Sermon – March 28/29, 2020 – Fifth Sunday in Lent

Grace and peace to you, this day and every day, from God our Father, from Christ the resurrection and the life, and from the Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

It has been a dizzying couple of months hasn’t it? The preparations for a presidential election envelope the country in debate over issues, personalities, ethics, and potentialities. The Syrian civil war surges and develops and lives are lost or destroyed. An impeachment trial. The Chiefs beat the 49’ers in the Superbowl. And behind it all, an unknown virus emerged, spread, and impacted the lives of millions. Although the number of impacted people and communities here in the United States pales against those of Italy, China, Spain, and Germany … we’re feeling the deepening darkness of the unknown. Illinois’ Governor issues a ‘Stay-At-Home’ order. Restaurants suspend dining-in options. Church services and activities are suspended to reduce risk of further spread. Good luck finding hand-sanitizer, Ramen noodles, or toilet paper. News headlines and interviews tell humanizing and dehumanizing stories which, although they are valuable for painting a picture of how our communities are impacted by this pandemic, seem to be mirrored by a frenzied panic and fear, driving how we relate to one another, react to our circumstances, and attempt to remain true to our identities.

But against this despair-ridden confluence of events … against the illness that spreads within our country, our communities, and our hearts … there is another gathering of influences. And these influences are the readings from scripture for us today; these readings that proclaim light out of darkness and life out of death.

We begin with Ezekiel, who is taken by the hand of the Lord to a valley filled with the dead. It is not filled with the recently deceased: these numerous bodies are made up of dry bones. The Lord asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” … and Ezekiel has the presence of mind not to answer with something like ‘I’m not a doctor! This is well above my pay-grade. I don’t know!’ He assumes a posture of humility and obedience. “Oh Lord God, you know.” So the Lord commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones and to prophesy to the Spirit of God Himself. Ezekiel obeys, and the knee bone becomes connected to the leg bone, flesh adheres where there was none, life itself enters those who were dead in the valley, and the house of Israel stands on their feet. The Lord proclaims, “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.” This is the promise of a restoring, redeeming, and resurrecting Lord who acts of God’s own prerogative. God’s action does not require a prerequisite. God’s promise is not separated from God’s action in any way. God has spoken and therefore God will act. When you and I are out of our darkness, out of our anxieties, out of our graves (figuratively and literally!), when we join together again on our own soil in this place and in the restored creation at the resurrection, then we shall know that the Lord has spoken and will act.

I must confess that, when I read the words of Ezekiel 37, I don’t doubt them, but they seem almost like fantasy, like an imagined scene that I am unable to dwell within or experience for myself. It is in these moments that our text from Romans 8 breaks through the rational walls I build up to defend myself from the unknown. The Spirit of God breaks through these walls of self-sufficient defense mechanisms like the Kool-Aid man. Paul proclaims one of the best texts on how we understand identity and how we understand that out of darkness and despair come life and hope. “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. … But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. … If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” I don’t know about you, but when I have read and heard these words recently, I felt Christ’s persistent life-giving perogative breaking through every misguided anxious self-construct I had rendered. Breaking through any obstacle to offer me, and to offer you life, and light, and forgiveness, and healing, and hope. Like an incredible, Messianic, Kool-Aid man. Oh yeah!

But after all that talk, and a little silliness, … we come to our Gospel text. Surprisingly however, the divine prerogative and fidelity of God’s life-giving love in Christ Jesus, are present and active and right in the thick of the muck, and anxiety, and sorrow, and darkness, where we would least expect Him to be. The story of the raising of Lazarus is pretty long, but the actual description of his being raised from the dead is only two verses. The rest of this Gospel text, and this is my favorite part of it all, is about the events, and the details, and discussion, and daily stuff that dirties up and complicates our understanding of life and sorrow and hope. And Thanks be to God, Christ is right in the thick of it.

Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, becomes ill. Word is sent to Jesus that he whom Jesus loves is ill. Jesus decides not to drop everything and run to Bethany. No, in an act that might anger or confuse you and I, Jesus remains where He is for two more days. Eventually he tells his disciples that they are going to go back to Bethany, back to a region where people don’t like the new communities and new realities of life and light that Jesus represents. The disciples don’t understand why Jesus would want to go back to an area where people were trying to stone Him. They don’t understand why Jesus is glad that He was not there when Lazarus died. Most of them don’t get what’s going on. …

But then there’s Thomas. … Now throughout history, there have been a few lines in various plays, TV shows, and films that are enigmatic of a character, a narrative, or a genre. “To be or not to be, that is the question.” … “Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do!” … … “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” … It might be because we share the same name, but for my money, Thomas’ statement in our Gospel text is a winner. “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”Now I’m not saying that the disciple Thomas, or even I myself, understand the gravity and miraculous profundity of a Savior whose Love and Grace can overcome sin, the devil, and even death itself. But I do love that the disciple Thomas has such a forthright solidarity with his Lord that he refuses to leave His side when the circumstances get bumpy.

