hope in things unseen does not prompt us to improve things because our vision of hope does not give us a reason to think there is anything better. On the other hand, a fantastic vision makes us despair of ever getting there from here. If we focus all our attention on everything that is impossible to achieve in this world, we become distracted from even the achievable goals. Oddly enough, optimism can lead to nihilistic despair.4 The Book of Wisdom puts it this way:

Our life is short and full of trouble, and when [the human being] comes to the end there is no remedy; no [one] has ever been known to return from the grave . . . come then, let us enjoy the good things while we can, and make full use of the creation, with all the eagerness of youth . . . Down with the poor and honest [person]! Let us tread [them] under foot . . . For us let might be right! (Wisdom 2:1, 6, 10, NEB)

Instead of optimism that is unimaginative or that results in despair, we are called to a kind of ethical hope, a hope that expresses dissatisfaction with the status quo and makes a strong cry for action and a world transformed. “Prophesy to these bones.” Hope in God and in the vision of God’s future has to do with a new level of relationship with God, one that is both risk-taking but also grounded in grace—shored up from God’s side in virtue of the gift of the Spirit of Christ.
The raising of the dead bones seems to be a utopian vision, but the hope in resurrection is not pie in the sky, but fundamental to our faith. Not because we require miracles for God to prove that God is God, but because hope in God’s future is meant to transform the way we live in the present. It reorients us toward God’s intentions for creation. To view resurrection as simply evidence of divine power is to miss the meaning of new life. Steven Kraftchick, my colleague at Emory and former Oberlin professor of New Testament Studies, says, “Resurrection hope is first and foremost a claim about history and not a claim established by it.”5 Resurrection hope sets up our existence as one that is open to risk, “a commitment to seek God’s ultimate goals of righteousness and peace.” It is to commit ourselves, he explains, “to the expectation of transformation and renewal.” And because resurrection is a sign of redemption for the entire created order, it shows that creation has worth in its own right. And if that is true, then creation cannot be used as a commodity. “Far from removing us from the concerns of creation,” far from an otherworldly utopian dream state, resurrection belief serves “to integrate us even more with the created world.”6
That means that to trust in resurrection is to patiently wait, in a spirit of expectation, for God’s justice to come. Imagine how our world would be turned on its head if we lived as if this were true. Imagine if God’s vision of impossible possibility was our own.
The rising of dead bones in a valley of death is God’s act of protest against complacency, against our inability to recognize the dignity of those living in exile who are standing right before us. The rising of dead bones is a protest against every political and religious reality that ignores or eliminates those it deems alien and different. Kraftchick reminds us that by raising Jesus from the dead, God indicts the social and political systems that executed him. The resurrection calls us to protest against every state and religious body that confuses its own desires for the will of God and its own reasoning for God’s wisdom. Those committed to resurrection hope must raise voices of resistance to “all apparent realities that would extinguish this hope.”7

Therefore prophecy to these bones and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act (Ezekiel 37:12-14).

Amen and amen.

REFERENCES

Allen, Leslie C. “Structure, Tradition and Redaction in Ezekiel’s Death Valley Vision.” In Among the Prophets: Language, Image and Structure in the Prophetic Writings, ed. Philip R. Davies and David J.A. Clines. Sheffield, England: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 144 (1993): 127-142.

Callahan, Allen Dwight. “Perspectives for a Study of African American Religion from the Valley of Dry Bones.” Nova Religio 7, no. 1 (2003): 44-59.

Chester, Andrew. “Resurrection and Transformation.” In Auferstehung—Resurrection. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001, pp. 47-77.

Costen, James H. “How Can These Bones Live? Ezekiel 37.” Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center 24, no. 1-2 (1996): 51-65.

Demson, David. “Divine Power Politics: Reflections on Ezekiel 37.” In Intergerini Parietis Septum. Ed. Dikran Y. Hadidian. Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1981, pp. 97-110.

Grey, Jacqueline. “Acts of the Spirit: Ezekiel 37 in the Light of Contemporary Speech-Act Theory.” Journal of Biblical and Pneumatological Research 1 (2009): 69-82.

Klein, Anja. “Prophecy Continued: Reflections on Innerbiblical Exegesis in the Book of Ezekiel.” Vetus Testamentum 60 (2010): 571-82.

Kraftchick, Steven. “The Demands of Resurrection.” Insights 123, no. 1 (2007): 17-20.

Qubti, Shadia. “Ezekiel 37: ‘Can These Bones Live? God, Only You Know.” Review & Expositor 104, no. 3 (2007): 659-65.

Richards, Sandra L. “Dry Bones: Spiritual Apprehension in August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” In African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Textures. Ed. Vincent L. Wimbush. New York: Continuum, 2000, pp. 743-53.

Seitz, Christopher R. “Ezekiel 37:1-14.” Interpretation 46, no. 1 (1992): pp. 53-56.

Smith-Christopher, Daniel L. “Ezekiel in Abu Ghraib: Rereading Ezekiel 16:37-39 in the Context of Imperial Conquest.” In Ezekiel’s Hierarchical World. Ed. Stephen C. cook and Corrine L. Patton. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004, pp. 141-57.

Strong, John T. “Egypt’s Shameful Death and the House of Israel’s Exodus from Sheol (Ezekiel 32.17-32 and 37.1-14).” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 34, no. 4 (2010): pp. 475-504.

Tarlin, Jan. “The Skull beneath the Skin: Light Shadow Reading in the Valley of Dry Bones.” In Self/Same/Other: Re-visioning the Subject in Literature and Theology. Ed. Heather Walton and Andrew W. Hass. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000, pp. 175-82.

Waters, John W. “When the Vultures are Finished, Can There be Life?: The Valley of Dry Bones and the Future of the Black Church.” In The Recovery of Black Presence: An Interdisciplinary Exploration. Ed. Randall C. Bailey and Jacquelyn Grant. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, pp. 95-106, 232-233.

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