Sunday, March 9, 2008

Ezekiel's Dry Bones and Lazarus

This is a sermon, prepared, but not given, for Lent V. There was a heavy winter storm last night; we were expecting a foot of snow. At suppertime on Saturday, the phone tree went to work: service for Sunday morning is canceled; we're not inviting people to risk themselves on the roads, when the police have asked people to stay off them. This is an Anglican parish, in a diocese where several parishes have voted to leave the Anglican Church of Canada and the diocese, and accept episcopal oversight from an archbishop in the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone. The question of who owns the real property of the parishes is in court. That's the local situation I talk about in the sermon.


These are very strange stories, the story of Ezekiel prophesying over the Valley of Dry Bones, and the story of Lazarus. They are stories just packed full of things someone could preach about – a really diligent theology student could probably preach every Sunday in Lent, just on this morning’s readings. It’s almost Easter – two stories this week about the dead being restored to life; next week, Palm Sunday; and the following week is Easter. It’s a good time to hear these stories. And, it’s a good time of year for us, in southern Ontario, to hear these stories. Winter hasn’t been a season of deadness this year, has it? We’re having this storm this weekend, another storm with another big load of snow … Winter is alive, and kicking hard. Last week, the snow melted for a couple of days, and we could see the empty flower beds, the dead, brown grass, the bare branches of trees. Re-birth is coming to us in the spring, too – Good Friday is the first day of spring.

Newness and rebirth. All the stories, the Gospel stories, from Lent, have been about newness of life. In Lent 1, Jesus was fasting in the desert, and tempted by Satan, at the very beginning, the newness of his public ministry. On Lent 2, we read the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus’ face transformed as he stood with Elijah and Moses, and his friends had a new understanding of what God felt for him. Two weeks ago, we heard the story of Jesus, resting alone, and asking a Samaritan woman to give him a drink when she drew water from the well. He told her, if she’d seen who he was, she would have asked HIM for water, and he’d have given her the water of new life, that she would never be thirsty again. Last week, Jesus made mud, and spread it on the eyes of the man who was born blind, and when he washed it off, he could see. All the stories of Lent have been about newness in life, something God transformed.

Both these stories are so familiar to us, and yet, they’re so strange, and full of frightening things. I’d bet all of us here could sing the Ezekiel song – “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones! Now hear the Word of the Lord!” A valley full of dry, broken bones. How frightening is that? When I try to imagine it, I remember the photographs of the liberation of Auschwitz. And so I should. That valley full of dry bones, it symbolized the lives and hopes of the children of Israel. Ezekiel was prophesying long after they’d been taken captive by King Nebuchadnezzar, enslaved in Babylon. They were forgetting who they were, their history, their religion, what made them different than the Babylonians. God told Ezekiel to prophesy to the people of Israel, and in that story, showed them how he could restore the dry bones of their dying heritage, restore the people of Israel to new life, and send them home.

That’s a beautiful promise, and it came to pass … But attaining the promise isn’t always beautiful or easy while we’re going through it. Think about what happened. The bones were old, and dry, very dry. “… suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath:* Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath,* and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” A miracle, yes. A horror, to watch.

Then, Lazarus. Another unbelievable story, a story of loss and horror and miracle. The loss, that could have been avoided – “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” There is great faith in that statement, and great love and trust in saying it to another person, and both sisters said it to Jesus. Jesus weeping. The unbelief, from the people of Bethany, when Jesus went to the tomb and asked them to open it. And horror, too -- Martha, the practical one, saying, “There will be a stench; he’s been dead four days.” Those villagers and mourners must have gone from unbelief to terror, when Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, and Lazarus stood up, and walked out. What I’ve always wondered is, what was it like afterwards? What would it be like, being Lazarus? What would it be like, living next door to Lazarus? Even if I loved him, and wanted him back?

These stories – they tell us of hopeless situations. They tell us of God’s love and attention, and the miracles. In the Ezekiel story, the miracle’s to come, and in the Lazarus story, we see it. We go from the hopeless to the miracle, and we don’t see what happens in between.

We all know what it’s like, to be faced with a situation that’s hopeless. Someone is sick, or dying. Or, we’re in a relationship, a marriage maybe, that’s sick, or dying. Maybe we’re working, with a mortgage and kids and Visa bills, and the steel industry starts to fail, and we’re laid off, or the factory closes. And now, there’s all this church politics – decisions being made that we don’t understand; parishes separating; legal action between the diocese and the parishes. It’s beyond our understanding, and it looks hopeless. And, even worse, it feels hopeless.

Dry bones don’t feel anything, as far as we know. That would be a good thing. What would it feel like to have bone attach to bone, to have sinews attached, and flesh and skin cover them. They wouldn’t feel it – they stood in the valley, but there was yet no breath in them. Then God commanded Ezekiel to prophesy, “Come from the four winds, O breath,* and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” And the breath came into them, and they lived. Did they remember? We know the people of Israel remembered their exile, after they’d been restored to their own life, to their own place. We know, because we read it. We read it, because they lived, and they celebrated, and they wrote down their miracle and told it again and again for thousands of years.

What about Lazarus? We don’t know anything about how Lazarus’ life was restored. Jesus called him, and he came out. Did his body stand first, and then the breath of life come into it? Martha had said, “There will be a stench” – there was already corruption of the body that would need to be healed for life to begin again. Did he feel it, the breath entering, and the life restored? Did he remember being dead, being restored?

We remember. We remember Ezekiel, and Lazarus. We remember the pain of our own times of hopelessness. But sometimes, the hopelessness causes us to forget. That’s why Ezekiel had to prophesy – the people had forgotten. They had forgotten their God, the God who had redeemed them exile before.

This time in the life of the church is very difficult for us. The struggle, the separations among parishes, dioceses, communions, Anglicans, Christians – they look overwhelming. We in this parish have suffered loss because of it – a family has left. It looks like it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better; and we all wonder how it can possibly get better. What could be more hopeless than the separations of the Anglican Church? Will it be death?

We are given the gift of Lent, of these stories we’ve heard in the last month, to help us not to forget. There is always newness of life. A 30-year old village carpenter, given a new life as the teacher, the healer, the Son of Man and the Son of God. Given the touch of the Spirit, the blessing, “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased,” and a new face transfigured by God’s grace. The new water, living water, and once we have drunk it, we will never thirst. New eyes to see what we have not seen before.

We know what it looks like outside today; we had a foot of snow last night. Spring IS coming. There is no situation too hopeless for God to enter it, to love his people, and give us new life. We need not fear the death of the church, because God, through Jesus, has unbound the grip of death. Dry bones come together and God breathes life into them; Jesus calls forth Lazarus and he walks from the tomb; Jesus is hung on a cross, and three days later is alive again. We need not fear – nothing can happen, and be too hopeless for God.


Oystercard said...

Interesting the way you tie all the things togetehr, and soem interestign new perspectives too

Doorman-Priest said...

Sorry you never got to deliver it, it was a fine sermon, and sorry too about the schismatics at work. I suspect they can not legally retain the rites to the property.

Kate Morningstar said...

Thanks, DP. At the moment, the court has awarded them full custody of the property, for three weeks, which ends on March 20th. The court not knowing, apparently, how difficult it might be for the Bishop, Executive Archdeacon and Secretary of Synod of a diocese to show up for an extended period of time on Maundy Thursday.

I loved the Doorman's Journal.