Sunday, April 2, 2017

Lent 5A

Ezekiel 37:1–14, John 11:1–45




Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.


It was a horrifying vision. The spirit of the Lord set the prophet Ezekiel down in the middle of a valley full of dry bones. This valley was the site of a terrible battle, in which the invading Babylonian army had slaughtered so many of God’s people. As Richard Donovan explains, “the word `valley’ conveys a picture of a verdant and peaceful place. However, when soldiers are in combat, a valley can be a place of horror if the enemy commands the high ground. Soldiers on the floor become sitting ducks . . . That seems to be the case here. This valley would not be full of bones unless it had been the site of a slaughter.” Dry bones indicated that the slaughtered had been dead for a long time. Normally the dead were buried within a day. It was scandalous to leave them unburied and exposed to predators. “Nothing says `really, really dead’,” writes Donovan, “like a pile of dry bones.”[1] It was a vision of utter hopelessness. “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”


Ezekiel himself survived the Babylonian invasion, but was taken into exile. He and his fellow exiles were desperate for some word of hope. In 37:5 the Lord God says to the bones: “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” The Hebrew word for “breath” can also be translated “spirit.” And then in 37:12 the Lord God says to the whole house of Israel, “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.” This passage has often viewed as a foreshadowing of the resurrection. That is why it has been included in today’s readings, just two weeks before Easter. But in this case the Lord God assures them, “I will bring you back to the land of Israel . . . 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.” This horrifying vision became, therefore, a vision of hope for the people of God. The message is clear: “When all hope seems lost, God breathes new life into God’s people.”


In our gospel reading from John, Martha and Mary were overcome with grief, when their deathly ill brother Lazarus died before Jesus arrived. They were so hopeful that Jesus would have been able to heal him. Jesus finally arrived four days after his dear friend Lazarus died. Martha said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary said the same to him. When Jesus saw Mary weeping, we are told that Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” He asked, “Where have you laid him?” They said, “Lord, come and see.” Then Jesus himself began to weep. In that moment he shared in their deep sorrow and feelings of hopelessness. All of us who have lost a dear loved one can surely relate. Those who saw Jesus weeping observed, “See how he loved him!”


When they took away the stone, the stench of the dead body was overwhelming. But Jesus looked up, prayed to God, and then cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” He came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth, Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go.” The message of this gospel account of the raising of Lazarus echoes Ezekiel’s prophetic message: “When all hope seems lost, God breathes new life into God’s people.”


In the recent March 29th edition of Christian Century Peter Marty retells the story of Ruby Bridges, the first grade African American girl who walked into the all-white William Franz Elementary School in New Orleans 56 years ago. That walk was commemorated in Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Problem We All Live With.” Before the end of her first day of school, all the white parents had withdrawn their children from the school. One teacher was willing to remain and teach Ruby. Each day protesters shouted racial slurs and death threats at her as she walked into the school. One day someone even shoved a little open casket in front of her with a black doll inside. The hatred expressed by these protesters was a sign that the spirit of God had gone out of the people, many of whom were avowed Christians.


Psychiatrist Robert Coles took a special interest in Ruby. He wondered how this young girl kept her bright spirit in this seemingly hopeless situation. As she walked into school one day, he noticed her lips quietly moving. When he asked her what she was saying, she told him,“I am talking to God and praying for the people in the street.” He was sure she must have some hard feelings against these people who treated her so meanly. But she said to him, “No, I just keep praying for them and hope God will be good to them . . . I always pray the same thing, `Please, dear God, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.’” Eventually some white students returned to the school, and the protests subsided. Fifty-six years later we continue to struggle against racial prejudice in our country. We have made progress, but we still have a long way to go to overcome it. Nonetheless, the story of Ruby, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement bear witness to Ezekiel’s prophetic message that when all hope seems lost, God finds a way to breathe life into God’s people.


Much has been written in recent years about the decline of mainline churches, including the ELCA. Membership has been falling for several decades, and the average age of members has increased. Visit virtually any ELCA congregation in Oregon on Sunday morning, and it will be obvious what the trend is. In many mainline congregations children, youth, and young adults could be listed as endangered species. The faithful remnant in these congregations struggle not to give in to feelings of hopelessness and despair concerning the future of the church. The situation may not seem quite so grim at St. Andrew, but I am sure the average age of our members is much higher than it was 30 years ago. We too are struggling as we seek to figure out how to do ministry in our time and place with children, youth, and young people. We are not yet in a valley of dry bones, but it can be a challenge to cultivate a hope-filled vision of the future of the church. A variety of possible solutions have been offered, none of which have proven to be a sure-fire fix. Perhaps the root of the problem is more basic than any proposed solution. Could it be that the spirit has gone out of the people? Could it be that more than ever we need to hear Ezekiel’s prophetic message— “When all hope seems lost, God breathes new life into the people of God”? More than ever we need to be attentive to whatever signs of new life God is breathing into our midst here at St. Andrew and throughout the church.


In the eyes of many the civil war in Syria, now in its fifth year, is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. Some of the pictures coming out of Syria look as bleak as a valley of dry bones. An estimated 250,000 Syrians have been slaughtered. Over 6 million have been displaced within Syria itself. Nearly 5 million Syrians have fled the country. Many who have fled have discovered that they are not welcome by all in the countries to which they have fled. With no end in sight to this conflict, it has to be difficult for Syrians to maintain hope. Yet in the midst of this seemingly hopeless situation, there are signs that God is seeking to breathe new life into the people of Syria. The people of St. Andrew have been a small part of this life-giving effort by God with our sponsorship of the Alajrabs, our Muslim refugee family from Syria. They have been in Portland since last May. It has been challenging for them to adapt to a new land. But bit by bit they are getting there. It can take time for God’s life-giving spirit to do its work. Their presence in Portland demonstrates once again that when all hope seems lost, God breathes new life into God’s people.


Many of us gathered here today may be struggling to maintain hope for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you or a loved one is facing serious health concerns. Perhaps like Martha and Mary you are grieving the death of someone close to you. Perhaps your job situation is uncertain. Perhaps you are feeling overwhelmed by the current political climate. Perhaps you are struggling not to give in to fear in the face of global terror threats. Perhaps you are filled with a sense of helplessness by the magnitude of humanitarian needs such as hunger and famine. Perhaps you are feeling more and more anxious about the threat of catastrophic climate change. Whatever may be triggering feelings of hopelessness in you, be assured of this much: Ezekiel’s prophetic message is as true today as it was in his time— “When all hope seems lost, God breathes new life into God’s people.” In Jesus’ name, AMEN.