Sunday, March 29, 2020
Hope in Dry Bones and Tombs
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77493
Fifth Sunday of Lent 2020
Dry bones in a desert and a dead man in a tomb. Somehow these two images seem strangely appropriate this morning as we are all in the midst of a crisis that none of us imagined would happen. We are in a time that none of us have ever experienced, one that has feelings of a huge disaster different than a hurricane, flood or blizzard. Those are localized this is a disaster that is truly going world-wide. So my friends what do our passages today have to teach us?
Let us begin with Ezekiel and the dry bones vision for that is what this is, a vision. In this vision he is an old man and is looking at the bones of Israel after their defeat by the Babylonians. Jerusalem has been destroyed and the leadership and a large number of the people of Israel have been marched off to live in Babylon as subjects of their conquerors. They are totally defeated, and I would think their world view would be very bleak. I would think they were wondering what did we do wrong, why did this happen, God where are you when we need you? Yet there is the promise of rebirth and the revitalization of the nation that is to come. Ezekiel sees this happen in the vision.
In our Lazarus story we have several important things to look at. Once again we have theme of light and dark. I have been struck by this recurring theme for the past three works, more than I have ever noticed before. For many of us this seems a time where we are in a “dark” place.
Lazarus is dead and in a cave tomb with a stone to close up the opening. That should sound familiar, like something we will hear in just two weeks. He is in there for four days. In the Jewish world this meant he was truly dead for they believed that the soul hung around the body for three days and then departed on the fourth. They don’t want to open the tomb for surely there will be a stench. Or as the King James Version says, “Surely he stinketh.” For Jesus he arrives three days after he finds out that Lazarus is sick, so Jesus raises him on the third day after he finds out about him. That should also sound familiar.
The raising of Lazarus is also the final sign in the gospel of John and the final straw for the Jewish leadership. In the verses that follow the close of this passage Caiphus declares that it is better that one man die for the sake of the people and they look for the way to kill Jesus.
Now this passage is used in funerals as both a reading and in the rubrics talking about what a funeral is. The reference Jesus weeping at the tomb of his friend Lazarus when the rubrics talk of grief be a normal part of the mourning process. I want to take a moment to look at the two responses from Martha and Mary when they talk with Jesus, for I think the emotions shown by these women relate to us in our current situation.
Wendy spent a lot of time two years ago learning this passage when we were taking the Academy for Biblical Storytellers certification. When you tell a story like when just did you must put yourself in the characters place and make a decision about what emotion you will show. Wendy depicted both women confronting Jesus but with two entirely different emotions.
Martha, practical Martha from the Mary and Martha story confronts Jesus with some anger. “If you had only been here my brother would not have died.” Yet then she professes faith that Jesus will do something! Then in answer to Jesus’ question of whether she believes in him, she says yes. She is the first person in John’s gospel to proclaim Jesus for who he is. In the midst of her understandable anger, she knows and professes who Jesus is and has faith in him. It is worth noting that she, a woman, is the first person in the gospel of John to declare who Jesus is!
Then she tells Mary that Jesus wants to see her. She confronts him in pain and sorrow. In her pain and sorrow he also weeps and I believe he weeps with her. Jesus shows that he understands and feels her pain. He empathizes with her in a powerful way. And in that act I see some of the essence of the hope that I plan to share with you today!
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.
In times like this we often are like Mary and Martha, scared, angry, frustrated and sad. I am reading a series of books by Brene Brown getting ready for a workshop with her that has now been moved to June. A major theme in all of her books is paying attention to what we are feeling and taking time to think about and question, why am I feeling this? Trust me you can yell at God if that is what you need. You can ask the why God questions God can handle it. God has been hearing those cries forever.
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.
At times like this I look to two famous theologians. The first is Julian of Norwich who promises that all will be well and all will be well and with God all manner of things will be well. You can almost use this as a mantra. I found it very helpful during the ups and downs of the search process that brought me to St. Paul’s.
The second is my favorite prayer by the Roman Catholic priest and monk Thomas Merton and I will close with this prayer. Pay special attention to the last few lines. There is the promise that is shown in our two stories this morning. And an assurance that we all need 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.”