Saturday, April 9, 2011

We're Not Dead Yet

[A sermon for Saint Faith's Anglican Church for RCL Lent 5A with a focus on Ezekiel 37.1-14 and John 11.1-45]

         + In the Name of God:  Source of life, Word of redemption and Spirit of wisdom.  Amen.

         Two thousand six hundred and eight years ago the people of Judah suffered the first of two political catastrophes.  The Babylonian empire had conquered those political states who had befriended and protected Judah from the larger and more powerful political states who surrounded it.  With this protection gone Judah could not resist the Babylonians and, in 597 bce, the Babylonians defeated the Judeans, killing the king and taking the king’s son and the ruling class into exile.

         Among the exiles was a member of the priestly family by the name of Ezekiel.  In his eyes the subjugation of Judah was the consequence of the people failing to live up to their obligations to God as these obligations were enshrined in the Torah, especially in those obligations found in Leviticus.  The old structures and systems were destroyed by the Babylonians, acting as God’s agents, in order that a renewed people could eventually be restored to the land and God could dwell among them honorably in a renewed temple.

         In 586 bce the second catastrophe occurred.  Those Judeans remaining in Judah rebelled against the Babylonians and, after their revolt failed, the city of Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed.  The remaining Judeans were either killed, taken into exile or so reduced that they ceased to be recognizable as a people.  This catastrophe marked a turning point for Ezekiel.  His earlier words had been ones filled with judgement and condemnation.  Now he became a prophet who spoke words of consolation that included the promise of a restoration of the people to the land and the building of a new temple to honour their covenant with God.

         It is in this context that we hear the well-known vision of the ‘valley of the dry bones’.  It may be that Ezekiel has this vision on a battlefield, as his eyes take in the bodies of the slain and the destruction that accompanied the battle.  It may also be that Ezekiel has this vision in Babylon, surrounded by his Judean sisters and brothers who are devastated by the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.  It may their voices who speak the words of desolation:  “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”  (Ezekiel 37.11b)

         In the centuries since Ezekiel’s vision both Jews and Christians have understood this vision to point to the resurrection of the dead on the day of judgement; it is a future event, a faith event, rather than a vision that will be fulfilled in the actual historical lives of those who hear the prophet’s words.  But it is more likely that Ezekiel’s words are directed to the exiles and are words of promise in the face of destruction.  Even though they have reached the very depths of national existence, God’s last word to them is not ‘death’ but ‘life’.  Ezekiel shares with them one of the foundations of Jewish and Christian belief:  God is at work in the kosmos to bring about the renewal of creation --- even when the evidence around us may argue for God’s absence or inactivity.  We cannot know the mind of God, but we might gain glimpses of God’s purposes in order to hold onto the hope that sustains us.

         Let us move forward some six hundred years.  In Roman-occupied Palestine a Jewish teacher travels the country proclaiming not that the kingdom of God is coming, but that the kingdom of God is already present in the world.  To both the Jewish and the Roman authorities this message, even when spoken of as a ‘spiritual’ kingdom, is a direct threat to their power.  They know full well that what begins as ‘spiritual’ can quickly become ‘material’.  But this teacher’s popularity and his ability to avoid the crossing the line into blasphemy and sedition prevents the authorities from taking action.

         Then he plays right into their hands.  His friend, Lazarus, is taken ill and, after a few days’ delay, Jesus travels to Bethany.  At first it seems that he will only do what is expected and console Mary and Martha at the loss of their brother, but then the unexpected happens.  Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, an act that crosses the line.  In the portion of John’s gospel that follow today’s reading but are not read, we hear these words from the Jewish authorities:  “What are we to do?  This man  is performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”  (John 11.47b-48)  Before we condemn them too quickly and too harshly, let us not forget that their fears are real.  Their people have experienced this before at the hands of the Babylonians and at the hands of the successors of Alexander the Great.

