Out into a larger world


A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 6, 2014.  The lectionary readings are  Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, and John 11:1-45.

It was almost a month ago that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing and there’s a lot about this story that is hard for me (and probably all of us) to comprehend. To start with, I can’t imagine the pain for families and friends of the 239 people on board. Our prayers and thoughts are with them. The fact that in this day—when Google maps have good photographs of most of our streets and houses and even face recognition technology is an online feature—the fact that a huge airplane can be lost, is just astounding to me. But perhaps more than anything, beyond even the magnitude of grief and confusion, this is a reminder to me of just how large our world really is. Ships are currently searching an area of some 98,000 square miles, and that’s not even a certain location. The Indian Ocean floor in that area is about 19,000 feet deep. (Mt. McKinley is about 20,000 feet high, just give an idea of how deep that is.) The missing Flight 370 highlights for me that the world is huge. The oceans are vast. And we—you and I—are very tiny in the grand scheme of things.

And yet, that consciousness (of being small in the grand scheme of things) is not a part of my usual day. In my mind, I’m big. When I’m driving somewhere, there’s a part of me deep down that really expects everyone else on the road to understand that my trip is a priority. They should give way, not veer into my lane, and definitely not cut me off or pull out in front of me. The same thing happens when I get sick—I quickly lose perspective of the size of things, the proportion of things, the relative importance of things.  My world becomes tiny.

The scriptures today put things in proportion. Over and over again, God puts Ezekiel in a situation, or a vision, or a dream that helps Ezekiel regain a sense of proportion, of what’s important and what’s not; what’s mortal, and what can be given new life. This lesson is often read at the Easter Vigil, as we recall the story of our salvation, of God’s bringing God’s people “out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.”

The people of God have been exiled in Babylon. They’re cut off from home, from their ancestors, and from all they love. But Ezekiel begins to get a vision from God of how things will be. There will be a new city, a new temple. There is going home again. What is dead and lifeless now will be given new life and new animation. What’s about to happen will be as though God sweeps through a valley of dead, dry bones. New life is coming. The people say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” But God says, “O my people, I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves. O my people, I will bring you back to the land of Israel. O my people, I will open your graves, and bring you up from your graves. O my people, I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live!”

But promises like those of God to Ezekiel and the people of Israel are hard to remember when times are bad. When there’s a troublesome or a serious diagnosis from the doctor, it’s hard to remember God’s promises of care and comfort. When work seems like a dead-end, or when there’s a relationship that just won’t smooth out. When there’s some sin nagging at us and pulling us down, away from God, away from other people, and away from our best selves…. It’s near-to-impossible to remember and hold onto the faith that God can (and will) bring us up from any grave.

Like the Psalmist, “out of the depths” we have cried to God, and we keep on calling, and praying, maybe until we’re hoarse and almost out of breath. Our soul waits… and waits… and waits. But sometimes the depths themselves can teach us.

Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar, writes, “There is grief work to be done in the present that the future may come. There is mourning to be done for those who do not know the deathliness of their situation. There is mourning to be done with those who know pain and suffering and lack the power or freedom to bring it to speech. The saying is a harsh one, for it sets this grief work as the precondition of joy. It announces that those who have not cared enough to grieve will not know joy.”(The Prophetic Imagination, p. 119)

Mary and Martha were grieving, but there was no sign of joy. We can imagine Mary and Martha’s situation because so many of us have been there. The one we loved has died. For them, it is their brother Lazarus. Jesus was his friend. Jesus is their friend. And so when word first went out to Jesus that Lazarus was sick, Mary and Martha probably thought Jesus would come right away. But he disappoints early on. When he arrives, it’s too late, and Martha says as much. “Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died. It’s been four days.” And I can imagine the rest of Martha’s sentence. “Four days, and you haven’t come. Four days, and we’ve been dealing with this alone. You were our friend—you ate with us, Lazarus loved you, but four days….” Mary runs up to him, kneels at his feet weeping, and adds with her sister, “If you had been here…”

A crowd has formed. The religious teachers are watching all of this from a distance. They think they are watching the weakness of Jesus, his failure to be of any help. The whole situation is just like they feared—Jesus has raised people’s expectations and hopes, only to disappoint them. And who has to clean up the mess? The temple priests and the heads of the synagogues. Once Jesus leaves, the people expecting miracles and healings (and not getting them) are all going to come running back to the Jewish authorities, complaining that things are worse now than they were before. Things are worse because hope came along, but hope disappointed, too.

Jesus wants to see Lazarus, and Martha—the practical one, the one who focuses on the here and now, says bluntly, “It’s been four days. The smell. The stink. The death. Don’t do anything with the stone. You should have been here.” But Jesus asks for more hope, still. “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

But Martha’s not looking for the glory of God right now. There are details to attend to. She has family visiting, she has Lazarus’s estate to work out, and she has to manage Mary, the emotional one. Martha doesn’t have energy or hope for a miracle today. The Jesuit writer James Martin comments on Martha’s tendency to get tripped up on the here-and-now. In his new book on going through the Holy Land and meditating on Jesus, Martin writes about this scene at Bethany, and he asks us, “How often do we find ourselves focusing on the small problems (it will stink) or rehearsing past grievances (you’re late) rather than trusting that God may bring about something new?   [Martha] concentrates on the negative, on the privation, on the loss. Again, this is natural and human, but it prevents her from seeing the possibility of the new.” (Jesus: A Pilgrimage, p. 321).

But something new does happen. Lazarus gets up and walks out of the tomb. “Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus says. Lazarus is unbound. Lazarus can be set free. It’s not his time to die. There’s more living to do, more loving and laughing to do. He’s got a new life, so there’s no time for dwelling on where the bandages hurt, or the pain he’s been through, or the suffering that they’ve all survived—there is LIFE ahead. But he’s not the only one to be unbound and set free.

Mary can be unbound. Mary doesn’t have to be bound, held back, and debilitated by her emotions, her feelings, grief. There’s a way forward, if she lets go and holds on to Jesus.

Martha can be unbound, loosed, and set free. She doesn’t have to carry everybody’s burden AND get it all right. She can be unbound from all of that, from her former self, even.

The family, the friends and neighbors, the religious authorities—all can be unbound of whatever is holding them back, keeping them down, and shutting them in some grave. Jesus points to a way forward, a way with full life here, and life with him to come for ever.

The presence and power of Christ does not take away the reality of what we may be going through. That date on the calendar for surgery is still there. The friend or family member with Alzheimer’s still needs our love. The person we have just lost is still dead in our experience and perspective of things. But the raising of Lazarus puts sickness, heartbreak, pain of any kind—it even puts death itself—in a larger context. The world is much bigger than we thought. The love of God is much more healing and life-changing than we imagined. The power of friends and community is much more strengthening than we ever knew. And the presence of Christ is such that we are held and pulled into new life.

Beginning next Sunday the Church invites us, again, to step into the drama of Holy Week, to widen our perspective, and to see how big God’s love is. Sin and death are large and sometimes we can’t see around them. Betrayal, false accusation, disappointment, failure—it all has its role to play. But new light comes. New love comes. New life comes.

Even if it feels like we’re still in some cave of death and darkness, Jesus holds out his hand and invites us to come out. He asks us to hold on, to grab ahold, and don’t let go. Life is about to get better, and bigger, than we ever imagined.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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