Pentecost. The Spirit descending as a dove. Fire dancing above heads and indwelling inside hearts. The giving of the Spirit. Today I want to talk about Pentecost as breath. Our Christian Pentecost stems from a Jewish Pentecost (focused on the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai). If you look at the words for Spirit in both Greek and Hebrew, they translate as Breath. Pneuma (in Greek—the root of the word pneumonia, an infection in the lungs); and Ruach (in Hebrew—the Ruach is what hovered over the waters in the beginning and what is given to the dry bones in Ezekiel 37).
Pneuma and Ruach—the stuff of life—the stuff of Pentecost. This morning I can’t help but remember that it is a year after George Floyd said “I can’t breathe” adding his voice to the horrifyingly long line of those whose breath was snuffed out or whose ability to breathe wasn’t honored. “I can’t breathe” can be a statement of physical fact: air can’t move through my lungs, oxygen isn’t getting to my brain, I’m not getting what it takes to stay alive.
But “I can’t breathe” can also be a statement of emotional/spiritual existence: I’m bone weary of micro aggression and overt intimidation and outright hostility, I’m fearful that you won’t accept me for who I am so I leave my true self in a closet, I’m not fully valued, I’m not fully alive.
This is not a problem that has just cropped up in the 21st century. When Ezekiel is told to go and look at a valley of dry bones, I suppose it’s possible that there were places where genocide had happened, where war had happened, where pandemic had happened, where bodies had been stacked one upon another, or thrown willy-nilly into a pit. I suppose that is possible. But much more likely, Ezekiel is having a vision, like the wheel within a wheel, a vision that talks about life in terms we all understand, terms that do not lose their force over millennia.
A valley of dry bones. A people who are like dust, blown about by the wind. Dry bones, not even connected to the other bones in the body, not even a body, just the component parts. Dry bones can’t do anything but lie there. Dry bones can’t walk or talk or love. Dry bones are the after effect of life—after life is over, after love is over, after hope is over. God sends Ezekiel to see a valley of dry bones and says “Prophesy to the bones to live.”
I know what I would be thinking, standing in that high place, looking down on a valley of dry bones. I’d be thinking—dry bones come to life?, pretty impossible.
I tell you, that today, from my seat here in my house, I look out and I see so many dry bones—so much that seems pretty impossible.
—Stemming violence based on racial bias, pretty impossible.
—Overcoming systemic poverty, pretty impossible.
—Dismantling institutionalized racism, pretty impossible.
—the Church ever having the prestige and importance in society, pretty impossible.
—a Nation torn in two with no way out, pretty impossible.
—Peace in the Middle East, pretty impossible.
—pretending this year of so many Losses just didn’t happen, just didn’t matter, pretty impossible.
—ever getting back to Life that we don’t have to plan, pretty impossible.
And yet, we know that with God, all things are possible. Even a valley of dry bones can become a people again. It seems to be a two-step process.
First, you have to do the hard work—you have to put the bones back together. You have to have sinews and tendons and ligaments to tie the bones to one another. Flesh has to come onto the bones. Eyes need to be able to see and ears to hear—everything in working order. Skin needs to cover the bones and the sinews and the tendons and the ligaments and the flesh. This is not a process that happens with the snap of a finger. There has to be gestation. Time for all that work to be done.
In looking at our valley of dry bones, in feeling in our very being the dryness of our lives, of our world, we are being called to do the meticulous artwork of stitching us back together. We are being called to weld the steel edges smooth—to make a stronger bond. We are being called to assemble a new order, one that sees everyone, and respects everyone, and makes a place for everyone. We are being called to use all the gifts we have been given—from our imagination, to our perseverance, to our experience, to our communities. And we can’t expect that we can do this work fast. There has to be time for gestation, for germination. That doesn’t mean we don’t do anything—the valley of dry bones had to get up out of its grave, get up off of the ground, sort itself into sets of bones, and start the process of reconstituting themselves.
I imagine that there were those gathered on that Pentecost morning after Jesus’ death who were still dry bones. Or still in the early steps of becoming whole. Here they were living in an occupied land—how was that to be solved? Pretty impossible. Here they were in a city with all these peoples, all those hard to pronounce countries with their different languages (Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome,)—how was the message to get out?—pretty impossible. Here they were such a small number, in such a big world, how could they make a difference? —pretty impossible. They were up against the might of the Roman Empire, the force that brutally ruled the known world—and squashed people and movements. Crushed them. Hung them on instruments of torture until their lungs filled with fluid and they couldn’t breathe. They were dry. Dry of breath. Dry of life. Dry of hope. Dry bones.