So they head off to Bethany. Martha hears that Jesus is nearby and comes out to meet Him. The first words out of her mouth aren’t recognizing Jesus’ mutual grief. They aren’t a confession of her exhaustion and sorrow. They are simultaneously full of accusation and humility. And I like that a lot. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of Him.” She lets Him have it …  all while acknowledging her presence in a life-changing reality that is beyond her understanding. … We’ve all been in places like Martha, and maybe we’re in these places now. We’re uncertain of the future; how we’re going to proceed as individuals, as families, and as a community of faith in the midst of economic uncertainty, in a whirlwind of fear and worry about the health of ourselves and of those we love. We’re waiting patiently and sometimes not-so-much for a word of hope for a new pastor and shepherd among us. … We have a lot in common with Martha. This is a woman who understands the power of Christ Jesus to heal and recognizes the closeness of the relationship between Jesus and God the Father.

But what Martha doesn’t yet understand … and what I absolutely love about this Gospel text, is how through the conversation she has with Christ, in their words to one another, she comes to accept a revelation and a trust in Jesus not just as a teacher, and healer, but as the Living Messiah. Jesus proclaims to Martha, and to you, and to me, and to all who will listen, that He is the resurrection and the life. This is not just to say that Lazarus will rise again in the resurrection on the last day, but that in this moment Martha is face-to-face with the one who is the embodiment of life. Martha confesses her faith boldly, and naturally as one does when they overflow with faithful beautiful experiences of the divine, runs off to tell someone.

She runs to tell Mary, who is beautifully, naturally, and faithfully, grieving in the midst of community. Mary and her supportive companions, who witness her sorrow and grief, run out to Jesus. Mary doesn’t approach this messy circumstance rationally; trying to piece Jesus’ role in together with the puzzle of human suffering. She just grieves and weeps for herself, for her sister, for her brother, and for their community as a whole. Eventually Mary says the exact same thing Martha does; distraughtly echoing the sorrow shared in the closeness of sisters. And then … then Jesus exhibits true humanity. He witnesses those he loves, their supportive community, the profundity of their grief. He goes with them to where they have laid Lazarus; and there our Lord cries with Mary and with Martha and with all their fellow congregants. He cries out of love and compassion because in this moment He is suffering with them. … And then, Jesus has had enough.

He comes to the tomb and tells them to take away the stone. They object because they are aware of the reality of suffering and death and they are aware that in the midst of that messiness, it is going to smell … bad. But Jesus has come into this place, and comes into your life and mine, to bring life and healing and newness and hope. To bring forth these things regardless of the messiness or social impropriety of the boundaries or circumstances involved. One of my favorite hymns, Come Join The Dance Of Trinity, contains the lyric, “The dance of Trinity is meant for human flesh and bone; when fear confines the dance in death, God rolls away the stone.” So they roll the stone away. (pause) And Jesus prays. The Word of the Lord is powerful and efficacious. God speaks and it comes to be. God speaks in Ezekiel, prophesying life and spirit into the bones of Israel. God in the Spirit of Christ speaks in you and in me to give us life and peace. And so Jesus prays. He prays in words that perhaps you and I wish we could eagerly and honestly pray ourselves. “Father, I thank you for having heard me. … I know that you always hear me.” … In the previous chapter of John, Jesus says “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” Only a shepherd can lead His sheep out, and Jesus calls forth to Lazarus. Lazarus comes out of the tomb and is unbound, untangled, set free, and restored to life in the loving community of his home.

(pause)

 

But I want to go back to Martha and Mary. I want to go back to their real complaint that if Jesus had been there, this horrible thing wouldn’t have happened. I want to go back to that, because I think it is extremely important to emphasize that Jesus does not do things the easy way. We too, like Martha and Mary, want answers. We want to know why something happens or doesn’t happen, or exists within our understood dynamics of God’s identity and the reality of life. It’s logically impossible to answer the questions of the mourners, but we ask these all the time because we want things to be solved and make sense quickly, and easily, and without any of this messy existential stuff. But Jesus doesn’t do things the easy way. Jesus stays for two days before heading back toward Bethany. He stays for two days before rising from the tomb. Jesus doesn’t take the easy path of healing from afar. Jesus does the hard thing, which is life in spite of death, life out of death, life beyond death.

He does this because He loves us. He loves Lazarus, Mary, Martha, and loves you and loves me. He does this because the divine prerogative and undeniable unavoidable fidelity of God’s life-giving love is one that will not skirt around suffering and death like a fancy acrobat. Suffering and death will be encountered head-on for Christ in Jerusalem and in your life and in mine. But just as Christ calls to Lazarus and raises him from the dead, so too He calls to you and to me, calls us out of our doubts, and our anxieties and our despair, and into the warmth of His love and into our connected oneness as the Body of Christ.

Thanks Be To God. Amen.