This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 13 March 2005. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Ezekiel 37: 1 – 14, Romans 8: 6 – 11, and John 11: 1 – 45.
I know that it will sound like a cliché but our lives are a journey. We are on a journey that begins at birth and ends at death. It may be that we have no control over where or why we are born but it is clear that we do have some control about where our souls will be when we die. This journey that we take is an individual journey but one in which we sometimes accompany each other. Our paths will cross and entwine many times with countless others and how we interact will determine where each path will lead. But there are times when we must occasionally stop and see what direction we are taking and, if necessary, make the changes in that direction.
On this journey, it seems as if fear and hatred dominate our lives. Instead of using the gifts that we have been given, we seek to hoard them. We respond in fear without thought. We let our hatred for others guide and direct us when we should be working to remove that hatred.
We read in the paper that cigarette lighters are banned from airplanes, though only one person has every tried to use such a device in a terrorist activity. Yet, terrorists or individuals believed to be terrorists can go into any gun store in the country and buy just about any weapon they desire, and it is perfectly legal. Are we looking in the right direction?
There are lists in this country that identify potential terrorists or those believed to have links to terrorist cells. But no one knows who is on the list (or else, why is it that so many individuals can still get on airplanes). And, if by chance your name is on the list, there is no way to determine how it got on the list or how to get it off.
The killing of the Federal judge’s father and mother in Chicago, the killing of the judge and courthouse staff in Atlanta point this out. Are we too blasé about the nature of security? Are we too quick to come to judgement when it comes to determining a suspect? Were it not for a simple traffic violation, the Chicago police would have never found out who the killer in the Lefkow case was. Oh, I am sure that they may have eventually determined his identity but they were stumped as to the direction to go and it was only the actions of the individual himself that lead to a conclusion.
The problem is that the various authorities in Chicago were thinking in the wrong terms. Because of the threats made by Matthew Hale and the nature of his beliefs, the authorities assumed that he was somehow involved. This would not have been an unreasonable assumption concerning Mr. Hale’s background and personal philosophy. But there was no evidence to link him to the crime and, when in the light of evidence, you must make some assumptions about where to look. I am not so sure that I would have made a different assumption, given the public statement of the facts. I am not saying that Mr. Hale is not without guilt and his previous actions certainly warrant suspicion but it is interesting how we are quick to judge when we have so little to use as evidence.
Now, we are hearing that the war in Iraq may turn out to be a good thing. How can anyone think that war and violence can be a good thing? Yes, it appears that democracy is gaining a foothold in the Middle East but will it last? Has anything been done to remove the root causes of terror from that area or, for that matter, from any part of this world? Isn’t it interesting to note that the one Muslim nation where the United States is welcomed and wanted is Indonesia? The people there see the efforts to aid their country after the tsunami and they are thankful for the presence of Americans and the United States. But our presence in other parts of this area is not humanitarian and our presence is not always welcome.
In our own country, we make laws that favor the rich and powerful. Tax breaks are given to the rich and the loopholes that give the poor and middle class a break are closed. Congress changed the bankruptcy laws this week and the ones most affected by this will be the poor and lower income individuals and families in this country. The reason that many of these individuals and families are filing for bankruptcy is rising medical costs. But Congress has done nothing to alleviate the rising cost of medical care and then limiting those who can declare bankruptcy removes a solution, albeit not an attractive one, from those most affected. The last political campaign was about moral values but poverty and sickness and oppression must not be moral enough to be considered. There seems to be a call for a spiritual rebirth in this country. But are those who make the call the ones who should be leading it? Is it not about time that we, individually and collectively, change the direction of our journey?
It is the same question that Ezekial was considering when God took him to the field of bones. The people of Israel were in exile in Babylon when Ezekial’s prophecy was proclaimed. The first part of the prophecy was about Ezekial telling the people in exile of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Far from home, the people saw their hope for the future slowly disappearing. With the loss of the temple, the hope of the people in exile to return to their homeland seemed far from certain. And following the prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, Ezekial was told that his wife was dying. But God directed Ezekial not to openly mourn the loss of his wife just as he was not to openly mourn the loss of the temple. Rather, Ezekial was to pronounce the judgement of God against all the nations of the area, not just Israel alone.
