Welcome to our second Sunday streaming broadcast of Morning Prayer in this time of the COVID Crisis.
Is it so hard to believe that Lent is almost over? The 5th Sunday in Lent is already upon us and the dramatic events of Holy week beginning with Palm Sunday are but one week away.
Our sojourn into the desert of this barren Lenten existence was first greeted with a memory. We were reminded of that which is certain- since the very dawn of creation where God, formed us out of the dust of the earth and then BREATHED life into us.
Back on Ash Wednesday we greeted the Lenten path with a memory, “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
“ “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, O Lord God, you know.”…“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.”
The reading of the valley of the Dry bones from Ezekiel is one of my favorite Old Testament readings. The best line of all is “Mortal, can these bones live?” Can these bones live?
Ezekiel was the prophet among those deported when the Babylonians first took Jerusalem in 598 BC. That the bones are dry symbolizes the lifelessness of the exiles- they are now strangers in a strange land, they have been stripped of all that they have and many are slaves. They lack the hope that one day the Kingdom of Israel will be restored to its former glory as it was under the rule of King David.
Event the Psalmist sends forth a prayer from personal trouble, “Out of the depths, I cry to you O lord, ; Lord hear my voice.” Is this not our prayer too at times?
Especially now when we are told to stay home. In my phone calls to some of you this past week you tell me about the present circumstances and protocols that say you cannot visit family and friends in care homes, or hospitals, when some of you are now shut-in or working from home
or are even out of work
because the industry and the economy are in crisis- THIS is a time where we find ourselves in the dry valley. It is the place were we pray to the Almighty: “our soul waits for the Lord, more than watchman for the morning.”
Mary and Martha waited for Christ, to come to the aid of their brother Lazarus, who is ill; and when Jesus shows up two days later, Martha said to Jesus, “Where were you?” Why didn’t you come when we called you, Lazarus was ill and you could have healed him, now he’s dead and it’s too late. In fact, he’s been dead four days now.
In the wisdom of the Church, the lectionary once again lends itself to some of the most beautiful and poignant verses in scripture.
That in the midst of Lent, a time where we corporately and with great intent go to great lengths to point out to ourselves and to others the miserable sinners that we are and that we are more and more in need of God’s salvation. Yes, dear friends even in the Episcopal church we can say that we need to be Saved. We are but dust and to dust we shall return. We need salvation from loneliness, salvation from self-centeredness, salvation from stark individuality that cares for nothing but itself, salvation from the hunger of power and control. We like the Samaritan woman desire the salvation of the life giving water, we long to go wash the mud off of our eyes that we may begin to see the world in a new way.
That those readings of the Samaritan woman, the blind beggar, and rising of Lazarus appear in this Lenten season is no accident. They all are about renewal, about community coming truly alive.
These stories are about restoration, not of individuals, both about communities being redeemed. The bones and Lazarus both stand to represent not just individuals, but those individuals participating in community. We should look beyond the obvious, that Lazarus’ resurrection is strikingly similar to the account we soon will hear of Jesus’ resurrection.
When Ezekiel, asks, “How can these bones live?” The prophet is speaking to us as a community.
There is no doubt that many times our lives are like those bones set before Ezekiel. We feel without hope, that there is no life within us. Out of the depths we cry to God, “Can these bones live?!” There are times when we as individuals are metaphorically, dead and living in darkness what seems to separate us from Christ is a large rock that seems so immovable. And yet, Christ is there weeping with the power to roll away the stone and cry out , “Lazarus, come out!” All of a sudden our darkness turns to light and we can emerge from the darkness and let loose the ties that bind us. That the obstacles that block our path will be cast away, that we will be raised anew
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.
All this is great heady stuff of poets and preachers. But what of all of us and members of this community? How will we continue to be people of the resurrection?
I think we are in an exciting time. Yes. Exciting. We are NOT becoming like the bones of Ezekiel that have form and muscle, but no life. God continues to breathe life into our bones, the Holy Sprit is very much in and among all of us. When Ezekiel is told to speak to the breath- the Hebrew word there is ru-ach. Unlike the “wind” that blows the dust, ru-ach is breath that animates us. In our Hawaiian context this is the “Ha”. The ru-ach is the same breath that was breathed into us at the dawn of creation. There is a spiritual quality to the ru-ach as there is a spiritual quality to our whole self.
