I cannot hear the story of Ezekiel and the dry bones without thinking of a young Cambodian man I once knew named Rin Vuth. His story is one worth telling and hearing again in these days when refugees are too often treated with callous suspicion.
Rin Vuth was 12 when what he called the “Dark Time” began on April 17, 1975, the day the Cambodian government was overthrown by the forces of the revolutionary Pol Pot.
On that day Rin Vuth and his family were forced by Pol Pot’s army to leave their home. They joined a long stream of people walking out of the city, taking with them what few possessions they could carry.
The procession contained all sorts and conditions of humanity. Mothers with nursing babies, toddlers carried on their fathers’ backs, hobbling old men and women, barely able to keep up.
The hospitals were emptied at gunpoint and the patients who were able joined the throng walking to the country. Some were pushed in wheel chairs and hospital beds. Those who couldn’t make it were shot and thrown in a ditch to die.
In fragmented, but oddly poetic English, Rin Vuth describes his family’s life after the evacuation. “We worked in the open air, exposed to the rains and wind. No rest. They used the men to yoke and plow as oxen.
“We worked hard, but ate very little. They gave us a dipper of porridge each. We scarcely tasted the flavor of any fish. Most people were swollen. Their legs as big as an elephant’s. In a day at least seven to 10 people died. We lived in great misery.”
Like many other youth, Rin Vuth was separated from his family. He began to hear rumors that humanitarian organizations were at the border between Cambodia and Thailand, offering food and asylum to those who could make it across. He decided to escape.
“I walked without food for two days,” he remembers. “When we nearly arrived to the border it was my bad luck. We heard the burst of a bomb!
“Immediately I knew that I stepped on a mine. I lost consciousness…When I awoke I was in bed. I became a handicap.
Vuth stayed in a refugee camp hospital for three months physically recovering from the loss of his leg.
When I met Vuth he was 18, still living in a refugee camp in Thailand, preparing for a new life in America. He was deeply ashamed of his wounded body and would get up before dawn to hobble on crutches across the camp to his classroom.
When I asked what he dreamed of doing in America, he said he wanted to be an artist. He liked to draw, he said, but he didn’t have any paper. I gave him a sketch pad and pencils, and within a few days he brought the pad back and presented it as a gift to me.
I opened it and saw page after page of amazing drawings, graphically showing the hell his life had been the last six years.
In one drawing, the ground is littered with skulls. It is strikingly similar to the unforgettable scene in the movie about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, The Killing Fields, where the field is covered with thousand upon thousands of human skulls and skeletons.
Rin Vuth’s experiences are similar to those of the prophet Ezekiel, who also witnessed the fall of his country. When Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 587 BC, the Israelites who were not killed, including Ezekiel, were taken into exile and forced to work in the fields.
Being in exile was a crushing experience for the Israelites. Unlike their ancestors, who had also journeyed in the wilderness, they were moving away from – not toward – the Promised Land. Their entire identity and relationship with God had been based on that land of promise.
How could God still be with them if they were not in their land? Did God still care about them? Was it possible for them to still have a relationship with God? Was there any hope for them at all?
It is out of that setting that Ezekiel is called to prophesy. In a vision, God sets him down in a valley filled with bones, a scene not unlike those killing fields of Cambodia.
God says to Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
The answer to God’s question seems obvious. The bones are shattered in pieces, with the marrow dried out of them. It would be hard to imagine anything more hopeless or dead.
But Ezekiel does not want to cast aspersions on God’s power. And so instead of answering, “Of course not,” he replies, “O Lord God, you know.”
God commands Ezekiel to speak to the bones, to tell them God’s breath will enter into them. And as the prophet speaks, he hears a noise, a rattling, and the bones begin to come together and be covered with flesh.
And then comes a sound like the wind, and God’s breath enters the bones and they live.
These dry, dead bones are like the people of Israel, or Cambodia, or Syria, or any people whose hope is lost, God tells Ezekiel and us.
“Go tell the people I will bring them up from the grave,” God says. “I will put my spirit in them and they will live.”
Out of a situation that seems hopeless, God speaks and brings new life.
The same scenario occurs in today’s gospel story. Lazarus, the brother of Jesus’ good friends Martha and Mary, becomes very ill. The sisters send word to Jesus to come quickly to heal him, but Jesus tarries. By the time he arrives, Lazarus has been dead for four days.
The sisters greet him with an accusation. “Lord, if you had been here our brother would not have died.” And Jesus weeps.
Jesus crying is one of the most poignant scenes in scripture. Jesus feels pain, sorrow and despair. He knows the agony of grief and loss.
And yet he does not let grief keep him from hope.
Jesus goes to the cave where Lazarus has been entombed and orders the stone sealing it to be rolled away. Martha tries to stop him, saying that her brother’s body has already begun to decay.
But Jesus persists. He prays, then orders Lazarus to come out. And the dead man, wrapped in cloths like a mummy, does.
Coming as it does the week before Palm Sunday, the day we hear the story of Jesus’ death, the story of Lazarus is a preview of God’ compassion and power.
But to say that this story is only about Jesus’ power in this extraordinary situation limits its meaning. We have all been faced with the death of someone we love, and we know that no matter how hard we pray, Jesus is not going to bring them back to us in this world.
Yet the Lazarus story, lie the story of Ezekiel and the dry bones, and Rin Vuth and the killing fields, is a story about hope in the darkest times of our lives.
We all have been faced with our own valleys of dry bones. It may be struggles against illness or grief over the death of someone we love.
It may be a failed marriage or a stalled career, broken relationships with our children or former friends, despair that leads to alcoholism or addiction, or a faith that has gone dry and brittle.
In all of these situations we cry out, “Is there any hope?”
God’s answer is a resounding yes. God heals what is most broken, most hopelessly beyond repair. For God’s people there is no situation that is totally bereft of hope and life.
This kind of hope is not a synonym for optimism, a false heartiness that covers up or denies pain and despair.
True hope in God does not deny the bleak reality of our situation.
True hope requires looking at the dry bones of our lives and admitting that it is beyond our power to bring them back to life.
True hope acknowledges our dependence on God, and trusts that God is present in every situation, even amid the driest of bones.
Shallow religion wants us to think that the joy of resurrection simply erases all pain.
But Jesus’ resurrection did not cancel out the pain of his cross, or his feeling of abandonment by God, his own valley of dry bones.
Resurrection hope does something better than that: It reveals the truth that God is with us amid our suffering and sorrow and pain; with us even in our darkest and bleakest valleys.
Theologian Paul Tillich understood that when he wrote, “It is the greatness and heart of the Christian message that God, as manifest as Christ on the cross, is present in the dying of a child, in the condemnation of a criminal, in the disintegration of a mind, in starvation and famine, and even in the rejection of himself.
“There is no human condition in which the divine presence does not penetrate. That is what the Cross, the most extreme of all human conditions, tells us.”
I wish that I could tell you that my friend Rin Vuth has had a happy life in this country, but I can’t. My attempts over the years to find him have been unsuccessful. I don’t know what happened to him after his arrival in California almost 35 years ago.
But I do know that the God who raised Lazarus from the dead, the God who gave life to the valley of dry bones, the God who brings hope to all of God’s children everywhere is with him – and with all of us.