In Trust and Hope, Lent 5(A) – April 2, 2017

[RCL] Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

 These long readings from John’s Gospel during Lent have a depth and a power to them that can reach to the very core of our lives. Today we hear about death and new life, about the end of some things, and, perhaps, the beginning of others. Death is always a topic close to home, one that seems to get closer every year. On the eve of Palm Sunday and Holy Week, it’s particularly immediate.

So it makes good sense to hear Ezekiel preach to the valley of dry bones, and to listen to Jesus command, “Lazarus, come out”—and to wonder what all that means, and whether it matters.

We Christians have some very distinctive, and some very special, things to say about death—about both real, physical death and about the other deaths, the little deaths, the endings and changes and losses that we seem constantly to be experiencing. In fact, we say much the same thing about both types of death. What that is can be found in both Ezekiel and John.

The valley of dry bones Ezekiel is looking at and talking to is Israel. The great nation God had raised up to be a blessing for all the world is gone. There are a handful of exiles in Babylon with a few memories, fewer hopes, and a lot of hate for the people they’re blaming for their problems. And there are a few folks left in Judah that the Babylonians figured weren’t worth the effort to haul off. That was it. Israel was dead. Never in the history of mankind had, or has, a nation (or a faith) so defeated and so scattered ever been rebuilt. Ezekiel knew that, the Babylonians knew that, everybody knew that. Death ruled Israel when Ezekiel preached, and death ruled supreme.

So with Lazarus. Lazarus, like Israel, was dead. Really dead. Graveyard dead. In fact, Lazarus was dead past three days and the rabbis taught that after that long, all that was left was corruption. Maybe Jesus could have helped if he’d arrived earlier, but not now. Death ruled over Lazarus.

So, Ezekiel looked over the valley of dry bones, and Jesus looked at the stone in front of the cave where his friend’s body lay. When we Christians are at our best, we look at death with the eyes of Ezekiel, and of Jesus; and we see what they saw.

They first thing they saw was the reality, the force, the sheer power of death. Ezekiel was struck mute (a rare event!)—and ended up babbling about how dry the bones were. And Jesus was shaken; he was deeply troubled; he wept. There is nothing lighthearted or glib here. Death is the final word creation has to say to us. It’s a really big deal.

At its worst, Christianity has tried to deny this, and has been ashamed of the tears of Jesus. At its worst, Christianity has said that our faith means that death isn’t all that important, that it really doesn’t matter, and that grief, the real life-shattering, gut-tearing grief that hurts so terribly, that this is somehow not fully Christian.

We’ve taught this to our shame, and we have been wrong. Death is very real and it’s very powerful, and if we don’t say this first, then we’re not telling the truth. The tears of Jesus sanctify every tear, and his deeply troubled spirit makes holy our own grief, pain and fear in the face of death.

There is nothing in this world stronger or more final than death, and there is nothing in this world that can rebuild what death tears down.

When Ezekiel looked at those dry bones, and when Jesus stood at Lazarus’ tomb, they didn’t see death naturally blossoming into new life—they didn’t see butterflies coming out of cocoons, or bunnies popping out of eggs. If Ezekiel had kept his mouth shut those bones would have stayed dry. If Jesus had not called, Lazarus would have stayed in that tomb. There is nothing natural about anything stronger than death.

All of this is the first thing Ezekiel and Jesus saw; and it’s the first thing we see. Death is real and it is powerful and it hurts and it destroys. They saw that. And they saw something more.

What Ezekiel saw, and what Jesus saw, was that God was Lord, Lord even over the dead. God was Lord even over a dead Israel—and so God, and God alone, could call Israel back, and give it new life, and new direction. The wonderful part of this story is not that some dry bones could move—the wonderful part is that the spirit of the Lord would not be stopped, and that even death could not destroy the purposes of God.

So with Lazarus. The real point to this story is not that Lazarus come back. Before too long, Lazarus died again, and Jesus wasn’t there, and Lazarus stayed dead. So that’s not much of a point. The real point is that Jesus is Lord of the living and the dead. The real point is that the voice of Jesus carries—it carries even through the walls of the grave, and his word is the clearest word, and the strongest word, and the last word. That’s the good news, that’s what we Christians see that the world does not see.

We see that the word of God, and the purposes of God, and the love of God cannot be stopped, and will not be stopped. Not even by the strongest, and the worst, that the world has to offer.

At the same time, notice that these stories give us absolutely no information about the mystery of death itself. Nor do they promise that everything will be all right as we count such things.

