March 29, 2020
Speaking to Dry Bones – March 29, 2020
Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45
Here we are, in an even more stripped-down version of Sunday-morning worship than last week. I miss the vocal music as much as you do; and believe me, it’s very strange to be here leading worship with no one else in the room (other than Tom at 10:15). We’re all trying to be as careful as we can, taking self-quarantine and stay-at-home orders seriously, even as we find virtual ways to come together for prayer and worship.
So, I guess I could have just gone live from my kitchen on Facebook, but I’m here in this space primarily because of the technology: Many of you are accustomed to livestreaming worship from our website, and it seems good not to monkey around with something that’s working, especially given Facebook’s challenges in handling the digital load. Plus, being here has the advantage of a setting that matters. It’s seems right to be able to worship, even virtually, here in our spiritual home, this good and sacred space. I think it gives us some peace.
Peace is a scarce commodity these days. In fact, I’ll tell you a secret: I’ve been afraid. I think that’s a healthy thing to say out loud, because I imagine it’s true for many of us. For me, it hit home when my wife, Ann, started showing symptoms consistent with COVID-19, coughing and running a fever. As you know, we’re breathing easier now, having received a negative test result on Friday. But for a few days, I thought maybe the conceptual had become real. You know, Ann’s lupus always lurks at the edges of our lives, always able to roar back for no apparent reason and take her down, because it’s her heart and lungs the disease usually involves. I’ve made some peace with that – the fact that, most likely, she will die before I do – but you never make peace with that. And for a few days, I thought that time was now.
I say all that not because my situation is unique but precisely because – in these strange days – my situation is not unique at all. Anyone – in a sense, everyone – is at risk. And everywhere we look, we’re reminded of it. On the news or social media, it seems every report is about cases spiking up while the economy plunges down. And we’re hearing all this as we’re stuck at home, of course; so, even our places of refuge have become reminders of isolation. All that makes us scared.
And fear is a feeling we’re conditioned to dismiss, we rugged individualists who can overcome anything on our path to self-actualization. In our culture, it’s really not OK to be afraid. But here’s the thing: We are anyway. Fear is a normal response to abnormal situations.
Here’s another feeling that doesn’t really seem to be OK, especially for people like us, for people of faith; and that’s being angry with God. Come on, Lord. Why aren’t you stopping all this? Have we done something to deserve this pandemic? Are you testing us?
I don’t believe so. I don’t believe this virus is from God any more than any other threat in the natural order is from God. Whether it’s tornadoes, or earthquakes, or poisonous snakes, God lets the creation be the creation, beautiful and threatening, too, sometimes. It’s the price of putting into place a natural order that creates both my wife’s beautiful eyes and her broken immune system.
In our two readings this morning, I hear fear, and I hear anger. The prophet Ezekiel is speaking to people ravaged by decades foreign invasion. At this point in the story, the people of Israel and Judah have been subject to massive deportations, dragged off to Babylon with only what they could carry. They’ve got to be afraid, right? If you think we’re experiencing disruption and dislocation, imagine being conquered and then hauled off to the conquerors’ land. I’m sure Ezekiel carried plenty of that fear himself, too, as he was led away.
But there, in enemy territory, he has this vision. God comes to Ezekiel and shows him a desolate landscape, the stuff of nightmares. All around him is death and destruction, hopelessness in the flesh – or, actually, hopelessness with no flesh at all. God asks if Ezekiel thinks these bones can live, and Ezekiel sighs that only God knows. So, God tells him to prophesy to these bones, to speak for God into this desolation, and bring these bones to life. Ezekiel looks around; and he must be thinking, “There’s no way, Lord.” When we’re bound in fear, new life seems about as likely as bones coming together and breathing on their own.
Then we have our reading from John’s Gospel, the latest in our hit parade of the longest Gospel readings ever over the past few weeks. The story begins with Jesus allowing his friend Lazarus to die. And once he finally makes his way to be with Lazarus’ family, what he hears is anger, pure and simple. Martha and Mary – two of Jesus’ closest friends, people who understand his power – they’ve watched their brother die of an illness they had no power to control. They’ve buried him, and they’re mourning just as we mourn when we lose someone so close it feels like a part of you has been cut off. Finally, four days late, Jesus shows up, and Martha runs down the road to rage at him: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21). She can’t imagine why he failed to come and save her brother, and she loves Jesus enough to be completely honest about it: How dare you? But with her anger out there, Jesus can move her forward, toward new life.
So, in this upside-down time for us – as we seem to be losing our freedom, our connection with each other, and our sense of what’s “normal” – I want to say, first, it’s OK to be angry, and it’s OK to be afraid. God gets that. In fact, God got that very directly, coming to inhabit our broken life as one of us – angry enough to turn over tables in the Temple, frightened enough to cry in the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s OK to join Jesus in being human.
But what we can’t do with our anger and fear is stop there.
Let me share a quick story about a friend of mine. As you know, six of us from my seminary class have stayed close over the years. We get together each fall, and talk once a month, because the friendship matters that much. One of us, Kathy, is in the process of being with her husband as he dies. He’s making his exit because of long-term health issues, not because of coronavirus. Kathy is watching her husband go even as she leads a parish and completes her final project for a doctor of ministry degree. If anybody has a right to be fearful and angry, Kathy does. Yet, when we talked earlier this week, Kathy was making a different choice. Here’s what she said: “Death should never change the way we live, other than making us live more fully and more completely.”
Here’s what my friend Kathy could see – which is the same truth that God showed Ezekiel, the same truth that Jesus showed his friends there at the tomb: Kathy was reminding us that death never gets the last word. It’s perfectly OK to be afraid of a journey we’ve never taken before. And it’s perfectly OK to be angry over the losses we suffer, on all sorts of levels. But we have the Holy Spirit empowering us to make a choice. We can remain in fear and anger; God gives us that freedom. Or, we can choose hope and life instead. As Jesus said to Martha, after hearing her rage, “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25) – standing before you, right here, right now. Death will do what it does, because death is part of the beautiful freedom of God’s creation, seeds falling into the ground and springing up to new and more abundant life. Death will do what it does, Jesus says, but that’s not the end of the story. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live; and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (11:25-26). Lazarus lies in the tomb but not for long, Jesus says. And like him, we will be unbound, and we will be set free.
We can choose that story. We can claim that truth. And when we do, God uses us as present-day Ezekiels. In a time of disconnection and fear, in a time when our social lives lie dormant, in a time when we see scattered around us the dry bones of present connections and future plans, the Spirit of the Lord whispers to us – even such as us – and says, Mortal, “prophesy to these bones, and say to them … the Lord God … will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live” (37:4-5) .
That’s what the church is here for. That’s our witness in this disjointed time: to say to the dry bones of life around us that connection and hope are God’s promise even to people in bondage, even to people entombed. We are here to proclaim a contrast reality – not denying the hardship of this time, not denying our anger and our fear, but proclaiming the truth that this story has an ending that God’s already writing. And we are God’s instruments in bringing that story to life.
How? Well, here’s my grand call to action. Or, rather, here’s my call to a small but still-grand action, perhaps the most lifegiving witness we can make in a time of dry bones. Here you go: Once a day, every day, call someone to check in. Or write a note to say you care. Or send a text to someone whose house might feel like a tomb. Speak the Spirit’s love into the dryness and disconnection of these days, and you will help knit dry bones together. God will use you to roll away the stone and raise the dead to life.