Several years ago, my work in Asia took me to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. While there, I was told that I really should go to a Cheong Ek (one of the so-called Khmer Rouge "killing fields") to see and understand the history of the people of Cambodia in the modern era. Visiting the place where the Pol Pot regime put to death hundreds of thousands of its own people, I held a guidebook in my hands explaining that the remains of the dead lay immediately under my feet. The book said that the strips of cloth I could see on the surface of the ground were actually from the clothing of those who were slain, placed in mass graves, and covered with dirt that occasionally washes away when the rains are heavy. As if this discovery weren’t chilling enough, the focal point of the park was a commemorative stupa filled with the remains of the dead…including elderly people, women, and children. These bones are a haunting testimony to the suffering that the people of Phnom Penh faced in the mid ‘70s. I couldn’t help wondering how such an event could have happened in my lifetime…and yet I knew so little about it. Still, what REALLY struck me about my trip was how the people of Cambodia seem to have turned a corner from that time in their nation’s history. One Christian pastor I met, a man whose parents had been killed by the Khmer Rouge, said that he harbored no ill will toward those who had engaged in the slaughter. His parents’ executioners had been his countrymen. They were not his enemies. They had been people who were led astray by a morally bankrupt regime. His job was not to harbor ill will but to an ambassador of hope. You might say that these Cambodian Christians, many of whom we are privileged to call Lutheran brothers and sisters, are people standing in a valley of dry bones. But they know what it means to live as bones restored! By the grace of God, they know what it means to be dead…but to be given the true breath of life—the love of God in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
It would be easy to read the story of the prophet Ezekiel in the Valley of Death and Dry Bones and conclude that the phenomenon Ezekiel was given to see was only/mostly for those who had already died. It certainly includes a message of hope for the dead...a message we usually associate with the New Testament and the risen Son of God. But what strikes me is that Ezekiel himself, one who was to serve others as an ambassador of hope, is placed in the Valley by the same Spirit of the Lord (37:1). Not only does the Spirit/Breath enter and enliven the bones littered on that valley floor when Ezekiel, at the Lord's invitation, invites Him to do so. The Spirit of the Lord puts Ezekiel on that valley floor to begin with. The Spirit, you see, is in the business of taking what should not be able to live and to cause it to thrive.
No matter where your Valley of Dry Bones might be this week, you are upheld and sustained there by the Spirit of the living Lord. The Holy Spirit, gift of the risen and living Lord Jesus, has made you an ambassador of hope (and sustains you in that task!) for a world where hope is in short supply. As we welcome Emily Tsicouris into God's eternal family through the water of Holy Baptism today, we celebrate that gift again. Through Jesus, the Spirit has breathed life into us. Even in the valley of death...we thrive.