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Over 2500 years ago, sitting by a river, looking at the despair of his community, God asked the prophet Ezekiel: “Can these bones live?” And the prophet responded: “O Lord God, you know.” Then God said to Ezekiel: “Prophesy to these bones and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord…I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live…I will put my spirit within you and you shall live.”
Right now, sitting by another river in Cleveland, Ohio, lots of us are asking the same question: “Can these bones live?” The bones of Timothy Russell, Malissa Williams, Tanisha Anderson and Tamir Rice are dead. So many innocent men, women and children are killed everyday by violence and despair.
So, can these bones live? That was the question we asked some four years ago at the opening assembly of Greater Cleveland Congregations. Right here in our city, there are people wanting jobs and jobs wanting people. We are home to some of the best and some of the worst schools in the nation. We promote our world-class healthcare, and yet, many of our own citizens can’t access it or afford it. We brag about our local food scene, and yet, there is serious obesity, diabetes, hunger and malnutrition in our community. We sit on the shores of one of the world’s largest sources of fresh drinking water, and still, we continue to pollute it. We have a criminal justice system that isn’t always just. Can these bones live?
Four years ago, members of 40 churches, synagogues and mosques, representing some 20,000 residents of Greater Cleveland looked at the challenges of our community and asked this very question: “Can these bones live?” We then looked at one another and answered, “Yes, if we work together, with God’s help, these bones can live.” We imagined a place where people are healthy, children are well educated, workers are employed in good jobs, nobody goes hungry, everybody feels safe, and all are treated with dignity and respect.
With the grace and power of God, over the past four years GCC has answered in the affirmative the prophet’s question. Dry bones can live! By connecting and building relationships with one another, by breaking down long-standing silos and old barriers, by taking the risk to know one another and bear each other’s burdens, by dreaming together, learning together, working together, crying together, praying together and organizing together, we have been making the dry bones of our city come to life.
Yesterday, as Congresswoman Marcia Fudge said, we witnessed “a stunning set-back for justice.” Two years ago, some sixty police officers got carried away in a 22-mile car chase through our city streets. Thirteen police officers fired 137 rounds of ammunition on two unarmed people in a car. One police officer was brought to trial – the one who stood on the victims’ car and shot 15 bullets through the windshield. Yesterday, the judge – a good, fair, honest and thorough judge – ruled that he couldn’t determine beyond a reasonable doubt that this one officer alone was guilty of voluntary manslaughter or felonious assault. Of course, he couldn’t. This tragedy wasn’t the work of one officer – it was the result of a broken police and criminal justice system where not all are treated equally in the eyes of the law.
After the verdict, I wrote on FaceBook that I felt conflicted as I experienced a wide range of emotions – anger, disappointment, sadness, determination and resolve. This morning I probably could add other emotions to my list.
I, like many of you, am heart-sick over the brokenness of our community. I am outraged that two unarmed individuals are dead, and while I am not an attorney, I believe that we have witnessed a systemic absence of justice here.
As Charles Dickens observed about 19th century London and Paris, Cleveland is becoming a tale of two cities – one privileged, educated, up-and-coming, and largely white; one poor, despairing, unemployed, under-educated and largely black and brown. And, for the most part, these two Cleveland’s don’t meet.
But I’m not without hope. For I believe that God has the power to give new life to dry bones. God has done it before, and God can do it again. God can put a new spirit within us, and we shall live.
Today is Pentecost. It’s the day of the spirit, the day when we are reminded that you can’t kill the Spirit. She’s like a mountain, old and strong. She’s like the ocean that flows on and on. She’s like the wind that blows where she will.
When Jesus died, his disciples felt the wind go out of their sails, their river of hope dry up, their sky darken, and their world become a frightening Tower of Babel where nothing made sense. But, then the Spirit came among them. The disciples experienced the power of the Spirit on that first Pentecost morning when She burst into the house where they were staying.
She gave them new courage, new hope, new vision, and new energy. She enabled them to preach God’s powerful word in the public square without fear or trembling. And She’s been giving courage, hope, vision and energy to frightened and despairing people ever since.
