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‘Every passage of Scripture sounds different now’

Acclaimed preaching professor Anna Carter Florence offers her pandemic-inspired take on Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence

LOUISVILLE — When a pandemic hits a preacher, “every passage of Scripture sounds different now,” the Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence said. “It’s like you never read them before.”

The Peter Marshall Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary preached on Ezekiel 37:1-14, the “Valley of Dry Bones” passage, during Wednesday’s Festival of Homiletics, which is being held online this year.

One of her students, Preston, had recently preached on the same text for his classmates and for his professor. “What God gave Ezekiel to preach was an impossible message,” Florence said, quoting her student. For seminary professors, life is “all about hearing new things in texts and being astonished by Scripture and what students see in Scripture. But being surprised and being jolted are two different things.”

Since the pandemic, “I don’t know why to my ear these biblical texts are so abruptly changing keys,” she said. “Yes, it’s a virus. But what’s happening is more than that. Preaching in the middle of a tragedy is so disorienting you don’t know if what you are doing is preaching. Trying to say something about where we are is like offering a diagnosis for something I’ve never seen.”

But it’s also not new, she said.

“Preachers have been here before,” in the midst of other tragedies throughout history, she noted. “This moment is as old as it is new … We are not the first, and we are not alone. Those preachers are a cloud of witnesses and they surround us as we speak.”

“The tragedy is immediate, real, epic and unfolding before our eyes,” Florence said, quoting the novelist Arundhati Roy’s article “The Pandemic is a Portal” in the Financial Times. “But it isn’t new. It is the wreckage of a train that has been careening down the track for years.”

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew,” Roy wrote. “This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

“I think Ezekiel knew the disaster of his time (the Exile) was a portal too,” Florence said. “It’s a strange performance God gives him, but none of this freaks him out. In exile, there is no normal, and no one’s going back there. The rules are out the window. A preacher has to make it up as they go — or let God make the sermons up. This excursion into the Valley of Dry Bones — it’s God’s idea, and it’s God’s show.”

Like Ezekiel before them, preachers ought to know the difference between a real question and a rhetorical question, she said. As the prophet makes plain, rhetorical questions don’t require an answer, such as when God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

“It is not a question Ezekiel is supposed to answer. It’s a lament he is supposed to respect,” she said.

Ezekiel answers, “Oh Lord God, you know.”

Ezekiel’s job “is to be humble and quiet and receive — and then he has some sermons to preach,” she said, delving into the three succinct sermons that are laid out in the following 11 verses: God’s commands to prophesy to the bones and to the breath and God’s promise to bring the exiled people back to Israel. “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live,” God says.

“When we can breathe, then we will know the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” Florence said. “And in the new heaven and the new Earth, we shall know it.”


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