The First Lesson – Ezekiel 37:1-14 (audio by Karen Nash)
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.
The Gospel – John 11:1-45 (audio by The Rev. Alan Neale)
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
The Sermon – by The Rt. Rev. James Jelinek (with audio)
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts always be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
The story of the Valley of Dry Bones in the book of the Prophet Ezekiel is a wonderful piece of drama, as you heard when Karen read it today. Some of you may remember that it is the base for an old gospel spiritual made popular by a Black male quartet in the 40s or 50s. I can still hear the recording: “O the neck bone’s connected to the shoulder bone, and the shoulder bone’s connected to the arm bone, now hear the word of the Lord.” They caught the fervor, the energy of this lesson and shared it with the world. A new life for a very old story.
In the reading you just heard, every dimension of it leads us down a path of urgency. God has taken the prophet in hand and is leading him and steering him to the middle of a valley. He tells us it was full of bones “and they were very dry.”
GOD: “Mortal, can these bones live?” “God, you know. Why ask me?” Let’s remember this is a vision or a dream with all kinds of sensory clues, the rattling of bones, the rush of the wind, and when Ezekiel begins to prophesy as he is told, as the bones come together, are covered with sinews and then with skin, Ezekiel watches in amazement, getting increasingly excited.
But there was no breath in them. They were lifeless. God instructs him further—“Prophesy to the breath, and when he did they began to move and they stood like a vast army. And God said, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.
That’s the point and now Ezekiel gets it. This prophecy is about release from captivity. It is for a people living in exile, a message to give them hope, but the prophet has to see it first, so he can proclaim it, because this hope is so vast. He is so sure of the promise because this vision has imprinted it on his soul.
On Friday I quoted the writer Anne Lamott who used a phrase from Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who knew captivity, incarceration and subjugation intimately, from the inside out, saying “finite disappointment versus infinite hope.” Dr. King, like Ezekiel, “had a dream,” too. His dream was also about liberation and empowerment, a vision of his people finding a rightful place in a just society.
Finite disappointment. Disappointment is always grounded in time, because of an event, a happening. We can get stuck there, living with one foot in the grave because we cannot shake off the past. As a young priest, a woman who had been divorced for ten years came to see me, and she was still harboring that anger as if it had happened in the preceding week. That was one of my first profound encounters of a person who held on to her disappointment and anger so long. There have been more.
Let’s go straight to the tomb in the Lazarus story. The early parts are rich and vivid and so very human. “Jesus wept,” John tells us. All the emotion around Jesus, the weeping, the wailing grief, moves him so deeply that he shares it with all of them. But Jesus does not continue to weep. He is decisive and says, “Roll away the stone.” They resist: “There will be a stink.” He persists: “Roll away the stone, “ and they do.
First Jesus prays, a strange prayer: “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”
Now Jesus shares the same excitement and amazement Ezekiel felt as the bones stood up with new breath in them, for when he calls out “Lazarus, come out! well, “the dead man then comes out” looking like a mummy. John repeats the description of Lazarus, “the dead man,” because he wants to make sure his readers many years later understand this as an event that really happened. Then Jesus says something both normal and practical, “Unbind him, and let him go,” and we trust they did just that.
Finite disappointment versus infinite hope. We see it again here. “Disappointment” can be about many things, like failing at something, like being cheated by someone, Like losing in a game, losing in a relationship, like losing someone we love deeply to death. When we enter that disappointment, it feels like it will last forever. We grieve, we start talking in terms of never. Never again. I’ll never again have as wonderful a dog as my Nico, which is how I felt after he was killed in a tragic accident. Yet as the realization came to me that he was the third great dog I had had in my adult lifetime, while I still grieved his loss and missing him, I was healed from that fear. EZ is my fourth great dog. Disappointment is finite. It has an end, unless we stroke it and pet it and hang onto it and freeze it in our mind.
This is where that wonderful line comes in: “Unbind him, and let him go!” When disappointments are huge, they don’t merely sting or ache, they tie us up in knots and imprison us deep within ourselves. If it is caused by sin, we have a means to deal with that in the Church; it is called confession and absolution. “Go in peace, the Lord has taken away all your sins.” If our disappointment comes from an emotional crisis or a trauma, we have therapy and pastoral care. So much of the work of the Church day by day is the work that Jesus did, unbinding people, even groups of people.
Finite disappointment versus infinite hope. Hope is infinite. If it is about something concrete =, that’s not hope, that’s expectation. That, too, has a finite dimension. But hope springs eternal. It keeps on and keeps on, and it really does spring up, seemingly out of nowhere, just as we are seeing the shoots of spring flowers pop up all over right now. True hope is always something even beyond what we can ask or imagine, as we often pray.
We are in a strange and difficult time, a time of more isolation than humanity has experienced for many, many years. There is no end in sight. We imagine this disease will come to an end, but it is not even on the horizon, as we hear the health reports, so we are locked down, maybe not in solitary confinement. This is happening all over the world, with all of us trying to protect ourselves from something we cannot see and sometimes cannot even feel when it begins. And so we have to protect others from us in case we might be the one who is dangerous to others. That is terrifying and depressing. I was feeling the weight of some of that earlier this week, but I was greatly helped by the caring concern of the people with whom I shared that. All of us are susceptible to depression or great anxiousness and anxiety at a time like this. When we share it, when we name it, we identify what binds us and we have friends to unbind us and help us to let that go. That’s the most important part of our IT and telephone companionship right now, especially for those among us who live alone, and those of us who have health conditions that make us extremely vulnerable and susceptible to this virus.
Our faith also guides us and can free us from some of the deepest fears. Many stories in scripture are about liberation from captivity. There are individual stories, And there are two that are huge, the first being the escape from the Egyptians when the people of Israel followed Moses across the Red Sea and into the land of promise. The second is the time of the great prophets, like Ezekiel, who preached a powerful song of hope and deliverance from captivity in Babylon. They were restored, as a people, to their land and their blessed city Jerusalem.
Then came Jesus, who preached liberation even from death, and he called people out of the grave and made them well and made them whole.
That is the core of our salvation history, its very essence. During much of this history there were those false prophets who claimed that plagues, famines, droughts and floods was God’s punishment for our bad behavior. I do not believe that. God is not that sloppy, nor that cruel as to cause what those in wartime call collateral damage—women, children, the weak and the poor.
I do wonder what this pandemic and our forced isolation and separation is going to call us to look at in ourselves as individuals and as a people, not just nationally but globally. Clearly, the me-first syndrome that characterizes much of western society has to be looked at. When we are obsessed by that, we are living only in the present, which will leave no legacy of being a caring society for our own offspring, and we will leave a world with even more division and disease and the worst consequences of classism. Will this isolation just help us to be conscious to wash our hands more, which is good, but will it also help us to cleanse our souls, as individuals and as nations and peoples?
Crisis always provides us with the opportunity to grow. May we all join in an infinite hope to grow more loving, more just, more willing to seek and live in peace. Amen.
+James L. Jelinek, Interim Rector, Trinity Church, Newport