Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A


Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-19; John 11:1-45

We encounter death in many disguises both within society and ourselves. Some people are walking dead. As Benjamin Franklin pointed out, "Some die at twenty-five and aren't buried until they are seventy-five." It is possible to bury parts of ourselves so deeply in our psyche that we are unable to even recall them.

The people of Japan, stoical as they may be about the tragedy facing their nation, are the walking dead. They have faced insurmountable odds, an earthquake, a tsunami, and then the ongoing problems with the nuclear plant. The devastation has been named Japan’s biggest crisis since the Second World War. There are staggering numbers of people dead and unaccounted for. There are thousands of others displaced from their homes. It will be trillions of dollars and who knows how long before life goes on for them.

The people of Israel during the time of exile were walking dead. They had lived through the destruction of their nation and everything that gave them a sense of themselves as a people. They had little to remind them of their former life. Dragged down into despair by years of war and violence, life seemed utterly hopeless. God took Ezekiel into the valley of dry bones.

God said to Ezekiel, "Mortal, can these bones live? Prophecy to the bones!" And he did as God told him to do. Again and again he prophesied to the dry bones. And they came together. God opened that closed and silent grave. God gave it new life as he gave new life to the exiled people of Israel. They changed from those dry bones of death to the blossoming promise of spring rain.

The wonder of God’s power to bring new life is not limited by how dead things are, or by how long they have been dead. God's loving purposes are not thwarted by exile, defeat, destruction or despair. When God's Spirit blows even dry bones can come together.

Witness the power of Jesus to bring life to dry bones. Lazarus was dead, and Jesus raised him from the dead. There was no doubt that he was dead. He had been in the tomb for four days. The mourners had gathered to comfort his sisters. Yet Jesus went to the tomb. He said to the mourners, "Remove the stone."

"But by now it will stink," replied Martha. But they moved it just the same.

Jesus called Lazarus. "Come out!" he said, with a voice loud enough to wake the dead. Lazarus came out of the tomb still bound by the grave clothes. Lazarus was not simply walking dead. He was really dead. Yet Jesus was able to raise him to life.

Lazarus was not the only one who was dead. Others in that group of mourners show symptoms of death too. Martha is suffering a kind of death. In her usual brash manner, she goes out to meet Jesus before he even arrives in the village. Her words of greeting are almost an admonition. "If you had been here my brother would not have died." It's that 'why is this happening to me?' kind of question. We have all asked such questions. But in Martha's case it is quickly followed by an affirmation. "And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you."

Jesus tells her that he is the resurrection. "Whoever lives and believes in me," Jesus says, "will never die. Do you believe this?"

Martha may not understand the implications of this momentous revelation but she responds in faith. "Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Christ."

Martha responds with vigorous affirmation. But does she understand the nature of her own death? Caught up in the tragedy of the moment, in her grief and despair, she does not hear God's own message that before her stands real life. If only she can reach out in faith, life is within her grasp, a life that overcomes death.

Are we ever like that? Do we become so trapped by the cares of the world, by the daily demands of life, that we lose all sense of spiritual awareness? Like being in a living death? We're dead but we don't know it. Do we go through life being only partly alive?

This Lenten season reminds us of that. It reminds us that Jesus is calling each of us to real life in him. He calls us to live a life of faith that is truly living. What does it mean to truly live such a life? Before we can be called to life we need to understand that we are dead. And we need to understand what that means in us. There are many things that cause us to feel spiritually dead. We all go through times in our lives during which we find it difficult to see any grace. We feel like Ezekiel's dry bones.

Sometimes the call to grace asks us to respond in ways for which we do not feel fitted. "Why me, God?" becomes our cry. Sometimes the things that happen to us overwhelm us, the death of a loved one, a troubled marriage, sickness, unemployment. Sometimes we have had bad experiences and cannot or will not remember. Some have been so abused by others that they have hidden deep inside themselves. Some give way to cravings and addictions. Some people bury themselves in work. Some like Martha just don't get the message. They're not ready. What does it take to come to a sense of awareness?

Over the past week following my announcement that I will be retiring at the end of June I have had many conversations with people who are already grieving my departure. While I am truly glad that you will miss me, the thread of the conversation is usually something along the lines of ‘what will we do when you are gone?’ Who will lead us? How will we cope? It is as if you believe that I am the only one capable of doing anything in this church. We all know that is simply not the truth. If it is I have failed miserably in my ministry here. This church is blessed with capable and spirit filled people. You have gifts and talents that have been demonstrated through your ministries time and time again. Consider the Apple Tree banner at the back of the church! I am in awe as I see the strengths of the people of this parish, as I witness your acts of kindness, your strong sense of community, your resilience, your faith, your hope, your love. The Body of Christ includes all of its members and needs the gifts and ministry of all of its members.

If we went around this church this morning we could find as many stories of transformation as we find people. We would hear stories of how God is working in peoples' lives to bring about change. We would hear how God continues to strengthen peoples' faith. We would hear how people have responded to God’s call. We would hear how many have overcome tragedy and loss. We would hear how people reach out to bring life to others.

Our call as Christians is to renew our own lives, to bring new life into the situations we encounter in our daily lives and work, and ultimately to renew the face of the earth. Dorothee Soelle, a Roman Catholic theologian and writer says that she learned that one of God's names is 'All-is-possible'. She writes: "I know that if I cannot talk to 'All-is-possible', if I do not listen to 'All-is-possible', if I do not believe in 'All-is-possible', then I am dead. Thus my prayer would be to ask 'All-is-possible' to be present."

This is a time in our parish life more than any other to ask ‘All-is-possible’ to be present, to be present in our midst today, to be present in our ongoing ministries, to be present bringing life and renewal into our lives. And so we pray, ‘All-is-possible’ be with us this and every day of our lives bringing life to the dry bones of our existence. Amen

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