Dead and yet not dead
The readings for this Sunday (the Fifth Sunday in Lent, year A) seem to have been specially picked for what we are going through now as we are sequestered in our homes, not able to gather for church or school or to do our usual activities, at least not the way we are used to doing them. And what I mean by that is that our readings this week speak of death and resurrection in a powerful way that also connect with what is happening in our world even now. These are not just stories of long ago and far away. They are stories for us today to remind us who we are and to remind us who God is.
We are in the midst of what feels like death to some and is actual death to others. Certainly our cherished religious rituals seem to be in the tomb. And it is hard to hear the dire predictions of expected deaths from the COVID-19 virus, a disease that continues to spread through our country and into our communities seemingly out of nowhere. We are isolated at a time when we need each other. It is discouraging.
I hope that while we are out of the church you have been able to keep your prayer life going. I hope you have been able to set aside a space at home where you can sit and pray with your family or alone, where you can read scripture, light a candle, sing, look at a beautiful image, or just sit and be still in God’s presence. I hope you are able to keep the faith and I am well aware that it may be really hard for some of us.
But remember that our faith is centered on the power of God to even raise the dead. Death never has the last word for Christians because we believe, we know, that God acted in history to raise Jesus who had been crucified, who died, and was buried. We believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
And so on this fifth Sunday in Lent we hear familiar stories again but maybe in a more personal way. God can raise what has died and give it new life, breathe new life even into old dried up bones. The prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones gave hope to the Hebrew people who had been carried away into exile after their nation was ravaged and their Temple was burned to the ground. They thought they were done for as a people, as a religious community, their worship places gone, but God said to them through the prophet, Look! I am your God and you are my people. I am with you wherever you are, and I will give you new life wherever you are. I will bring you back to life from what seemed like death.
And then we hear the story of Lazarus, Jesus’ friend over whom he wept, brother of Mary and Martha, dead for days in the tomb (remember how Martha in the King James Version put it: “by this time he stinketh”). Lazarus was dead and buried and bound by his linen death-wrappings and yet when Jesus called his name and told him to come out, he came out, still bound but newly alive, no longer dead. And Jesus asked his friends to unbind Lazarus and let him go.
Our St. Michael’s community, as are all others of our sister church communities all over our country and the world, cannot be together right now and maybe that feels like death. Maybe it feels that we ourselves and as a community are in a tomb and pretty soon a stone is going to be rolled across the entrance to shut us in, or worse, shut us out. We may fear, secretly or otherwise, that what’s inside no longer has life.
But this is our story, our central and most sacred story, that God brings life out of death. Death never has the last word. Jesus called Lazarus to come out, and yes, he needed a little help from his friends, but he came back from that dark empty place. It couldn’t hold him. This is our story, this is our God, who acts even in our own world to bring life even in the midst of death. This is what Easter is. Hold on to that hope because it’s coming.
We are not there yet, of course. We are deep in the darkness right now and we will probably be there for some time. But this is our hope. There will be life again - and, like the resurrected Jesus, it may be changed in ways we will need to learn to understand as we begin to experience it. Life may be changed, we may be changed, our community may be changed. These all will be changed, actually, for no one goes through a time like this without being (perhaps profoundly) changed. And change is hard, but necessary for new life. And through it all, we will always be under the care of our shepherd, Jesus, who himself experienced death but now has been raised in glory.
Thanks be to God.