March 29, 2020 The Fifth Sunday in Lent

The Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 29, 2020
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

From Ezekiel, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord … ‘I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live’.” I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     Well, at last, we have come to the 5th and final Sunday in this Season of Lent. A Season that for many, has been unlike any other in our memory.    

I think it safe to assume this morning that when we began our Lenten Journey five weeks ago, most of us expected a typical Lenten Season. You know what I mean: giving up chocolate, or being more intentional in our prayer time, and seeking more fervently to be reconciled with God and neighbor in some new way. I, for one, had no idea that in Lent 2020 I would somehow be transformed into a “Televangelist!” (Trust me. That is not something they teach us in Episcopal Seminaries. Now … a word of caution here: If I do show up next week with a really bad comb-over: call the Bishop!) But seriously, did any of us expect that the whole world would embrace, even reluctantly, Lent’s call to slow down, to reflect deeply upon one’s life, re-examine our priorities and values, and affirm once more the sanctity and grace of human life? I know I sure didn’t.

And yet, the Season of Lent this year has unfolded in the midst of a modern-day plague: The Corona-19 virus that continues to wreak havoc across the globe and especially here in our own nation still this morning. Perhaps that’s why I find today’s scripture lessons so unique and timely.

    See, typically, Christians hear the story of Lazarus rising from the tomb as no more than a foretelling of our Lord’s resurrection. And the story of Ezekiel preaching to the dry bones as an affirmation of the resurrection of all the faithful departed at the end of this age. But in light of the anxiety shared throughout the world today as people, especially medical professionals and elected leaders, try to come grips with the impact of Covid-19, our scripture lessons invite us to look not just to the hope of Easter and our future as people of God, but how we choose to live right now: in thismoment.    

Jews and Christians believe that people of faith are united with God in death and that, therefore, when we die – and I sure hope that day is a long way off in the future – we will bask in the presence of God for all eternity. The resurrection of the dead is one of the tenets of the Christian and Jewish faith traditions. As Martha tells Jesus in today’s gospel lesson, she believes in the resurrection of the dead. She believes in her future union with God. But, her beliefbegs the question: what about today? What difference does one’s faith and belief about that future event make in thismoment? And the answer lies in those simple words from Jesus who proclaims that he is “the resurrection and the life” right now. And he goes on to say that those who believe in him never die. Because those words offer such hope in the face of disease and death, we usually hear this Gospel reading at funerals. But, the miracle of Lazarus rising from the dead and our belief in resurrection is not the point of today’s gospel lesson. The point of this story is that in raising Lazarus, Jesus affirms who he says that he is. That he is the Christ who asks us, “Do you believe this?” And if so, so what?

     Time and again throughout the Gospels, Jesus has demonstrated that he is Lord over the seas and the earth, over illness and infirmity, over demons and the powers of darkness. In today’s lesson he claims he is Lord over death and life itself. Now, only God holds the power of life and death. Therefore, Jesus is claiming to be God: that he and the Father are one. This is the truth that Jesus reveals in our Gospel reading. And raising Lazarus illustrates in a very tangible way that Jesus is the life, the resurrection, the living water, the living bread and everything else he has claimed to be. It is these truths, not the miracle of Lazarus, that have lasting significance for us and how we choose to live right now! Jesus asks, “Do you believe?” And, we Christians need to think very hard and deliberately about what that question means before answering, “Yes, Lord we believe.” Because saying we believe should change how we live in this moment. Believing doesn’t necessarily mean that we understand or fully comprehend how God acts in human history, or that we never have times of doubt. Believing or having faith means that we are willing to embrace what God has said and revealed in scripture and allow God – in God’s own time - to reveal all truth to us. 

     See, Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel are more than a promise about the future. In saying I am the resurrection and the life, he offers us a vision of life today: Life that is no longer overshadowed by the inevitability of death, but rather, a life of confidence in the irrevocable promise of life in and with God right now.

     The Prophet Isaiah foretold that because of her continuing rejection of God’s ways, the armies of Israel would be defeated by the Babylonians and her people carried off into exile. But he also foretold of their restoration if and whenthey recommitted not only themselves, but their entire nation to upholding God’s ways and values. The Prophets do tell us that how we choose to live always yields results.

Now, the Prophet Jeremiah affirmed the devastation of this great exile and urged the people to remember that God was still present with them. It is during this exile in Babylon that the Prophet Ezekiel arrived on the scene and, through his obedience to God’s call; God did the unexpected through him. In today’s Old Testament reading, Ezekiel comes upon a valley filled with dry bones. These are the bones of the decimated Israeli army and this image of dry bones is a wonderful metaphor for the whole people of Israel who believed their nation was dead and gone forever.

God tells Ezekiel to prophecy to these dead, dry bones and the unexpected happens. The ground rumbles as the bones rejoin and sinews and flesh is restored. But that is not all: it’s not enough. God tells Ezekiel to call upon the winds to breathe life into these empty bodies. This wind that the Creation story in Genesis describes as God’s own Spirit, comes and breathes new life into that which moments before was dead, lifeless bone. As St. Paul says in today’s reading from his letter to the Romans, “If God’s Spirit dwells in us, we have new life,” a resurrected life, a hope-filled life, a changed life not sometime in the future, but right now: today. 

     Our lessons from scripture this morning while filled with promises of future resurrection at life’s end offer a glimpse of what life should be like for people of faith right now even during a global pandemic. And that brings these texts into the context of our own Lenten journeys.

    We have been urged throughout these past five weeks to be more intentional in how we relate to, and with, God and one another. Now, social-distancing has made human touch pretty much impossible, and fear of our neighbors – especially the stranger - and the potential of spreading the Virus, has led to a spirit of distrust. Nevertheless, many have said that this pandemic has caused them to rethink how they live every day and just how busy they have allowed their lives to become: so busy doing things – working and earning money, building bigger houses, and amassing so much stuff they have rent a storage facility to contain it all - that they realize that such doing has sapped their ability to be fully present to those they love most, and keeps us from forming the kind of caring and nurturing community society so desperately craves. Perhaps that is one of the blessings, one of the gifts of this year’s Lenten Season: we are reminded that God created us as human beings, not human doings. Lent asks that we set aside that which distracts us from nurturing healthy relationships with God and neighbor. It asks that having quarantined ourselves at home we recognize we finally do have time on our hands: that there is only so much you can watch on Netflix.  (Believe me, I’ve exhausted that one!) We have time for prayer: prayer for ourselves and one another. Time to send someone a note or pick up the phone and call someone especially someone from whom we have been estranged and reconnect with them. Time to seek forgiveness and also, time to forgive. For those who are able, time to pick up and deliver groceries or prescriptions to our shut-ins being careful to uphold the CDC guidelines; and the list goes on. Such actions, such prayers, such re-evaluating is the kind of resurrection to new life today’s scripture lessons affirm can be experienced right now if we so choose to believe and embrace it.

    My friends, in these days of pandemic and fear, these days when many do feel like dry bones, let us choose to open our hearts and minds to the spirit of God, to breathe in that fresh breath of God, and discover what it means to be and live in resurrection hope today. Amen.