A sermon at Christian Witness for Peace in Iraq
based on Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; John 11:17-44; Romans 6:16-23
March 7, 2008
by J. Daryl Byler
Five years ago on this day, I was in the 31st day of a 40 day fast. Each day during that fast, I sent a letter to U.S. President George W. Bush and urged him to consider alternatives to going to war with Iraq.
My letter on March 7, 2003, focused on comments that President Bush had made the night before in a press conference:
“Mr. President, last night in your press conference, you spoke of your concern for the security of the American people. You said that you hoped the crisis with Iraq could be resolved peacefully. But you also expressed willingness to go to war with or without the endorsement of the UN Security Council. . . . I invite you to reconsider one of your statements from last evening. You said: ‘I want to remind you that it is Saddam Hussein’s choice to make whether or not we go to war. . . . He’s the person that can make the choice of war and peace.’ Mr. President, doesn’t this give Mr. Hussein too much power? It would seem to me that it is our choice – we must take responsibility for whether we choose the way of war or the path of peace.”
Here we are, five years later. Saddam Hussein is gone, but at what cost? Tens of thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands — of Iraqi civilians and security forces have been killed. Nearly 4,000 U.S. soldiers have died. More than 4 million Iraqis have been uprooted from their homes. The United States has already spent $500 billion for this war. And most Iraqis still can’t count on regular electricity – even in the Kurdish areas.
Two weeks ago, Mennonite Central Committee gathered a group of 10 Iraqis in Amman, Jordan, and invited them to give us counsel about how MCC should focus its work in Iraq during the next five years. All of these Iraqis have attended or will attend the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University. Today, most of them are doing courageous work with Iraqi non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are seeking to find ways to bring healing from the devastation of war, order from the chaos, hope from despair and unity from the sectarian divisions that this war has exploited.
One Iraqi NGO leader said, “The lack of basic services leads to tension and conflict.” Another said, “We are in a vicious cycle of fear and terror. Anger is pushing people to go to the deepest darkest levels.” One participant asked a very practical question that many Iraqis face: “Can I forgive the people who killed my husband?”
The Common Lectionary texts for this coming Sunday – the fifth Sunday in Lent — seem especially relevant to the situation we face today with regard to Iraq.
The Old Testament reading is from Ezekiel 37, the story of the valley of dry bones. Ironically, the context for this vision is in Babylon, modern-day Iraq.
This text also describes a time of darkness and death and despair. God’s people have been torn from the Promised Land. They have been disobedient and unfaithful — and judgment has come. First the Northern Kingdom of Israel falls to the Assyrians. Then the Southern Kingdom of Judah falls to the Babylonians. Jerusalem is captured and the temple is destroyed.
Now God’s people are captive in Babylon. Their land has been stripped from them. Their place of worship has been destroyed. The temple was the reminder of their connection with God. And now the temple is gone. “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely,” the people lament. (v.11)
The Lord brings Ezekiel out into the middle of a valley full of bones. Some Bible scholars believe this valley was just south of modern-day Baghdad.
The Lord leads Ezekiel back and forth among the bones. And Ezekiel notes two things: there are a great many bones, and the bones are very dry.
Then the Lord asks Ezekiel a simple question: “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel gives an answer that sounds good, but in reality shows little faith: “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
“Mortal, can these bones live?”
Many of us may feel despair when we think about the situation in Iraq. Or perhaps we feel guilty about what our nation has done in Iraq. Or that we were unable to stop our nation’s warring ways. Or perhaps we feel despair at the growing U.S. military budget. More than six years after Sept. 11, the United States keeps putting most of its security eggs in the military basket. It seems that we have learned little from our nation’s assaults on Afghanistan and Iraq.
Can these bones live? Is it possible for something good to come out of this disaster? Is there any hope that the future will be better? Mortal, can these bones live?”
The Lectionary Psalm for this coming Sunday – Psalm 130 – also describes a time of despair.
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,” the psalmist laments. “Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?” (vv.1-3)
And yet, in the midst of his despair, the psalmist finds hope. “But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. . . . For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.” (vv. 4-7)
Out of the depths we cry to God this day: “Lord, hear our voice.”
• May we, too, find forgiveness for our many failures.
• May we also remember that, with God, there is steadfast love.
• May we always wait with hope and expectation.
• May we never forget that with God is great power to redeem.
The Epistle reading for this Sunday is from Romans 6. It raises the provocative question, “Who owns us?” Are we slaves to sin, which leads to death? Have we surrendered our lives to the powers who seek to rule through domination and destruction? Have we sold our souls to the enticements of the empire?
Or are we slaves to God and to God’s way of right relationships, which leads to life? Do our lives give evidence of our commitment to living justly with our neighbors?