They had done the work of moving forward—meeting with Jesus, looking at the Scriptures, gathering strength, eating together and praying together and worshiping together. But they needed something more. They needed breath. Breath—what allows us to pull from the environment that which fuels our bodies and minds.
Breath that allows us to talk and sing and cry and laugh. Breath, that thing we don’t think much about until we can’t breathe. Breath, the precious, miraculous, force that animates us, that is the difference between life and death, the ultimate gift from God.
Without breath, that valley of dry bones was nothing more than a gathering of zombies. Without breath, the disciples were a small band of followers of a little known preacher. Without breath, we are brittle bones, fragile, dust and to dust we shall return. But from the very beginning, God has invested in this world, has invested in creation, has invested God’s very self in us. God didn’t just create us in God’s image, God breathed the very essence, the very core of God into us. God breathed into us, filling our lungs with air, filling our souls with the spark of goodness, the fire of passion, the hunger for Shalom, a first Pentecost right there in the garden of Eden.
We should never forget that the vision in Ezekiel required not just reassembling the bones, but the breathing of Ruach (breath) into them as well. This two-step process is just that. Each step is important. Each step is essential. It takes two. Us (together) and God.
I think part of the problem with our world, and maybe the problem with our religious institutions is that we have decoupled Us from God. We have no shortage of people who want to reimagine our society, some are fighting for commendable things such as justice and equality—some have more sinister and egotistical aims—but I fear that the struggle for a better world with no bedrock, no underpinnings, no “breath,” might lose steam when the road is long, and the way is tough, and the goal seems out of reach.
On the other hand, I cringe when religious institutions do nothing but gaze at their navels—who barricade themselves within worship spaces that never have to touch the world outside, that never feel the need to be with the “least of these,” that are ok with people checking the box of “ok, fulfilled Sunday Worship” as if that were all God expected of us.
Our reanimation of dry bones needs the breath of God. Just as, the breath of God did not wish to continue to hover over the waters; just as, the breath of God did not wish to be separate from those dry bones; just as, the breath of God didn’t stay away from all those gathered on that day we read about in the Acts of the Apostles.
That is the thing about breath (at least the breath that we experience). You can’t hold onto it for yourself. You can’t hold onto it forever. You can’t hold onto it—it is meant to go in and out, to be part of an exchange—an exchange that involved more than just you, more than just what you can control, more than you can even imagine.
To be human is to exist on the brink of being just dry bones. We have all had arid times in our lives, in our loves, in our careers, in our relationships (even with God). Dry bones is a pre-existing condition. But that is not what God wants for us. That is not what has to be—ever. We can accept that we are dry bones, and get up out of the grave (as Ezekiel prophesies).
I love the fact that in both these stories (the valley of dry bones, and the congregation at Pentecost), are stories of community. That valley was a whole horde of dry bones, enough dry bones to make a “vast multitude.” The congregation at Pentecost was gathered together, and their few number then spilled out into the wider area—the good news of God’s love for us enabling more dry bones to find breath.
So it is for us, today. We have the opportunity to be part of the “I am filled with breath, God’s breath” movement. I can’t think of a better description for the followers of Jesus. I can’t think of a better mission statement. We know we have to continually go to the valleys where dry bones are gathered. We know we have a part in identifying the parts, and finding new pathways, and building new connections, and embracing new communities. We also know none of it will come to fruition without the Spirit of God, filling us, making us, molding us, using us.
Because God made a choice as well. God’s Spirit is more than capable of scorching us clean—like a wildfire decimating everything in its path. But the Pneuma, the Ruach, the Spirit and Breath of God, comes to us, chooses to dwell in us, enables us—even depends on us—to be the ones to spread the message, to provide water for dry things, to speak love in the language that people can hear, to be God’s ambassadors in this strange and brave new world.
Pentecost. Not some make-believe acid trip. Not some ecstasy with no purpose. But the embodiment of taking the pretty impossible, valley of dry bones, dead bones, and breathing into it Possibility, Hope, Life.
Pentecost reminds us that we aren’t to be bystanders. God has created us, given us gifts we never dreamed of, pushed us out to do things we never imagined—not for fame or fortune, but to resuscitate ourselves and our world—to share God’s breath, one puff, one laugh, one story, one word of love, at a time. Happy Pentecost!
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.