Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 17, 2002
St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati
(Based on Ezechiel 37:12-14; Ps 130:1-8; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45)
"He asked me: Son of man, can these bones come to life?"
We have to imagine ourselves where Ezechiel finds himself. He is on a plain outside the city of Babylon. His people have been dragged from their homes and led away as slaves. Everything that was of value, that gave them life is gone. Especially the center of their religious life, the Temple.
Perhaps the closest thing we can compare their experience to is the scenes we see on TV, of crowds of refugees in camps around our world.
The bones Ezechiel sees are the whole house of Israel. "Our bones are dried up; our hope is lost; we are cut off."
Doesn't it sound familiar? A picture of our church, in the face of the sexual abuse tragedy? A picture of our city, in the face of the riots? A picture of our country and the whole world after 9/11?
The liturgy today is about the promise of life, the gift our God wants to give us. But it is a gift that depends on our willingness and ability to name and confront the full reality of our deaths. Life can come out of death only if we are not afraid to cry out that we are dying.
Can these bones come to life?
Ezechiel allows this scene to shock him. He doesn't focus on the kings who brought this about by their idolatry and abandoning the covenant and trying to escape exile by making alliances with powerful kings. The Lord doesn't just get him to look at the scene. He is told to walk all around it, to pass through the bones, to taste the full reality. These bones are his people. They are ourselves, "the whole house of Israel". Our church, our city, our country and world.
We did not do the terrible deeds these priests did; we did not cover up the wrong, as bishops did. But we belong to that one body, they are us. It's too easy to make it only a matter of these priests and bishops. We are the church.
We have violated the dreams of our young boys and girls; we have put them down and not listened to them; we have tried to make them like us; we have treated them as burdens. They have learned their hostility from us. I think one of the most painful experiences for me is to see parents verbally abusing their children in the supermarket or mall. This is not 'teaching them discipline'; it is violence.
We complain about our failing schools -- and won't use our resources to support school levies. We participate in conversation which depict good teachers, who work hard against tough odds trying to educate our kids, as grasping unionists. When was the last time you praised a teacher? Or those who administer these schools -- whom we depict as cold, callous bureaucrats.
And in our city it's too easy to make it a matter of Charley Luken and Damon Lynch and those supporting the boycott. We are our city. You and I did not riot on the streets of our city. But what steps have we taken to bridge the gap between white and black, between the haves and the have-nots? We're troubled by panhandlers on our downtown streets -- but how are we supporting measures that can alleviate the homelessness that reduces people to panhandling?
You and I have not personally been involved in supporting political regimes that oppress their people; we do not engage in arms sales that prop up unjust dictators. But what have we done to learn about other cultures, about the causes of world poverty, about the effects of our country's policies? We are the world. It's not about Bush and bin Laden, it's about us.
The story of Lazarus is not a case of just 'bringing a man back to life', to the kind of life he had already experienced. That's the way the story would be reported in a headline in The National Inquirer in the checkout line. Wow! What a sensation! And it's not even about 'life after death'. The people in the Gospel story already knew that: when they heard that Lazarus was already dead, their reaction was, hey, he's saved already. No, it's about a kind of life being offered to us right now, in the face of whatever deaths we are experiencing.
It's about a Spirit that is breathed into our bones, that knits the fragmented bones together and brings us out of our present graves and gives us a home. Now.
Let me tell you an experience I had.
When I was teaching at our seminary in the 60's, we had a young Cuban Jesuit who was a refugee from Castro's Cuba. He had just been ordained, an occasion for great rejoicing. Only eight days later he was celebrating for a Hispanic community an hour away. And he became suddenly ill and died. At the seminary we were in the midst of a summer theology institute, with 100 guests from around the country. The plan was to have the funeral Mass at the parish where he had been celebrating, and then bring the body back to Woodstock for burial.
His family had come and we wanted the burial ceremony to be as welcoming as possible. None of us could preach in Spanish but there was a priest in the program who had served as a missionary for many years in Chile, and he offered to lead it.
We all went out to the cemetery to greet the funeral procession. And as the dead man's family got out of the car, as is the custom of that Latin people, they were wailing and screaming loudly. "It's fate! How could God do this?"
The coffin was laid on the straps; the priest stood on one side of the grave facing the family directly opposite him. As he read the Gospel story of Lazarus he made it very personal. When he got to the dialogue between Jesus and Mary, he looked at the family and directed the question at them, "Do you believe? Do you believe that Roman lives?" And an amazing thing happened. They realized the question was real and it was for them to answer. All the crying and wailing stopped on the spot. There was a brief instant of silence; they clearly asked themselves the question. And they nodded and said quietly, "we believe". And I realized that that must have been the way the passage was constructed, for use in the catechesis of the early church. The question is put to us: do you believe that I am resurrection?
Our catechumens in the RCIA process have been asked a succession of questions on the Sundays of Lent. First they were asked: do you believe that Jesus is light to overcome our blindness. Then they were asked: do you believe he is living water, to quench our thirst. Today they -- and we -- are asked: do you believe Jesus is life, in the midst of death?
The question is placed before us as individuals, but also as a people: as the people of God in the face of the sexual abuse crisis; as the people of our city, in the face of antagonism and division; as the people of a world deeply fragmented. Can these bones come to life?
Listen again to the final words in the story of Ezechiel: "I have promised, and I will do it, says the Lord."