The following sermon was preached for the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The seminary had directed students, staff, and faculty to begin working from home two weeks earlier. None of us had any idea how long that protocol would stay in place. To see video of this sermon being preached, click here.
Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14 (The Valley of the Dry Bones)
A quarter century ago, I was a month away from graduating college and looking forward to the future. I was young, well-educated, and optimistic about my prospects. I was also strapped for cash. So, when I heard that I’d get paid $25 to attend a sexual health seminar for gay and bisexual men, and I wouldn’t even need to leave campus to attend, I went ahead and signed up.
“Look around you,” the presenter said. I was sitting with two of my best friends. We’d all come out in college, had spent plenty of Friday nights dancing in the bars til dawn, and had witnessed each other’s emergence into a gay identity and community. “One in three of you is likely to die from HIV/AIDS.” Walking across campus later that day, it was hard not to wonder which one of us it would be.
All three of us are alive and well today, thank God. We came out and came of age just as new medications made living with HIV possible in ways it hadn’t been just a decade earlier when my uncle Jerry was diagnosed. Over the course of the 80s he and his partner of twenty-five years watched nearly all of their closest friends and chosen family die. Then his partner died. Jerry and I got to know each other during my college years, and he marveled at how dramatically and rapidly things had changed. The things we were fighting for, the futures we were dreaming for ourselves, had seemed entirely out of reach for most all of his life. It wasn’t until the pandemic shone its harsh light into the depths of our oppression that we found the strength and the numbers to fight.
In 1998 Eric Rofes, a gay American author, activist, and academic, published a book titled, “Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post-AIDS Identities and Cultures.” It was controversial at the time for suggesting that the AIDS crisis as we’d known it was over and that, with the advent of new treatments, we’d entered the next phase of the pandemic — one that called the gay community to look at what they lost not only in terms of lives, but in terms of culture and identity over the course of the pandemic. He wrote, “We value the enactment of our desires and will not always give them up in a grand gesture of sacrifice to the AIDS epidemic.” In its review of the book, the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review reflected that, “[it] is at root not about AIDS at all, but about what AIDS took away from him and his generation, what it left him with, and what he’s doing with his anger about the theft.”
“We value the enactment of our desires and will not always give them up in a grand gesture of sacrifice to the AIDS epidemic.”Eric Rofes, from “Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post-AIDS Identities and Cultures”
Friends, I have to tell you that working from home for the last two weeks has left me feeling really, really gay. I think some of it has to do with being able to stay home all day, not being required to enter into assimilated spaces where I’ve learned over the course of decades to edit my self-presentation at a sub-conscious level. But it also has to do with the nature of the moment in which we find ourselves. Life during an epidemic. The constant call to stay connected while keeping our distance. It’s eerily familiar in a way that I think many queer people who lived through the heights of the AIDS epidemic here in the United States can relate to, because our very identities were for so long associated with death itself. When I first came out to my mother, she immediately began to worry that I had or would soon have AIDS and that she would lose her only son. “I want you to find love,” she would say, “only, please, be safe.”
It’s not only the parents of gay men who worry about their kids. It is the sad nature of our society that too many parents have to worry for the lives of their children whenever they leave the house. Will they be pulled over by the police for no reason? Will they be safe walking alone at night? Will they be able to find housing or employment given their physical or developmental differences, or their mental illness? And those children grow up to be us, people whose identities are shaped by the fear and expectation of death — not death as the natural and welcome end to a full life, well lived; but violent deaths as a consequence of all the political, economic, and cultural empires of this world that hate what cannot be assimilated and value profits over people.
The church reads this passage from Ezekiel, the valley of the dry bones, at three different points over the course of the three year lectionary. This year, Year A, it is read on the fifth Sunday in Lent, paired with the raising of Lazarus in John, as a kind of prophylactic Word or trial vaccine in advance of the death to come on Good Friday. Next year, Year B, it will be read on the Day of Pentecost, paired with the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church in Acts 2. But it is read every year on Holy Saturday at the Easter Vigil, alongside the rest of the salvation history, as evidence that God is present in every bone-littered valley, every endless obituary, every overflowing hospital ward and refrigerated trailer truck; just as God sends prophets to every grieving nation, every despised community, and every exiled people to declare that there is a future for them with life, with love, and with liberation.
“Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” (Ezek. 37:4-5) What a word that is for today, at a moment when people sick with COVID-19 are literally struggling to take each breath, when medical professionals are desperate for ventilators. “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” What breath is this, but the breath of God that moved over the waters calling creation into being? What breath is this, but the breath of God that filled the upper room and made God’s creative word known to people of every land and language; the breath that filled Peter’s lungs when he declared that in these last days the Spirit would be poured out upon all flesh, and all God’s children would prophesy?
That is the call of this moment upon each of us: to breathe in the breath of God, which is constantly making and remaking the world, and to breathe out a prophetic word of confidence that death will not have the last word. What form might that prophesy take? Maybe it will look like stepping out past fear to safely donate blood at a moment when the blood banks are critically low, and organizing others to do this same. Maybe it will resound in your commitment to organizing with the Poor People’s Campaign or other power organizations to ensure that issues of poverty, race, the climate, and the war economy are not swept under the rug when trillions of dollars are being redistributed to keep the economy going at the expense of those for whom the economy has never worked at all.
And who, they will ask, are we to speak a word of prophesy? Who commissioned us to say what the world might yet be? We are children of people who survived genocide. We are the descendants of enslaved people. We are the heirs of generations that fled hunger, poverty, and war. We are those whose forebears survived the camps, the detention centers, the crossing. We are the children of the children who got home safe. We are the hope of the incarcerated. We are the dancers out til dawn. We are the dry bones brought back to life, the remnant that survived. And this is the commission received at our baptism, when God’s Holy Spirit breathed power into our bodies and raised us from death to life. We have so much in common, despite the many violences that have divided us from each other and, in this moment, the world needs us all to speak together, to act together, to organize together, to prophesy together.
Because we, too, value the enactment of our desires — of God’s desires — for a world liberated from poverty and greed and nationalism and fear of one another — and we will not sacrifice that dream to the present pandemic. The world could look dramatically different after this crisis has come and gone, or it could remain tragically the same. We know this. It’s not our first pandemic. Already, God is calling the prophets to assemble, planting us all in the bone fields, breathing a word of hope into our lungs. Now it is time to speak.
This is the year when we read the story of the dry bones before we come to the foot of the cross, where we will find ourselves next Friday — and for many Fridays to come, I’m afraid. But next Saturday … oh, next Saturday, we will hear this story again, and we will feel it in our bones.