Life Ever Comes from Death

Year A
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45


Mortal… can these bones live?
… I answered… O Lord God… you know… 

In the year 587 BCE… the nation of Israel ended…  its long magnificent history… finished… no… Israel didn’t just have a cut or an abrasion… Israel didn’t just have a laceration that needed a few stitches… or a limb that needed a cast… Israel was done for… Jerusalem and its holy temple destroyed… leveled to the ground… and the dessert was filled with the bones of dead young men…  the Babylonians had wiped out the Israelite army… and the bodies hadn’t been buried… because no one was left to do the burying… and in time… all that remained in the hot sun… were the bleached bones of a dead nation…

Although 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… he told the disciples… our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep…  the disciples said… Lord… if he has fallen asleep… he will be all right… Jesus however… knew better… and he told them plainly… Lazarus is dead  and there was a belief at that time… that the person’s spirit hung around for three days after they died… Jesus wanted there to be no doubt that Lazarus was dead before redeeming suffering… and tragedy… with grace…

Then God said… prophesy to these bones… mortal… and say… O dry bones… hear the word of the Lord… I will lay sinews… and cause flesh and skin to come upon you… and you shall live… and you shall know that I am God

So I prophesied… and suddenly there was a noise… and bones came together… and there were sinews… and there was flesh… but the ruach… the pneuma… the Spirit had not yet come… and God said… prophesy to the breath… and say to it… come from the four winds… and breathe upon these slain… that they may live

When Jesus saw Mary and the others weeping… he was deeply moved… and asked… Where have you laid him… and Jesus wept… Martha and Mary… with no male relative to care for them… were probably afraid for their futures… that may be part of the reason why… when the stone had been moved away… Jesus thanked God for always listening to him… and he called Lazarus out of the tomb… he called Lazarus from death to life…  Jesus called the four winds… to blow away the stench of death… so that life could come… and Jesus told the assembled community… to gather up all the medical supplies they could find… and bring them to those in need… so that the life given to Lazarus… could be given to others as well… Jesus told the community… to care for one another… regardless of socio-economic status… or party affiliation… or any other label we use… to decide who’s worthy and who’s not…

This new coronavirus… that’s prowling among us… is causing everything from symptoms so mild you’re not sure if you have it… to take-care-of-yourself-at-home sickness… to hospitalization… and death… this virus is an opportunistic pathogen… which means that given the opportunity… it will infect our bodies… and when our bodies are in close proximity… it does this seamlessly… that’s why it’s so critical that during this time… we remain apart in body… but united in Spirit…

The Rev. Steven McClelland… of First Presbyterian Church in Hackensack, NJ wrote… the prophet Ezekiel had an urgent task before him…. he had to confront the people with a sense of their sin… with their own complicity in a lifestyle of opulent abuse that had forgotten about the widows… the orphans… and the poor… and one of the problems of being blessed… he wrote… is that in time you forget from whom all blessings flow… and you think it’s because of your brilliance… or skill… and you believe that these things are now an entitlement that you have earned… and you forget that they were and always will be a gift of God’s grace…

And God’s grace is in this circumstance too… the virus will not be gone by Easter… but perhaps… one of the most hopeful silver linings… is that globally… we may discern God’s call to give up wretched excess… and shift our priorities… and our manufacturing facilities… to protecting life… perhaps… this pandemic may precipitate a quantum leap in how we connect… it’s already doing this with thousands of Zoom and other kinds of video meetings… and perhaps… we’ll act a little bit more… as though we believe deep down in our souls… that we’re all in this together… but one thing this coronavirus can’t do… is infect our faith… our hope… our confidence in God’s promises…  so we remain apart… to protect each other… out of love…

Two weeks ago… the Jewish scripture was from Exodus… and the passage told about how the people were arguing with Moses… and testing God… and they asked… Is the Lord among us… or not… indeed… that may be a question that some… even today… are asking…  

There’s a scene… in the movie The Shack… in which Papa… God… shares something with Mack… which is consistent with our theology… God said… just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies… doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies… don’t ever assume that my using something… means that I caused it…  or that I need it… to accomplish my purposes… that will only lead you to false notions about me… grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist… but where there is suffering… you will find grace in many facets and colors

Now I trust God… but I wear my seatbelt… I trust God… but I use oven mitts with really hot dishes… I trust God… but make sure our smoke detectors are working… I trust God… and I’m self-isolating to protect others and flatten the curve… because acting with caution and wisdom… doesn’t mean that I don’t trust God…

But the helplessness… I think we feel… may be less for ourselves… and more for those we love… we don’t want those we love to get sick or suffer… and suffering and love are tied together… because when those we love suffer… we suffer too… 

Psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan says that painful emotions… can be like a Zen Master… who whacks his students between their shoulder blades when he sees them going to sleep during meditation… if we can learn to tolerate the whack… better yet… learn to let it enlighten us… then we may discover the transformative power that’s hidden in the heart of pain…

Similarly… Carl Jung wrote… one does not become enlightened… by imagining figures of light… but by making the darkness conscious… and reflecting on this insight… The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor wrote… I have come to realize… that in a whole lifetime spent with seekers of enlightenment… I have never once heard anyone speak about the value of en-darken-ment…

For Lent this year… we didn’t really have the choice to give up chocolate or beer or other more insignificant vices… this year… almost all of us have had to give up our daily routines and many of the things they bring us…  in some ways… God has entombed us… to keep us safe… out of love… we don’t know just yet exactly how long we’re going to be behind the stone… though we have become living embodiments of the faith we confess… Christ has died… Christ is risen… Christ will come again… and though the darkness of Good Friday this year… may seem darker than usual to us… the suffering that Jesus endured on the cross… out of love for us and for all creation… has vanquished death… and has ensured that Easter will come… and like Lazarus… we will find new life… in this world… and especially… in the age to come… Amen.

About the author: The Rev. Mike Wernick

The Rev. Mike Wernick is a second-career Episcopal priest who grew up in a Reform Jewish family; though he relishes his role as the Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Officer for two dioceses and affirms all faith traditions (he has this idea that diversity was never intended to be divisive). He serves on several diocesan and synod committees, including the N/W Lower Michigan Synod’s Task Force on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity; and is finishing the final year of a practicum to become a Spiritual Director.