Rev. Jordan Bucey, a thin white woman with blue hair, preaches at a pulpit with a brightly colored hanging.

Can These Bones Live?: Another Sermon from the YCWI 2024 Conference

Post Author: Rev. Jordan Bucey

This sermon was preached on May 23, 2024, at a worship service of the YCWI 2024 Conference. The conference theme, “Can These Bones Live?” centered on Ezekiel 37:1-14, and this sermon exegetes that passage and John 11:1-6, 17-44.

When I first found out that our Young Clergy Women International Conference this year, the first in person gathering since before the pandemic, was going to be in Washington, D.C. I was so FREAKING excited, but probably not for the reasons you are thinking- I’m not particularly excited about the historic museums or important monuments, and I wasn’t really looking forward to the fabulous restaurants or beautiful parks. I was excited because Washington, D.C. is the setting of my all-time favorite television show: the incomparable 12 season long Fox series, starring David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel. Bones!

Is anyone else a fan!? I don’t know if I should be proud or embarrassed but I have seen it all the way through at least a dozen times and literally can’t wait to start it all over again. Folks, if you have no idea what I’m talking about or it’s been a little while since you’ve watched an episode, the premise of the show is this: Dr. Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist who works at the Jefferson Institution (in Washington D.C.), has the impressive ability to read clues and decipher a person’s history from looking at their bones. Because of this, law enforcement calls upon her to help solve crimes and assist with investigations when remains are too badly decomposed, burned, or destroyed that standard identification methods are useless. Brennan, whose nickname becomes “Bones,” is often teamed up with FBI Special Agent Seely Booth, a former Army sniper, who mistrusts science and scientists when it comes to solving crimes, but eventually comes to respect his partner. Their faith vs. logic battle, reminiscent of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully in my second favorite TV show, X-Files, leads to conflict and then an eventual steady cultivation of admiration. Now, I wish we had time to talk through so many things about this show (so, if you are a fellow “Bone-Head” and want to fangirl out at lunch, come find me), but for today, the thing that is just about the most powerful and spiritual component of Bones is that Dr. Brennan resurrects people’s stories by studying their bones. She can tell that someone broke their arm when they were 12, that they have given birth or if they lived in a certain region of the world, just by looking at their bones. Where others see a bare, dry skeleton of death, Dr. Brennan sees a person’s life. She transcribes and interprets who a person was by studying their remains- proving that, even in death, we continue to tell our stories, if people have the right tools.

But this isn’t just something from a tv show. In her book, Still Life With Bones: Genocide, Forensics, and What Remains, Dr. Alexa Hagerty, a real life forensic anthropologist, details her years in Latin America working with families to investigate crimes against humanity and to uncover the truth behind victim’s lives and deaths. In this haunting account of grief, the power of ritual, and a quest for justice, Hagerty writes this: “Exhumation (of bones) can divide brothers and restore fathers, open old wounds, and open the possibility of regeneration – of building something new with the ‘pile of broken mirrors’ that is memory, loss and mourning…” Throughout the book she explains how studying bones is simultaneously heartbreaking and freeing- that by acknowledging death and then allowing the stories of a person’s life, still etched into their bones, to shape how we move forward, we discover that even in the midst of mass graves we can resurrect a path forward.

Now this is a smart group of clergy, we know these scripture readings for this morning, and some of you might have actually preached on this Ezekiel passage this past Sunday! And at their core, both of these stories, Ezekiel and Lazarus, are about death, grief and resurrection. But the reason I love pairing these two stories together is that for me, the Lazarus story informs something about the Ezekiel passage that I missed for many years. Now, listen. I am a pastor’s kid, a pastor’s niece, and pastor’s sister… woof…but in all seriousness, growing up, I loved church, loved the Bible, and one of the things that got me in trouble a lot (and sometimes even kicked out of Sunday school and sent to my dad’s office) was that I always wanted more from Bible stories- more context, more dialogue. I wanted to know the names of all the people in the crowd! I hated only getting fragments of what was happening- I had a lot of questions. Now, friends, we have heard the Ezekiel, valley, bones thing so many times, even just in the last few days. We can almost close our eyes and see what it looked like, a horror movie scene of sorts- bodies everywhere- but in our gospel story, there’s only one dead body. We know his name, his sisters’ names. We hear their frustrations and grief in the text.We hear that Jesus cries at this loss (even though he knows what is about to happen). It is a whole story about one dead person, and we can feel it, how hurtful the whole situation was. 