Lazarus doesn’t become a celebrity and go on some first-century Oprah tour talking about tunnels and bright lights and four days worth of even-nearer-than- near-death experiences. There’s none of that.

What’s more, John’s Gospel tells us that Lazarus’ life got quite a bit messier—less pleasant and more complicated—after this miracle. He really didn’t live happily ever after, not as we count such things.

And Israel never again became what it used to be or what it wanted to be. The dry bones formed into something very different, something less powerful, and less successful, but truer to its mission, than Israel had wanted, and hoped and prayed for. The promise of new life is not a promise that we are in charge and that we will get what we want. The promise is better than that.

The promise is that God, in Jesus Christ, is Lord even of the dead, even of death itself. And that what he says, goes. That’s what we Christians see. Alas, we can see no farther—we can see no more. But we can see that far. We want details, we want guarantees, and we want some power and some control in all of this. We want to know what it’s like. But we don’t get any of that, not in the face of physical death, not in the midst of the other deaths, the little deaths.

Instead, in the face of all the deaths that make up our lives, we are told first that death is stronger than we are and that we have no knowledge about and no power over death. And then we are told that Jesus is Lord, Lord of all—Lord of life and of death.

So we must choose. Whatever deaths are before us, we must choose.

We must choose to despair or to trust; to give up or to go on; to abandon hope, or to let go in faith. That choice is not made for us, but it is offered to us. And that choice can be terribly hard. More than at any other time, the reality of death—death in whatever form—is a call to trust.

We see what the world sees, and yet we see more. We see that the dry bones, even our dry bones, can live once more. And we see that the word of Jesus has power. “Come out” the Lord calls. “Come out” into different life, into new life. “Come out” into life unknown and unexplained. “Come out” in trust and in hope.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. James Liggett, who has recently retired as Rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.

Download the sermon for Lent 5A.

The waiting is the hardest part, 5 Lent (A) – 2014

April 6, 2014

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

Friends, we are almost there. We have been on this Lenten road since Ash Wednesday: about 28 of our 40 days. We are in the home stretch. As Tom Petty so wisely put it, “the waiting is the hardest part.”

Throughout this Lenten season we have been reading long stretches from the Gospel According to John. This gospel is usually set apart as being very distinct from the so-called synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In many ways, the Gospel of John is not so much a biography of Jesus as it is a lyrical and theological meditation on Jesus Christ and his reconciling work.

There are several hallmarks of the Gospel of John. One is that the writer of John used a recurring motif in the way that Jesus spoke about who he was and what he was up to. The motif that is repeated is that Jesus and the Father are one, and whomever follows what Jesus says will also participate in this unity.

In this way, the Gospel of John reads much like how a Bach fugue sounds, it visits the same theme, over and over, upside and right-side, inside and out; always the same message: The Father and Jesus are one, and those who listen to Jesus are included in that close relationship. It’s a heady mix of pronouns and swirling associations, but the message is clear throughout John’s gospel: God has claimed us as his people through Jesus Christ. Period.

Another hallmark of John’s gospel is the fact that it contains no miracles. Miraculous things happen in the gospel, of course, but the writer does not call them miracles; instead, the word “signs” is used. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ signs are used to great narrative effect. Every time that Jesus gives a teaching, he then certifies the teaching with a sign. The signs take up the first half of the gospel of John, and today’s sign, the raising of Lazarus, is the seventh and final sign.

Seven is, of course, a tremendously important number in the Bible – the number of holiness, the number of completeness. Not so technically, the eighth sign in John’s gospel is the Resurrection of Jesus. Eight, of course becomes a sacred number for Christians; eight being the eighth day of creation, whereby we are made new creations in Christ at baptism. This is why many baptismal fonts are octagonal. But here, today, we have the final and most perfect sign that Jesus performs: the resurrection of Lazarus.

Finally, a hallmark of the Gospel According to John is that he does not really use the terms “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of Heaven.” Those terms are used frequently in the other gospels, but for John, he is saying something different: The Kingdom of God is not so much established by Jesus, the Kingdom of God is Jesus.

Such is the content and context of the Gospel of John. So what can it mean then that we have this story of Jesus being asked to come heal his sick friend, and yet he delays going? Jesus even says that the sickness that Lazarus has does not lead to death. But it does.

