Sunday, March 26, 2023
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
Yes, there is life in those bones
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Two stories, hundreds of years apart. One is a vision following a disastrous defeat on the battlefield. The other a miraculous sign of the power of Jesus. Both starting in dark places.
Three years ago we were in a very different place when this reading came up. I went back our of curiosity to see what I had written.
We are all in our tombs right now. Trapped in our houses, many working from home in this strange world of connected in so many new ways, yet also distant from each other. It is a strange place sort of like Lazarus caught between the living and the dead.
It was a pretty dismal and frightening place three years ago. Today however is different although if you want to be depressed about the state of the world, it is not hard to feel that way. Covid fading, but still here. Climate change wreaking havoc with weather patterns. Inflation and bank failures. Crime and murder rates often lead. Yes, if you want to ruin your mood, just watch the evening news. They seem to specialize in depressing us.
The Wednesday theology lunch is reading some parables by Fr. Edward Hayes. We read one this week entitle Smiley. Smiley was a delightful happy guy who meets two strangers while walking in the woods from one town to another. Nothing bothered him, he had a great positive outlook on life. Yet as he walked with these two they talked with him in grave tones. Before he knew it they had picked his pockets. Not of money, but of happiness. There are many out there that for their own purposes seemed determined to pick our pockets of our happiness if we will let them.
Now what if we look at our stories today not as ones about a disaster, but of hope?
These are passages about the power and hope that God provides. These passages show that no matter how bad things are, God is there. I want to take a moment and place a thought before you. I have said this to some of you in private conversations, but I want to remind everyone of something very important and to do that I need to tell a story.
Many years ago I was visiting a woman in the hospital. She had suffered one illness or issue after another and seemed to spend as much time in hospital and rehab as she did in her home. She looked at me from her hospital bed and said, “Mark is it true that God never gives us more than we can handle?” I started to answer but she interrupted me and said, “Because if it is true I wish he didn’t have such a darn high opinion of what I can handle!”
At that point I told her that this is not in the bible and is one of those unhelpful ideas that people keep tossing out to people who are suffering. What is in scripture is the promise that God will be there for us and give us what we need to handle what the world gives us as challenges. That’s the promise that Ezekiel hears, and that Jesus offers to Martha and Mary. That God is always there for us even when we feel abandoned.
In all honesty, I am more hopeful now than I have been in a long time. Yes these last three years have been a struggle, but God has given us what we need to weather the storm and come through it in pretty good shape. I hear people bemoaning the state of the church, but I can tell you this is not the first time people have declared the church as dead or dying.
Some of you are old enough to remember the Time magazine cover that declared God is dead. That magazine cover was all the way back in 1966. Long before then Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that in 1882. Not a new question.
Yet as we stand looking out at what to many may seem a valley of dry bones we may well ask God, “Can these bones live?” Now in the passage it is God who asks the question and the prophet says “O Lord God, you know.” Then God tells the prophet what to do.
Now the bones represent the army and people of Israel. They have been conquered by Babylon, most of the survivors have been marched of to the main city of Babylon to be assimilated into the Babylonian society. Yet by the action of God and the breath (Ruach), the same breath that caused creation to happen, the bones do come back to life. Ultimately Israel is freed and returns to Jerusalem and rebuilds the city and the builds the second temple.
That disaster and rebuild is part of a cycle that Phyllis Tickle writes about in her book The Great Emergence. Now this was a best seller among church geeks 10 years ago, but she has a point that is interesting. She maintains that every 500 years or so the church has a rummage sale and cleans out the attic of outdated beliefs and things that are not needed anymore or are harmful to the health of the church. She writes that we are in one of those great upheavals and 50 years from now historians may well consider this a second reformation. The Reformation and the printing press was 500 years ago. 500 years before that was the split between the western and eastern churches. 500 years before that was when the church became an official religion and began to be an institution. 500 years before that and we have Jesus. 500 before Jesus is the time of the Babylonian captivity that our Ezekiel passage is about.
So if she’s right and I believe she is on to something here we are at a great time of change, that was just exacerbated by COVID.
As I stand and look out at the dry bones they are coming back together. I look at what we are doing this year and I see many signs that give me great hope. We are back up and running in our Outreach and doing more than we ever have before and doing it differently in many cases. You may not realize it, but earlier this month we had two Sundays that looked like normal pre-pandemic attendance. Close to 140 between the two services on just an average Sunday not one of the big holidays.
After a rough January in the finances we had a strong February and while we are in a deficit, it is about a quarter of what we projected. We have visitors and several have decided to become members. We have had more activity than we have seen since before COVID. I finally got to do a Sunday evening Lenten series and we’ve had 20-30 people each evening. That’s wonderful and exciting. I promise we will have another series next year. I’m looking forward to Holy Week. I changed what we did on Maundy Thursday last year and we had more people attend then in the past 5 years. We are going to do the dinner and foot washing again this year and I hope you will take the time to join us. The Easter Vigil is back and we have two baptisms that evening. We also have a baptism on Easter morning and two when the bishop comes to visit. We are baptizing more people than we are burying and that’s always a good thing.
So yes as I look at the dry bones, they are coming together. After being in the cave wondering if we would survive I hear Jesus calling us to “Lazarus come out!” St. Paul’s come out. Calling us back out into the mission fields where there are people who want to hear a message of hope, acceptance, and love.
Richard Rohr in his meditation posted this morning spoke of how we only have an illusion of control. That we want a God who is predictable and yes can be controlled. Yet God has control not us and that can be disconcerting. We have seen that repeatedly in the past three years. I want to end this sermon the same way I ended my sermon three years ago with what is simply known as the Thomas Merton prayer. It was true then and it is still true today.
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”