Fifth Sunday in Lent

Sermon for Fifth Sunday in Lent, Sunday, March 29 2020, 9:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Ezekiel 37.1-14; John 11.1-45

Ezekiel, the prophet of trauma, speechless visionary among the exiles of Israel in Babylon, gives us here his most distinctive, his fiercest, vision. He is taken by God into the valley, and confronted with what is, effectively, a mass grave, a burial trench which represents his people. And here at the edge of the bone pit, God asks the prophet a question. “Mortal,” God asks, “can these bones live?”

And what is Ezekiel to say? He cannot say no. He cannot utterly abandon the hope of his people, the hope of survival, new life, possibility. That would be the last betrayal, the final despair; it would mean accepting that Babylon had triumphed, and that the story of this strange people, these who had been slaves in Egypt and freed by God’s hand, who had wandered in the desert and stood before the face of a God too great to name, that it was now all over and there was nothing left but the empires of power. The prophet cannot say no.

And yet, standing at the bone pit, he also cannot simply say yes. This is the face of death, dry bones baking in the desert, and it would be facile and insulting to deny it, to cheerfully assert that everything would be okay, to pretend that bones can get up and walk around, to pretend that the Temple had not been destroyed, that Jerusalem was not a wasteland where a remnant handful of the very poor were struggling to survive. A simple yes is absurd on the face of it, beyond the power of any mortal to assert, and insulting to those who had suffered and died, an insult to the reality of the bones.

So, with both of these answers excluded, the prophet does the only thing he can do—he admits that his frameworks and his visions are inadequate, that he cannot say anything which is an acceptable response to the valley of bones; but he also presents to God a sort of challenge—that God should make that response. If there is no human response which is possible or adequate, then he will ask a response from God. He will neither despair, nor will he assume a cheap and simple hope. But God knows these bones, and God knows what future there may be for these bones. To place these bones in God’s hands is both resignation and demand. The prophet can only do this, and then wait on the verge.

And God receives this, this mixture of surrender and challenge, and does respond. And he responds now by calling the prophet to action. From that place of unknowing, now, he is enabled, he is commanded to speak. To speak to the bones and call them back to life. And the bones stand up. And the bones come together, bone to its bone, and the prophet speaks one more time, and the breath comes into the bones.

Centuries later, Martha of Bethany goes out of the house of grief to meet her friend and teacher in the road. The author of the story sets that out in a way more or less unpredecented in the gospel narratives, spells out in advance of the action that Jesus loves Lazarus and Mary and Martha, that they are his friends, they are people with whom he has an individual personal connection. He weeps in the face of their grief. God weeps for the death of his friend. He knows, we presume, what he is about to do; and yet he weeps, for each death is real, each grief is real. No human life is an abstraction, a number on a chart, a sacrifice to the blood-hungry god of the economy. Each loss wounds us all.

Ezekiel’s vision is overtly social, it is about the fate of the people as a collective, their struggle and their potential, the resurgence of a community’s hope. But the story of Lazarus, though it holds its lens on this one small family, is also a story about what community means, precisely because it is a story which says that Jesus, the word incarnate, grieves for every human death, suffers with every human grief. We are not atomized individuals. We are all, those near us and those far away, infinitely important members of God’s family. And yet — “If you were here,” says Martha, “my brother would not have died.” But she is not spared that suffering, as Ezekiel was not spared the bone pit, as we are not spared now.
That Lazarus, in this story, is indeed restored to his life, does not deny the reality of death or grief. But it is a story which is meant to tell us that, even at the edge of the bone pit, there is hope. The breath of God blows over the valley of bones. The voice of God reaches into the darkest abandonment, and calls us to rise, to come out, to walk, even tied up in graveclothes, towards the light.

And the human actors must take their part. The voice speaks, the Word whose speech makes reality; but Mary and Martha and their friends still need to engage, to come to the place of burial, to move away the stone no matter what that might reveal, to face the reality of the grave even if it stinks; and then, most amazing, to take the bindings away from the man who has come up out of darkness.

And so here we stand, like Ezekiel, like Martha, in a place where we do not know what to do or to say, where we wonder why we have been abandoned to this, where we wonder if these bones can live. Here at the place of death we must surrender both human despair and human hope, for neither will serve us well enough. We stand in the pure uncertainty of God’s presence, of an unknown promise we cannot understand or fully imagine, believing only that somehow life is ever coming into the world, love is ever coming into the world. That God is in the place of death, and still, there, now, calling being into existence.

And we must play our own part, even if it makes no sense, even if it is not what we want to be doing. Staying at home, longing for human touch which is forbidden to us, fearing the fraying of our relationships; watching the spring arrive from behind glass, or in careful measured walks; seeing plans and projects vanish, living a life on hold—understanding this as the greatest social love we can show makes no more immediate sense to us than shouting at the wind or pushing over a gravestone. But for many of us it is our calling in this moment. And all those who have to walk into the valley, the grocery clerks, the shelter staff, the healthcare workers, need to know that active love is behind them, keeping them that degree safer.

And here, now, we can build a greater vision. Even if we are standing there alone talking to dry bones and the wind, still we must call for justice to be known and done in the dark times, we must be the sharp edge of compassion. We must imagine that we can come out of this strange spring into a better world, gentler, kinder, more aware that we are all one, that we live and die together. We must speak of possibility and life where we find ourselves, we must roll away those stones, unwrap those binding cloths, bring whatever eloquence or strength or care we can summon to the job of making space for life.