HERE is one way a pandemic hits a preacher: every passage of scripture sounds different. The texts you’ve read a hundred times — you open them and hear completely new things. It’s like you’ve never read them before.
All these years of exegesis, and what you thought was deep engagement might not have been so deep. Biblical social distancing: keeping six feet of space between you and that text at all times. Some days, I think, “Was I wearing a face mask and gloves, the last time I read this? How else could I have walked right by that detail and never picked it up?”
This keeps happening to me. It’s sermon season at Columbia Theological Seminary, where I teach preaching, and the students are presenting their second round of sermons — into a camera, after we had to shift everything online — and, since we can’t be together in workshop, we’re doing some of the feedback in one-on-one conversations.
I was on the phone to Preston, a student who had just preached a sermon on Ezekiel 37; we were talking about what God asks Ezekiel to preach, and this haunting, beautiful phrase Preston had used — that it was “an impossible message” — and, in the middle of our conversation, it happened again: that Ezekiel text just opened, as if a quarantine I never knew was there had lifted, like a mist, like a spell.
The dry bones came into focus. I saw something I’d never seen before. I don’t know why this keeps catching me off guard the way it does. Life in a seminary is all about hearing new things in the text; being astonished by scripture, and what students see in scripture, is what we love to do there — it’s the best part of my job.
But being surprised and being jolted are two different things, and the shock factor is what I’m noticing: that’s new. I don’t know why the force of the hit is so strong each time. I don’t know why to my ear, these biblical texts are so abruptly changing key.
I don’t know if it’s just me, or just temporary, or just an impossible hermeneutic that goes with pandemic. But, then, I don’t know what’s happening to us, period. Yes, it’s a virus. But what’s happening is more than that.
TO PREACH from the middle of a tragedy like this can be so disorientating that we wonder if what we’re doing is really preaching. This day is new. Preaching right now is a new experience, and we’re so far down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that we’re not even close to being able to process it.
But it’s also not new; we have been here before. Preachers standing in the middle of other tragedies, throughout history — they have preached; and this moment we find ourselves in — it’s as old as it is new. That is a touchstone for me: we stand with them.
The preachers who pulled words from the rubble of earthquakes, hurricanes, endless wars, racial terrorism, the slaughter of indigenous peoples — they knew this disorientation, the helplessness of standing in the ruins with suffering people and not knowing what to say.
It’s an old and recurring story: the call to preach in a terrifying moment. We’re not the first, and we’re not alone: those preachers are a circle of witnesses, and they surround us as we speak. And we’re going to need courage like theirs for what we have to do, now.
Our preaching is going to have to help us all through a portal that takes us from our life before this global pandemic to our life on the other side. We are going to have to preach a new heaven and a new earth.
The Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy has given us language for this. Roy wrote a piece for the Financial Times on 3 April, “The pandemic is a portal”, in which she talks about the old and new aspects of what’s happening around us with Covid-19.
She says this tragedy is “immediate, real, epic, and unfolding before our eyes. But it isn’t new. It’s the wreckage of a train that has been careening down the track for years.”
She continues: “Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality’; trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture.
“But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.”
Historically, she continues, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
“We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
I DON’T know what’s unfolding, or what preaching will be, months from now — if sitting alone in a room and preaching into a camera is something my students next year will just have to learn, or my students this year will just have to recover from.
I don’t know what’s unfolding, or what preaching will be, months from now. I don’t know what’s happening to us preachers. But maybe our bodies do. The feeling of disorientation, of reading scripture and being suddenly upended — it’s a signal. So are the moments when we hear something new in the text and it registers like a shock to the system.
iStockA protester in Seattle in June at a George Floyd rally, echoing the words of Eric Garner
They are signals reverberating in our skin and sinews and deep in bones, telling us what our bodies already know, even if our minds don’t: that a rupture has taken place between our life as we knew it and our life now. And we can’t stitch them together and we can’t rewind.
So, what scripture is doing to us when we read it, now, is a little embodied proclamation: “Pay attention here. Look here, at this text, the one that’s rapping you on the skull: it has wisdom for you. Wisdom about letting go. And feeling our way toward the portal. And walking through it, lightly. So we’re ready.”
Every one of my students has given me the gift of being jolted by a biblical text, this spring, because every one of them has preached their heart out. The day I talked to Preston about Ezekiel 37, I felt, or maybe heard it, in a particular way — something rattling its way out of quarantine. So I figured this was my signal.
Ezekiel has wisdom we may need, about what God has given us to do now: preach an impossible message (as Preston put it), with an impossible hermeneutic, in an impossible time. Except that it can’t be impossible, because we have to do it.
I think Ezekiel knew that the tragedy of his time was a portal, too. The Babylonian exile was a catastrophe of epic proportion: violence and brutality and ethnic cleansing that were simply devastating. Ezekiel survived that exile and the cultural wreckage that came with it: loss of home, job, vocation, ordination; the loss of the central symbol of worship, the ability to gather in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Ezekiel knew about rupture. He knew about breaks with the past. And I think he knew that he and his people were facing a portal, a gateway between one world and the next, that they were going to have to walk through; it was the only way. And they couldn’t be dragging a lot of carcasses with them — old longings and dead ideas and hatred and greed that would just weigh them down.
IN MANY ways, Ezekiel is the right preacher for a pandemic. He has the right mix: enough wild and fearless and faithful to keep him humming under pressure. Also, nothing fazes him.