Whose slaves are we?
The Gospel reading for this Sunday is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus arrives on the scene four days after Lazarus has been buried. And Mary, the sister of Lazarus, takes Jesus to task for his tardiness. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”(v.32).The crowd asks a similar question: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (v.37). But Jesus is not deterred. He announces, “I am the resurrection and the life” (v.25). He commands the crowd to roll back the heavy stone that guards the entrance to Lazarus’ grave (v.39). He looks toward heaven and prays to God (vv.41-42). Then he cries in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” (v.43). To the astonishment and delight of the crowd, Lazarus walks out of his grave.
What about us today? We may be tempted to feel like Mary and the crowd. This disaster — this war — could have and should have been prevented? Why didn’t we stop it? Why didn’t God stop it?
At this point, these are the wrong questions. Indeed, the war has happened and its effects continue. We must now shift our focus to the fact that we serve a God who brings resurrection even to the most horrific situations in life. Is this our faith? Do we believe that God still acts decisively to restore life in what seem to us to be the most hopeless of situations?
What is clear from all these Lectionary texts is that God is the primary actor.
• It is God who gives life to the dry bones and puts breath in them (Ezekiel 37:5-6).
• It is God who restores hope in the midst of death and destruction (37:12-14).
• It is God who reconnects us to safe places when we feel completely cut off and alone (37:11).
• It is God who has great power to redeem (Psalm 130:7).
• It is God who sets us free from the grip of sin and death, and sets us apart for lives that are lived justly (Romans 6).
• It is God who resurrects and restores life (John 11).
So if God is the primary actor, if God does all of this, then why are we gathered here? Why not just go home and wait for God to act?
1. Because God calls us to listen and then to speak. Like Ezekiel, we are to listen for God’s word, then speak it with boldness and confidence – in any valley filled with dry bones, in every place where hope seems lost. Our Iraqi colleagues reminded us two weeks ago of the importance of linking advocacy in Washington to their on-the-ground work in Iraq. They want their stories to be told. They want their voices to be heard.
Jon Bock spoke recently at a mission conference in Pittsburgh. Bock said: “All human powers and superpowers, whether they acknowledge it or not, are under the judgment of God, and operate within God’s timetable. It is the obligation of God’s people to remind their own political rulers of this overlooked or ignored fact – implicitly, by how they live, and explicitly, by how they speak.” The powers are allowed to exist and have a job to do. But they are always on notice. They must exercise their authority in ways that serve God’s purposes and that help life to flourish.
May we listen carefully enough to God’s word that we can speak it clearly and forthrightly when we are called upon to do so.
2. Because waiting is not passive. Our faith can only grow in situation where waiting is required. If it doesn’t require waiting, it doesn’t require faith. Waiting is the crucible in which we must decide what we really believe about God. It is in waiting that, like the psalmist, we re-affirm our beliefs about who God is and what God is doing in the world. Indeed, God has great power to redeem.
3. Because God has called us to model a new way of living. As with Paul’s admonition to the church at Rome, instead of being slaves to sin and destruction, we are to surrender our lives to the way of justice and righteousness. We are to live in new ways that the world desperately longs to see. This modeling must begin in our homes, in our churches, in our communities and in our nation if we expect to have a credible witness elsewhere.
Our Iraqi friends advised MCC to support relief and development projects that, by their design, benefit the various segments of Iraqi society. By their design, they model what justice and peace look like. By their design, they require Shia, Sunni and Kurd; Christian and Muslim to work together for a better common future. We must be and model the change we seek.
Can these bones live? Can the chaos we have seen in Iraq become the basis for a new future? One of the questions that John Paul Lederach asks in strategic peacebuilding is this: What opportunity does the present chaos offers that might otherwise not be possible?
We asked this to our Iraqi colleagues. Their response: The possibility of a new mentality in which all ethnic and religious groups in Iraq see each other as part of one humanity — with no group dominating the other.
Can these bones live? Samia Khoury is a board member at the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Center in East Jerusalem. Several weeks ago, she sent out a reflection about the current crisis in Gaza. “People in power seem to have a short memory,” she wrote, “Because throughout history, oppressive governments end up learning the hard way, as they never take heed of past experiences. We have seen empires fall and regimes tumble, because the will of the oppressed people for liberation is always stronger in the long run.”
Can these bones live? Yes, these bones can live. With that hope:
• Let us listen carefully to God’s word and speak it with confidence.
• Let us wait patiently, but not passively.
• Let us model lives lived justly.
Go forth with this hope.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. 2 Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! 3 If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? 4 But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. 5 I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; 6 my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. 7 O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. 8 It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall life; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” 7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commended me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people: and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, 18 and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification. 20 When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to him, “Unbind him, and let him go.”