Can you imagine the anxiety of Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters? Here they have been traveling with, working with, and likely funding Jesus and his ministry. They have witnessed wonders beyond description. Now their brother Lazarus, who is a dear friend of Jesus, is ill. Let us pause for a moment and remember that in the first century, in Palestine, illness was quit serious, there were no antibiotics, and illness, more often than not, preceded death. This was serious, and they knew that Jesus had it within him to heal Lazarus. Can you imagine their supreme disappointment when Jesus says that he will wait to visit Lazarus? “Wait?!” the sisters may have shouted, “He will die!”

And Lazarus does die. It’s heartbreaking; he dies. We need to really get our hearts and minds around this fact. Mary and Martha are living in a pre-Resurrection world. Death is death, the absolute end of all things.

When Jesus does finally come to Lazarus, the sisters and the village are in full mourning. Martha greets Jesus when he comes, not with words of welcome but words of accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” One wonders what was going through her mind. Was she ready to stop following Jesus? Was she in that empty space in her spirit where grief besets us? Grief is grief, even for those who walk with Jesus. Why did Jesus not act? Where was he?

At this point, we are met with what is, in the King James Version, the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept,” or as translated in the New Revised Standard Version, “Jesus began to weep.”

It’s an important point. Weeping comes from deep empathy and grief. Twice in this passage we are told that Jesus is deeply moved, or disturbed in his spirit. Jesus is not some all-seeing, distant, stoic God. Our God is a feeling, empathizing God. Jesus acts out of this empathy, out of this “co-feeling,” which is the literal translation of “empathy.”

But something else happened. It doesn’t appear to have caused Jesus to raise Lazarus, but it is certainly a part of the story, and we ought not to ignore it. You see, all this talk of miraculous raisings and Jesus’ empathy has overshadowed an important point of this story: Mary and Martha begged Jesus to heal their brother, and they are let down by him. When Lazarus does in fact die, they mourn and appear to be even angry with Jesus for not acting. And it is right there in that hard, desolate place of loss and grief that Jesus speaks life. “Lazarus, come out!” Even here, we see that death having the last word is not in God’s plan.

Certainly each of us has had those moments of wondering where God was in a time of trial or loss. “Why did God let her die?” “Where was God when I needed him?” All of us have wondered at God’s apparent departure. But sometimes, in that area of wondering, Jesus shows up, even after the death and loss. And his arrival is prompted by our raw grief.

The truth of the matter is that being as close as we are to our own experiences, we lack the proper perspective to see God in the midst of things, even in loss. To be sure, we may not recognize God’s empathic presence with us, but we can trust, somehow, that he is present.

But it is the waiting for Jesus that is the lesson from Mary and Martha today. Even though all hope is lost – Lazarus has died – they still wait; for what, they do not know. And it is in the midst of this waiting that God moves. It is in waiting past the point of hope that God sometimes moves.

Be patient with God. His understanding of the timing of things is different from yours. Even when all is lost, hold on for a while longer and allow God to act on your heart in his own good time.

Here, near the end of Lent, is as good a time as any to be reminded that God moves in God’s time. Maybe, since we all lack it, God will grant us the grace to be patient with him, and allow him to surprise us with life and resurrection.

Happy waiting.

 

— Josh Bowron is the senior assistant to the rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, N.C. He lives in Charlotte with his wife and their three wild and woolly children.

Spirituality as a commodity , 5 Lent (A) – 2011

April 10, 2011

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

We talk a lot about God and Jesus, but rarely do we take much time to talk about the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost. And yet, an entire industry has evolved in our culture to market something called “spirituality,” as if it is a commodity we can purchase, or that there is some body of knowledge about the spirit that can be somehow learned and appropriated. As a friend of mine once said, “You cannot fit the Spirit into a flow chart!”

Watch the snow fall. Each flake born upon the wind. Each flake dances through the air, taking no straight lines, to land just where the wind means to place it. Then remember the words Jesus spoke about the Spirit a few weeks ago when talking with Nicodemus. The spirit is like the wind. We cannot see it, only the effect it has on things like trees and leaves and hats and umbrellas. We know not where it comes from, says Jesus, and we know not where it is going.

So it is, says Jesus, with the spirit.

This Spirit dimension of God is by its very nature at least somewhat unpredictable. Makes one wonder why we desire so much “spirituality.” We tend to want to know where we are going before we agree to go anywhere.

In the Bible, the Hebrew and Greek words used for Spirit mean breath or wind: ruach and pneuma. This wind or breath of God is there at the very beginning of Genesis, at the beginning of creation. Nothing has life apart from this breath, this Holy Wind. We hear it rustling around a pile of dry bones in Ezekiel, bringing a people who were out of energy and inspiration – literally “to breath in” – while in exile, slowly but deliberately stirring them back to life.

