Lent 5: Show us, God, your power over death itself
Ezekiel 37:1-7, 11-14; John 11:1-45
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When is it right to walk toward death?
That is a difficult, and complicated, and terribly important question.
We live in a death-avoiding and death-denying culture.
Our funeral rituals often try to shield us from the harsh reality
that our loved one is dead, and not merely asleep.
But in these terrible days we are living in—
when a global pandemic is ravaging our lives,
and images of suffering and death bombard us
at every waking moment,
and sometimes in our restless nighttime dreams—
now it is hard to deny it.
Death is at our doorstep.
If we don’t personally know someone
who has died from Covid-19,
we soon will, I believe.
The widely varying responses to this pandemic
from people in our communities
says a lot about how we think about life and death—
our own, as well as others.
So let’s first take a look at today’s Gospel story,
and see what Jesus’ life and words have to say to us.
First, the background.
Lazarus, along with his sisters Mary and Martha,
were Jesus’ closest friends.
They lived in Bethany, a 30-minute walk from Jerusalem.
They were right on the border of the capital of Judea,
a hotspot of organized resistance movements against Jesus.
Just a few days before our story took place,
Jesus was in Jerusalem,
and he was accused of blasphemy and demon-possession,
and they tried to stone him to death.
Naturally, Jesus and his disciples ran off
and stayed at a safe distance,
on the other side of the Jordan River.
While hunkering down, keeping miles of social distance,
Jesus gets a message, “Your friend Lazarus is ill, and about to die.”
Jesus decided to stay where he was.
He self-quarantined, so to speak.
And all his disciples said, “Whew! Thank you, Jesus.”
Thanks for valuing our lives and safety.
But two days later, Jesus changed his mind. John 11:7.
“Time to go to Jerusalem.”
His disciples’ response?
“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
That courageous comment, by the way,
came out of the mouth of the disciple
we often accuse of being short on faith—
Thomas knew very well that a walk toward Jerusalem
was a walk toward death.
Not just Lazarus’ death. But their death.
So why would . . . and why should
anyone intentionally walk toward death?
We could ask that question of a lot of people in recent memory,
if they were alive to give us an answer.
We could ask Martin Luther King, Jr.
We could ask Archbishop Oscar Romero.
We could ask early Anabaptist leaders
Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel.
We could ask my 11th-great-grandfather, Hans Landis,
A 70-year-old Swiss Anabaptist farmer-pastor
beheaded because he chose not to leave town,
even when the authorities didn’t really want to execute him,
and gave him plenty of chances to escape.
We could ask courageous men and women of faith—
all kinds of faith, in every age.
Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Michael J. Sharp.
What does it take to walk toward death?
Why did Jesus really go to Bethany,
and why did his disciples willingly follow?
Probably not everyone in Jesus’ company
had it all worked out in their minds,
as they hit the road toward Jerusalem.
But I have a hunch they knew there was something bigger at stake,
than the possibility of their death.
They also knew, I believe, that in some way,
they were walking toward life.
They had been with Jesus and witnessed
healing, restoration, reconciliation, in the face of resistance.
They had seen lepers restored to health.
They had seen women and children,
prostitutes and swindlers,
Samaritans and Roman soldiers,
restored to right relationship.
They knew what Jesus was really about.
He was not about preserving his own life.
He was about giving himself away for the life of others.
If you are paying any attention at all these days,
you are seeing this same dynamic happening,
over and over and over again.
Nurses and doctors and other medical workers
walking into overcrowded and under-supplied covid-19 wards,
sharing facemasks and gowns,
handling and wiping down sick and feverish human bodies,
knowing full well they are putting their lives at risk,
but also knowing if they didn’t do what they were doing,
other lives would be in jeopardy.
And first-responders, as always,
are walking into danger, into unknown spaces,
and not thinking twice about going in,
because someone else’s life is in danger.
So . . . have any of you in recent years
struggled with being cynical about the state of our human race?
Have you worried what will become of a people,
so blinded by privilege and entitlement,
so cold and callous toward people
they don’t know and don’t understand?
Have any of you not had thoughts like that on occasion?
Well, take heart.
There are still people today acting like Jesus,
who value the well-being of strangers enough,
to risk their own safety to bring hope to someone else.
I thank God for everyone of them.
I pray for them.
I salute their courage, and wish I could be more like them.
The reason, dear church,
that we have closed and locked the doors to our building,
and are working from home,
and are going to extreme measures to safely live-stream
a worship service led by six people,
the reason is not because we are being selfish,
and don’t want anyone in our church to get sick.
It is because we are called to be like Jesus.
We are sacrificing something we value, something we want—
which is to be together and share our lives face-to-face.
