Mortal, Can These Bones Live?

A Sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho on April 6, 2014.

Ezekiel 37:1-14

John 11:17-45

Over spring break, Alden and I joined 50 other people from Boise High on a tour of Berlin, Prague, Krakow, and Budapest. One of the stops on our trip was Auschwitz-Birkenau, two Nazi concentration camps. It was a valley of dry bones as Ezekiel described. Scenes of horror I can’t even imagine. Death was everywhere.

We toured a barracks,  without ventilation or bathrooms, where up to 10 people would have to crowd on each bunk, with only straw for padding.  Bodies of those who had died in the night would be removed each morning.

barracks at Birkenau

barracks at Birkenau

We saw one of the train cars they had used to bring people into the camps, packing them in like cattle, with no sanitation facilities or room to sit down. No food or water in hot summers or cold winters.
We saw the area where they divided up the new arrivals, sending some to barracks where they would labor 11 hours a day, and sending others to take a “disinfecting” shower in the gas chambers.

Birkenau guard tower

Birkenau guard tower

We saw the remains of the crematoriums, where they would burn the bodies to hide the evidence of their atrocities.

remains of one of the crematoriums

remains of one of the crematoriums

As we toured the place, I thought of the valley of dry bones. I thought of a place of death, with no sign of life or hope or future.

Mortal, can these bones live?, God asks. My first thought, while walking into a Nazi death camp was “NO, they can’t. They are just proof of our evil toward each other and reminders of what we’ve lost.”

I wonder why God chooses to ask that question of mortals. The power of resurrection and new life is beyond us, surely.

Ezekiel’s response catches that ambiguity:

“Oh Lord. Why are you asking me this question? I have no idea. But you know.”

Maybe it is the perfect question for us?

Maybe we sell short our ability to participate in new life.

Mortal, can these bones live?

Auschwitz is the name most people know, but Birkenau is the camp where the train cars would deliver people to hell. And as we walked into the camp,  a group of Hasidic Jews walked down the train tracks, parallel to us, singing a song in Hebrew.

hasidicIt sounded like a lament to me, even though I couldn’t follow what they were singing.

It was beautiful. It was haunting. It about undid me. It was a perfect song for the place, and it was so evocative I could almost see the ghosts of some of the 1.5 million people who died in that particular camp rise up from their graves and follow behind them, responding to the song.

Here’s a video one of the other trip participants took. You can hear the sound of the strong breeze in this clip, but I still want you to get a sense of what it was like. I’ve got a longer clip of the song on my blog.

After I posted the video to my blog, a friend helped me figure out what they were singing. Here’s a translation:

“I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah and even though he may tarry, nevertheless, I wait each day for his coming.”

During World War 2, a group of Jews from Warsaw were in a cattle car, on their way to the Treblinka Death Camp. One elderly man asked a rabbi who was on the train to sing for them. While some thought that a crazy idea in the midst of the horror, those words came to the rabbi’s mind. “Closing his eyes, he meditated on these words and thought, “Just now, when everything seems lost, is a Jew’s faith put to the test.

“It was not long before the rabbi began to hum a quiet tune to these words. There, amidst the death and despair on the train to Treblinka, he was transformed into a pillar of song, bringing forth out of his bloodied lungs the song of the eternity of the Jewish People. He was unaware of the silence in the cattle car, and of the hundreds of ears listening attentively in amazement. He also didn’t hear the voices as they gradually joined his song, at first quietly, but soon growing louder and louder.
The song spread from car to car. Every mouth that could still draw a breath joined in Reb Azriel Dovid’s Ani Ma’amin.” (Longer account of this story found here.)

“With this niggun (melody),” said Rebbe Shaul Yedidya Elazar, “the Jewish people went to the gas chambers. And with this niggun, the Jews will march to greet Moshiach.”

That was the song we heard sung as we walked into Birkenau.

Mortal, can these bones live?

“I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah and even though he may tarry, nevertheless, I wait each day for his coming.”

As that song worked its way into my soul, I noticed other things as we walked through Birkenau.

I heard a beautiful melody being sung by a bird, as if he wanted to carry on the refrain started by the men who sang. IMG_1290

I looked around at the reminders of death and evil and I also saw beauty. The grass was spring green, the scene was infused by the soft light of the setting sun. It was beautiful.

sunset at Birkenau-Auschwitz

sunset at Birkenau-Auschwitz

And there was life, not just death.

Sometimes we look around and all we can see is death. Like Ezekiel in the valley of the dry bones, we see what used to be alive, but is now returning to the earth in dust and ash.

Or in the gospel story, we understand the tears of Mary and Martha as they mourn their brother, Lazaurus, dead in a tomb.

Death we understand. We don’t like it, but we experience it, in ways big and small.

What strikes us with surprise is life, especially when all we expect to see is death.

Mortal, can these bones live?

I wonder if God wants to challenge the easy way with which we see death and the difficulty with which we imagine life.

When Ezekiel is told the bones represent the whole house of Israel, God tells him how Israel sees death all around them. “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

God will not let that narrative of death and ending be the narrative of God’s own people.

He promises to open their graves, pull them out of their graves, put his Spirit, or breath, into them, and to lead them back to life.

I confess it is not my favorite scriptural image, of God digging up graves and pulling the walking dead from their tombs. It is messy. It is kinda scary. And it cautions us that new life may not be easy or neat.

Jesus similarly stands at Lazarus’ tomb and instructs people to open the tomb. They roll away the stone, choosing to ignore their fear of the stench of death, choosing to disregard everything they knew to be true about the way the world works, choosing to trust that God could see life where they only could see death. Like Jews singing on the way to a death camp, they chose to act for life.

It must have seemed more like a zombie apocalypse than a moment of good news, though, waiting to see what Jesus was going to do with an open tomb.

“Lazarus! Come out!”

And Lazarus hears the voice of the shepherd, and gets up from his tomb and walks out into the light, still wrapped in his grave clothes.

“Unbind him”, Jesus commands to the crowd.

Jesus is the one who calls Lazarus to life. But the crowd has to respond.

“Unbind him.”

Now, I don’t know how comfortable you would be with this task, but law abiding Jews would not touch a dead body casually. And I suspect they were all trying to figure out how the law applied to formerly dead bodies.

But again, like Ezekiel before them, they trust in the Divine instructions and believe that these bones can live again.

Right now.



And they unbind Lazarus, freeing him of the trappings of death.

Mortal, can these bones live?

Yes. We proclaim.

Right now.



In the midst of fear, horror, loss, pain, violence, evil, God calls us out of our graves and in to life.

These texts, offered in the depths of Lent, command us to trust that Easter is coming. We are called to trust God is at work, creating life in dead places.

And when we look around at the valley of bones, at the tombs of our despair and brokenness, we are called to believe more in God’s ability to bring new life than our easy tendency to trust only in death.

Do we have hearts, minds, and souls open to see new life when, in truth, we can’t even imagine it?

I’m thankful I saw so many signs of new life in Auschwitz.

I’m thankful for all of the times I’ve seen it in your lives, when you’ve experienced laughter, joy, and beauty in the midst of terrible loss and pain.

Friends, on Easter, we will see a sign far greater than the sign of Lazarus. Jesus will walk out of his tomb, discarding un-needed grave clothes, and he will walk into life eternal.

When God asks us, “mortal, can these bones live?”, our answer is to confidently proclaim, “YES. Oh God, you know.”



One thought on “Mortal, Can These Bones Live?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s