And here’s where that story helps me and overwhelms me (if I’m being honest) about the Ezekiel story: all of those bones had lives, had siblings and parents, favorite foods, favorite colors, fears, whole lives. Forensic anthropologists, fictional and real, tell us that a person’s bones still bear the marks of their lives. When Ezekiel looked out onto that vast valley, there was a whole book of stories laying there- and you can almost feel the confusion and intrigue in Ezekiel’s voice as he responds to God’s question of whether the bones can live. 

That’s where everything gets tricky for us as pastors. We are serving communities that are simultaneously trying to balance realistic evaluations about ourselves and our institutions and living into where God is breathing new life. It’s tough- y’all this is hard freaking work leading in a time like this because the question of can these bones live is not theoretical, it’s personal. It’s not a poetic, theological exercise, it’s our job to ask that question every single day. I believe it was personal to Ezekiel, too. 

Rev. Jordan Bucey, a thin white woman with blue hair, preaches at a pulpit with a brightly colored hanging.

Today, we look at programs that seem unsustainable, fewer volunteers for Sunday school, less money coming into the collection plates- it feels like loss. At my best, my response to the question can these bones live is, “Well, with God all things are possible!” or some other throw pillow embroidered platitude. And at my worst, my response is, “If I have to look at one more dead thing, I’m just going to freaking lose it.” Because it’s personal, not theoretical. Because every lost program at church is a dream of one of my ancestors that died out. Every unfilled Sunday school teacher spot means there’s a real possibility that I’ll have to combine classes and families will get frustrated because their kids aren’t getting the attention they deserve and they’ll leave. Every fewer dollar collected on Sunday is one step closer to my congregation having to make budget cuts and a staff member losing their job. It’s not a valley of faceless bones laying there in the dust: it’s a sea full of Lazaruses, and I can see their crying sisters and frustrated communities, and sometimes it’s almost too much to bear.

But, I have good news. Thank God, right? Because while we may be people who have to lament with our communities (even Jesus wept, yes?!), we are also given the most holy responsibility ever, and that’s remembering that the entire gospel story can be summed up in 8 words: “Death is never the end of the story.” Like forensic anthropologists, we are called to look at the bones and the places the world tells us death has happened, and, with God, breathe life into those places. To find the new thing God is doing with those stories. And we know it’s hard to tell what needs to be left and what can be resurrected- not everything is able to be or should be.

Friends, back in September of 2019, when none of us knew what was about to happen in the world in just a few months, I attended a historic installation service. It was the installation of Rev. Sarah Drummond as the founding dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School, where I had just graduated from the year before. After a season of discernment, instead of dying out and trying to grasp at the past, Andover Newton made the decision to reimagine their future. What seemed like dry bones was turned into a fertile ground of resurrection. Their merger with Yale was an act of hope and embodied “doing a new thing” in an effort to reinvigorate and reorient their mission as an institution. In her Inaugural Address entitled, “In Defense of Seasons,” Dean Drummond explained how, in the world of academia,  fall is a time of renewal and new beginnings. We go back to school, we settle into routines again after the summer; it’s a time of intentionally focusing on starting new things with hope for the future. 

