March 2020

Those Dry Bones Will Walk

5th Sunday of Lent, March 29, 2020
John 11:1-45, Ezekiel 37:1-14

– The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas –


I cannot read the story of Ezekiel raising skeletal bones to life, nor Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, without recalling the words to James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson’s song of spiritual jubilee called “Dem Bones.”

Dem Bones*

The toe bone connected to the foot bone
The foot bone connected to the heel bone
The heel bone connected to the ankle bone
Now hear the Word of the Lord

Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.
Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.
Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.
Now hear the word of the Lord.

This is a playful, lively tune that makes you want to rise up, strut and dance, especially in bleak and somber times when you would prefer to remain silent, sad and still.

I remember, as a child, attending funerals that were often called “Homegoing Celebrations,” where cousins, aunts and uncles shared humorous, sometimes side-splitting reflections of the departed that made their passing from our lives feel less painful. And these funerals were always followed by banquets of bountiful food and reunions with family and friends which, from an early age, convinced me that those who had died continued to flourish in the hearts of the living.

The valley of skeletal bones to which the prophet was taken by the spirit of God was a depressing place. It was the place of Judah’s crushing defeat by the forces of Babylon, which ushered the nation into an exile that spanned over half a century.

With the intent of assimilating Jewish culture into Babylonian civilization and dissolving all observances of the Hebrew God, the future of Judah as a nation and people of God seemed somber and bleak. But through this revelation of dead dry bones coming to life again by the power of God’s spirit, the story wishes to confirm that all mortal flesh, formed and infused by the breath of God, may now and then suffer hardships, but never death or defeat.

This message is reiterated in the raising of Lazarus from the grave when Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)

Now I confess having problems with miracle stories such as these, because often the miracle overshadows the message, contrary to its purpose of underscoring the reality of God’s presence already within and around us. Miracles are often seen as overstated, in-your-face revelations employed for our lack of faith, leaving us, unfortunately, wanting more of the same while failing to notice the miraculous qualities of everyday life when divinely motivated.

In this time of physical separation motivated by the coronavirus, when church buildings have shut down and it seems as though the entire planet has been forced into exile away from one another, the spirit of God, especially now, summons us to raise the dead and bring dry bones to life.

The church throughout its history, during difficult times, had to go underground, hiding in grave-like circumstances to survive persecution from Rome, or suppression from Southern slavery, or Nazi Germany, or Communist dictators.

Nearly thirty years ago, I was invited by the pastor of a partner church in Romania to preach for its 300th anniversary celebration, which included over fifty years in which it was in hiding from the government that sought to assimilate its members into the atheistic agenda of the state.

And while the conditions have changed, and the adversary is now an unseen virus that threatens to divide and debilitate our community, the spirit of God continues to call us beyond mortal flesh and blood and bones to rise up as divinely motivated angels, to find new innovative ways of reaching out and caring for one another, to restore our planet to the realm God intended, and to live as though miracles are a common way of life.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” said Jesus, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

God asked the Prophet Ezekiel, and asks us even now, “Can these bones live?” (37:3) And like divinely motivated beings, we are inspired to respond as those unbound and set free:

Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.
Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.
Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.
Now hear the word of the Lord.

Amen.

*James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) and John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954)