Thursday, March 31, 2005

5 Lent A

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 6:16-23; John 11:1-44

Do you remember those nights under a tent of blankets draped over dining room chairs, or around a fading campfire in the middle of the woods, or inside a dark cabin at summer camp, way past lights out, whispers and giggles giving way to an even louder round of shhhhh when you thought you heard the counselor coming to check? Do you remember being buried up to your nose in your sleeping bag, the first line of defense against things that go bump in the night, watching and listening in fear and delight as someone held a flashlight under their chin and said in a low and mysterious voice, “It was a dark and stormy night….”

We might have done well to hand out sleeping bags and flashlights at the door this morning, along with your service bulletins. We’re two weeks away from Easter, but it sure sounds more like Halloween. I can imagine Ezekiel sitting there with his flashlight and saying in a low and mysterious voice, Suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone….Or John around a low fire with a new batch of disciples, So they took away the stone, and….the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. It’s pretty scary stuff!

But then perhaps it is appropriate to read these stories so close to Easter, for before that morning dawns bright and fair we must walk through the darkness of Holy Week, walk with Jesus the road to Golgotha, the place of the skull, where he will be hung on a cross until he dies, then wrapped in cloth and placed in his own tomb. It’s pretty scary stuff.

Isn’t it interesting that so many scary stories are about dead things, or at least things that appear to be dead, that come back to life. We aren’t at all surprised when trees that have been bare all winter suddenly sprout green or when flowers poke their way up through the dirt and reach for the sky. Of course, they haven’t been dead – they’ve been sleeping, resting, for a new season of life, of growth, of fruitfulness.

But a pile of dry bones clearly isn’t just sleeping, and Jesus makes it plain to his disciples that Lazarus is not sleeping but dead. Life has gone out of these people and will not return as spring returns after a long winter. Death may sometimes come too soon or too violently or too suddenly, but death in and of itself is natural – it is, at some point, expected. It is unnatural, unexpected, scary for something or someone that has died to live again.

But what if you’re the one being brought back to life? What if you’re the pile of bones at Ezekiel’s feet, or what if you’re Lazarus lying in the damp darkness? What if, in the midst of your death, God’s breath wafts over you and God’s words sound around you, and you are brought back to life? Is it scary then?

Author and poet Richard McCann writes powerfully of his experience of being brought back to life by way of a liver transplant. He was near death when a donor finally became available, and recalls being unprepared for the new life that would follow his surgery. His body slowly but surely recovered, although he takes medication and monitors his vital signs every day to keep his body from rejecting the liver that saved it. His body recovered, but his heart suffered – he was afraid. Afraid of people not understanding what had happened. Afraid of not being all of who he used to be. Afraid of the pain the liver donor’s family must have suffered when they lost their loved one. Afraid of his body rejecting the liver. He was afraid of living, and afraid of dying all over again.

When his body did begin to deteriorate, almost a year after the transplant, his doctor suggested they explore re-transplantation. McCann writes, “No, I thought, I can’t hear that word, not ever again….Where was the miracle now? I was supposed to have been restored. I was supposed to have been made whole. I wanted to unloose the graveclothes; I wanted to unbind the napkin from my face; I wanted to be through with death forever.”

Through with death forever. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe that, Jesus asked Martha. Do you believe that, Jesus asks us.

Beginning around the time Ezekiel wrote down his story about dry bones, and still by the time John wrote down his story about Lazarus, many Jews believed in a general resurrection of all the faithful dead, that at a point some time in the unknown future those who had believed in God and kept God’s law would finally enter eternal life. In the days following that first Easter morning, Jesus, who was supposed to be dead, suddenly stood before the disciples full of life, and they were filled with delight and fear. And slowly, they began to believe what he had been telling them all along – he is the resurrection that they had been waiting for and he is eternal life.

Through Jesus, God once and for all removed the power of death by refusing to let death have the final word. God’s word would be final, the word that spoke life into the world at the very beginning, the word made living flesh in Jesus Christ, the word echoed in Jesus’ words to those watching in delight and fear as Lazarus stumbled out of his tomb: Unbind him and let him go. Death can no longer bind our lives and seal them shut forever – God’s Word let us go, handed us over, from the power of death into the power of life. We are through with death, in a sense, because death is something we move through….and beyond….

But Lazarus wasn’t, in another sense, really through with death that day. Richard McCann wasn’t really through with death when they wheeled him into recovery. Were they resurrected? Or were they resuscitated? Were they granted just enough breath, just enough life, to last them until the next time they died?

We all have to be resuscitated from time to time. Not just our bodies, but also our hearts and souls and minds. Sometimes the “big D” Death stares us in the face, but so very often – almost every day – we face “little d” deaths: losses, failures, disappointments, disillusionments, letdowns. “Little d” deaths can seem to have nearly as much power as the big one. They can make us feel like a pile of bones, dry, used up, spent. They can make us want to crawl down a dark hole and hide forever from life.

Sometimes we do not realize how near to “little d” death we are. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in ourselves – what we have, what we need, what we deserve….We don’t realize that we are wrapped up, bound head to toe and then we wonder why we always seem to stumble as we’re seeking our way, and we don’t see Jesus standing right in front of us, pointing us toward life his way.

Standing right in front of us, as he always is, to breathe new life into our tired bones, to say come out of your hiding place, be unbound, and live. Live. Live right now the kind of life only God gives, the kind of life I have given to you, the kind of life I have shown to you.

And so we are resuscitated, as though in our barely-living, “little d” death we had just been sleeping, resting for a new season of life, of growth, of fruitfulness. What brought you back the last time you were overcome by the changes and chances of life? What unbound you the last time you realized you were immobilized? Was it a word spoken by a friend or perhaps a stranger? A hand extended when you thought no one could reach? A prayer raised up in our worship here, or whispered by your bed side, or written in a letter from someone miles away?

Just as God gave Ezekiel the words that would restore life and breath in a valley full of dry bones, so are we all called to speak God’s words of life in a world full of dark and stormy nights, full of scary stories, full of deaths, big and little. We all have to be resuscitated from time to time. But when we begin to believe, even just for a heartbeat, that we could live as God’s Word lived, that we could love as he loved, that we could forgive as he forgave, that we could embrace as he embraced….When our lives are not just restored, but transformed, then we are being resuscitated with resurrection air.

It is the air we will breathe deeply one week from now in our walk with Jesus to Golgatha. For in our remarkable Holy Week liturgies, the closer we get to the cross, the more we lay down our own fearful lives and take up the life of Christ. On Palm Sunday we will act as the crowd, condemning Jesus to death. On Maundy Thursday, the night before Jesus dies, we will become servants and wash each other’s feet, as he washed the feet of his disciples, and we will break bread together in remembrance of him, as they did for the first time on that night. On Good Friday, the day Jesus hangs on the cross until every breath has left his body, we will not curse the cross but somberly embrace it, as he did, as the means by which the extent of God’s love for the world would be shown. Finally, at the Easter Vigil, we will sit in darkness for a time and recall God’s saving deeds in history, right up to the time we were saved, buried with Christ in the waters of baptism and then with him raised up to new life. And then we will speak, promising once again to proclaim the Good News, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to respect the dignity of every human being….With those words, our transformation will be complete, and the lights will come up and we will hear the words we’ve waited all of Lent to hear. The air will be thick with resurrection.

We are not yet through with death, the big one or the little ones. But through Christ, even in death, we are not yet through with life. I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this, Jesus asked Martha. Do you believe this, Jesus asks us. Amen.

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