Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Just Keep Breathing (Reflections on Lent 5, Year A)

Image result for Images of the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel
“…and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (John 11:26-27)

If you were a Pharisees living in Jesus’ time you’d really hate what happens in our gospel lesson for Lent 5, Year A (John 11:1-45). If you read John 11:45-57 (the rest of the chapter), you’d understand. Just when you think you’ve put this smart-aleck rabbi from Nazareth in his place, he goes and restores life to dead man. “Gosh darn!” you’d say. “I hate it when that happens!” But that’s what makes the story of the raising of Lazarus a Lenten story. There are those who are just more concerned about keeping what’s theirs than they are about God’s desire for abundant life for all. In John’s gospel, this is the tipping point which confirms the desire of the Sadducees and Pharisees to see Jesus impaled on the cross.

I often preach on John 11:21-27 as it is suggested as a funeral text in the Lutheran Occasional Service Book. When a young person dies, or if someone dies by overdose, accident, suicide, or homicide (and I’ve dealt with all of these multiple times in my career), a bereaved relative might act like Mary and Martha do. They want to blame someone, and they tell Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s a pretty understandable reaction. But I always remind folks that, even though the “ifs” come as inevitably as bird poop on your just-washed car, they don’t do any good. They make you angry or they make you feel guilty, but they never bring you peace.

So Jesus gets us away from “if” and asks, “Do you believe?”

This Sunday will be the second Sabbath in a row that we have not been able to worship together as a community because of the city-wide shut-down the governor has ordered to protect us from exposure to covid-19. The “Stay-at-Home” order may be incubating an epidemic of cabin fever almost as deadly as the coronavirus. Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia’s doors are locked during the historically best month for church offerings. Additionally, we have already lost our Lenten observances and will most certainly be closed for Holy Week and Easter. We face losses both financial and spiritual. We’re very much like Mary and Martha who, with the death of their brother Lazarus, have lost both someone they love and their main means of support. But Jesus keeps asking us, “Do you believe?”

So do you?

One of my very favorite passages from the Hebrew Scriptures accompanies this gospel lesson. It’s Ezekiel 37:1-14, “the Valley of Dry Bones.” An old Shakespearean like myself loves to read this passage aloud. It’s so poetic and vivid. A good actor will chomp into this reading like Richard Burton on a fifth of Jack Daniels. Try reading it yourself and see how it makes you feel[i].

The back story is Ezekiel, Judah’s prophet, has been taken captive with the other leaders of the nation when Jerusalem falls to the Babylonians. The army of Israel has been butchered, her royal family executed, the capital city and temple looted and reduced to a pile of broken rocks, and a famine has claimed tons of civilian lives. In short, it’s not been a good time to be a Jew.

But God is still God. God gives Ezekiel this awesome vision of the dead bones joining together and rising again. I think it’s significant that the bones not only rise, but that God commands Ezekiel to “Prophesy to the breath.” Breath and wind, in Hebrew, are the same word for “Spirit.” It’s not just that the bodies come back together again, but the spirit must come with them.

I confess to having serious misgivings about President Trump’s belief that American churches will again be filled this Easter. I don’t see this epidemic being under control by that time. Indeed, like the captives in Babylon to whom Ezekiel prophesied, we are in for one extra-long Lent this year. Our Lenten fast will be our long absence from the Lord’s Table. But we will come together again like the bones to whom the ancient prophet preached.

But will the breath be in us? Will we bring the spirit back to our home? It all depends on what we do now while we are exiled from the world and shut-up in our houses. Can we say, “Yes, Lord, I believe?”

Yes, Lord, I believe that you will keep me and my family safe, and that the measures taken are wise and right. Yes, Lord, I will listen to your command to pray, use my “down time” to read your Word, and find ways to fellowship with my church family. Yes, I will continue to be generous to my church, to look after my elderly neighbors, and to be deeply appreciative of all that you have done for me. Yes, I will give thanks for first responders and for day-to-day heroes like my postal carrier and supermarket employees. Yes, Lord, you have called me and made me your own and made me part of a community which preaches your Word and is an incarnate witness to the hungry, the homeless, and the abandoned. Yes, Lord. The bodies will be joined together again, and the breath will be in them!

God bless, my friends. Stay strong and stay safe.

[i] It’s no wonder this passage is also one of the twelve readings of the “Mighty Acts of God” used for the Great Easter Vigil, the oldest liturgy in Christian tradition.
I have also just finished reading Norman Lock’s marvelous novel American Meteor. There’s an unforgettable passage in this book in which the protagonist, Stephen Moran, views a plain covered with the bleached bones of hundreds of American bison, slaughtered in the US government’s attempt to drive the Native American population to starvation and perpetual incarceration on reservations, if not outright extinction. In the last century, however, the American bison—if not the Native Americans—have made something of a comeback. When we are obedient stewards of God’s creation even that which we thought was lost can be revived.

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