We willingly give that up,
in order to slow the spread of the covid-19 infection,
which is absolutely threatening the lives of people
who are the most vulnerable,
who are the most marginalized,
who are the least likely to have the resources and support
to recover from an infection.
And these are people we don’t know,
who live all over our community and country and world.
I get it that we are frustrated.
I get it that we hate to see church services closed to the public.
I get it that people think it would be a beautiful thing
to be filled up on Easter morning,
two weeks from now.
I get it that we are all sad about all the things
we are giving up this Lent,
against our wishes,
in this unwelcomed extended season of giving up things.
I get it that when we are sad,
it’s a good thing to own our sadness,
and express it to others.
And I get it why churches in particular,
have a hard time shutting doors,
because that’s the opposite of what churches want to do.
It seems so selfish to keep people away.
But listen to me.
It is not selfish.
It’s exactly the opposite of selfish.
We are sacrificing something we value,
because it might keep someone we don’t even know
alive and healthy—
someone we might not agree with, or even like,
if we ever met them.
As hard as it is to give up these things,
let us embrace the sacrifices we make,
and give thanks for the example of Jesus, who showed us how.
I try to extend grace where I can.
I understand not everyone sees it this way.
But let me just say this, in no uncertain terms.
It is a sin against God for a church to ignore a ban on meetings
and open their doors for mass gatherings
and then claim they are witnessing to the Gospel of life.
I say that because it has happened, and keeps happening.
It is shameful for any business or governmental leader,
who claims to be a person of faith,
to brazenly threaten to reopen and save the economy,
when the known result will be suffering and death
for people far more vulnerable than they are.
If these pastors or Christian business leaders or politicians
think they are following Jesus
in his brave walk toward death,
as he set his face toward Jerusalem,
then they are deluding themselves and harming others.
And they are dead wrong about Jesus and his motives.
Jesus made that risky journey toward death
to save the lives of others, not to harm them.
He went straight to the grave of Lazarus,
and spoke life into that dead man,
and by doing so, spoke life into the whole town of Bethany,
and spoke life to powers that be in Jerusalem itself.
Jesus accepted the reality of death.
He wept outside Lazarus’ tomb.
But he also knew the power of life over, and beyond, death.
I implore church leaders everywhere,
and business leaders of faith everywhere,
the whole community is your responsibility.
For that matter, the whole country, everyone in it.
The homeless, the immigrant,
the elderly, the prisoner, the chronically ill,
the refugee, the unemployed and underemployed.
These are at the greatest risk of death,
the greatest risk of catastrophic economic loss.
Be like Jesus.
Make the sacrifice you are called to make,
willingly, gladly, and with determination.
So that someone who is smaller, weaker, poorer,
sicker than you,
has a better chance at a full and rich life.
There is no doubt in my mind.
If Jesus were here today,
he’d personally be helping lock the doors of the churches.
He would be on the front lines of the battle in our hospitals.
He would be in nursing homes bathing the old and frail.
We are in this together.
We will survive.
Maybe not every person.
But God’s people will.
The purposes of God will survive.
They will even thrive.
By the holy, life-giving breath of God,
there will be a return to life,
every bit as remarkable
as the vision of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones,
that we read earlier,
where the breath of God blew on those dry bones,
and flesh and sinew came upon them,
and bound them together,
and the breath of God brought to life,
not a recently deceased person,
but dry bones.
It can happen again,
as we open ourselves to the breath of God.
In response, I invite us all into a time of confession,
wherever you may be,
wherever you are sitting, get comfortable.
Put yourself in a posture where your body can be at rest,
and your mind alert.
Perhaps with your hands in front of you,
with upturned palms, ready to receive.
Reflect for a few moments,
on the places and people in your orbit
where death is threatening.
Ponder the reality of that threat.
Identify it. Name it.
Allow your mind to focus on it for a minute.
Breathe in and out.
Breathe in the breath of God, which is life.
Breathe out fear of death.
Breathe in the Spirit-breath of God, which turns death to life.
Breathe out despair.
Breathe in hope in God’s promises.
Breathe in your acceptance of God’s promise of life.
Breathing out your fear and anxiety over death.
Breathe in and out.
Let us sing now together, as one voice, but in harmony:
Breathe on me, breath of God. Fill me with life anew,
that I may love what thou dost love and do what thou wouldst do.
Breathe on us, breath of God. Fill us with life anew,
that we may love what thou dost love and do what thou wouldst do.
Now, hear these words, and believe them:
This air which has been filling and refreshing our lungs,
is the breath, the wind, the Spirit of God in Christ.
It is full of life. It will change us.
—Phil Kniss, March 29, 2020
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