April 2, 2017

5th Week of Lent Year A

Something terrible happens, and in your gut you fear this terrible something has the last word. Life seems ruthlessly constricted. This is what all of us experience. Perhaps for you it took place in the past, or will come in the future, or is there with you right now. Hope is stifled. No time to come seems worthy of consideration. What’s ahead is not sunrise, but sunset, and endless night.

A situation of this kind is background for the spooky, fascinating vision Ezekiel has of the valley of dry bones — very old bones — that are brought back to life, covered with flesh and skin, and breathed into, resuscitated, by the Spirit, the breath of God.

As Ezekiel gazes out on that death valley covered with bones, his people have been driven into exile. Their connection with the land God gave them has been snapped like a twig. They may know whose they were, who they belonged to back in the good old days, but now they’re not sure, living as aliens in a strange land miles from the only home they have ever known.

Exile feels to them a lot like death, a final death for them as a people. Their spirits are as dry and bare as those bones lying in death valley. It is in this bottoming out moment of deep despair that the Lord grabs Ezekiel, takes him to that valley, and shows him dry bones that get up and dance, an entire people lifted up and restored to life.

The message is clear for Ezekiel and those who listen to him: exile is not the end. The Lord brings his people back even from the bone yard of exile. Death valley is not a final resting place, but just a station on the way.

And so it happens. God’s people make it through exile. After many years, the exile is over, and they return home again, walking tall with joy. What has occurred is not merely survival. They come back to their land a people stronger, wiser, more deeply committed to their God.

This can happen with a people, as it did with exiled Israel in the time of Ezekiel. It can happen also with a family. Hope is stifled when something terrible happens to a family in the village of Bethany, just outside Jerusalem.

Lazarus the brother has died, leaving behind his sisters Martha and Mary. The loss is not only a personal grief, an emotional burden, but it also pushes the sisters out to the margins of society as women without men. Their village doesn’t know what to do with them. They are on their way to becoming surplus people.

So the death is not only of Lazarus. It feels also like death for Martha and Mary. They see no future worth considering. What confronts these women is a series of weary days through which they must plod.

Add to all this the disappointment that their friend Jesus, the miracle-working rabbi, doesn’t get there until Lazarus has been dead for four long days and buried in a tomb with a big stone blocking the entrance. How must it sound when Jesus arrives, and Martha greets him: “Lord, if you would have been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”

Jesus and Martha talk about resurrection. Martha sees it in the future, something that will happen just before time ends. Jesus sees resurrection in the present moment, something here and now. He identified himself as the resurrection Martha anticipates, the life that she needs as much as her brother does.

But Jesus is not content with just talking. He calls Lazarus out of the tomb to continue his life on earth. Doing this, he also frees Martha and Mary from a marginal, stilted existence. From that household in Bethany he pulls off the shroud of death.

But, you may say, what’s the use? Israel returns from exile, yet their history since then has been marked by numerous other instances of loss and disgrace. Lazarus leaves the tomb, and becomes a walking miracle in his village, yet after some years he dies again. The stone blocking his tomb remains in place this time.

These stories of death valley and the family there in Bethany–these stories are reminders of the thousand ways by which divine power struggles against the terrors we feel in our gut ever having the last word, and foreclosing on the future.

But more than that, the Bethany family and death valley also point ahead to another story, a greater one. This other story we will encounter next Sunday and the Sunday after that. Passion Sunday and Resurrection Sunday, together with the week between them, tell of how something terrible did happen to the one we all follow.

From a Friday afternoon until the following Sunday, fear grips a few human hearts, making them believe that this something terrible has had the last word, that what awaits them is not sunrise, but sunset and endless night. Their experience is death valley, and the Bethany house of grief, and even more than that. What lifts them from grief and death is divine power at work in a way that can never be fully understood, divine power that opens the door permanently to a sunrise past our ability to comprehend.

So three stories stand before us today. Ezekiel and those dry bones is the first. Lazarus brought back to rejoin his sisters is the second. The third story will be told on the next two Sundays and throughout the intervening week. We encounter it every time we come to this table.

And the fourth story is ours. In each of the others, we hear that exile, or becoming surplus people, or torture and death does not get to have the last word. In the Jesus story we find that the power of death has been broken. What remains is whether we will add our story, our experience of a terrible something that seems to have the last word.

When life is ruthlessly constricted, when hope is stifled, there appears no time to come worth considering. 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 must look past the terrible something and look for God. The one who acted powerfully in the stories of Ezekiel and Lazarus and above all in the story of Jesus is able to act in our lives as well.                                                                               

Amen.