Scriptures: Ezekiel 37:1-14 & John 11:1-45
Given on 04/06/14 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY
This Sunday comes each year about this time in Lent. The time in which the dying begins to overwhelm and we need to start thinking about ways to be born again. The time in which the darkness has wholly subsumed the light and we need to begin see some spark of illumination to pass over an otherwise darkened world. The time in which we are tempted, as is human nature, to cast our eyes past Good Friday and to Easter morning in hopes of glimpsing just a moment of hope arising from the despair that often accompanies Lenten practices. Because, the truth is, it is hard to dwell in this space for too long. It is hard because we know that the hardest part, the part for which we have been preparing this whole season is drawing so nigh. We can close our eyes and see our savior in the garden while those closest to him could not stay awake with him. We can close our eyes and see his standing before Pilate, the crowd having turned on him, his disciples having fled. We can close our eyes and see the silhouette of the cross with the lifeless body of the one who we seek to follow hanging there. We can see all that. But more than that, we can cast our eyes out across the expanse of the world and we can see sights more troubling, more real than even those from our Christian story. And it is easy to get lost in the pain and the suffering of those next door and those halfway around the world if we take time to think about it. And so maybe this Sunday, this set of readings for this morning come at just the perfect time and in introducing the scripture passages for this morning I want to ask a question. “What do you see?” When you look on the world, when you look on our town, what do you see? In a world of poverty and starvation, a world of war and violence, a world of racism and classism, of creedalism and sexism, a town of haves and have-nots, of those living comfortably and those lost in the dark night of drug addiction. What do you see? In a country often more divided than unified, in a world always more divided than unified. In a church and a faith more divided than unified, what do you see? In a world with enough military might and know-how to end the life of virtually every species on this planet, what do you see? In a world where countless numbers of God’s children are denied the basic necessities for life, countless numbers of God’s children denied an equal place at the table of God, what do you see?
In both of the passages for this morning, people are asked what they see. They are asked to survey the area and describe what they see. And so that will become an important question as we proceed on in our time together. What do you see? In our first passage, God comes to the prophet Ezekiel and offers him a vision. A valley that has become filled with dried out, decaying bone. Perhaps, there is not a starker image we can think of for God to offer this prophet of Israel. And this image, this valley of dried out and decaying bones, is the perfect symbol for the feelings of the Israelite people at that time. It is the perfect symbol for people stuck in a cycle of oppression and violence, stuck in a cycle of exile and invasion, in which a rebel army from an empire far away has come in and inhabited their space, has come and taken their government and their throne, their culture, their religion. They have forced many in the country to flee to neighboring regions, have sent many of them back to Persia Babylon, to start a new life of service and servitude to an unfriendly empire and a people bent on holding them captive as far into the future as anyone can project. Yes, this valley is certainly filled with dry bones, this valley filled with the death and decay of a proud chosen people living out a hellish existence in an unfamiliar land, with unfamiliar people, speaking an unfamiliar language and worshiping an unfamiliar God. This valley of dried out and decaying bones represents all the anguish and anxiety, all the angst and worry of a people stuck in the darkest days of an invasion from which they cannot get free. Mortal, what do you see?
In the second passage for this morning, we are told of the death of one of Jesus closest friends. We are told that word reached Jesus that his close friend Lazarus is on the precipice of dying, and that Jesus must come quickly. “Rabbi, the one whom you love is ill.” The specificity of love is one that is not often given in the gospel of John. Certainly, Jesus speaks often of love in the abstract, in the sense that we are to have love for all persons, but in the end, very few of the characters in the Johanine gospel are said to be loved by Jesus and so we know that this Lazarus is one who shared a special connection with Jesus. Rabbi, the one whom you love is ill. But we are told that rather than rushing to be by the side of his close friend who is sick, Jesus stays an extra two days in the place where he was. There is little way to explain this curious passage. I am not sure even the narrator can explain it. Because it doesn’t follow. Perhaps there is a concern about his safety, the following paragraph seems to indicate that. Perhaps he is bringing believers into the fold where he is at and doesn’t want to leave them behind in his efforts to get to his close friend. We don’t know, but by the time that he does arrive in Bethany, we know and he knows, Lazarus is dead. What do you see?
In our broken and at times very dark world, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the immensity of everything we encounter on a daily basis. It is easy to become overwhelmed with the pain that exists in our world. It is easy to become overwhelmed with the hatred and violence, with war and with injustice. It is easy to see only a valley of dried out and decaying bones. It is easy to see a close friend slowly giving up the light to the darkness. It is easy and, incidentally, alright, to become overwhelmed in a world of cancer or Alzheimer’s, a world of lost jobs and homelessness, a world of paycheck to paycheck living where many do not have the basic needs of life. It is easy in that world, to see only bones, to see only death. But we know that they story does not end there. We know that neither story ends there.
