United Presbyterian Church of West Orange



“Dem Bones”

 May 19, 2024

 Rev. Rebecca Migliore    


        When I was in high school I attended a fellowship group associated with my church.  And we had a member who played the guitar and we loved to sing.  One of our favorites was a camp song called “Dem Bones gonna rise again.”  The catchy chorus went, “ I knows it, knows it, indeed I knows it, brother, I knows it, WHEE!  Dem bones gonna rise again”—which is a spiritual based on our reading from Ezekiel.  Of course, the verses have nothing to do with this, being a somewhat skewed version of the Adam and Eve story, but everyone had a lot of fun singing that chorus part.  WHEE!  Dem bones gonna rise again.

        And then, there I was at my 35th reunion from Princeton Theological Seminary, and the new president, Dr. Walton, was talking about his thinking as we move into a new time for seminaries and the church, and his talk was titled, “Good Bones”—using the image of old house renovation experts.  If a house has “good bones” you can tear it down to the studs and reconfigure it to match the needs of a new owner and a new time.

        And I wondered if this was what the lectionary committee was thinking when it paired the Ezekiel text, about God blowing breath into old bones, and making them new--with the Pentecost text about the Spirit blowing wind and fire into those who would be sent out into the world as the church.  I can only imagine how exhausted those who gathered in Jerusalem were: after the events of passion week, after the grief of Jesus’ death, after the frenzy of the resurrection news and the jittery excitement of Jesus appearing to them again, and finally, the unbelievableness of the ascension, and finding themselves alone again, and waiting… for WHAT?  What was this Holy Spirit?  What was this “power from on high”?

      What was going to happen next?  What was going to happen to them?  I can imagine that they felt like dry bones, used up, lacking energy yet unable to sleep.  Dry bones, lying in a pile, devoid of flesh, devoid of life, dry and dead. 

        And then Pentecost happened.  And God’s breath, like the pneuma, the ruach, that was hovering over the waters in the beginning of time, created once again.  I think that was what Ezekiel was getting at—writing at a “dry” time during the history of the Jewish people.  I think that was what the Pentecost story is getting at—not just for that first Pentecost, but for all the “dry” times that the church has experienced.  I think that was maybe what Dr. Walton was getting at—during a “dry” period in academic history.  I think that is what we are to hear for us today—for maybe we are experiencing a “dry” personal era, maybe we are thinking that the church is “on its last legs,” maybe we are wondering about our world and its future. 

It looks so bleak—our world.  There are so many problems, there are so many needs, it is so overwhelming.  And we may feel so inadequate, so depleted, so dry.  We understand those dry bones.  We might even enjoy being those dry bones.  Because they have run their race and completed their task.  They can’t be expected to do anything more.  They can’t be expected to accomplish anything more.  They are dead and dry, done.  They get to rest.

But God is not done.  Not with our world, not with us, not even when we feel like those dry bones.  Like the song I learned when I was young, “Dem bones gonna rise again.”  God can call us from our dry bone existence into life again.  God’s Spirit, God’s Breath, what we call the Holy Spirit can lift bones from their valley, and put them into alignment again, and call forth sinew and muscle and flesh, and make those bones live again.

We often talk about Pentecost as the beginning of the church, the birthday of the church as if it was something past and gone.  But Pentecost is constantly happening.

      It is something not just to mark the passing of the years, but also to celebrate the wonder that God is constantly doing a new thing, singing a new song, lifting us up from our valleys of shadows and infusing us with newness.  It might be a new path we can travel.  It might be a new ministry for the church.  It might be a new way of looking at ourselves and our world.  It might be the time to cultivate a gift we have not yet used.  It might be the assurance that there are green pastures, there are still waters, there can be rest for our souls.

Pentecost is a release.  We have been waiting and now it is here.  We have been wondering and now we are sent out.  We have been dry and now we are filled up.  This could be seen as the weekly arc of a Christian (going out into the world, giving what we can, then coming back to be filled up and sent out again).  It could be seen as the arc of a church (being birthed, growing into what it imagined, facing all the “pain and joy of living,” only to be called to take dem bones, those dry bones, those good bones, and craft a new way for the people of God in this place).  It might even be the arc of our world, starting in upheaval and watery chaos and then being formed into something that lives and grows and maybe needs to be formed again.

