Emmitsburg Council of Churches


The ongoing crisis
in American agriculture

The following sermon was prepared for my preaching class at the Lutheran Seminary, Gettysburg. While it is true that the congregation in this sermon is factitious, the issues raised here and the real people affected by the ongoing crisis in American agriculture continue to be critical issues for us and Ezekielís voice is as vital as it ever was. 

Ezekiel 37:1-14

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 dry bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, " O Lord God, you know." Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and 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 cause 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."

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. 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. 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 breath upon these slain, that they may live." I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.

They say, ĎOur bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.í 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 from your 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," says the Lord.

The Word of the Lord . . .

Dear friends,

On this Pentecost Sunday we have heard an amazing story from the prophet Ezekiel. He tells us about this "valley of very dry bones," and the next thing we hear about is them bones a comin together (recall the bones song . . . and my brotherís T-REX model) and the bones reform themselves into human bodies. Then comes the most amazing thing, the breath of God restores these bodies into living persons once again! This morning we want to be sensitive to the ways in which Godís Spirit-breath desires to touch our hearts and bring us new life as we enter into the season of Pentecost. And in order to hear this word and experience the graceful breath of God we will consider Ezekielís teaching in light of our own situation.

Surely these words given by the prophet Ezekiel are strange to our hearing . . . Where is this odd place where Ezekiel has been transported to? What is this powerful vision that he sees, the thousands of dry bones scattered about in a forsaken valley. We might imagine that this place is some kind of a desert -- like Death Valley; A place where the dry winds have blown away the soil and revealed the bones of a people who were once numerous in a fertile valley, but now there is only the witness of dry bones to give evidence of their once prosperous and dignified existence . . .

Perhaps if we use our imagination we might become more in tune with this scene that Ezekiel is describing: Listen! -- the dry winds are blowing through the wasteland, can you hear the stillness? This is a deserted place where few creatures dwell, "a haunt for jackals." Only the wind blows like the whistle on so many trains that have come and gone there, . . . it pulls away the wealth of the land, grain by grain -- each one separating itself from the other and taking flight . . .

See! -- the red sandy soil, once deep and rich, its now being blown into the air by the dry wind. The wealth of the land takes to the air and darkens a cloudless sky -- it is being carried away to some distant place, deposited in some foreign land. And when the wealth of the land has been completely torn from the once fertile valley, we begin to see the edges of the ancestorís bones, as they begin to show through the barren earth. Exploitation and a combination of drought, wind, and heat has caused both the people and the land to give up their strength, to believe that they were forsaken, and to become discouraged in spirit.

Surely a valley of dry bones is not literally a part of our everyday experience . . .? But some of us can relate to the feelings expressed by a people who feel utterly abandoned by God. Remember that Ezekiel is giving these words to "captive Israel." For Israel had been taken from their land and forced into the Babylonian exile. The story is not so foreign to us because most of us can identify with the hopelessness and despair that the Jewish people felt so long ago when they were led away from their ancestral land -- Israel.

Here in our land we know that the first of our ancestors came and established their claims, they grazed their cattle, plowed and planted the rich prairie soils and they reaped abundant harvests. Our families became the proud owners of this red sandy soil.

At first the soil was rich and gave to the settlers an abundant harvest, but soon the people learned that there were limits to what this -- good -- earth could give. And when the land had been worked too hard - without rest, the wind carried it away and deposited it where it should not have gone. The dry bones of our people were then brought a little more closer to the surface. We might say that as the wind swept away the land, its very "life breath" was taken away from it.

In response to the difficulties that our grandfathers and grandmothers experienced, that is, the dust bowl days and the depression, their came men who delivered words of recommendation about how to halt the departure of the precious top soil from these prairie lands. These words of wisdom came from the U.S. soil conservation service, and ironically the words came to us and were taught during the Sunday School hour here at "Our Saviorís Lutheran Church" . . . the year was 1934. And their recommendations gave a fresh breath of life and hope for both the soil and the families who toiled with it. After that time more words came to us about new ways and new products that would increase our yields. And we accepted these words as more good news for our farming occupation and our familyís economy.

But today our story is more closely aligned with that given to us in the beginning of Ezekielís lesson. We feel like the people of Israel, our bones are dried up. Our fields are barren once again. Where the corn once grew tall now there is a tangle of weeds. Where the gleaming fence rows once held our cows and steers, there is now only broken and rusting wire. Our barns are not full, our tractors sit idly in the corn crib. Today many of us feel like Ezekiel who stands at the edge of the valley of the dry bones, -- and the whistling of the east wind keeps on blowing, and we find ourselves asking "Why? Why O God have you forsaken us?"

