A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
Year A – April 6, 2014
David Hathaway Knight, Priest Associate
Send your spirit, God, to open our hearts and our minds to your Word,
and strengthen us to live according to your will, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Driving down Monument Avenue earlier last week, I was struck by the beauty of the trees bursting into bloom—there were these radiant white and pink blossoms that I swear weren’t out the night before. I suddenly became aware of new life around me. Once again, this bursting forth of nature became in some mysterious way a reminder of the new life given to us in the Resurrection and the hope that can bring to each of us. However elusive hope may be, there remains the promise that hope will return. The prophet Ezekiel promised that that the Israelites, enslaved by foreign masters and sent into a desolate place in exile could have hope again. The psalmist cries out of the depths to the Lord,
I wait for you, O Lord: my soul waits, for you
in your word is my hope.
Paul writes in his letter to the church in Rome, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” In the gospel we hear the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. It points to the hope of the resurrection with profound anticipation that whenever you and I are in the midst of suffering and pain, and that can indeed feel like being in a tomb, God promises to unbind us so that we too will experience the power of the resurrection in some powerful way in our own lives. As Lent continues to move us toward Easter and as these days lengthen, and as nature begins to blossom once again, you and I have reason to hope.
As I was reading this Sunday’s passage from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, a memory, etched in my brain from my younger days, came to mind. It is that memory of the Saint Paul’s College Choir from Lawrenceville, Virginia coming to Lenox School where I was a student back in the early ‘60’s. Saint Paul’s College, as you recall was a college primarily for African-American students. Sadly, it closed its doors last year, but it was a vibrant college back then. The president of the college at the time had a son, Earl McClenney, Jr, who was a student in the class ahead of me at Lenox School. Each year while he was atLenoxSchool, theSaint Paul’s College Choir had Lenox as one of their stops on their spring tour. It was a fine choir and while they had a wide variety of musical selections in their repertoire, I vividly remember their rendition of the African-American spiritual with these words which I’m sure you remember from childhood as well:
The toe bone connected to the foot bone,
The foot bone connected to the ankle bone,
The ankle bone connected to the leg bone,
The leg bone connected to the knee none,
The knee bone connected to the thigh bone,
The thigh bone connected to the hip bone,
The hip bone connected to the back bone,
The back bone connected to the shoulder bone,
The shoulder bone connected to the neck bone,
The neck bone connected to the head bone…
As the choir sang that spiritual, you could hear those dry bones being reconnected. You could feel life returning as the flesh covered the bones. With each new connection of those bones, the melody would raise a half tone. Those bones rose up and came back to life. Strange, isn’t it, how some images remain etched in our minds over a life time?
The words of that spiritual, of course, come from the experience of African-Americans who were trapped in a dark period of our history when slavery still prevailed. These people understood, as perhaps no others on this continent have understood, the experience of Ezekiel’s people who had been forcibly removed from their native land and put into exile. Though alive, they felt like they were dead. They were a people without hope. Like a nation of dry bones they cried out in their misery. Just now we have heard the prophet Ezekiel telling in vivid detail how God carried him in a vision to the valley of the dry bones, bones symbolic of the rotted bodies of a hopeless people. Then, as Ezekiel watched in utter astonishment, flesh and muscle began to cover those bones. Skin covered the muscle and the bones came to life! Then God told Ezekiel to tell the people ofIsraelthat their lives, all but dead from despair, would have breath once again. They would be a nation reborn and alive again.
There can be little wonder why African-Americans embraced this story from the Old Testament as their own. We can only imagine why these souls who, against their wills, had been removed from their homeland and transported in ships to North America where they were sold as slaves, found the stirring words of Ezekiel a source of hope. We can understand how they could place that imagery into song that could empower them walk as human beings in the cotton fields of oppression. Despite their misery, it was their faith that brought them together and that gave them hope. It was a faith that empowered them to sing with joy and yes, with trust, that they too would indeed rise like the dry bones of Ezekiel’s forsaken valley.