The Spirit rose up in the lives of the early Jesus followers. She was there in the catacombs and the coliseums; and She’s been there in desert caves, prairie chapels, and grand cathedrals. She accompanied Patrick, Columba and Brigid as they carried the gospel to remote British Isles; and She has journeyed across the great oceans with millions seeking religious freedom.
The Spirit accompanied our Jewish brothers and sisters into Exodus, Exile, and Diaspora. She also stood with them in concentration camps and gas chambers.
The Spirit sustained many in the middle passage and dark night of African slavery in America. She was the North Star that guided Harriet Tubman’s passengers on the Underground Railroad to freedom. Martin Luther King was filled with the Sprit has he proclaimed freedom and justice on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and She was there when he was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
The Spirit stood with Oscar Romero when he was assassinated at the altar of the cathedral in San Salvador, She arose in the resistance of the Salvadoran people, and She smiled yesterday when the Roman Catholic Church beatified this beloved worker and martyr for justice and peace.
The Spirit hovered over insistent student demonstrators at Kent State University. She wept when they were shot; and She rose again in the voices of others who carried on in their name. She’s also stood with soldiers on battlefields and welcomed them home.
No, you can’t kill the Spirit. She was there when the Berlin Wall fell. She walked out of prison with Nelson Mandela, and she flew over the podium as the first woman became president of Liberia. She’s struggling to find a peaceful resolve in Israel and Palestine, and she’s standing strong with refugees amid the ruins of war in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Sudan.
You can’t kill the Spirit. When the waters of Katrina receded in New Orleans, She was there to help rebuild that city. When the waters of the tsunamis in Thailand and Japan receded, She was there to help survivors rebuild their lives. As the waters of Sandy receded in New York and New Jersey, She helped dry out all those damaged homes and businesses. Now, She’s with survivors in Nepal as they search for loved ones and await food and shelter.
You simply can’t kill the Spirit. When the Twin Towers fell on 911, the Spirit accompanied courageous firefighters as they climbed the stairs of death. When innocent children and young people were shot at school in Columbine, Newtown, and our own Chardon. She hugged and held students, teachers, administrators and parents; and She’s helping a frightened and conflicted nation reduce gun violence.
You can’t kill the Spirit. She has encouraged groups of mothers in Nicaragua, Argentina, South Africa, and America to not give up looking for their disappeared sons and daughters. She has consoled parents who have lost children to street violence, and she has comforted the families of soldiers and police officers who have sacrificed their lives in service to their country and community.
You simply can’t kill the Spirit. She hovers over classrooms, workplaces, hospitals, prisons, police and fire stations, detention centers, parks and playing fields, churches and synagogues, mosques and temples, and yes, courtrooms.
Although Her power has not yet been fully revealed to us in this moment, I am convinced that the Spirit of God is in the midst of our struggle for criminal justice reform, well-paying jobs, affordable health care, and quality education for all the people of Cuyahoga County. The Spirit has guided Greater Cleveland Congregations from the beginning, and She will be with us again as we gather at the Holiday Inn Express on Euclid and East 6th Street for a Public Action at 11:30 on Tuesday morning to continue to our call for long-term, county-wide, criminal justice reform. Out of the ashes of death – the unwarranted and untimely deaths of Timothy Russell, Malissa Williams, Tanisha Anderson, and Tamir Rice and so many other victims of violence – I am convinced that a phoenix of justice will rise up for all of God’s people.
As in days of old, God declares on this Pentecost Day: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young shall see visions, and your old shall dream dreams…[And] everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
God, we’re calling on you! Come and save us. Come and save our city. Come and save our people. As you promised in the days of old, send your advocate, the Spirit of truth, into our midst to testify on our behalf and to give us strength to do what is right the days ahead. Lead us and guide us in your ways, O God. We know that justice is possible, but right now, it feels like it’s just us. So, Spirit of the living God, come and be with us. Come and fall afresh on us.