5 Lent – March 29, 2020
This past Monday brought with it additional restrictions on how we live our lives – a shelter in place order. So, I think it’s fair to say that, at this point, most all of us have had our lives dramatically changed. And not by choice. So, please, be gentle with yourselves. Let’s admit that this is stressful for most all of us. We’re worried about our health, our jobs, our economy. Will life every return to normal?
We are experiencing a host of different feelings…feelings that include anger, disappointment, perhaps rage, blame and powerlessness. As therapists share with us, we are also experiencing grief, whether we realize it or not. We are grieving ways of life that provided a sense of stability for us. We are grieving lost routines, habits, social connections, family structures and our sense of security. We’ve all been adjusting to a new normal.
Today, we are presented with Ezekiel’s valley of the dry bones and the raising of Lazarus. So yes, again, God’s word has so much to say to us at this particular time. When we are grieving, weary, and perhaps lacking hope, it may feel like we are gazing on a valley full of bones. Actually, it feels a bit like we have been plopped directly into a valley of dry bones. Grieving, weariness, anxiety, fear – and like the psalmist we say, “my soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning”.
Martha and Mary waited for the Lord. They first experienced the heartache of losing Lazarus and then there was the heartache of Jesus’ delay. Whatever his motives, Jesus’ delay intensifies the pain of Martha and Mary. Notice that both begin their interaction with him by sharing their distress, and perhaps even accusation, using the exact same words: “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. This is pain, disappointment, and hurt, and it is something that every single one of us has experienced at some point in our lives.
But for Martha and Mary, who had a relationship with Jesus, disappointment and faith coexist. They don’t demand a fix. They continue to believe that Jesus is the source of their hope, even as they stand in a valley of dry bones. Jesus sees beyond death, and with that same God-given vision, Ezekiel sees the bones coming to life again.
As Melinda Quivik shares, “Even when everything about Lazarus’ death makes it impossible for his sisters and the gathered friends to imagine he could walk out of the tomb, when Jesus calls to Lazarus, he comes. Jesus does not do the easy thing (he didn’t keep bad things from happening), Jesus does the hard thing, which is to reverse destruction. Jesus’ oneness with the Father is the source of the rising. Jesus sees beyond death to God’s infinitely greater power. Power over death.
Those who watch and help to unbind Lazarus are given the vision they need. Many bindings in our world seem impossible to untangle, but every day the word of the Lord frees someone. Perhaps that is the message of this story.”
Even while the action to raise Lazarus from the dead is clearly and decisively Jesus’, he invites those around him to participate: “Unbind him and let him go”. Jesus could have unwrapped Lazarus, but he didn’t. He invited those around to get involved, to play a part in seeing this miracle move forward.
I think the same is true with us. We are not only called to be witnesses of God’s action in our lives, but also to be changed by what we see and thereby invited into the ongoing reality of what God is doing. God does the miracle, but God also gives us a part to play as it unfolds in our lives.
So, when life is ruthlessly constricted, when hope is stifled, when what’s in front of us looks like sunset and endless night. When we find ourselves in Bethany’s house of grief, or down among the bones in death valley, then we might try looking past the terrible something, whatever that is for you, and ache for God to intervene. The God who acted powerfully in the stories of Ezekiel and Lazarus and above all in the story of Jesus is neither unwilling nor unable to act in our stories as well. No bones are too dry. No grief is too deep. No stone at a tomb entrance is too heavy. Collective acts of love have the power to drive the darkness out. And there are acts of love happening right now in the midst of this pandemic time.
We heard two very profound stories this morning that narrated the message of the powerful love of God. Stories have meaning. And we are writing a new story, a new narrative, as we move through this powerfully different time in our own lives. What is this time teaching us? What story are we writing? When we look back at this time, what story will we tell? What will be your narrative?
This past Thursday, we celebrated the feast day for Richard Allen. Richard Allen was the founder of the AME denomination. He said about the African-American response to the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793: “The Lord was pleased to strengthen us, and remove all fear from us, and our hearts to be as useful as possible.” I love that—‘our hearts to be as useful as possible’. May that be said of our church in these times. Have faith that we will find a way to prevail in the end. We don’t know exactly what that looks like, but we do know that God is love. And love is the most powerful force in the world. Love brings the dry bones back to life, rolls the stone away, unbinds us and shines the light that overcomes the darkness.