         In John’s gospel the raising of Lazarus is set in a dramatic framework.  In chapter 10, just before our reading, Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd who will lay down his life for the flock.  After the raising of Lazarus Jesus will travel to Jerusalem and make his triumphal entry, an event certain to generate anxiety on the part of the Jewish authorities and unwelcome curiosity on the part of the Romans.  What may appear to some to be a miracle, a sign of God’s work in the world right now, is seen by others as a direct threat to the status quo.

         Let us jump forward more than nineteen centuries to the year 2011.  In 2011 so-called ‘mainline’ Christians in Canada and the United States found themselves in a valley of dry bones.  The boom years of the 1950’s had been left far behind and many congregations found themselves in large buildings with small congregations.  As if there were not a serious enough problem, these same congregations, especially those on the Pacific coast of North America, were amidst a society in which organized religion was being undervalued by various groups:  

  • a resurgent atheism saw religion as a threat to civil society and progress; 
  • many people, young and old, saw religion as irrelevant to their lives and unconnected with daily life;
  • being ‘spiritual’, a manner of life with multiple meanings, was good but being ‘religious’ bad and
  • Canadian ‘mainline’ churches faced the damage they had done to aboriginal peoples and cultures.

More conservative Christians were gaining the stage with the appearance of growth, mainly fueled by immigration from other parts of the world, and Islam, once a ‘foreign’ religion, now claimed the allegiance of a growing number of people.

         In some places people began to say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”  Yet, in a few places, there were Christians who realized that they had something to offer the society and that the present crisis also was an opportunity.  Rather than moan or lament, they called upon their God to send the Spirit upon them to breathe life into the dry bones and to remove the grave clothes that some had begun to wind around themselves.

         These Christians realized that the Christian way of life is a movement more than it is an institution.  While buildings and traditions and constitutions and canons can be helpful, they cannot be confused with the movement itself.  The movement is characterized by a community of people who have chosen to follow Jesus of Nazareth as the way, the truth and the life and to share that way, that truth and that life with others with open hands, open hearts and open minds.  Those who follow this way, this truth and this life 

  • gather around the Scriptures, the font and the table to witness to the God who breathes life into dry bones and raises friends from the dead; 
  • are unafraid to confront evil, both without and within, and to acknowledge their own participation in a search for reconciliation; 
  • openly share the good news of God in Jesus, not to condemn others but to offer them a new perspective on how to be fully alive; 
  • celebrate the truth that giving freely to others does not diminish us but enhances us and 
  • name injustice and anything that denies the full humanity of others courageously and works to remedy those injustices.

         Those who could follow this way joined the prophet Ezekiel in seeing dry bones clothed with flesh and raised to new life.  Those who dedicated themselves to this truth joined Mary, Martha and the other witnesses in seeing a beloved brother and friend restored to life in order to show the power of God.  Those who celebrated this life joined the people of Saint Faith’s and many other small congregations in seeing that what had been cast down was being raised up, that what had grown old was being made new and that all things were being brought to their perfection by the power of the Spirit.

         There is no doubt that the future has its challenges.  Ezekiel and the exiles will endure many years away from the land of Israel and the return will not be a smooth one.  Martha, Mary and Lazarus will face the death of their friend, Jesus, and the dangers of the movement that springs up after his resurrection.  Saint Faith’s and the congregations like it will have to make difficult choices, not for institutional survival, but for the continuation of the ministry entrusted to them in the many places they serve.

         But one thing is certain.  God’s last word to Ezekiel, to Martha, Mary and Lazarus and to the Christians who struggle to share the good news in this time and this place is not ‘death’ but ‘life’.  This life may take shape in new locations with new forms, but 

  • it will still gather around Word, font and table: 
  • it will still confront evil and call for reconciliation; 
  • it will still proclaim the good news that in Jesus of Nazareth we meet the Holy One of Israel, the source of all life and love; 
  • it will still serve those who are in any need or trouble and 
  • it will still value the dignity of every human being, even if that dignity is denied by others.

And others will come to know that there is a way, a truth and a life that gives faith, hope and love.  For that let those gathered here say ‘Amen.’

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