And the life of the early church is depicted in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles as being a people who are blown on by the wind and sent to wherever God needs them to do whatever God needs them to do. It is always surprising and new.

So it is with this story of Lazarus. He has been dead for four whole days. In the tomb, wrapped up, dead and gone. While he is sick, his sisters Martha and Mary call for Jesus to come. It is surprising that Jesus, who we are told loves Lazarus and his sisters, does not hurry right over there. The Spirit of God has other plans, unlikely plans, plans that seemingly make no sense.

We desperately want things to make sense. We want to understand the Spirit so life makes sense. But Spirit is not concerned with making sense. Spirit is seemingly concerned with making new life – and making life new.

Surely no one expected Jesus to arrive after Lazarus had died. Surely no one expected him to stand outside the tomb and weep. Surely no one expected him to ask God for help. Surely no one expected him to call into the tomb, “Lazarus, come out!” And surely no one expected the dead man to come out. Just as no one expected the man blind from birth to see. Just as no one expected Jesus to talk with a Samaritan woman, or to hear news of a coming anointed one from such a woman.

And least of all do we expect Martha, the practical sister, the one who sets and clears tables while Mary sits at the master’s feet, to be the one, the first one in John’s gospel to proclaim, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”

That should be Mary’s line. And we are also surprised to hear that it is Thomas, the one who throughout the history of the church is to be called “doubting,” who was the one disciple that, after they all acknowledge that to return anywhere near Jerusalem was to risk being stoned to death, suddenly proclaimed, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” How surprising that the doubting one turns out to be the courageous and believing one.

None of it seems to make sense. None of it seems to hold together. So it is with the life of the Spirit. You cannot fit the Spirit into a flow chart.

The practice of yoga is also concerned with spirit and breath. Yoga recognizes that we breathe in the spirit of life and calls us to be attentive to our breathing at all times in all places in all circumstances. Tich Naht Hanh, the revered Vietnamese Buddhist says, “We can be extremely happy just sitting and breathing in and out. We don’t have to do or achieve anything. We enjoy the miracle of simply being here.”

Jesus says Spirit, God’s breath, God’s wind, God’s life-giving spirit, is necessary to go with him that we might die with him. That we might die to our preconceived notions of the Spirit-filled life. That we might die to predictability and be open to newness and surprise. That we might even die to our preconceived notions of Jesus and be open to the surprising new things he says and does.

It seems that, like Lazarus, we tend to want to keep our precious ideas about Jesus entombed as if somehow they will last forever. When we all do this, the life of the church and the life of the Spirit wither and die. The Spirit calls us to roll away the stones from our tombs, unbind him, and let Jesus go. Only when we roll away the stones, unbind him, and let him go, can we be free. Free to follow him wherever he leads.

So we come here week after week to take breathing lessons. We resist change and newness and surprises, but we know deep down inside that we need this breath, this wind, this spirit of God to breathe on us and to breathe through us. We know somewhere inside that we are imago Dei, created in God’s image, and we are meant to be blown upon by the wind like the snow, and sent to places and people we do not yet know.

That is why it is so important that we come back here week after week after week: so that we can inspire – “breathe in” – the Holy Spirit, so that we can share the Spirit, so that we can take breathing lessons, so that we can share the love of God, the breath of God, and the Spirit of God with one another and then with the whole world.

Spirit is an invitation to a life of surprise, a life of new things, a life of new ways of doing things, a life of new ways of knowing God, a life of new ways of seeing others, a life of new ways of being with others and ourselves. Spirit seeks to bring us closer to God, closer to others, and closer to ourselves. It is a way of letting go and letting God.

“Make Us as the Snow,” by the Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek

The snow falls
As if it knows where it is landing,
As if it has direction, purpose,
As if it has been sent

Then blows the wind
Redirecting each flake
Re-routing each crystal
So that suddenly
Without prior notice
Each lands
Just there
And nowhere else

So it is he says
With spirit
For you
For me
For us

And yet
We feel so sure
So certain
So determined

We continue to kid ourselves
Into thinking
That we know
Where we are going

Come, Holy Ghost,
Our souls inspire
Make us as the snow

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is co-rector of Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church at Ellicott Mills, Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He is also chaplain and teaches at Saint Timothy’s School for girls, the diocesan girls’ boarding school in the Diocese of Maryland.