April 2, 2017
John 11:1-45, Ezekiel 37:1-14
Three friends were discussing death and one of them asked, “What would you like people to say about you at your funeral?”
The first of the friends said, “I would like them to say he was a great humanitarian who cared about his community.”
The second said, “He was a great husband and father, who was an example for many to follow.”
The third friend said, “I would like them to say, ‘Look, he’s moving!!’”
I am guessing that the stories you just heard from Ezekiel and John evoke mixed feelings in you. On the one hand, it gives us hope to hear of God’s power to breathe life into places that are long dead. On the other hand, it is hard to know what to do with such strange stories. If someone asked what happened at church today, it would be embarrassing to just casually say, “Oh, we heard some stories about God breathing life into a bunch of dry bones and Jesus bringing a dead man back to life. That’s all.”
Lent has been a time for us to explore the Dark Wood together. We have been reminded that God is at work in the most hopeless of places. Lent is a season of returning to the one who breathed life into us and acknowledging our human limits. But Lent is not a season that lets us off the hook – not for a second. In Lent we are reminded that we must stay on this path even when it is difficult. In Lent we are given examples of people who have persisted when it might have been easier to give up. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night perhaps out of fear of being discovered. But he showed up after Jesus died and buried him, no longer afraid of being outed as a follower! The woman at the well came in the middle of the day because her community shunned her. After her encounter with Jesus, she returned to become the first evangelist bringing her community to follow him. A man who had been blind since birth was healed by Jesus and when the religious leaders questioned him, criticized him, and even tossed him out of the synagogue, he grew in his faith.
None of these people had it easy. Jesus met them in their pain and difficulty and each of them became courageous followers. Today we experience a God who breathes life into dry bones and Jesus who calls a dead man from the grave. Maybe those places in us that seem to be beyond life can be restored by God’s powerful spirit. It is good for us to know that nothing is beyond the reach of God’s healing breath. We need to be reminded of this when we feel overwhelmed by climate change, a broken immigration system, children who have no safe place to go, gun violence that is out of control, and food thrown away by some while others are digging in dumpsters for scraps to eat.
These are stories of God’s power to bring life into lifeless situations and hope into places that seem to be well beyond hope. I am grateful to hear stories of God who does the impossible.
But there is another element in these stories that I cannot ignore. God comes to Ezekiel and asks if the bones can live. I wonder if he was thinking it was some kind of trick question. He answered, “O God, you know.” Ezekiel is noncommittal, putting the ball back in God’s court. So God picks it up and lobs it back to Ezekiel. “Tell these bones they will live, Ezekiel.” Rather than standing there embarrassed by God’s silly request, Ezekiel speaks God’s words to the bones and then watches as God’s breath fills them and they become a huge multitude of living, breathing people!
Imagine what it must have been to hear this story. Israel is in exile. The Babylonians have taken their land and they have suffered for so long that God seems to be a distant memory. They are death and destruction and they cannot imagine anything else. They are a valley of dry bones, long forgotten and hopeless. Into this, comes God breathing life and restoring hope.
In John, we hear that Jesus loves Lazarus and his sisters. We don’t know why he didn’t rush to Lazarus when he hears he is gravely ill. He waited until Lazarus died to go. Both Mary and Martha encounter him and in their grief they say that if he had been there, Lazarus would not have died. Jesus goes to the grave and weeps for the friend that he loves. He tells them to remove the stone from the grave. Then he calls Lazarus to come out. I have always imagined Lazarus like some kind of robot as if Jesus just hits the remote control and Lazarus comes walking out. My friend Jan Richardson reminds me that no one goes in and gets Lazarus and in her estimation, he had to decide if he was coming out or not. (http://paintedprayerbook.com/2011/04/03/lent-5-learning-the-lazarus-blessing/)
He had already crossed over to the other side and now Jesus was calling him back. I can’t imagine that it was an easy decision.
He gets up and walks out of the grave. He is still wearing the grave clothes. It is here that Jesus turns to the people gathered and calls them to finish this resurrection story. He says clearly, “Unbind him and let him go.”
That is where these stories get real for me. In both cases humans are called on to finish what God and Jesus have started. These stories are incomplete without the people who speak words of life to death and who remove the bindings to allow a man to walk back into the world.
That is what we do. God sets this in motion. God breathes life into death, but then God counts on us to step up and speak of God’s power, to remove the bindings and set one another free. That is the church being the church.
It is important for us to remember that nothing is beyond God’s life-giving breath. The world is dying to hear that God is not done. We are needed now to be God’s voice, to be Jesus’ freeing agents, to witness the Spirit blowing among us. As Ezekiel scholar, Kathryn Pfisterer Darr says, “fulfilling life is only one breath away.” Our world needs to know that these bones can live again. We need to know that together, we can release the grave clothes that bind people.
This morning, we come to a table where we are reminded that a small piece of bread and a taste of juice feed hungers we didn’t know we had. When we walk away from this table, we have the power to feed our hungry neighbors. We are in the business of unbinding people. We speak of God’s power to give life and life appears. Come and feast here today and then go forth to continue God’s restoration of the world. God is counting on us. The world is counting on us. God’s work has begun. The next move is ours.