First it was the furniture store that closed, and we were able to pass that off as the normal coming and going of businesses on the west side of town. But then Bob put up the for sale sign in the hardware store, and we, as a community, began to feel the dryness in our very being. Next it was the Cornerstone restaurant and then the Johnson family auctioned off their dairy herd and moved to Minneapolis. It was as though the dark clouds that our grandparents knew during the dust bowl days and during the depression years had at long-last returned. It was not that anyone was careless in their business dealings, nor did the crops fail.

In fact, some of you recently experienced the highest yields ever attained in this valley -- youíve told me so. But the rail cars hauled those crops away and the distributors collected their payments, the hogs were taken to market, but when the checks came in, many of our families would not have enough left to pay the fuel bill, nor the costs for the familyís needs. Like Israel in exile, the strongest among us have felt weak, the most pious among us have been at odds with one another. These have been difficult times.

But the promise of Ezekiel is that God will place his Spirit within us. God comes to us in our despair and breathes into us fresh hope and life. In years past we have been a people who have known what it is to accept good news -- We have been a people capable of hearing words of encouragement or words of instruction, and those words inspired us to action. We have a heritage of listening to voices that come and speak to us in such ways that we can understand . . . . In our lesson today, at first it was the dry bones that heard the words from God and they began to respond. At first it was just a bunch of rattling, but then there was a coming together. This sounds like a good description of this church! Sometimes a new idea comes to us and thereís a little rattling over there in the corner, maybe a little shaking goes on in the fellowship hall, but after the rustling -- a new idea comes into being. But notice that even though the bones came together, it was not until Godís life giving breath had entered them, that they stood to their feet, and were prepared for the next challenge.

We have been a people in years past who have given of ourselves and of our wealth, we have been a people who love to tell others about our glorious Lord Jesus and Godís grace. This church has enabled many to hear and understand the good news through our teaching and outward ministries. The good news and the words that we have spoken to others in the past has been more than just dry bones or air filled with dust in this community. You have spoken to others through your living flesh. And it is helpful to remember that this congregation gave even when some of our own families were struggling to make ends meet. This church found the breath of God working in us such ways that, we were able to give the life breath to another family -- so that they would have a place to call home. (Story about Habitat homes the congregation helped to build)

And so we are each asked to consider this morning, what might it mean for us, to have a fresh wind of hope come to our valley? What might be the result of our looking to God for a fresh breath of renewal -- even in the midst of hardship or discouragement? Renewal of commerce, renewal of health, renewal of our farming economy, renewal of the people!

If your feeling like Israel today its ok. Because it is from captivity and bondage that God is seeking to lead, to deliver his people. We who have sat in silence, let us look deep inside of ourselves and ask or speak what it is that God would have us do. If your unable to find a voice this morning, if the solutions to the financial problems seem impossible, may you find that the "Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, [but remember that the Holy Spirit] intercedes for us," as Paul has said, "with sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8:26-27). Remember on this Pentecost Sunday that the Holy Spirit comes to us as the divine Advocate and comes to us to be our Comforter.

When Ezekiel has finished telling us that those "dry bones -- come to life" are the house of Israel restored -- and that they are breathing, living, and laughing at their freedom from exile, then it is that we can know that Ezekiel also reveals to us, on this Pentecost Day, that God has plans for our release and not our captivity. When we hear the Word about the breath of God coming down and filling his people with LIFE, this makes us joyful once again. These are words of HOPE for us!

And yet weíre prone to feeling along with Israel that, "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely." But God says to us, "PROPHESY!" Weíre to go and continue to speak the good news of encouragement to one another -- through words of encouragement and hope we breath the breath of life into one another. Perhaps it seems too literal, but Iíll say it anyway -- we need to be ready and willing to offer mouth to mouth resuscitation to the brother or the sister who is languishing in despair or fear of these difficult days.

You and me, we are the Christ to our neighbor, you and I have been given the gift of Godís Breath in order to restore life and peace in the valleys where we have been taken. This is the purpose of Pentecost Festival -- that we share a word of understanding with those who are living in the very shadows of death.

There will be more foreclosures, even amidst this congregation. Some of us will move to Minneapolis to seek work and a livelihood. But through whatever circumstance that befalls us, this breath of God lives on within each of us. This Spirit Breath was given at our baptism, and it remains and lives inside our hearts. Godís Holy Spirit is there to comfort us in our human losses and pains . . . it cannot remove us from the difficult circumstances, but God has promised to stand with us, indeed Christ dwells inside of you and of me through the personage of the Holy Spirit, and we can take comfort in knowing that weíre not alone in this world.

Hear once again the hope filled words from Ezekiel, "Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open 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, 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," says the Lord.

Take these words to heart dear friends, and find in them the comfort and strength you need to carry on in these difficult days. Go fourth with Pentecost Joy, tell everyone about the good things God has done and will do. We are the people of hope and vision and we look with expectation for the things that God will do through us.

May the peace of God fill us with hearts of hope and new life this day, through Christ our Lord, Amen.


Read more writings of Pastor Jon