Sermon for Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 29, 2020
Read Pastor Julie's sermon as shared on Facebook Live. Visit https://www.facebook.com/saronstrasburg each Sunday at 8:30 a.m. between now and May 10, 2020, for a brief live service of scripture, prayer, and a sermon by Pastor Julie.
Ezekiel 27:1–14 | Psalm 130 | Romans 8:6–11 | John 11:1–44
I am guessing you would see a frightful, nightmarish valley filled with dry human bones—such as Ezekiel’s vision—and feel quite alarmed; maybe a bit repulsed and also unable to look away. What happened here with all these people? Why has not one taken care of this macabre scene? Many years ago in my foolish youth, in the Faiyum Oaisis of Egypt, a group of us college students were let out to roam in the desert hills. Half-buried stone structures peaked out of the sand in what I can only guess was a cemetery, for indeed, a human skull sat perched upon one. One brave soul posed beside it and we all took pictures—but I have to admit, I was a bit shaken by this. There was denial: “It really couldn’t be,” to rationalization, “Maybe just this one got misplaced”—until we saw other bones. These raw, unguarded tokens of human death in real life felt like a rude awaking.
This nation of Israel has had a rude awakening as well: They had wandered away from putting God first and had followed leaders who made up their own versions of truth and so anti-God stuff is happening like violence and social injustice. The life had already been draining out of them before they were finally overtaken and shipped off to Babylon. Ezekiel is sitting by a river in Babylon when he as a vision of all these dry (very dry) bones in the valley: the metaphor for a nation: Displaced, but also disconnected from their source of life.
Now, how to fix it? Just like with Lazarus, the quicker the better, right? And at first glance in both these readings, it appears that bringing back to life at any cost is the point. But did you notice that Jesus doesn’t go running right away to help Lazarus? His delay feels like a frustrating dream. And the bones in the valley being brought together with sinew and muscle and skin do not live right away? They look like humans again, but that is all. There is this moment of suspense in which our compulsive need to control is put on hold; Death, after all, is an apt metaphor for our experience of unknowing and incapacity that also effectively pries us loose from our compulsions and attachments; emptying our intellect (Faith), freeing our memory (Hope), liberating our will (Love). That is, loss is necessary for us to actually live into the gifts of Faith, Hope and Love. (May p. 82) Simply looking like people does not mean that we are really alive.
We are collectively experiencing a great sense of loss and anticipated loss right now. We resist the rude awakening; perhaps deny it’s seriousness, try to “fix” it and or just long to get past it. But we keep running up against this powerful and stark reality of what disease can do—not just to our bodies, but to the whole of a nation and a world. It just doesn’t fit with what we want! But there is another force always at work—now in this valley of dry bones; this place of obscurity and darkness. It is the ruach (Hebrew—wind, breath, spirit) from the beginning of Creation itself that animates all life. The same Word that brings life is spoken to the dry dry bones that have been that way for some time and are only now seeing it more clearly—that we were this way before COVID 19—and they regain not just composition, but the gift of LIFE. For every event, large and small, that feels like failure and that dashes our expectations is—by the grace of God—is also a moment for liberation; opening fresh rooms for the Spirit and for love; for re-Creation. For Lazarus, too. Jesus does not raise him from the dead for some kind of proof of his own wonderfulness, but as he says “For God’s glory.” (Kavo—literally “heavy”, “the physical manifestation/ weightiness when God shows up”) to re-focus, move back into the center a God who indiscriminately pours out love to the failing and life to the dying.
Listen: “Prophesy” says God to Ezekiel. That is, (as a verb) not to predict the future so we have more control over it; but that is, enact in real time the Word of God for both redirection and revitalization. The “slain” will “live.” And they “shall know that I am the Lord.” Three times, this knowing will happen. Jesus, who knows God; embodies God, also sees through the circumstance of death to the ending of the story. He takes his time, travels to see his long-time friends, shares their grief and raises Lazarus—all on the background of his own impending death because he has done this and other acts of love. But to our death, he cries, “Lazarus, (Julie) Come Out!” Your life is being given to you every day, by every event, small and large: Especially those that feel like failure and that dash your expectations. The grace of God is ever pointing to what is true, freeing you, and making room for love. Thanks be to God. Amen.