Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 13, 2005. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Ezekiel 37:1-14Romans 6:16-23
Psalm 130John 11: 17-44

Can these bones live?

Today we reach the turning point in Jesus’ ministry.  Raising Lazarus is the crowning miracle or sign that reveals Jesus as the giver of life and that also precipitates his death.  The raising of Lazarus provokes a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the official Jewish court, which reaches the decision that Jesus must be killed.  And so next week we come to Palm Sunday and begin the anguish and joy of Holy Week.

Today’s story begins where we all find ourselves at one time or another: in a place of desolation, loss, and despair.  Lazarus has been dead for four days, and his sisters Mary and Martha are in shock, weeping with family and friends.  We know what that’s like, times when just getting up in the morning feels like an accomplishment.  Either we’ve gone totally numb or we can’t believe the intensity and volatility of our feelings.  One minute we’re handling things OK, juggling responsibilities and talking sense like a rational human being; the next minute we’re bursting into tears at the sight of a McDonald’s commercial.

That’s one thing I cherish in Scripture: the way it meets us just as we are, the way its stories intersect with ours.  Mary and Martha taste the same bitterness that we taste when a loved one dies.  They know, as we do, the pang of loneliness that can seize you in the middle of the night, the grief that empties life of zest and meaning. 

Even if we haven’t recently suffered a personal loss, there is still plenty these days to mourn and protest.  Sorrow is no farther away than the house next door, the pew close by, or the next morning paper.  No wonder we’re tempted sometimes to flee from one distraction to another – to buy something we don’t really need, to dive into one more task or space out in front of a TV sitcom.  It can be hard to bear the pain we sense around us and within us.

“Out of the depths,” says the psalmist, “have I called to you, O Lord.”  His voice – and ours – joins the cries for mercy and help that resound the world over from human and non-human creatures alike.  I wonder sometimes what it would be like if we could press our ear to the ground and hear the sound of the world’s pain.  What would change in us if we could hear all at once the blended sound of the world’s great sadness? The prophet Ezekiel uses a different image: what if God picked us up by the scruff of the neck and set us down in the middle of a valley full of bones, so that we saw nothing but dry bones all around, as far as the eye can see?  “Can these bones live?” we would ask ourselves.  “Can hope possibly spring out of this desolation?”

That’s where our gospel passage begins: in darkness, in the pit, in the valley of the shadow of death.  Like mourners the world over, Martha and Mary are utterly bereft.  And then – something happens. Jesus arrives.  When he sees Mary weeping, and the crowds around her weeping, Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved”  [bbllink]John 11:33[/bbllink].  As if the gospel writer wants to make the meaning perfectly clear, the next sentence is the shortest verse in all of Scripture, a verse often translated by just two words: “Jesus wept” [bbllink]John 11:35[/bbllink].  He wept.  Here is no distant God, no far-off deity untouched by grief, but a God who comes as one of us, a God willing to meet us in our suffering and to share its pain.  This may come as a shock to those who take the hard fact of suffering as proof that God is not real or that God does not care or that God is punishing us.  Gazing at Jesus in this story reveals an astonishing truth: when our hearts are breaking, God’s heart is breaking, too.  

Not only that.  The fact that Jesus wept suggests that the first step in healing, the first step in birthing new life, comes when we step toward the pain, not away from it.  The God who enters into our suffering knows that new life begins only when we are willing to feel pain.  If we are able to grieve then we have moved out of numbness, out of inertia, out of the denial that pretends that everything is fine, when in fact it is not.

And I must add this, too: the powers-that-be in this world don’t want us to grieve.  They don’t want us to protest, to feel outrage and sorrow when we face many of the patterns of this society: the racism and militarism, the abuse of the helpless, the poisoning of air and water.  The powers-that-be would rather keep us numb, zombies too busy, too bored, too distracted or too defended to feel the pain that allows something new to be imagined, something new to be born. “Jesus wept,” and in that weeping begins the healing that leads to new life.

But of course there’s more.  Jesus comes to us not only with vulnerability and an open heart.  He comes with power.  “Take away the stone,” he says to the astonished crowd.  Can you imagine what the crowd must have been saying to themselves just then?  Probably something along the lines of, “Hey, who is this guy?  He must be nuts.”  Martha, a sister of the dead man, lays out the situation as tactfully as she can: “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  In other words, Martha says to Jesus: “Hel-lo.  When someone’s dead, they’re dead.  Don’t torment me by pretending you can do something about it.”

But reluctantly or eagerly, maybe shaking their heads in bemusement, maybe daring to hope against hope, some folks in the crowd do move forward.  They lean their weight against the stone and push it away from the entrance of the tomb.  I give thanks for people like these, people who do what they can to make a difference, however small it may seem, however absurd.

And then comes Jesus’ voice.  In the midst of weeping, there is a voice.  “Lazarus,” he cries.  “Come out.”  It is a voice of power, a summons, a command, and it addresses us by name.  You’ve heard that voice before, and I have, too.  And we are sure to hear it again, for deep inside you and inside me is a Presence, a Voice, a Someone, impelling us with an unshakable longing to grow.  Becoming our true selves in Christ is a life-long, persistent, and sometimes explosive invitation to keep moving from a half-hearted, unlived life to a life that we inhabit with every ounce of our being, a passionate life that is truly our own.

A friend of mine once commented that she had spent her life trying endlessly to please her parents, adding sadly, “I feel as if I’m living somebody else’s life.”  What a waste!  To some degree, we all do that for a while, sometimes a long while, doing what we think we “should” be doing, following the rules, coloring inside the lines.  We get locked into the tomb of habit, of people-pleasing.  Or maybe we get trapped by addiction, or by self-doubt, by cynicism, or by frittering away our life on trivial things.  “That’s OK,” murmur the powers-that-be within us and around us.  “Get comfy in that nice little tomb of yours.  Make peace with it.  Decorate it.  Stay small.”

But then comes that insistent, disturbing Voice again, calling us by name.  “Sally,” it says. “Come out.  Rob, come out.  Margaret, come out.”  “I love you,” God says to us.  “I want you to be fully alive, not just partially alive, not just going through the motions.  I want you to be free.” 

My own first step out of the tomb came 23 years ago when I went to my first 12-step meeting after a lifetime of food addiction.  I remember how nervous and self-conscious I felt, blinking like Lazarus in the sunlight, wondering if I might have been better off if I’d stayed safely in the tomb.  In the years since, that Voice has never left me, urging me to make sometimes scary moves out of a deathly comfort zone and into new life. 

Thank God we don’t have to do it alone.  Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, but he also calls a community into being.  “Unbind him,” he says to the circle of villagers who are standing around, gaping.  “Let him go.”  We can’t just watch each other grow.  We need each other to help unwrap the layers that have bound us, to uncover who this beautiful new person is, and to steady our feet when we feel tempted to tiptoe back to the familiarity of the old.

In the end, this gospel story is about how much God wants to set us free.  I invite you this morning to let Jesus draw close.  Are you in mourning?  Then let him weep with you.  Are you holding a vision for your life that you’ve never quite dared to carry out?  Then let him empower you to begin.  Are you wishing you could reach out to help another person but feeling shy or afraid?  Then hear Jesus calling you to “roll away the stone” and “unbind her; let him go.”  Or maybe you are the one who’s shut away in the tomb.  If so, take time to listen. Today may be the very day that Jesus summons you out. 

The world is full of grief, loss, and fear, but something else is going on, too.  If we press our ear to the ground and listen closely, perhaps we’ll hear it – not only the world’s pain, but also the steady heartbeat of God, the sound of a love that pulses through all things, seeking us out and making all things new.