But, she goes on, all seasons have their place and importance in our world. And one of the ways we as humans mark seasons visually is by looking at trees. We see the budding of flowers in the spring, the full shade of the summer, leaves falling in autumn, and the bare brown branches of winter. So, about 14 years ago, in October, a huge blizzard hit New England. Some of you might remember it, if you lived there. It was eventually referred to as “arbor-geddon” because of the damage it did to the trees. Traditionally in October, there are still many leaves left on the branches, so combined with the weight of so much snow, countless trees were killed, damaged, or just totally fell over. It was a disaster; in many areas, people lost power for days or weeks. Destruction everywhere. Obviously the trees that fell over were dead, with roots pulled up into the sky, but what about the trees still standing? 

As time moved from fall into winter, local scientists and arborists explained to the public that there was a sure-fire way to tell if a tree was still alive and ready to keep going or really dead and actually needed to be removed to make room for new things, even if it was still standing. And that way might seem crazy at first. Here’s the test: the leaves. If the tree was covered in leaves, the tree was dead. But if the tree was bare, the tree was alive. Now stick with me. This may sound totally backwards, but you see the trees that were still holding onto their leaves, weren’t doing what trees were supposed to do in that season; they were holding onto something, unable to change with the season. But the trees that had shed their leaves and were down to bare brown branches were indeed alive because they knew that the loss of leaves was all a part of the process. Leaves still on branches – dead. Bare branches – alive. A tree’s ability to change with the season and honor its shedding of leaves is essential to its very being. A tree that doesn’t know how to shed and then be “resurrected”- trees clinging to the past- will never make it. A tree’s capacity to honor seasons is essential to its being alive.  Things are not always what they seem at first glance. Nature reminds us that the world is bigger and more mysterious and magical than we could even imagine. Changing with the times can look confusing, but reinvention and resurrection are what we are called to do. It’s literally how God works. 

There are going to be times where you want to keep the leaves on because it’s hard to let go or deal with the loss our communities are experiencing, but friends, that’s how the empire works, and we are not empire people. We are resurrection people. The empire worries about death- resurrection people do not. The way our capitalist world measures success is not the way the kingdom measures success, thank God.

Now, resurrection doesn’t dismiss or erase the lamenting of Mary and Martha. Resurrection acknowledges loss and then keeps the story going. You are changed by everything that happens to you- and by the things that happen to your communities. The joys and loss are written on your bones. Your whole story matters. My favorite thing about the resurrection story is that when Jesus appears to his friends he still has the scars of crucifixion in his hands as an invitation to us all that we are allowed to hold and show our scars as holy testaments of what we’ve been through and it doesn’t make us any less worthy because it is actually how we tell our stories.

Friends, we are called to move with the seasons and find new ways to co-create with God, allowing space for Them to breathe new life into the bones of our stories. We are called to let go of some things and cultivate new things when the soil or branches are ready. Sometimes when the branches of your life seem bare, it’s actually a sign that you are still alive. You are changing with the seasons; your churches, your communities are changing with the seasons; it’s all a part of the divine process. The valleys of bones, even the broken bread of our sacred communion act- these and others are places the empire wants us to only see death. But the things that happen to us can actually help us move forward and can become sites of radical reinvention if we see the bareness as sacramental scars of the story. They will stay etched in our bones, but my God, these bones can live.

Don’t panic, calm yourself, feel where God is breathing, and turn your rhetoric into embodiment. That’s what the Ezekiel story is about. God invited him into action. God will breathe, you prophesy. Change with the seasons- it’s how you know you’re still alive. Amen. 

Rev. Jordan Bucey (she/her) is the Associate Minister of Asylum Hill Congregational Church (UCC) in Hartford, CT. She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School (M.Div. '18), where she was awarded the Charles S. Mersick Prize for “effective public address, especially in preaching” (2017) and the Wolcott Calkins Prize for “excellence in clear and vigorous pulpit speaking" (2018). She lives in West Hartford, CT with her two children.

Image by: Rev. Kate Mackereth Fulton
Used with permission
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