Dry Bones and New Life

+ A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on March 29, 2020 +

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

Video: LINK

“Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

You know, it has seemed like our readings have been on point recently, hasn’t it?
Maybe you don’t know this, but I rarely chose the readings for any given Sunday.
As with most Lutheran churches, and many of our ecumenical siblings, we follow what’s called the Revised Common Lectionary, a pre-set calendar of readings that follows a three-year cycle.
I’ve often marveled at how this lectionary that was determined decades ago so often speaks so well to the situations happening in the world around us.
But for what ever reason, this year’s readings for Lent seem to speak directly to what is happening right now with the Coronavirus pandemic.
Or perhaps the Holy Spirit is allowing them to speak to us in certain ways right now.

Because when I hear that cry from our first reading, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely,” I identify in a way I don’t think I have before. Maybe you do too.
In the past few weeks we’ve gone from health warnings to social distancing to stay at home orders from our Governor.
We’ve had to adapt to working and worshiping from home, canceling get-togethers with family and friends, and remain uncertain when these restrictions may be lifted.
I know I’m not alone in feeling a little dried up—and with all the handwashing, my hands have certainly felt dry!
And while may hope may not be lost quite yet, I admit that when I wrote you all a letter this week canceling in-person worship indefinitely and locking up the church building until further notice, I certainly felt cut off.

“Prophet Ezekiel” from https://www.flickr.com/photos/frted/8186711792. Shared under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.

So now more than ever before, I am grateful for these words from the Prophet Ezekiel.
This has long been a favorite story of mine—and it’s an annual staple for the Great Vigil of Easter—but this year these words have spoken to me in a new way.
I was reminded this week that Ezekiel himself was in exile when he had this vision.
He, along with so many of his people, were carried off to captivity in Babylon.
Their country had been conquered, their cities were emptied, their homes were burned, the Temple of God was destroyed.
They lived in a foreign land under the hand of their enemies and felt abandoned by their God.
I imagine that Ezekiel himself looked at the devastation happening to his people, on the uncertain future for the world around him, and wondered where God was in all of this, whether he and his people were indeed abandoned, whether they had been cut off.

But in this time of exile, in this time of uncertainty, in this time when the people felt so isolated, God came to the young Ezekiel and called him to be a prophet.
God called him to speak God’s word to the people, to bring a message of hope for their restoration.
God came to the exiled people and reminded them that God had not abandoned them but had traveled with them into Babylon and promised them that God would always be with them.
That God would provide new life to their dry bones, and would restore them to their land.
Despite all the changes, God remained faithful and steadfast and came among them in the pain and questions and suffering.

In some ways, it’s not dissimilar to what we hear in the gospel reading, another fitting text for our situation.
After their brother, Lazarus, had died, Mary and Martha felt alone, abandoned by their friend and teacher.
They had hoped he would come and restore Lazarus’ health, come and comfort them in their distress, but Jesus had kept his distance and now their brother was dead.
Why hadn’t Jesus come?
Why did he wait so long?
Why did Lazarus have to die?

It’s hard for us to answer these questions.
Just as hard as it is for us to answer why Jesus doesn’t come and instantly heal us when we’re sick or dying, why Jesus doesn’t just wipe away the Coronavirus and bring things back to normal, why Jesus doesn’t just come and fix everything.
These are the troubling questions of faith, aren’t they?
Ones that never seem to be fully answered.
Ones that always pop up in difficult times.
Oh how I wish I could give you a simple answer to these questions, dear people.
How I wish I could solve the riddle that has plagued people of faith for millennia.
But I can point you to the simple yet profound truth we find in these texts, a truth in which we can firmly place our trust: God is with us. God weeps with us. And yes, God finds a way to bring life in our bad situations.

Jesus comes to his friends, Mary and Martha, and he hears their laments.
But more than just listening to them, he cries with them.
For centuries people have wondered what caused Jesus to weep.
Was it because of the death of his friend?
Was it because of the disbelief of the people around him?
Was it in frustration with the realities of death itself?
We simply don’t know.
But I found a tremendous comfort to think of Jesus crying with Mary at the tomb.
It lets me see Jesus standing with me these days.
To feel Jesus’ frustration matching my own.
To know Jesus is crying with me and comforting me when I feel cut off and alone and wishing everything could go back to normal.
To know that Jesus acknowledges that suffering and death will have its day, but that he adamantly refuses to ever let it have the last word.

Duccio, di Buoninsegna, -1319?. Raising of Lazarus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57320

Because then Jesus does what seems impossible.
He calls Lazarus out of his tomb and brings him to life again.
And he tells the shocked crowd that this is so they can see, so they can experience, the glory of God, the fullness of God’s love, the wondrous things that God can do.
“I AM the resurrection,” Jesus tells Martha, “and the life.”
This is the seventh, the final, and the greatest of Jesus’ signs in John’s gospel; the works of Christ that point us to trust in the glory of God.