For some reason, this year, I wanted to give you something to remind you of Pentecost, something that you could find a way of seeing often.  I could have given you a way to make fire, and you may want to buy a candle for yourself.  I could have given you a fan, to remind you of the breeze of God that blows through our lives and our world.  I could have given you a picture of a dove, or a feather, or something bird-like. 

I know that we often sing “Holy Spirit, Heavenly dove.”  I know the dove image links this powerful part of the Trinity to that other dove story—the one where Noah, trapped in the ark with all the living things that were going to survive the flood, sends out a raven to see if there is land, but the raven comes back.

        And when he sends out the dove, it brings back an olive leaf, and Noah knows that there is life again on the earth.  But I decided that this year, I’d give you a butterfly.

Butterflies are magical.  We get so excited when we see them.  Maybe that is why there are now butterfly parks where you can be surrounded by them, and they can alight on you and give you a thrill.  Butterflies are beautiful.  They are so distinctive.  Some are large and some are small.  They come in so many wonderful colors.  We think of them as delicate, but some butterflies travel thousands of miles to mate and lay eggs where they were born.  Butterflies have morphed from a caterpillar to a cocoon to a butterfly.  They wing themselves on the breeze.  They often move in great numbers together, although they are not tied to do so.

The more I thought about butterflies, the more I thought we needed to add butterfly to our picture of the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes I think that main-line churches and Presbyterians in particular have this “not quite sure about this” relationship with the Holy Spirit.  I mean, roaring wind and dancing flame in the midst of worship!?  Not too decently and in order.  And what is all this about talking in languages you don’t know?  No thank you.

But what if we thought about the Holy Spirit as a fluttering thing that might gently graze our hair? or as a firefly that beckons us forward in the night?  What if we thought about the Holy Spirit as a dive bombing mosquito, unwilling to leave us alone?  What if we thought about the Holy Spirit as an eagle, regal and flying high?  Or as a robin, always showing that spring is near?

 You can come up with your own image, of something that is in our world, something that can move long distances, and yet can settle to nest, something that is a little mysterious.  And none of these things can totally capture what the Spirit is.  Pentecost is the day that the Spirit was given to us, as a present, as a promise, as a guide, as a protector, as a comforter, as a disruptor.

      For anytime God arrives in this world, watch out.  (and maybe that is why we try so hard to sidestep away from the Spirit—it means giving up some of our control).

Pentecost is the time to remember that God has not left us to dry up and decay in our sometimes dark world.  Pentecost is the time to remember that God continues to create for us and in us and with us and through us.  Pentecost is the time to remember that we have a continuing part to play in God’s wonderful world.  Pentecost is the time to remember that God’s Spirit didn’t ask for a resume, or give an age or size limit, or chose only some.  God’s Spirit fell on everyone gathered that day.  And everyone was changed.  Every single one.

Some found their voice and the courage to stand up against the powerful entities of their day.  Some found that they had resources that could be put to good use.  Some found that they were gifted in listening, in praying, in healing, in teaching, in making sure people were fed, in noticing those who stay at the edges, and so many other ways to serve.  And they pushed out from Jerusalem, pushed out to their homes and their towns, and their families, and their neighbors, and to places they didn’t yet know, and people they hadn’t yet met, and experiences they couldn’t even fathom.

That’s what I want you to think of when you stick this butterfly into the ground where you live, or when you put it into a plant in your home, or however you find a way to have it come into your eyes.  God sees you as beautiful.  God knows you are delicate and yet are so strong.  God thrills at your different shapes and colors and sizes.  God laughs when you swarm together, and smiles when you strike out on your own.  God intends for you to fly.

And from Pentecost on, we, the people of God, know that we are never alone.  Truly, dem bones gonna rise again, by the power and the love and the might of God with us now and forever.

May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.