Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent

April 10, 2011

Church of the Resurrection, Cincinnati


(Based on Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45)


Let’s begin by going back to Ash Wednesday evening.


We began our Lenten journey that evening by asking just what Lent is supposed to be really about. And the answer was that it’s a special time to deepen our appreciation of who Jesus is. We made the commitment to search out the mind and heart of Jesus. Paul tells us in the epistle to the Philippians “Have among yourselves the same attitude as Jesus.”


And each successive week we have received one more insight into that mystery. On the first Sunday we found him in the desert, being tested—as we are tested. Will he  see himself as a messiah who comes in earthly power and prestige, or yield to the mission given to him by the Father: to be the suffering servant announced by the prophets? A week later he was on the mount of Transfiguration, in conversation with Moses and Elijah. We learn that he stands in the same line as those great prophets. But we learned more: we heard the voice of the Father proclaiming once more that “this is my Son; listen to him.” Then we met him as he sat by the well in Samaria and asked the woman for a drink, revealing to her that he is the font of living water springing up to eternal life. And last week he was revealing himself to the blind beggar as the light of the world.


Gradually we are learning that he is the answer to every one of our deepest longings.


We come to him with our thirst for life; our desire for wisdom and insight and understanding in the face of a dark and confusing world. And in the weeks after Easter we will come to know him as the Bread of Life, satisfying our hunger for meaning.


He is the answer to our hunger and thirst, the light that dispels all ignorance—because he lives in total intimacy with the One he called Father.


That’s all well and good, and worthy of our celebration and joy and profound thanksgiving.


But after hunger and thirst and ignorance and darkness there remains one last enemy: the last barrier, the last result of the mystery of sin. What about death?


When we allow ourselves to think of death we are haunted by the words of that other prophet, Qoheleth. We may not even recognize his name; his book used to be called “Ecclesiastes.” But his distressing view we know all too well: if it all ends in death, what’s the use? Why bother? If death prevails, then everything is vanity of vanities. We humans are like the grass of the field, which springs up in the morning and withers and is gone by noon.


And so we turn, hungering and thirsting and in confusion, for an answer in the Gospel.


But before we can hear that welcome word the church takes us back to the time of Ezekiel. We need that context if we are to appreciate the gospel experience.


The Israelite people are in exile in Babylon. “In exile.” We here in America can scarcely imagine all that is packed into those two words. Perhaps only those in Japan or in refugee camps in the Middle East and China and around our globe can comprehend all those words imply.


As a people the Israelites are dead. All is gone: the Temple, and the land, and all that identified them and made them who they were. They had lost everything, not to a natural disaster, but to a foreign people who mocked all they held sacred. The Psalmist expressed it in one of the saddest images in Scripture:


“By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept

      when we remembered Zion.

On the aspens of that land

      we hung up our harps,

Though our captors asked of us

      the lyrics of our songs,

And our despoilers urged us to be joyous:

      “Sing for us the songs of Zion!”


How could we sing a song of the Lord

      in a foreign land?


If I forget you, Jerusalem,

      may my right hand be forgotten!

May my tongue cleave to my palate

      if I remember you not,

If I place not Jerusalem

      ahead of my joy.” (Psalm 137:1-6)


Indeed: How can we sing the songs of the Lord in an alien land?


And into that desolate landscape comes the voice, and the vision, of the prophet.

(And here I need to register one of my pet peeves. Why do the people who select these readings for the liturgy so often chop them up so that they become like untethered scraps, with all their power diminished? Are they afraid if the reading gets too long people will walk out? Especially in today’s reading from Ezekiel they would deprive us of some of the richest imagery in all of Scripture. Well, we won’t let ourselves be deprived! We listen to the full text:


      The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

   I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”

      Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!  This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.  I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’”

      So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

      Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’”  So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

      Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’  Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’” (Ez 37:1-14)

How dry these bones of exile! “Our hope is lost, and we are cut off!”


The Lord puts before us that ultimate question: “Son of man, can these bones come to life?” And with the prophet we can only say, “Lord God, you alone know that.” Only then are we ready to receive the gift that is promised in the Gospel.


And so we enter the story and experience of Jesus and Lazarus.


Lazarus is not ‘ill;’ he’s not ‘dying;’ he’s not in Hospice. He is dead. He’s shut up in a tomb, with a rock blocking out all light and life.


And Jesus? We read what has been described as the most moving three words in the scriptures. “And Jesus wept.” The one whom he loved, his friend, is gone. Early on in the story he told his disciples not to worry; that it was all taking place so that the glory of God would be revealed. But that doesn’t take away the painful human reality.


And then he calls his friend out of the tomb. Out of darkness. Out of death.


Son of man, can these bones come to life?


And we learn that the answer is yes! He can conquer even death. The promise of Ezekiel will be fulfilled. The power of the grave is broken. Life prevails over death. And we receive another revelation of who he is:


      “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever lives and believes in me will never           die.” Paul tells us “the One who raised Christ from the dead will give life to our             mortal bodies also, through his Spirit living in us.”


Dry bones can rise. And that includes not only the dry bones of our physical bodies but every form of dry bones:


The dry bones of broken relationships and division will be raised to life through acts of forgiveness and reconciliation. The dry bones of hostility and violence and war can be transformed by deeds of justice and peace. The dry bones of exclusion and margination of the undocumented and disenfranchised can take on flesh by the way we receive those who look and speak and dress and sing differently from us.


And yes, even the dry bones of a church stripped naked and shamed by the abuse of its children will rise to new life one day.


Even after four days. Or four months, or four years, or four hundred years. The breath of the Spirit will prevail over rotting flesh.


Why? Because the Father always hears the prayer of Jesus, and his prayer is ”that wherever I am you also may be.” We overcome death by our faith in the promise of the Lord.


The story doesn’t end with the raising of Lazarus, of course. There is still Gethsemani, there is still Calvary, to come—for each of us as individuals, and for ous church.


But we know with whom we walk the way. Jesus the Resurrection and the Life.


And yes, we will sing the songs of the Lord—even in this alien land. . . .