It seems odd I know to speak of this now, because it seems that this is might be more of an Easter Sermon than a 5th Sunday of Lent one, but don’t you see? That’s the point. We are all people of resurrection. We are Easter people. We are the people whom bones have been brought back to life, where breath of life has been resorted. We are the people who time and say, like the Samaritan woman, “Give me this life giving water.” And through the water of baptism we have been reborn, raised anew in the power of the Holy Spirit.
We are the people who in ways are blind. Our Lord comes along makes some mud and asks us to go wash and we can see the world in a new way. Jesus weeps and rolls away the stone, and calls us by name. We are Easter people.
That Easter joy cannot be fully understood nor appreciated without the darkness that is the “depths out of which we cry.” The valley of the dry bones. And of course I know it’s hard to talk about being Easter people when I know we will not be physically together on Easter Day.
Even though we cannot be together on Easter morning, the stone is still rolled away, and the risen Christ lives among us. In Christ, death does not win even when there is evidence to the contrary.
Lazarus was in the tomb for days, and Mary and Martha were in their grief, And we might think that this would be the end of it. Martha thought so- she says to him, but he’s been in the tomb for four days. Christ speaks to darkness of the tomb and told Lazarus to come out.
God in Christ is speaking to us even now in this moment and time of our darkness, he is standing with us as we look out in the valley of the dry bones. We ask him, “can these bones live? Our hope is lost and we are cut off completely.” And God, says to us, “ I will bring you up from your graves, O my people, I will put my spirit with you, and YOU SHALL LIVE,”
How will these bones live? (Self) How will these bones live ? (others) The breath of God already dwells among us. Paul in Romans says “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.”
In Christ we have been brought up from our graves. At the font of baptism we have been reborn; in our prayers we lay bare our bones, and sinews, and flesh that Christ may once again speak to the breath call us as he did Lazarus, and say “Come out!” and bring life to our mortal bodies.
To say that we find ourselves in unusual times is an understatement. In many, many ways, the norms of our world have been turned upside down. When we have spent time and energy figuring out how to welcome friends and new comers to St. Timothy’s and our sanctuary every Sunday, we are now observing social distancing and tell folks to not gather in groups of more than 10 and to join us online. This morning, I am here in an empty church and instead of preaching to all your smiling and eager faces, I stare into the little black dot that is a camera on the back of an iPad. Thank you to all of you joining us on Facebook this morning, if you missed the live broadcast, you might be watching as a recording.
If Facebook and livestreaming aren’t enough, we have the gospel story of the healing of a man blind from birth and in our Old Testament the anointing of David as King by Samuel. Together these readings along with the Epistles are about vision and light.
There is a trap set for us people of faith in this time of the Coronavirus. Its unavoidable, cause all we have to do is go to the grocery store to find naked shelves. We only need to look at the news, or around town, or in our own lives, to ask the disciples’ question: “Who sinned” and thus caused this to happen? It’s a powerful and poignant question. John’s gospel is full of wonderful theology and there is a powerful metaphor of spiritual blindness, in this story. For now, however I want to focus on this question: How can an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God allow totally undeserved suffering to exist in the world? A world that God has created and loves?
Jesus saw a man blind from birth and his disciples asked him, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind? The old and ancient belief was that a malady of such as this blindness was from and of God. Things that happen have to have a reason or an explanation- they have to make sense if we are going to wrap our minds around such a thing.
But I have to tell you, I am having a hard time wrapping my mind around this virus. I understand the science of it all- the way it is transmitted and that we should thoroughly wash our hands; I understand the need for social distancing, for modifying store hours, switching over to takeout and even moving our worship to a new platform. But for all these measures to place such burdens: financial, social, and even on our own relationship with the Church and the sacraments, possibly even God, it feels at times that we have been struck with a darkness and we cannot see the way ahead.
