March 29, 2020
by The Rev. Ruth Chadwick Moore
Ezekiel 37: 1-14, Psalm 130 and John 11: 1-45
March 29, 2020
Another week of changes, difficult news, a stay at home order, and an effort on our parts as people of faith to find some words of hope in the midst of it all. One of the reasons I read the book Happy by Mies Van Hout during the Time with Children today is because its pictures capture the feelings behind emotions that can be difficult to explain.
When I face the mystery we call life or death, or when I struggle with my faith, I go to the bible to be reassured that God loves me and is with me. I want to be reminded of God’s faithfulness in the past to be reassured of God’s faithfulness in the present and future. I would imagine a lot of pastors are preaching this morning from easier to understand texts than the ones the lectionary gives us for today. But I like a challenge and I am committed to always learning and finding good news no matter how much we struggle with scripture. And in many ways our scriptures today are spot on.
“Lord, he whom you love is ill” – John 11: 3b. This verse. Right here. This is what we are all dealing with right now. As Rev. Ruth Woodliff-Stanley says, as the Covid-19 virus spreads, it is a swirling, tumultuous storm and things are moving faster than our hearts can go. And we have our first confirmed case now among our membership. Bill Dynes is in the hospital suffering from this virus.
In today’s gospel, Mary and Martha send a message to Jesus about the one they love, their brother Lazarus. “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Like the sisters, this is the message we are sending too. As the Covid-19 virus continues to spread we worry about those we know who are sick and we worry that if our throat starts to hurt that we have the virus. We worry about our parents who are alone or isolated, we worry about our children whose lives have been disrupted, and we worry about all those who have lost their jobs or their livelihoods.
As my friend Becky shared with me, we are feeling a lot like Mary and Martha who thought Jesus would show up to help their brother Lazarus and were angry and confused when he did not. The sister’s plea to come and help their brother is an urgent and heartfelt one. Yet Jesus does not come right away. He stays where he is for what seems like an eternity, and he is staying away for what seems like an eternity right now! It feels like he is somewhere other than here with us right now. And it appears Jesus is not coming immediately no matter what our prayers are. So, we wait. And the anxiety, the loneliness, the anger and the grief rage within us and around us. And we wait. And some of us weep.
Jesus weeps too. When he arrives in Bethany after the death of his friend Lazarus, he weeps. Here is the human Jesus who weeps because he has lost his friend. And the neighbors say, “See how he loved him.”
But then we hear some of Mary and Martha’s neighbors say, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Is this not the question that we have asked for centuries and now ask again as this virus overruns us? If Jesus had it in him to still the wind and the water, why does he allow disasters to happen? If he can feed 5000 people with a few loaves of bread and fish, why do people go hungry? If he healed a blind man he didn’t even know, why did he not show up in Bethany and heal his friend? These questions of theodicy have already been voiced by the sisters. These questions are being voiced by all of us now. And the question for me is, Lord, if you are here, why are you not healing us? Like Becky says, I am feeling let down and alone in all sorts of ways. And the wait for the storm to abate becomes harder and harder.
In Ezekiel, the Spirit of God asks us, “Can these bones live?” And we have no answer and we wonder why we are asked that question. We have no idea. But “O Lord, you know.” At this point we have not yet inhaled new breath. We have not seen new life come out of dry bones – sinew to sinew, bone to bone, flesh to flesh. We do not know the answer to your question Lord. Our questions are more basic ones – born out of fear, frustration, isolation, weariness, and dread of this strange undesired land we have come to. Our bones are dried up, and our hope is fading, and these words from Ezekiel are too close to home. Only you know Lord. You know. Because we are in uncharted territory and we are looking to you for answers.
And in the face of this unknown place, the Psalmist expresses the only action we can take at this point. “My soul waits for the Lord,” says Psalm 130. My soul waits for the Lord. We wait.
Jesus waited too. He waited two days before he came to Bethany to be with his friends. But when he got there he walked straight into the tomb of Lazarus. And then his absence and his do-nothing behavior are given a new and different perspective with these six words: “Unbind him and let him go.”
When we mix questions about Jesus and his purpose into the messy combination of our conflicting emotions, this story of the raising of Lazarus offers us another way of looking at Jesus. Jesus weeps, but as Rev Frank Honeycutt says, “…he refuses to be jerked around by death’s timetable. He talks back to death and boldly walks right toward it – and not only into the tomb of Lazarus.” Because as we know, another tomb is waiting in Jerusalem, which is just two miles down the road from Bethany.
In this time of waiting we do have choices in how we can wait. We can try and wait by not giving in to every chaotic news story, horrible tweet, or anxious Facebook post. And on the flip side, we can wait by making space for our fears, our anger, our worry and our frustration. It is a delicate balance and you will have to figure out what works best for you and your physical, mental and spiritual health.
Jesus comes to wherever you are. Not somewhere apart from what is happening in the world. “Jesus comes to the tomb where your hope is lost. Where your love is buried. Where your bones are dried up. Where you are cut off completely. Here, he comes. Here, he weeps. Here, he accompanies you.”
And even as we take comfort in the knowledge that Jesus is with us, we will have to continue to wait. My soul waits for the Lord. We wait and Jesus waits with us. And if we wonder where Jesus is and what he is good for, we can look to the story of the raising of Lazarus. As Jesus steps into the tomb of his friend and raises him from the dead, we can be liberated from death’s great and paralyzing fear. As we face the tombs of our lives, we are shown that there is the promise of life even in the coldest, darkest, loneliest, most desolate places we can imagine. This is the promise of our faith.
Unbind us, Lord. Let us go.
Reflection by Ruth Woodliff-Stanley, Paintbox, www.ruthws.com
“Jesus wept. Why?” by Frank G. Honeycutt, www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/jesus-wept-why