“Mortal, Can these dry bones live?” Ezekiel was given an opening in the midst of all this death and decay. “Mortal, Can these dry bones live?” A peek into the light of God when for the longest time, all there was was darkness. “Mortal, Can these dry bones live?” Ezekiel is given just the tiniest sliver of hope. “Mortal, Can these dry bones live?” “O Lord, you know!” “Prophesy to them.” And as he did, a strange thing began to happen. Slowly at first, but then with increasing speed. Bone came to bone, sinew and then skin, and then finally, the breath of God. That which had been dead, was brought back; that which seemed completely irredeemable, was breathing again, was together again. Then God said, “Go and do likewise for my people Israel.” Somewhere, deep in Ezekiel’s vision, in the midst of a valley of death and decay, we find a glimpse into the future of Israel. A future of hope and not death; a future of life and not invasion. Of home and not exile. “Go and do likewise for my people Israel. What do you see?
And in a similar fashion, Jesus comes to the town of Bethany and all around him all people can see is death. All around him people are overcome by their grief for their dearly departed friend. All around him people want to know where he has been, why he had not come sooner, why he had not healed their friend, his close friend from his illness. Where had Jesus been? And who can blame them really? When you are surrounded by death, you have no reason to look for life. When you are surrounded by darkness you have no reason to look for light. When you are surrounded by brokenness and sin, there is no reason to look for holiness and peace. And yet, here is Jesus asking that the stone be removed, asking for access to the dead body. And the people are confused. Lazarus has been dead for four days, the stench is going to be unbearable. But from darkness comes light, from brokenness can come holiness, from death comes resurrection. “Lazarus, come out!” What do you see?
I was once at a conference where the Rev. Otis Moss, III, the pastor of Trinity United Church Of Christ in Chicago we preaching and while speaking Rev. Moss told those of us in attendance of the call of those who seek to follow Jesus. He said we are to forever remain in the cleavage between darkness and light, between death and life, between despair and hope. To put it in the terms of the passages from today, we are to remain in the valley of dried bones but always hoping for life to return to those who have become overwhelmed by death. The faithful are to remain with those who grieve for Lazarus while always hoping Jesus will come and offer healing and life. In short, we are called to remain in the hurt and pain of the world while always having the courage to hope. And so it is for us who live in that in between place, we cannot simply remain stuck in the valley of dried bones. We cannot remain in death. We cannot bring ourselves to believe that all of life is just a cycle of violence and hatred; a cycle of brokenness and sin. If we do, if that is all humanity can ever hope for. Then, all that is left in this life is dried and decaying bones and the stench of a body four days past, and we cannot remain there. We cannot fool ourselves into believing the existentialist got it right, or the nihilist. Because, at least at moments in our lives, our eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the realm of God, and so we know that God’s love and grace are sufficient for the living of this day and the next, that “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” What do you see?
In our passages from today, we are told Ezekiel saw a valley of dried out and decaying bones. God saw a valley teaming with life that had not yet been tapped. Mary, Martha, and all those in the village of Bethany saw a friend who had died. Jesus saw an opportunity for resurrection. What do you see? Nicodemus, coming to Jesus in the dark of night could not see the world as Jesus saw it. Jesus saw the world as worthy of being saved, every part of it. What do you see? The disciples encountered a blind man and immediately began to seek to assign blame for the situation in which the man found himself. Jesus saw an opportunity to give sight to one who had searched for it his entire life. What do you see? The Apostle Paul only saw a small band of rabble rousers rebelling against the Jewish faith. God saw beloved children seeking to follow the one we call God’s child. What do you see? And today, in wars halfway around the world, do we see people who don’t look like us, act like us, worship like us, or do we see God’s beloved children, our brothers and sisters? What do we see? When we think about the poor, the downtrodden, those who hope just to survive the day, do we see strangers or do we see a piece of ourselves? Do we see the Christ? What do we see?
And once we do see. Once we have been given eyes to see and ears to hear it is not enough to stop at awareness. It is not enough to know that there is suffering in the world, that there are people who seek the God’s righteousness and a crust of bread. We have to be thrust out into those places. All our preparation during this Lenten season must move us to be resurrected on Sunday morning and to never see the world in the same manner. The time for pensiveness, for timidity, has drawn to a close and the time for a revolution of love to sweep the world has come and there are no half-measures when it comes to resurrection. The call to follow Jesus demands our all, every part of us and we leave this place inspired and alive and ready to proclaim not a valley of dry bones but one teeming with life. And we arrive at this table and we are given a choice. We can choose to see what anyone would see, a loaf of bread, a cup, some juice. A morsel of food that wouldn’t fill the belly of an infant. Or, we can see the great feast of God unfolding before our eyes. We can see the body and blood of Jesus filling the whole of our being. We can see a great gathering but with the knowledge that there is always room at the table for others to join and we know so many others who should be here today. God is about the work of calling all her children home and we are blessed to be a part of that work, to be reconcilers of the world, to be witnesses to the resurrection that we might tell others about it. We are blessed to be a blessing. Amen.