There are all kinds of things that can be said about this story of The Man Who Was Born Blind: things about sin, about blindness both literal and metaphorical, about miracles, about how societies divide themselves, the barriers we erect for those not just like us and so on. He is an outcast. He is forced by societal norms to live on the margins of society and to beg for his living..
Yet, the most fundamental purpose of the story as it works in John’s gospel is to illuminate. It is to shed light on the essence of who Jesus is.
Jesus says of the man born blind that through this man, the works of God can be made real or manifest. Does that mean that God MADE the man blind in order to demonstrate or illustrate a point? I certainly don’t believe that. What I do believe is that the place to look for God in this tragedy, or in any tragedy, is not at the front-end. Not at the point of causing it to happen.
Other Christian brothers and sisters will disagree with me by but I cannot conceive of a God sitting in heaven, passing out cancer cells, birth defects, earthquakes, strokes, car wrecks, Coronaviruses and blindness like some hideous dealer at a high-stakes cosmic game of poker.
Instead, the place to find God is the same place where we find Jesus, who is after all God in human form- the Incarnation, as John also put it, the Word made flesh who dwells among us. Where is God- Where is Jesus? In the middle of the mess, in the very worst parts of it, working there to bring forth something new—not something that fixes the mess, but something that redeems and transforms it.
That is where God is found- the God who is active and real among us– the God who has wounds on his hands and feet and side- the God who knows suffering. The God who knows social distancing and isolation in his passion and death and therefore is the God who SHARES our suffering and pain and who takes it into himself in the vastness of his compassion and love.
God didn’t poke out the man’s eyes before he was born, so he would be written down in a book of other stories or become a handy sermon illustration for Jesus. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says: “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.”
My point is this: that even in the midst of undeserved, inexplicable pain and suffering, God can be found. Found in real and in transforming ways.
This real and transforming God’s workings are mysterious, and often chooses the most unlikely persons to be messengers, prophets, and servants of God’s will. Samuel anoints the next king at God’s behest for reasons known only to God and does so defying all norms and expectations. The cultural norm would have been to choose from among the older sons, instead the youngest son David is chosen.
Jesus says: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.” Notice that Jesus says “We.” We must work the works of God. Paul says in Ephesians that “in the Lord,[we] are light. Live as children of light for the fruit of the light is all that is good and right and true.” Tragedy, pain, and suffering are calls and opportunities to ministry and to service. This may or may not be a call to fix whatever the problem is – often, as in the case of this Coronavirus we simply cannot do that – but it is always a call to reach out and to care. It is always a call to discover, to bring, and to share the presence of God in the heart of the tragedy. We are still the Church after all. And the Church is no stranger to tragedy as the Body of Christ in this world it finds itself in the middle of this present time.
But terrible things don’t happen so that we can have an opportunity to minister and serve. God doesn’t work that way, either. But we are called to ministry and service. This was Jesus’ response to the reality of tragedy and suffering—and ministry and service is our call as well.
What is our response? What can we do as a congregation that now must stay in our homes and away from the Church and tune in to worship on our tablets and phones and computer screens? Well for one, we will do what we do best. We will pray for one another and for the world. We will still worship together and offer to God our praise and the longings of our heart. We will listen and feast on God’s holy Word and allow God to continue to nourish our souls on the sacrament of God’s very story of his dream for us and his kingdom.
But we will also live as children of the light. We are a people of hope and of resurrection; whose Christian story knows of hardship and knows that this pandemic will come to an end and that we will be together again worshiping in this space.
We are children of light who knows in our heart of hearts that the Church, the Body of Christ, is not a building or but the people of God joined in prayer and service.
We are children of light who will check in our neighbors, pool and share our resources, feed the hungry in body and spirit; and together we will find this as an opportunity to see NEW light and NEW ways that God is at work in our church and in the world.
We are Children of the Light, healed of the darkness that blinds us to the glory of God. We will wash the mud from our eyes and behold the love that God has for us; a love so deep, so broad, so high that in the midst of this pandemic, amidst the sick and the grief stricken, the businessman and the worker; God is present in it. And through this difficult time, God will ultimately transform it, helping us to say, “Lord, I believe” and answer God’s call to love and serve. AMEN.
The Rev. Daniel L. Leatherman is priest in charge of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church.