Death by Despair, Ezekiel 37:1-14; Delivered April 2, 2017

In previous sermons I have mentioned how God calls us to have compassion for those who are less fortunate—those who are not treated fairly in our country —our country—a still mostly Christian country-- a Christian country whose citizens recognize, as did Jesus, that all people are CREATED equal even if they are not necessarily treated equal-ly.   

In case you weren’t listening, those unfairly treated Americans who I have mentioned previously and even devoted whole sermons to—in some cases--  are:

1)     African Americans 2)    Women 3:  Muslims  4) Undocumented immigrants and refugees

I’m not backing down.  These ARE among “the least of these” in our country.  But now I have one more discriminated, under-privileged group to add to our compassion list: 

—middle aged, middle class, high school educated whites.

I want to focus on that group today.  I want to do that because this past week I was struck by an article originally published in the Washington Post and reprinted in the Daily Progress.   That article is titled, “Death by Despair.”  The article laid out some facts that were SO upsetting that I could not get them out of my head and could not get them out of my head.    

  According to what I read in that article, in 2015 researchers compiled some alarming statistics.  Those statistics indicate that while in other advanced countries in the world—think France, and Spain, Switzerland, and Germany people are living longer today; not so among US middle class, middle-aged whites.   

Here’s a line from that article, “The gap in mortality between white middle-aged Americans and middle-aged Germans is about 125 deaths per 100,000 people.”   That’s hard to digest, I know, particularly when you are not reading it.  Think about it this way.  Every year in recent history, of 100,000 white Germans between the ages of 45 and 54, about 285 die; In the United States, it’s more than 410.    In other words, 125 more white middle-aged people die in the US every year per 100,000 people, than in Germany every year.   Most of these white middle aged, people who die in the US, are middle class, high school, but not college educated whites.

I will assume that the majority of us on this side of the sanctuary are over 54 right?  —so none of you are part of that statistic—good thing right—you’ll actually live longer!  And you on this side of the room, I’m guessing that most of you have not yet celebrated your 45th birthday—is that right?  So good news for you, too. 

But for those of us on this side of the sanctuary, maybe your sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters and nieces and nephews are in that 45-54 age group, and meet the criteria.  And you on this side of the room—you’re parents may be part of the 45-54 age group, that is white, and high school, but not college graduates; AND one day YOU yourselves may be part of that group, if the trend continues.  So, this information hits closer to home than any about the abysmal plight of say, refugees or immigrants in the US. 

The number is really appalling isn’t it, especially at a time when folks of all skin colors and all education levels and all economic classes in the US, SHOULD be living longer?  Researchers, that is the ones who tallied the statistics I just gave you, have tried to come up with reasons why it might be that white, middle aged, middle class people with high school educations are dying younger.  You might guess that it is inaccessibility to health care, right?  But no, that doesn’t seem to really play a role. Neither is it some disease—say diabetes, or some particular cancer that strikes middle aged white people disproportionately.   

What’s killing off middle aged, middle class, high school educated whites in this country is: suicide, drug abuse, alcoholism—and heart disease.  I say heart disease—now we know that great strides have been made in this country to control and even reverse heart disease.  However, heart disease is increasing among middle aged, middle class, high school educated whites, while it is decreasing among other populations in the US.

Researchers aren’t positive, but some have concluded that the common thread here—the connecting link among all of the grim numbers they have tallied—is despair.  White middle aged, middle class, high school educated whites are despairing.   The guess is that they are despairing because they came from strong, middle class families, but although they are still part of the middle class, they find that they can’t compete with college educated folks in the job market.  They don’t see a way to improve their lot or even maintain their lot, through hard work.  So, what to do?  They use drugs and alcohol to cope.  Or not.  If NOT then they commit suicide or they have a heart attack. 

Here’s a quote from the article.   “[Some researchers} believe that white Americans may be suffering from a lack of hope.  [They are suffering from] ‘spiritual’ pain.’”

The article actually ends on a note of despair.  “Politicians can pass laws to keep opioids out of people’s hands or require insurers to cover mental health costs, but they can’t turn back the clock to 1955.”  1955—that’s a time when a high school education could get a white-middle- class American a good job, good enough to raise a family, and own a decent house and car.  Keep that date in your head, 1955. 

So now.  So now I want to give you some more information—statistically based information, although I’ll keep numbers out of this.   In the early to mid 1950’s , think 1955 as an end point, there was a resurgence in religion in this country.  It was the end of Second World War, people were generally relieved and happy to be getting back to their lives.  Americans streamed into churches—church building programs took off.  Some people even refer to the era of the 1950’s as the third Great Awakening. 

