|Sunday, April 10th, 2011||
The Fifth Sunday of Lent
The Reverend Nina R. Pooley
Sermon Preached by the Reverend Nina Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Church, Yarmouth, Maine
Sunday, April 10, 2011 ~ The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Where are we?
Have you ever gone to the movies, stepped out of the theater and then returned to find your seat, blinking in the darkness and found the movie had change so much in your absence that you wondered if you had the right theater? If you’re here for the first time in a long time, or maybe even the first time ever, it might feel like you’ve walked into the wrong movie. Where are we? Are we in the right place?
If we’re standing alongside Ezekiel, we’re in exile, far from home. We’re as desperate as we’ve ever been, and there’s no end in sight. And we’re having a vision – a God delivered vision of dry bones filling a valley – Maybe we’ve stumbled into a horror film or a war crimes documentary. God begins the conversation in Ezekiel 37 with a riddle to the prophet: “Mortal, can these bones live?” And Ezekiel looks out over the valley filled with dried, brittle bones, and he responds with an exasperated, “O Lord God, only You know.”
Why are we here? Why is the valley full of bones? If we’re standing with Ezekiel we’re in exile in Babylon, we’re remembering the years the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem, leading to famine, disease, and despair. We’re remembering the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, the leveling of the Temple to the ground, we’re recalling the faces of those who were killed, and those forced to migrate to Babylon. Ezekiel has been in exile himself, taken in an early wave of captives, dragged away from home and Temple. It’s not a pleasant place to be standing. Standing with Ezekiel means confronting horrifying events anyone would rather forget. (Can I leave the theater now?) Yet there is beauty here in the midst of this difficult place – in the possibility that even in this landscape full of death, a hope for renewed life remains. Weary and yet hopeful, Ezekiel does what the Lord has commanded him to do, he prophesizes to the bones themselves – something that must have seemed utterly hopeless, and completely pointless. But he does it. On behalf of the Lord he says, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
And it happens. Theatrical – YES. A Miracle – most certainly. But the true miracle to me is not that it happens, but when it happens. It happens after the community has faced such devastating loss. There’s the miracle, and the grounds for hope. In the face of the despair of the world, we hope for what is seemingly an impossible future. If we are willing to stand with Ezekiel there is power in this place, facing the destruction and despair of the world, and prepared to obey the charge of God to command dry bones to be renewed. Power to restore and heal communities, to inspire new life in the darkest valleys. By shedding our own cynicism and despair, our own learned helplessness – (“O Lord God, only You know.”) and calling on the hope that all things are possible with God.
The scene changes and it’s almost 400 years later. We’re standing on the dusty road near the village of Bethany, in Judea, very near Jerusalem; in fact the text says we are “two miles away.” We’re standing out in front of the tomb of Lazarus. Gathered with the family who love him, we stand with Jesus who weeps for his friend. With Mary who kneels at Jesus’ feet. With Martha who believes that Jesus could have done something had he gotten there before the death. Martha who as many first century Jews believed that Lazarus will rise again in resurrection on the last day, but who is astounded to hear Jesus correct her. No, it’s better than that, more amazing that she can fully comprehend, Jesus tells her, “I am the Resurrection and the life.” And Martha believes. The sisters lead Jesus to the tomb, and they say what you and I might say, sensible things: ‘What about the smell, you do know he’s been in there awhile?’ Because they can’t begin to imagine what is about to happen. The stone is removed and Jesus calls into the tomb, “Lazarus, come out.” And the dead mans walks out of the tomb, and Jesus’ only follow up comment is to those standing around, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
There are so many people watching this amazing event. The family who are overjoyed, I venture the disciples are astounded and wondering (yet again) what they’ve gotten themselves into. And those who are watching, the crowd that’s hanging on every word and action – they go into Jerusalem talking about what they’ve seen. Some decide to report Jesus to the authorities. Remember where we are – only a few miles from Jerusalem, and when we are - only days from the arrest, the trial, the cross. Standing before the tomb, heartbroken over his friend, Jesus’ walk to his own tomb begins here. And even before he arrives at this time and place, Jesus knows full well where and when he is. And he goes to Lazarus, he risks everything to stand outside that tomb and call out to Lazarus, to bring him new life.
Where are we? Are we in the right place? Yes, we’re in a difficult but very real place of hope, real hope grounded in the knowledge of God’s power, hope in the face of the pain of the world. This is no Disney movie, this is the real deal. For life isn’t easy all the time. Life can be hard, there’s darkness that’s very real. Our hope comes from that sure foundation that in the face of darkness and death – God offers us life and light. That all things are possible with God. Possible for us, and in us - for the world.
Where are we, really? Sitting in this gorgeous and sacred place, in a small town in Maine, in the 21st century. Listening to some pretty fantastic stories. Stories that are so ‘out there’ that it’s easy to jump right to the new life part. But then we’re in danger of missing the point – which is that life is hard, painful, we are mortal, (O Mortal…) and the world can be a dark valley of despair, and in any life - of an individual, or a community, we experience that hardship and despair. That the world is often broken and people victimized, people get sick, sometimes with diseases that would be easy to prevent, people are hungry when others have more than we need.
It’s when we recognize that we’re standing in the reality of an often broken world that we know, deep in our souls just how far God will go to find us and call us out into something more. The people of Israel were in exile, and the Lord calls them to new life and hope. Lazarus is in the tomb, and Jesus risks everything to go get him, and offer him life. Where are we? In the 21st century facing the darkness in our own world. As we pray for the children who were killed in the elementary school in Rio de Janeiro, we push back the darkness as we stand in witness to their lives. For Larissa, Bianca, Géssica, Karine, Marissa, Samira, Ana Carolina, Luiza Paula, Laryssa, Milena and Rafael. We stand to push back the darkness in our world, when we join with the One Campaign, on this Lazarus Sunday, to celebrate the effectiveness of treatments for those living with HIV, and recommit ourselves to the continued work of restoration for those affected either directly or indirectly.
And closer to home, we stand in our own lives and consider where we are. What’s bound and needs to be unbound in our lives? Are we inside the tomb, waiting for someone to call out to us? Are we outside the tomb, calling someone else to new life, to release the thing that binds them so they can move out into the light? Jesus wept for Lazarus, for the loss of this friend in his life. For the pain of the family. It mattered to him. Might those we love who are in pain need to hear us say, you matter to me, and I’m willing to stand out in front of the cave you’re in and call you to myself. Come out, find life.
There is power in grief. Power in standing in that very real place and knowing that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. In spite of death’s reality, in response to death’s reality.
The earthquake in Japan, the shootings in Brazil, the One campaign and their work toward giving people life and hope in the face of AIDs. There is power here in the grief and the reality.
Because hope is grounded in a very real grasp on the realities of this life and the pain that comes with those realities. True hope responds to those realities. In concrete ways in not as concrete ways – empowering, enabling, engaging, lighting the darkness.
There is power in the week of remembering that is coming – Holy Week. Not “Sadness Week” but Holy Week, where we recall the walk to the cross. A week of God, in the midst of suffering and the real powers of the world, and death itself. Holy, sacred, and God’s own in the midst of it all.
In the words of the Lord to Ezekiel: “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."
That’s where we are, in the midst of this very real life, facing down the darkness of this world, grounded in the hope of God’s promise and action. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” And then he called Lazarus out of the tomb, alive once more.