The Rev’d Peter Sandeman

8 April 2018





Ezekiel 37;1-14

I’d like to thank Dean Frank for his invitation to preach, my first time in the Cathedral, and so I am suitably overawed on the eve of the Australian Diaconal Conference which begins tomorrow.

And today’s reading from Ezekiel which is so familiar to all good Anglicans that it gives me comfort in the number of times we have all read or heard or sang about this passage. But then again the story is so familiar can we pick anything new from these bones?

Nowadays most of my life is spent as servant leader of a complex welfare organisation with all the contradictions that brings as exemplified by the conflict between the marketization of human services and our vision, mission and values bequeathed by the church. It’s a struggle to ensure that we reflect the love of Christ and stay afloat in a world which values the utilitarian potential for the productivity of people rather than the equal worth of each immortal soul.

And sadly, rather than being a source of strength, our Christian basis and relationship with the Church is increasingly a risk to our public reputation as Australia becomes increasingly suspicious of organised religion.

And while agencies like Anglicare SA continue to grow in the new welfare market, the church shrinks, while the new atheists call for freedom from religion, the church seeks the protection of the state for religion. The false confidence many held that the church spoke for the silent majority was finally shattered by the results of the marriage equality survey. Australia has moved on and the churches are no longer in the mainstream as our reputations have been trashed by the exposure of our inadequate responses to child sexual abuse.

But our situation however dire it might appear to us is far less difficult and desperate than Ezekiel and the people faced in Ezekiel’s time.

Consider this, Ezekiel has lost his wife, he has reluctantly become a prophet and he and the first wave of captives have been exiled into Babylon. The last hope in the form of the remaining Jews in Jerusalem have just been defeated and have also become captive and the temple has been destroyed. Ezekiel has lost his wife, his people have lost the land God promised to them and the centre of his religion, the Temple has been destroyed. Had God abandoned his people or at least that generation?

So it while it might be a little too early to say we are in the valley with Ezekiel, and that it is the dry bones of the church which we are surveying, perhaps the metaphor holds sufficiently for us to see some parallels with our situation today.

This famous passage with the metaphor of the dry bones coming to life is such powerful imagery is most often read in the lectionary at Pentecost where the breath coming into the bodies is paired with the filling of the believers by the Holy Spirit in Acts chapter 2.

In the context of Pentecost the emphasis is on the work of the Spirit and indeed the Hebrew word ruah meaning “breath”, and “wind” as well as “Spirit” is repeated ten times in this passage, variously rendered by our translators as breath, wind and spirit. In Acts 2 the filling of the Holy Spirit is announced by the “sound like the rush of a violent wind”, so at Pentecost we emphasise the spirit as the four winds breathing new life into the reconstituted bodies.


The other moment the dry bones feature in the Lectionary is leading up to Easter where the emphasis is on the new life given to the bones as a preparation for the death of Jesus and his rising.

(The opening of the graves and bringing up bodies from graves in the latter part of the reading might also be considered to link to the to the tombs opening and the raising of the bodies of the saints at the moment of Jesus death as related in Matthew 27; 52-53)

So the usual emphasis we place on Ezekiel’s vision is the resurrection of the bodies by the spirit, of Jesus resurrection and by extrapolation our own resurrection when time is no more.

The resurrection of the body is a fundamental part of our orthodox faith, as part of the earliest of our creeds, at the end of the Apostles Creed we confirm:

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen

These days the significance of the body for our life after death seems to have faded, but for the early church resurrection required a body as a human being was comprised of flesh and soul which could not be separated. I suspect most of us are now closer to the Gnostic view of the separation of the soul and the body and think that it is our soul which endures.

Our creeds require the resurrection of the body and as such Ezekiel’s vision of the resurrection of the dry bones reinforces our understanding of our bodily resurrection in heaven, if not also our marriages. (Matthew 12 19-23).

Given the particular context of our reading however, Ezekiel offers much more for us to consider than our future bodily state.

Part of the passage is a lament of the people similar to many of the Psalms, “Our Bones are Dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” (verse 11b) Quite an understandable depression given their desperate circumstances. “Dry bones” was a common idiom of referring to oneself and one’s own or the community’s helplessness and hopelessness and is the language of the lament Psalms.

So Ezekiel shows the people a vision of their own lament; dry bones. It’s not imagery that is common to our culture and experience unless we have experienced extreme drought, and a modern Ezekiel may have a more contemporary allegory; the Grim reaper of the AIDS campaign springs to mind.

The people are mourning all that they have lost and God’s punishment for their disobedience, much as we might lament the golden days when the Sunday schools and youth groups were full and church was a mainstream activity, and wonder if God has left us.

The rest of the passage is however a prophetic message of deliverance, Ezekiel’s message was that God’s spirit will reach out and bring the people back from exile.

“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 in your own soil…”

Rather than the bodily resurrection at the end of time, I believe that this passage is more about the longed for restoration from exile which would be a long 70 years away.


In the face of the rise of the new atheism, the Benedict Option is being seriously canvassed as the appropriate response of the church to post Christendom; to establish new monastic communities of faith, sanctuaries where LGBTIQ+ rights and other humanistic rights cannot threaten to exclude and discriminate against bible believing Christians. The Benedict Option not in the tradition of hospitality of the Benedictine monasteries but is a corruption of the Benedictine tradition.

Rather than regarding exile as defeat, the Benedict Option is to separate from the world which is believed to be heading towards another dark ages much like the end of the (western) roman empire when Benedict established the monasteries which became beacons of learning and culture in an otherwise hostile world.

Creating orthodox Christian communities separate from the world as a means of preserving true Christian communities seems to me a variation on the survivalist movements of North America ; turning our Parishes into fortresses against the wickedness of the post –Christian western world.

I don’t believe Jesus called us to abandon the world into various Jonesville and drink the cool aid, but rather he calls us to be is disciples in the world. We are called to be witnesses to God’s grace in the world rather than hide from it.

For Deacons who are called to work in the world, travelling out from faith communities to the margins of community, there can be no Benedict Option.

Instead for us we must daily answer the question God put to Ezekiel, “can these bones live” and know that his spirit is within us and we shall live and live life to the full.

Our bodies are frail, our bones break and our flesh is weak, but it is the spirit within us that breathes life into us and sustains us in the dry valleys.

We will have our times of lament and our songs of praise, but if we work and walk in his strength and capacity rather than our own we will endure until our race is run.

Like the Jewish people we rebel and are disobedient, sometimes God feels very close but often he seems distant because we have moved, or closed our ears and our hearts to his voice. Unlike the people of Judah taken into exile as captives we are the ones who run away. But like the prodigal son when we return the father runs towards us and embraces us fully.

We cannot take our own dry bones and reconnect them and reconstitute our bodies and bring them back to life like Frankenstein’s monster, but from the four winds the spirit can breathe life into us again and again and again.

And at the end. Whether in the form of a transformed body, or simply as a spirit, or somehow both body and soul like an Angel, we will rise from our graves.

In the meantime, in the now and not yet of the Kingdom, as deacons and disciples we work in the world to bring the Kingdom a little closer for those whose lives we are privileged to touch.