Following the fall of Jerusalem, Ezekiel’s message would be one of consoling hope. There would be a revival, a restoration and glorious future as the redeemed and perfected kingdom of God in this world. But it was not to be the world before the destruction of the temple; rather, it was to be a new one. The bones in the graveyard from today’s passage are indicative of the nature of the people of Israel at the time of this reading. We have a scene of hopelessness and despair. But it is to these bones that Ezekial is to prophesy, to bring hope to the despair, to bring promise of a better future.
The promise of hope and the restoration of one’s life are the theme of the Gospel reading today. But it is also a reminder that a new life in Christ means giving up the old life of the world around us.
First, the fact that Jesus did not go into the tomb should tell us that the new life in Christ requires action on our part. Was it possible that Lazarus did not want to come out of the tomb? How far along the journey after death had he traveled in those four days? How far had he gone down the way of clarity, truth, and reality? How deeply transformed had he become as time and space separated his soul from the prison of blood, bone, and brain?
When Jesus called him by name and commanded him to come out, did Lazarus not want to shout, "NO! Not even for you, my friend and my Master! Please, NO!" With what sense of contempt or ambivalence did Lazarus slip through his grave clothes into his body and back into his troubles? Could Lazarus have refused to respond?
But Lazarus did respond. He came out of the tomb double bound by the winding sheets and the limits of his old life. He brought himself out, burdened with the fetid grave clothes that he would need again and the feeble body in which he would die again. But how can the life that he will now live be anything like the life that he was leading. How can any one who has met Christ lead the same life as before?
We are faced with the irony that in bringing Lazarus back to life, Jesus was ensuring that His life would end. Following this episode, the Sanhedrin gathered together in the meeting where Caiaphas presents his troubling prophecy. Worried more about what the Roman occupiers would do and the attention given to Jesus by the people, the Sanhedrin ask, "What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation." But Caiaphas responded, "You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish." So "from that day on they took counsel on how to put him to death." (John 11: 47b – 50, 53)
Aware that this was happening, Jesus will withdraw to Ephraim. But the people kept coming to see Lazarus. So the chief priests plot to put him to death as well, because many were going away believing in Jesus. (Adapted from "Back to Life" by Suzanne Guthrie in "Living by the word", Christian Century, March 8, 2005)
Meeting Jesus is a pretty dramatic event. It is not always going to be like the encounter Lazarus had but it will be one to change one’s life. And in this meeting we find that we must make a choice about what our life will be like after the encounter.
Paul writes to the Romans that setting your mind on the flesh results in death but setting your mind on the Spirit will result in life and peace. Those who are in the flesh, i.e., those who live in this time and place and find their power in the present, will be hostile to God simply because in accepting God, one gives up any pretense to the present. Those who came to see Lazarus were said to leave believing in Jesus. Believe did not originally mean believing in a set of doctrines or teachings; in both Greek and Latin its roots mean "to give one’s heart to". The "heart" is the self at its deepest level. Believing, therefore, does not consist of giving one’s mental assent to something, but involves a much deeper level of one’s self. Believing in Jesus does not mean believing doctrines about Him. Rather, it means to give one’s heart, one’s self at it deepest level, to Jesus the Living Lord, the side of God turned towards us, the face of God, the Lord who is also the Sprit.
Believing in Jesus also means that we move from a secondhand knowledge to a firsthand knowledge of Jesus. Believing in Jesus means that we move from simply having heard about Jesus to being in a relationship with the Spirit of Christ. (Adapted from Meeting Jesus Again by Marcus Borg, page 137) It means that we give up all that we claim here on earth in order to claim a place in God’s kingdom.
We are on a journey, one that takes us from birth to death. We are at a moment in time where we are on a journey from Christ’s birth to Christ’s death. We know that Christ’s death brings eternal life and victory over sin and death. We do not know what our death will bring. But as Paul wrote in Galatians 2: 20, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2: 20)
We have a chance today to make a change in our lives. Our journeys today take us by a graveyard of old and dry bones. Locked in the ways of the world around us, we know that those bones can never come back to life. But we hear an old spiritual song in our minds, "Them Bones", and we hear the last phrase of the song, "now here the word of the Lord". And in hearing the word of the Lord, we see the bones brought back to life. It is not our belief in the world around us that brings us back to life but rather our belief in Christ. We see the bones and know that life is there if we but believe.