The visions God shows him, the strange little performances that God gives him to do — eating a scroll, hacking off his hair, lying on his side for 390 days — none of it freaks him out. Why should it? In exile, there’s no “normal”, and no one’s going back there, anyway.
Whatever we inherited or built or trained for, it’s all up for debate, if not gone. The rules are out of the window. The things we thought solid and immovable have pretty much been shown to be spongy and portable, if not full of leaks and cracks; so a preacher has to live with that.
Make it up as they go. Or let God make it up — which, in the book of Ezekiel, God does. This excursion to the valley of dry bones? It’s all God’s idea, and it’s God’s show.
You could argue that one reason Ezekiel is so effective in his catastrophe is that he understands the difference between a rhetorical question and a real one. He knows there are some questions you just don’t answer, mostly because they don’t have an answer. And you don’t invent one, just to be clever or interesting or to fill the silence.
You let the question be what it is: a mystery that only God can enter, or a lament that only God can hold. Mortals can’t see their way into those depths; it’s a kind of deep we can’t fathom. And Ezekiel knows that he is mortal. He can’t help it; God is constantly reminding him.
“Mortal!” God says to him, instead of addressing him by name. “Mortal! Son of Man! Offspring of the Adam-the-earth-creature!” The Hebrew word means all three, and it’s what God calls Ezekiel — as if a preacher’s name, in a tragedy like this, had all but disappeared, their identity determined solely by the fact that they will die — maybe not in this crisis, but eventually, yes. Mortal!
It’s who Ezekiel the preacher is; it’s who we are. Not the keepers of mysteries. Not the seers of fortune. Not even very good guides through a portal, if you mean someone who knows exactly where it will take us and how we get there in one piece. Preachers are not answer-givers.
So, when God asks the question that will lead off their exchange, Ezekiel has a decent response ready, very mortal-appropriate, that shows he is a preacher who defers to God in matters such as this. “Mortal,” God asks, “can these bones live?”
(Bear in mind that God has just whisked Ezekiel to this valley of dry bones, set him down, and led him through it, around and around, so he can really take it in. The bones are definitely not showing signs of life; God has given Ezekiel ample time to see this.) “Mortal, can these bones live?” God asks. And Ezekiel says, “O Lord God, you, you know.”
If we are going to preach a true and authentic word now, we have to know the difference between a real question and a rhetorical one, and that, when the people’s lament is framed as a question, it is not our job to answer it.
A LAMENT is not a question. It is a cry that wants to be heard. And, in this text, God has heard it. God’s question of Ezekiel is an expression of the people’s lament, their deepest fears and grief: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
God quotes their words to Ezekiel later in the chapter, creates this vision of their lament come to life, because God has heard them. “Can these bones live?” is not a question that Ezekiel is supposed to answer. It’s a lament he is to respect: to see, hear, feel, taste the bitterness and saltiness and dryness of these bones and the tears they once wept; a lament to take in before he takes off his cap in the presence of the Lord.
A preacher knows when a question is a lament that is only God’s to embrace. Can these bones live? O Lord God, you, you know. It’s as if something is settled, in that moment. They’ve cleared the air. Ezekiel will preach an impossible message, but he will not answer an impossible question. He will not do the work that belongs to God.
His work is to be set down in the valley where the dry bones are. His work is to be led through them, around and around, quiet and humble, until he sees the people’s lament in a vision of their own words. And then he has some sermons to preach.
He didn’t write them. God dictated these sermons, and gave them to Ezekiel to preach, which, I guess, is what God does when a prophet commits themselves to this work, this life; maybe prophets are the ones with the humility to take dictation.
But the sermons are templates to guide us, prototypes to inspire us; three sermons that are preached in exactly this order. Here’s the first one: “Prophesy to these bones. Say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
We preach straight into the lament. Their lament. Whatever they are trying to stitch back together that can’t be fixed, we preach into that rupture. Because no one can get to the portal if they’re desperate for it to disappear or never to have existed at all.
Ezekiel prophesied as he had been commanded, and, as he did, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. He looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come on them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Here’s the next sermon: “And God said, 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.”
We get to the portal in stages. We’re put back together in a certain sequence. And it’s communal restoration: not just one person seeing the light, a new heaven and a new earth. We are all bound up in this, and we do not breathe unless everyone has breath, and, in this moment of Covid-19, it is absolutely clear who is in the most danger of not having access to breath, to pure oxygen, hospitals, ventilators, insurance, adequate health care.
It is absolutely clear which hospitals in which neighborhoods do not have enough health-care workers, protection for those workers, supplies, equipment, funding, respect; it is absolutely clear whose basic human right of moving freely in the world without fear of being blamed for this crisis because of a perceived resemblance to the residents of Wuhan, China, is being threatened; we do not all have breath.
The last words that Eric Garner spoke are hovering between us: “I can’t breathe.” This is communal restoration. It’s not a race to the portal. We can’t pay our way through. We all breathe, or we are all slain. “Prophesy to the breath.” Ezekiel prophesied as God commanded him, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet a vast multitude.
Here’s the last sermon: “Then God said, 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.’ 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.
“And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up graves, O my people. 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.”
When we can breathe, then we will know: that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. And in the new heaven and the new earth, we will live as though we know it.
Anna Carter Florence is the Peter Marshall Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church. This is an edited transcript of a talk delivered at the 2020 Festival of Preaching.