March 29, 2020

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Romans 8:6-11

John 11:1-45

Rejoice, O Jerusalem, the prophet Isaiah declares, rejoice greatly.

We’ve made it to the fifth Sunday of Lent. This Sunday marks 14 days before Easter. In traditionally higher liturgical branches of the vine, this Sunday is known as Laetare Sunday, “laetare” being the singular imperative of “laetari” — to rejoice. This Sunday is also known as a “Refreshment Sunday” akin to the third Sunday of Advent, when the pink candle on the wreath gets to shine, a time where in the midst of penitence and somberness Christians get reminded to rejoice and celebrate certain, promised, soon-to-arrive joy. Every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection, even during Lent when the alleluias are buried, and this Sunday the texts appointed resound with proclamations of new life.

Ezekiel prophesizes to the dry bones and, lo, they rattle and groan and stand on their own two feet and finally breathe. Paul in Romans tells us that God who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you and will give life to your mortal bodies. John’s Gospel tells the story of Lazarus, his grief-stricken sisters, their plea to Jesus, Jesus’ own grief and prayer and plea to God, Lazarus’ grand exit from the tomb and the onlookers’ astonished belief. Where can we turn from new, God-given life this week? Nowhere!

As social distancing grows, shelter in place orders expand, more people get sick, layoffs increase, anxiety heightens and the end of this public health crisis seems far off, we need a glimpse of Easter, a foreshadowing of hope, a sure cause for rejoicing and, thanks be to God, we unequivocally have such an occasion this Lord’s Day. We may not mark Holy Week or celebrate Easter in our sanctuaries this year, but nothing will prevent Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and his living, breathing exit from the tomb. Nothing.

In this tumultuous season of terrifying, 24/7 headlines, we who have been tasked with preaching to dry bones, we who have witnessed Lazarus unbound and resurrected, need to proclaim in confidence that God has not, does not, will not abandon us. Jesus weeps with us. The community mourns together. The wind of the Spirit still blows where it wills and if we pause and listen, we will surely hear the sound and see the impact of it. Jesus will not ignore our pleas to come and help. While we do not know when we will return to our churches in person or when we will embrace each other with abandon or when we will get back to work in our offices or find grocery stores with fully stocked aisles, we can be sure that dry bones will become living, breathing human beings. The one who raised Jesus will sustain us even now. And Lazarus, four days in the tomb and decomposing, will make an astonishing return to his family and community.

This is a Sunday to remember that Easter is coming and nothing – nothing – will stop God’s power and plan to bring new life out of despair and death. In the meantime, in this in between time, we must weep with those who weep, mourn the mounting communal losses together, call on Jesus for help and pray to our Father in hope.

God asks, “Mortal, can these bones live?” We can say with resolve or reservation or resignation, “O Lord, you know.” And then prophesize and preach and proclaim the love and compassion of our God with every fiber of our being, in word and in deed, through every medium available until we start to hear rattling and deep, full breaths again. We must bear witness to the transformative power of our God until there is a rustling and all that seemed dead and gone comes back to life and our mourning is turned to dancing. In the meantime, in this in between time, we need to point to glimpses of Easter as people all across the globe come together and not only weep and wail and mourn, but offer comfort and celebrate small kindnesses and share what they have for the sake of those with less.

I do not believe this season of strangeness will be brief. I hope our social distancing and the upending that comes with it flattens the curve and interrupts the rapid spread of COVID-19. As we call for Jesus to come and worry that he is too late in arriving, we are called to live in hope, trusting that because of Easter, death, evil, sin and suffering never have the last word.

This week my son, like many, got laid off. The restaurant where he works is shuttered for the foreseeable future. He, unlike many, has a robust support network and is grateful for it. What struck me as we talked was that despite the hardship faced by him and his peers, they were looking into volunteering at the food bank. They were finding ways to support each other and the community even as they worried about their own circumstances. They are far from unique in this response and it felt like dry bones rattling. I went to the grocery store early this morning, still no hand sanitizer on the shelves, but a few travel sized packs of wipes remained in the bin. A woman picked up the last two and said to herself, “These will be good to have in the car.” She saw me and held out a pack, “Do you need one?” I declined but felt heartened by the offer. The local church where I am doing some teaching and preaching has been flooded with members asking how they can help those for whom this season is particularly hard. “We can deliver groceries.” “We can call people.” “We can write notes.” And with each offer I feel the breath of God and the wind of the Spirit.

Make no mistake, we are still in the valley of dry bones, but rest assured, yea though we walk through the valley of darkness, we need not fear evil, for God is with us, Jesus weeps with us, God will comfort us and we are called to prophesize and preach the good news until everyone has what they need to stand on their own feet.

This week:

  1. Where, and how, are you called to preach the good news this week?
  2. Where have you seen glimpses of Easter in the midst of this somber Lenten season?
  3. When you read the text appointed from John this week, where do you place yourself? With the disciples? Mary? Martha? The crowd of mourners? Lazarus?
  4. Have you ever experienced dry bones come to life? What happened?
  5. For what do you rejoice this week?
  6. Where do you most need God to give you life in your mortal body?

from: Looking into the Lectionary with Jill Duffield in The Presbyterian Outlook