How might this image of the dry bones coming to life speak to us in our own day as a culture, as a nation, as the Church? After all, we live in a day when the thought of slavery is incredibly obscene, yet in reality, there is still the element of oppression that rears its ugly head in various ways in our land, where there are souls who are still placed in the margins of society. The civil rights movement must continue as there are people in our land, whose basic rights, rights that are meant for all, are being challenged. Efforts to slash lifelines to the poor still prevail. Vestiges of hatred and oppression linger. We have come a long way since the days of slavery, yet our work as a nation is not done by any stretch of the imagination. We recall that as Lent began with the Ash Wednesday Liturgy, we prayed, “Accept our repentance, Lord … for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty.” Martin Luther King, Jr, once said, and his words ring with clarity still, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence of the good people.” The Church, mindful of its call to strive for justice must not remain silent just as Jesus himself was not silent in the face of injustice. In our continuing study on Fridays of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, we read and discussed what he has to say about the Church’s role. He writes, “If indeed ‘the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics,’ the Church ‘cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.’ All Christians, their pastors included, are called to show concern for the building of a better world. This is essential, for the Church’s social thought is primarily positive: it offers proposals, it works for change and in this sense it constantly points to the hope born of the loving heart of Jesus Christ.” (p.93) Someone in our group Friday offered the wisdom that even if we might not all agree about the solutions, we must at least begin to have conversations about matters of justice. As our Lenten discipline reminds us, the Church calls us to this time of self-examination and repentance as a church and as individual people of God. To be repentant is to be willing to turn and head in the right direction.
You and I may not be in exile in the same way as were the Israelites or as were those sold into slavery in our own land, yet we too are often hard pressed by powers that can lead us to some very dark places.
What hope is there for us when we experience our own barren valleys of the soul? Today’s reading from Ezekiel gives us a glimpse of the hope which Ezekiel envisioned for the people ofIsrael. It became a vision of the hope about which the slaves in that terrible time in our history as a nation nonetheless could sing. It can be a vision for you and me in our own barren valleys of the soul.
Where for you this morning might be your spiritual valley of dry bones? Is it something physical? Might it be in some relationship you have, a bitterness, perhaps, or a cherished resentment? In today’s Gospel we note what happened when Jesus got the message from Mary and her sister Martha that their brother Lazarus was ill and what he said to them. He said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” You see, he was pointing to his own death and resurrection, and to the fact that for all of us, our earthly journey is but a part of our journey toward eternal life. There is life after we pass from this earthly domain and we no longer have use of our physical bodies. No illness, or virus, or accident, or even act of violence can end our journey toward eternal life even though our death, or the death of a loved one, can seem so final and so painful to be sure. Our physical death is not the final answer. But there are illnesses in this world that can take us to some very dark places. This past Wednesday night, Thom Blair, when he was speaking to us, used a powerful image. He spoke of what he called those “viruses of the soul”, you know, like tumors on our soul, and these can destroy us. You know, there are those times when we hold on to a bitterness, a cherished resentment, a desire for vengeance, or that unwillingness to forgive. All these things bind us in chains and we become slaves to them. But, you know, we can also be bound in chains by our worries, and I am the first to admit that this can be a tough one for us, at least it can be for me. Yet the beauty of it all, the blessing in it all, the hope of it all for us is that God does not intend for us to remain slaves to these things. Through the grace of God—grace being something that comes to us a gift freely given—can set us free from these chains. As well, there is a place for prayer and for self-examination, and for meditating on God’s holy Word, as the Church invites us to do as we travel along our path during Lent. There is a place as well for taking time each day to be intentional about simply being still. God can and God does unbind us and empower us to move forward once again. You know, it’s like having those chains removed.
What might be something that brings stress into your days? What hopeful lesson might you and I take from today’s reading of God’s word? What might be a dark place in your path where you find yourself yearning to see light at the end of the tunnel? It could be something stressful at work. Or it could be waiting for something the outcome of which is beyond your control. You know, we all want our faith to be deepened. There already exists in each of us a desire, even if an unconscious one, to know the truth about God and his love for us and how we are to be set free from sin and death. We all yearn for hope as we face all that life brings. We look for the promise that strength will come. We try as best we can yet sometimes that hope still remains elusive. I would not presume to stand before you and tell you otherwise for there are those of you who have experienced some very tough things, things that make the very thought of hope seem so remote if not impossible to imagine, but I am increasingly convinced that it is during these times—especially during these times—that a loving God promises us that we will come through our despair to the other side when hope once again will prevail.
Lent is for us a time that leads us forward to the greatest promise of the hope that God is there with you. It is the gift of raising Jesus from the dead and thus giving life to our mortal bodies by his spirit that lives in us. May these remaining weeks of our Lenten journey provide you with the hope to persevere not only in this Lenten season but in the days that follow throughout the year. As the days lengthen, and the light comes, and the promise of the resurrection dawns upon us, may the image of God’s breathing life into those dry bones breathe life into your faith, so that you and I, by the grace of God, may face life and all that it places in our path with renewed hope. For now, I hope that the words of Albert Camus, the French existentialist, might be of some help to you in the context of your yearning to experience hope. These words of his were printed across the top of the front page of the March 14 edition of the Vineyard Gazette, Martha’s Vineyard newspaper. Camus once said, “In the depths of winter I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” In these remaining weeks of Lent, as the days continue to lengthen, and in the days that will follow, may you in some way along your journey from the depths whatever they may be for you, be blessed with God’s invincible hope. Amen.