A sermon for Lent 5
Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45, Psalm 130
The place is his, close cropped bleached perfect blond hair, brilliant contact blue eyes stream malice and hate for anyone not to his standards. The elderly black-woman behind the counter smiles at him, a beautiful smile you can’t help but notice. I’m trying to hate black people, and here’s this black woman smiling at me; I can’t really hate her when she’s smiling like that. [i]
Everyone is at the cave, the rock covering the entrance is still in place. Jesus and Martha are talking, it might sound like anger, if you had been here, Lazarus would not have died; it is true, and to say so is a part of Jewish piety. [ii] Jesus says take away the stone. Some might remember him telling Martha Lazarus will rise again; her retort about the last day, and Jesus’ proclamation that he is the resurrection and the life. Martha doesn’t seem to remember, she objects: This is going to stink. True enough, Jews do not embalm bodies, some perfume, some wrappings and bodies are laid away. After four days, the power of the perfume gone; the stench reveals the finality of death. [iii] Jesus answers Martha Believe and see the glory of God. Someone does, the stone is removed, and after a prayer of thanks Jesus calls to Lazarus: Come out. He does, Face, hands and feet still shrouded, wrapped in clouth. You wonder how Lazarus walks. Jesus turns to the people: Unbind him, and let him go. The people ~ are to be a part of God’s work. [iv]
John wrote legō autos – said to them. David Lose writes: Jesus turns and issues a command to the waiting crowd … [v] ‘Command’ is a strong word, when so often we’ve heard Jesus invite folks to come and see. Lose is arguing that we expect to little out of our selves. He notes:
Opportunities to unbind and let go abound, but we need to look for them so that we might hear Jesus calling us by name to make a difference to those around us…. In ways little and big, God is inviting us to make a difference.
When we go back to Jesus’ I am the resurrection and the life recalling it is in response to Martha’s correct answer to his query about resurrection, the full force of the present tense of I am burst into life. Resurrection is not a promise way off in the future, it is a promise for the present. [vi] It is a divine work, in which we have a part right here, right now.
The idea that we have a role in God’s work is not new. In some ways it’s characteristic of prophets. Ezekiel is spirited away, maybe home, certainly to a valley full of dry bones. He is commanded to prophecy. It is clear he knows it is God’s power at work, nonetheless Ezekiel must participate in God’s work, Ezekiel must speak. It’s a powerful vision of a future promise. Except, ~ it’s not.
Remember the Jews are in exile in Babylon, as a result of their rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar. They are cut off, Jerusalem is destroyed, the Temple is razed, family and friends are dead, it’s the end of the world, they are without hope they are living dead [vii] Zombies. Imagine how we’d feel if Canterbury was gone, the National Cathedral reduced to rubble, Trinity burned to ash, everything gone, no more Eucharist, no access to God’s presence. It’s a zero – point a crisis when all seems lost, really lost.
It all would be lost, except the valley of dry bones is not far off, it’s Babylon and those who are cut off are the survivors in exile. [viii] It’s Ezekiel’s task to pluck the strings of their imagination with possibilities beyond what they can attain on their own … [ix] knowledge that breathing is a measure divine presence, that God is as near to them as their own breath. [x] The valley of dry bones becomes a powerful vision of a current their reality: we are in God’s presence, these bones can … we can live, we are alive.It is God’s work that transforms the hearts of the Jews in exile. Ezekiel participates through obedience to God’s will in sharing the vision of the valley of dry bones.
God expects no more, nor no less from us. Lose dares to ask, do we expect to little of our selves.
Time and again, blond hair blue eye menace walks in the door, every time greeted by beautiful smile. One day she asks about his swastika tattoo. He replies It’s noth’n. She smiles: I know that’s not who you are. You’re a better person than that.
Michaelis later writes:
I spent seven years trying to forget that that ever happened, but I couldn’t,”… Because when she said ‘I know you’re a better person than that,’ she planted a seed in my heart that remained there and rooted and blossomed despite my best efforts to dig it out and suffocate it. That seed grew until there was no longer room in my heart for the kind of hatred it takes to hurt people.
It was in part because of her kindness that I made the right decision in 1994 to change my life and leave hate groups…. An act of kindness on your part, especially to someone who doesn’t seem to deserve it could change the course of their life. [xi]
Arno Michaelis spoke last Wednesday at a Nonviolence Youth Summit that attracted hundreds of junior and senior high school students from across Arkansas. The one-day conference was sponsored by the Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, with the assistance of the Arkansas Department of Human Services. [xii]
The conference is a possible example of participating in God’s transforming work. The consistent beautiful smile of an elderly McDonald’s counter clerk is an example of participating in God’s transforming work.
We are not in exile though some may fear we are cut off, all but dead. Ezekiel reminds us to breathe what was doesn’t matter, God is in our very breath. Some mourn the death of what was, John reminds us Lazarus did die, and that we have a role to play in setting free all those bound by: fear, injustice, oppression, even death; including ourselves. There are all sorts of ways to participate in God’s works, some large, some small, sometimes as simple as a smile. Opportunities abound, it’s your choice.
I cannot tell you what St. Stephen’s future will be. I do know that God is present here. I do know God invites you, commands you, to participate in sharing the story. As for the rest, well ~ believe and see the glory of God.
[i] Bill Bowden, Hate’s end began with smile, writer tells youth session , http://m.arkansaso nline.co m/news/2014/apr/03/hates-end-began-smile- writer-tells-youth–20140403/
[ii] GAIL R. O’DAY, New Interpreter’s Bible THE GOSPEL OF JOHN INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS
[iv] David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, Present-tense Salvation Wednesday, April 02, 2014 10:56 AM http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3135
[vii] Scott Hoezee, http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php This Week at the Center for Excellence in Preaching Next Sunday is April 06, 2014 (Ordinary Time) Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Ezekiel 37:1-14
[viii] Margaret Odell, Ez ekiel 37:1-14 Commentary by Margaret Odell – Working Preacher – Preaching This Week (RCL) http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2070 ½ RCL|Narrative|Evangelio|Index, Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14
[ix] Hoezee, ibid
[x] Odell, ibid.
[xi] Bowden, ibid