Billy Graham, was a celebrity in this country back then—Billy Graham (for you on this side of the room)--a charismatic Bible thumping preacher, with good looks and a sincere if to some of us, anyway, rather thin message.  Billy Graham coined some great phrases.  Here are some quotes from Billy Graham: 

God has given us two hands, one to receive with and the other to give with.

I've read the last page of the Bible. It's all going to turn out all right.

My home is in Heaven. I'm just traveling through this world.  Love those.

So in the 1950’s churches were booming, but by the 1960’s despite Billy Graham’s evangelical witness, church attendance had started to slack off. Americans began to question their religion, just as they questioned their politics.  Think, the Civil Rights Movement, the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War, Water Gate.  In the late 1970’s there was a leveling off in the decline of church attendance, and church leaders united in sighing a great sigh of holy relief.  Sadly, though, the slide picked up again in the 1990’s and that slide has continued to the present.

Now it’s not necessarily the case that death by despair in our country and the decline in church attendance are related.  But it COULD be. It COULD be that the decline in church membership is a RESULT of spiritual pain—you know, these folks are so hurting that they have given up on God.  If God doesn’t exist or God doesn’t care, why bother going to church?

OR, it COULD be that the decline in church membership is a CAUSE of spiritual pain in our culture—These 45-54 year olds don’t go to church and so they don’t get the inspiration they might receive from a sermon rightly preached, and music rightly played; and they aren’t privy to the nurture and support of caring church members and a caring pastor.

Ezekiel knew about spiritual pain. Ezekiel was a Jewish priest and prophet.  If you know your Biblical history, then you know that 587 BC is a pivotal year.  It’s the year that Babylonia attacked Judah, destroyed the beloved temple, and slaughtered thousands of people.  Those not slaughtered were taken into exile to Babylonia.   Ezekiel lived through that.  He was among those living in exile.

 He wrote, or maybe spoke while a scribe wrote, the passage before us today.  It’s about dry bones. You might think of bones on a battlefield.  Ezekiel uses the image of dry bones as a metaphor.  Ezekiel is referring to the exiled Jews, so people not dead yet, but living as IF dead; Defeated Jews living in spiritual pain.   They were living in spiritual pain, just like the white, middle class, middle aged, people today in this country. 

God tells Ezekiel that he must put God’s breath into these people living in exile—God’s breath—the Hebrew word is ruhah; it means both breath and spirit.  Yes, it is up to Ezekiel to give those depressed Jews living in exile holy CPR.  He does that. He does that by prophesying, and preaching, and in general, evangelizing.  He does such a great job that eventually he has a book named after him.

If we are to take these words seriously, if we believe that the Bibilical word has a message for us, then what is that message exactly?  First we have to figure out who we are in the story.  Are we dry bones or we are modern day Ezekiels?   Hopefully, we already have faith, maybe not all the time—I mean, sometime our faith may falter, but most of the time, we have faith. We believe in Jesus, and his message; we believe that God cares for us and indeed, God counts every hair on our heads. That’s how much God loves us. We go to church so we can commune with other believers, receiving and giving spiritual renewal.    

 No we are not dry bones; so we must be modern day Ezekiels.

That means it is up to us, just like it was up to Ezekiel, to breathe new life into people suffering from spiritual pain—and who might those people be?  It is at least white, middle class, middle aged, high school educated, people.  Who else will perform holy CPR if NOT us?  Church and faith are what is missing from their lives, they need it, we here are blessed to have it.

How do we do that?  I’m asking, not telling.

One last thought, I will leave with you, though.  Sometimes, you who are members here, especially, probably think:  “If we don’t grow, then we will have to shutter our windows, last one out turn off the lights, lock the front door, and go home for good.” I think that myself, sometimes when we have an off Sunday and the pews are mostly empty.

If that’s the way we think, though, then our work becomes all about saving us, saving the church community, saving this building.  That’s not ministry.      

A true ministry is about saving them, the depressed and hurting souls out there.  Some of those poor, spiritless folk, are undergoing death by despair, pill by pill, drink by drink, suicide by suicide and heart attack by heart attack.  

Indeed, that IS our calling--To breathe new life into dry bones.  The task is before us.  And if we do a good job, maybe one day, someone will name a book after US.  Lot’s to do, that’s for sure.  Amen