In times of despair, in times of uncertainty, in times when we are sick or are close to death, we are often told to trust in the resurrection that Christ has promised us.
And this is true.
It is a true and certain hope in which we can put our trust.
And Martha says the right thing when she’s talking to Jesus, “I know that [my brother] will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
She’s obviously read her catechism.
But Jesus replies, “I AM the resurrection and the life.”
Jesus is telling her that resurrection is more than a future promise, more than what happens to us when we die, but it is a present reality.
Resurrection is more than a doctrine.
Resurrection is more than a hope.
Resurrection is a promise that is meant to be experienced now.
Resurrection is relationship with God.
Resurrection is life bursting forth in our worst situations.

Abraham Rattner (1895–1978), Valley of Dried Bones.

God asks Ezekiel, can these bones live?
“O Lord God,” he says, “you know.”
And God does know.
God knows more than we ever could.
When we feel cut off, God comes to renew relationship.
When we feel in the depths of despair, God brings the promise of hope.
When we can only see a tomb, God sees new and abundant life.
Through the prophet, God promises the people in exile that God will raise them up and breathe God’s own Spirit within them.
And in this, God is promising a new start, a new reality.
When the people return to their lands, everything would be different and they would have to start over.
They would rebuild their homes, rebuild their cities, rebuild God’s Temple.
But the exile had fundamentally changed them.
Even their worship would drastically change. No longer were they fully dependent on the Temple in Jerusalem, but they decentralized their worship into synagogues and their homes.

When Jesus brings Lazarus out of his tomb, he gives him and us a foretaste of the promised resurrection.
But the new life into which he is raised is not like the one before.
As we will see in the verses that follow today’s gospel reading, Lazarus is experiencing a new and abundant life in Christ.
He is intimately connected with Jesus, reclining on him at table, in a close relationship with Christ and our loving God.
It’s the same resurrection life that we are promised from a God who refuses to abandon us, who will not let us wallow alone in hopelessness, who is laying sinews and flesh and skin upon our dried bones, who is breathing the Spirit within us to bring us life.
The same Spirit which the Apostle Paul tells us dwells within us uniting us with Christ, binding us to God, and connecting us with all God’s people forever.

I’ve heard people say that when this pandemic has run its course, when we are allowed to leave our homes and physically reconnect with each other, things won’t ever be the same as they were.
And maybe that’s a good thing.
This pandemic has reminded us how fragile our economy can be.
It has shown us how even the promise of a booming stock market can bust very quickly.
It has transformed our vision of those we jobs we might look down on from grocery store workers to bus drivers to food servers so we suddenly see them as essential.
It has opened our eyes to the realities that an economy built to benefit the few is neither sustainable nor moral.

But these past weeks have also reminded us how much we depend on each other, haven’t they?
How much we depend on each other for physical connection and emotional support.
How we need a community that allows us all to thrive.
So while I crave finally worshiping in person with you all again, as much as I want to go to bars and restaurants and theaters, as much as I really want to meet up with friends, when this is all over, I hope that our sense of community has changed. Because to fill these needs, we have found new and innovative ways of being in community while physically separated.
I’ve seen groups pop up on social media and online spaces that would not have existed otherwise.
I’ve spent more time talking or checking in with friends and family than I have in weeks.
I imagine that so many of us have learned much more about connecting via Zoom that we’d ever wanted to know.

Chalk art spreading hope (from https://www.ocregister.com/2020/03/24/home-bound-due-to-coronavirus-people-are-chalking-hope-on-sidewalks/)

And new connections are even happening with neighbors and complete strangers.
Maybe you have taken part in the nightly singing and noisemaking to thank our healthcare workers.
Maybe you’ve seen the videos of Italian neighbors singing together from their balconies.
Maybe you’ve seen or taking part in the outpouring of support for hospitals and restaurants and food banks.
Maybe you’ve seen virtual choirs or virtual theatrical performances—you’ve certainly seen virtual worship.
And in these examples and so much more, I see a resiliency within us as a people. I see us supporting each other in new ways.
I see the Spirit of God blowing into these once dried up bones and rattling them together, laying on sinews and flesh and skin, and raising them up to live a new and more abundant life.

God has given us a sure and certain hope in the resurrection.
It’s a hope that we will defiantly celebrate in two weeks as we rejoice in Christ’s triumph over the powers of death.
And yet, in the midst of Lent, in the depths of this pandemic, in the shelter of our own homes we are reminded today that resurrection is not confined to Easter Sunday worship, it is not something we must wait for death to realize, it is meant for us now, to experience the abundance of God now, to fully live in relationship with God and one another.

So as we enter another week in isolation, as we long to gather again in person, I invite you to pay attention this week.
Look for where God is breathing the Spirit into your life in new ways.
Watch for where God is raising you up to be in relationship with God and your neighbors.
Allow the Spirit to breathe new life in your dry bones, to restore you and your hope, and bring you into the full and abundant life only God can provide.

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