Where is God? On tragedy and hope.

Today is the 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and Flight 93. I was still living in the DC area at the time and remember very clearly where I was and what I did on Sept. 11, 2001. I worked not far from the Pentagon but was at school on that particular day.

I tried to think of a way to talk about the attacks and my feelings, but I was a very different person then who processed grief and shock very differently. Instead, I’m sharing a sermon I wrote this summer about Ezekiel 37: 1-14 as the culmination of a sermon writing seminar I took at my church.

*****

June 22, 2016

We were in the living room watching the news last week and my mom said, “It’s been a hard week in Orlando.” And it really had been. Not only did that little baby get drowned by an alligator, but singer Christina Grimmie was shot point blank while greeting fans and signing autographs and, of course, there was yet another mass shooting—this time resulting in 49 deaths of members of the LGBT community, most of whom were people of color/Latinx.

So many lives lost and so many grieving people. Many held vigils to honor the lost. Many also turned to social media to voice their shock, dismay, horror, grief, and anger.

If, like me, you spend a lot of time on social media, you probably noticed what I did: that most people responded to the mass shooting in Orlando in a few ways:

  • When will it end?
  • What will it take?
  • How many more lives will be lost to gun violence?
  • Why won’t Congress/the government/the president DO something?

Then there were those who came in and said, “If America didn’t do anything after Sandy Hook and the murder of children, what makes you think they’ll do something now that a bunch of brown, gay people have been murdered?”

I have to be honest. I didn’t like those particular sentiments being expressed. I wanted to tell those people, “Well, with an attitude like that, what do you expect?”

But then there were those who said they couldn’t take it anymore and they were numb. And they couldn’t believe they were numb, but they were. Because it is just too much. Again and again and again. It is just too much.

Now, them I could understand a little more. Because I, too, often feel like it’s too much. I sometimes have to log off the computer and turn off my TV and just avoid all of the sadness and awfulness. It’s not quite the same as numbness for me because it still hurts, and I will confront it a little more when I’m ready. But I totally understand that sometimes it’s easier not to feel because the pain is so great.

The more I thought about it, though, I realized that those who expressed anger by saying that nothing would change now since it didn’t change then and those who said they succumbed to numbness were saying the same thing.

They have given up hope. And why should they have hope? Devastating loss of life after devastating loss of life and it seems that nothing has changed. And if nothing has changed, why should they believe that anything will change?

And that’s what has happened to the Israelites in the scripture from Ezekiel. They have been devastated by the fall of Judah and from the destruction of the northern kingdom. They want to know what it will take for their exile to end. They want to know when their exile will end. They want to know how much more they have to endure. Their bones are dried up and their hope is lost.

In Ezekiel’s vision, God asks Ezekiel if the bones can live, and Ezekiel responds, “Oh Lord God, you know.” We have no idea of Ezekiel’s delivery of his answer, but I can imagine it being said many different ways:

“Oh Lord God, YOU know.”

“Oh Lord God, you KNOW.”

“OH LORD GOD, you know.”

In either case, Ezekiel is full of exasperation in the version in my head and all ways I imagine him responding basically translate to “How am I supposed to know that?”

I’m projecting, of course. If God were to ask me if the people devastated by the gun violence in this country can continue to live without hope that things will change for the better, I would answer, “Oh God, you know” and my inflection would translate my exasperation and, possibly, also my own hopelessness.

I find it interesting then that, in the vision, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones and tell them that God will cause breath to enter them and they will live. And when Ezekiel does what God tells him, when Ezekiel tells the bones that they will live, they reassemble and come together with sinew and flesh covering them. But that’s all that they do. Ezekiel notes that they have no breath in them, which I take to mean that the bones still lack hope. Oh they look the way they should look and they do the things they should do, but without the spirit of God in them—without hope—they just rattle along, going through the motions.

So God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath—or the spirit itself—and to enter those crippled by hopelessness so that they may live. And Ezekiel does, and it works, and the bones stand on their feet, alive and renewed—no longer mere shells.

I have to admit. I love a bible story where the metaphor is explained directly in the text. In this case, we know the bones represent the displaced Israelites who have completely lost faith, and we also learn what it means for the bones to have breath in them so that they may live.

In the explanation offered in verses 12-14, God says that He will commit acts to restore the people back to the land of Israel and that is how the people will know he is God. That he will open up their graves and bring them up from their graves, that he will essentially take what is keeping them feeling dead and take them out of those dead places and give them hope through their witness of those actions. And that is what will show them that God hasn’t abandoned them and that they can, indeed, live instead of just survive by going through the motions.

As I read this, though, I wondered: what does an act of God look like when all hope is lost? And, more importantly, what does this story tell us an act of God looks like?

To me, it says other people will show us God when we can’t see Him or His goodness for ourselves. Because when God says to Ezekiel that he will put his spirit in the Israelites thereby giving them the hope they have lost, he says it through Ezekiel. Over and over, he says to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones,” the bones being the Israelites. And over and over, Ezekiel does what God says. Ezekiel does what the Lord commands and acts as the conduit for hope. “They have no hope,” says God, “so tell them to have hope, and then they will see what I can do.” And Ezekiel does as God commands. And I think Ezekiel’s own act of faith is ultimately what leads to restoring the dry bones of the Israelites.

There are many reasons not to have hope after the massacre in the Pulse nightclub—49 of them, to be exact. However, I think that there have been many Ezekiels in our midst lately, many people who are doing God’s will to restore hope to the people who have lost it.

Vince [one of the ministers at my church] mentioned in his sermon the very popular meme that goes around in times of tragedy that comes from Mr. Rogers: When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers.

 

I think the helpers are the Ezekiels in our midst, bringing the spirit of God to us so we can have hope that God is with us even during these awful times. That when our bones are rattling and we can only go through the motions, we can see that there is a word from God that we can be restored.

So where have I seen God lately?

Ezekiel tells the Israelites to have hope, which is what each of the helpers I mentioned here have done for me. They told me to have hope, but more importantly, they showed me what hope looked like through their actions and those actions have shown me God. I believe that God wants us to live, to take a leap of faith, and to stay close to Him by having hope, and he will, as the story says, show us reasons to keep hoping through those people doing his will by being helpers.

Amen.

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