St. Paul’s Congregational Church
March 29, 2020 – Lent 5A
Ezekiel 37: 1 – 14; John 11: 1 - 45
The Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
It’s been a Lenten season unlike any I’ve ever experienced- that’s true for all of us, isn’t it – incredibly next week is Palm Sunday already. So much support is pouring out to churches and pastors including by our Nutley Clergy Fellowship, the New Jersey Association, and the Central Atlantic Conference: we are truly all in this together and I’m so grateful for that.
Lent has always been a challenging time for us as Christians – this year even more so – but such a time of opportunity as well! One area minister wrote this week, “I frequently hear people express their strong desire for us to transition out of this pandemic and return to basically what life was before it struck. They just want to get through this and back to their routine.” He says, “While I completely understand this, I humbly disagree. Not only may it be impossible, but I would ask – is it truly desirable? As Dr. Phil famously kept asking his guests, “How’s it working for you?” How was it before the pandemic? Was it really all that good for churches?”
Depending on who you are, you will come up with different answers. We’ve seen aging congregations with declining attendance and income in many of our churches and the wider church for years. Lots of churches have been struggling and facing very real and difficult challenges. This minister puts out this challenge: to just want to transition, or make it through or survive to the other side of this pandemic would likely put us right back where we started: to have things return to “normal”, to our old ways of doing and being the church. Again, we ask, “How’s that working for us?”
I agree when he says, I believe this pandemic is giving us an opportunity for transformation, not transition – it is not enough for us to go back – we are being called to something more. We are being called to expand our vision, our focus, our concerns. We are being called to be a light to all nations/people – not a light to just our own. The door to change has been flung wide open and God calls us to walk through!” On the other side is new life, new creation.
All this sounds a bit like the Ezekiel passage, doesn’t it. It’s haunting – it’s been turning around in my mind all week as I’ve seen images of the effects of the COVID-19 virus all around us, hearing stories from health care workers that it’s like a warzone in our hospitals, rising numbers of cases, of death, some coming much too close to home. Hearing your stories about how this shelter in place and the rampant spread of the virus is affecting you and those you love. These are hard days, aren’t they.
Both our passages today speak to hard days – but both of them point us to something wonderful: the vision of the promise of life beyond exile – and we are in a kind of exile these days for sure – and the hope that God can breathe new life into us, into the gathered community. To do that, though. we’re called to acknowledge and live in the exile for a while, to use this time to enter into a time of reflection and re-orientation.
There are signs of this re-orientation, already – and I pray they continue! We see people doing extraordinary things in extraordinary ways – health care workers, grocery store employees, so many others, are our heroes today. Churches are being forced to be more creative in their worship opportunities, in their communications, in their pastoral care, expanding what it means to be “church” in these difficult times. And that’s all good and powerful and hopeful.
Nobody wants to stay in the wasteland, the wilderness, for long though – but I wonder if it’s then and really only then out of the wasteland, when not just change, but transformation can happen. We enter into a sacred space – we enter a space where we are no longer in control – we’re no longer at the center, where we are grounded around One Reference Point that is bigger and beyond any of us. That sacred space can allow something genuinely new to happen – where we are capable of seeing something beyond our experience, something other than the way we’ve always done things before – that’s where transformation can happen.
Friends, we’re in that sacred space right now – we’re all in the midst of a common drama, a common grief – and like Ezekiel, like Mary and Martha, we stand right now in the teachable moment: a moment that can lead us into the hope that brings us back to life. We have to walk through these terrible moments – not around them – and not get stuck in them. Can these bones live? The answer is YES! How we need to hear these words – to hang on to those words. How we need to take them into our hearts, to know this promise, this hope, deep in our souls. This is what brings transformation!
Isn’t this what the season of Lent teaches us? Today’s lessons remind us that the road to Easter must first travel the Lenten road, a road that leads through hopelessness and death.
Hope rises up from our bones and chooses to believe in spite of how today is. Hope moves us past today – whatever today brings won’t last. Today is so fragile – both when things are going well and when things are falling apart all around us. If we turn away from tomorrow, we turn our back on hope. The day we lose our ability to envision a better tomorrow is the day we deny that we really believe in the resurrection.
Sometimes we have to be clunked on the head – figuratively, of course, to remind us of just who it is that we believe in, what it is that God can do and what God does do. Like the people of Israel who heard Ezekiel’s words – as the valley of dry bones came to life by the Spirit and Word of God, so too the people will live again: they will return to the promised land, rebuild their nation and their temple and they will know that God has not only spoken, but that God has acted as well.
Like the people of Bethany were as Jesus showed them that not only could he heal the sick, but that he could also raise the dead. He orders the people to move the stone from the tomb, cries out, “Arise, Lazarus, come forth.” And he does. Jesus tells the people, unbind him and let him go!
Jesus is the lord both of the living and the dead – he is the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in him, though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in him will never die. This is our faith. The faith that we need to be reminded of – often. Now is one of those times.
Unbind us and let us go! Can these bones live? YES.
We have a new chance to live life as God wants us to live it. We are called to envision a better tomorrow. The church, the community of believers, has always found its life not in what it sees today but in the Spirit of God who raises dead hopes – there’s our challenge here at St. Paul’s – unbind the power of God in our lives! Look at us – who knew we’d live posting our worship – a new outreach that’s opening up new possibilities for our ministry! What other new things are in our future? Let’s unbind the power of God in our life together!
Why? Because God is not done yet. God’s work on earth is not done yet. So we will take our stand with Ezekiel and proclaim our hope to the dry bones: thus says the Lord, I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live!
All of us are the You here – that’s the promise to all of us who have given up hope, given up dreaming – to all of us who have settled for a comfortably routine life of work, bills, dirty laundry. You who think your best years are behind you. You who think God has forgotten about your little life. Oh, that’s so not true.
Arise! Arise from the heap of discarded dreams. Arise to discover that the Holy Spirit is breathing life back into you! Arise to live with magnificent hope! God is not done. God is not done with you, with me, with us – God is calling us forward from death to life!
Friends, we will get through this wasteland, this time – together. In the midst of this crisis, we are being given an opportunity to be transformed, that we may become better, more effective instruments, stronger disciples, through which God’s love, justice, grace, and compassion are made manifest and the gospel is proclaimed in the world in which we live. Let’s bring it on! We can do this! Blessings on us all as we navigate these uncertain days, surrounded by God’s love and care. Amen.