Ezekiel 37:1-14 & John 11:1-45
Lord, he whom you love is ill.
Mortal, can these bones live?
This illness does not lead to death.
And they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
The words of Scripture we hear on this Fifth Sunday in Lent vibrate with a unique beauty, power, and density. Bones and sinew; breath and skin and stench; illness and tears; rattling and sighing and loud, crying voices; graves opened, hands unbound, feet planted on native soil. These scenes from Ezekiel and the gospel of John captivate us again and again because the intensifying momentum of their drama unfolds amid the props and set pieces of the everyday. These are passages filled with the raw materials of familiar, sensory experience: bones fit together and sinews stretch; tears tremble and spill over; stench assaults and offends; breath makes hair stand on end. Bones and sinew, breath and tears orient us on the way through stories that become slowly less familiar, more surreal, more densely charged with a mysterious meaning rising from the deep. We blink and stare in disbelief as the invisible power, beauty, and density of God’s ways is made visible – so undeniably visible that our gawking melts into gazing as it is met by the unblinking eyes of Love. In John’s vocabulary, this is glory: the manifest presence of God.
Lord, he whom you love is ill.
Mortal, can these bones live?
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.
At various points in my life I have learned things about the artistic process from people who are genuine masters. As a student and an amateur (that is, a non-professional lover of art) I have admired several traits that masters seem to have in common, especially when they have swooped in and lovingly rescued my work from disaster. A master of any art will not let her media dictate the results of her intended project. Neither, having painstakingly chosen her materials, will she forsake the medium and its potential if it proves sub-optimal once the artistic process has begun. A master has the training, the inner resources, the perspective, and the tools to respond and to adapt, to re-calibrate his vision and expectations if the block of marble or batch of gesso or piece of wood reveal faults or surprises. This is a powerful and mysterious dance to witness: the artist’s respect for the material calls forth a genuinely two-sided conversation. If the student is too deferential or too dominating toward the materials (and I have been both), the result is either a monologue or an argument. Neither produce good art.
Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.
In my mid-twenties I worked for a non-profit agency in Boston’s Chinatown. The mission of the organization was to offer educational and social services to new Chinese immigrants and their families. Though generously supported by a base of donors, largely Chinese-American Christians, our budget was always tight. As the director of the organization’s English for Speakers of Other Languages program, I had just finished the long process of completing and submitting a complicated grant application that would give us access to some state funding. We did not receive the grant, and I was crest-fallen as I went into my regularly scheduled performance review with our executive director and founder – a charismatic, successful pillar of the community who had emigrated forty years ago. She worked her way through a long list of things she felt I could be doing differently. With each item, I began to feel a gathering energy of discouragement, like yeast molecules feeding on sugars of self-doubt and inadequacy. When she finally paused, I took a deep breath and asked – Was there anything she felt I was doing well? She let out an astonished laugh. “Everything! Your work is excellent!” I saw her face shift and her eyebrows furrow as she reasoned aloud that this must be a cultural difference. She took for granted that I knew what I was doing well. She had seen plenty of grant opportunities come and go, and had intended her feedback only to leaven my sense of resolve for the future by pinpointing areas for growth. After losing the grant, for which I felt personally responsible, I had needed a different kind of yeast: a balanced assessment that included reminders of my strengths, and her confidence in me, in order to make my dough rise.
Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?
2 Samuel 11:1-17 & Mark 4:26-34
I am haunted by a vivid memory: a lush, green vine consuming a tractor, an abandoned car, a telephone pole, and even a small house. The vine is kudzu, a species innocently introduced to the southern U.S. in the late 1800’s from Japan. Now known as “the vine that ate the south,” kudzu is an aggressively invasive species, often growing a foot in a single day. My vivid memory stems from seeing this vine for the first time at age nine, when my family relocated to Alabama from New Jersey. On one stretch of highway, I gawked at the shape of a tractor, an abandoned car, a telephone pole, and then a small house clearly visible beneath the lush foliage. I silently wondered if our new house would eventually suffer the same fate.
Sin is not unlike kudzu on an untended stretch of highway. In the second book of Samuel, we encounter a passage that is notoriously timeless in its relevance. A simple stroll and a lingering glance in the direction of the unknowing, innocent Bathsheba prove fatal. So much harm grown from a single, tragically misguided decision, to act on his tempting thoughts in flagrant abuse of his power as king. David’s sin rapidly multiplies in a sequence of events leading to worse and worse consequences. An innocent woman’s life is changed forever, and a good man is put to death by the king whose interests he was fighting to defend.
Luke 5: 12-16
“But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.”
All four of the gospels give us tell-tale signs of a distinct pattern in Jesus’s own rhythm of life: his withdrawal into solitary places for prayer. The word in Greek can mean to slip away quietly, to go back, to go aside: it literally means to vacate or make space down, perhaps a bit like how we say, ‘My schedule will free up in a few days.’ The word withdraw can have rather negative connotations in English: to take something away after it has been offered; or to stop supporting someone, like a political candidate. People go into withdrawal if they stop taking an addictive drug: the end result will be freedom from addiction, but in the meantime, great suffering is in store. To describe someone as withdrawn is not a positive assessment.
Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
Worlds apart, though not a great distance, Mary and Joseph bear parallel but private burdens. What thoughts must have raced through their solitude?
Oh God, what would he say if I told him the truth?
What will he do if I say nothing?
Oh God, what will happen when he begins to notice that I am pregnant?
If he dismisses me, what will become of me? What will become of this child?
Oh God, you began this work in me. How will you see it through to its promised end?
Oh God, what would she say if I asked her for the truth?
Would I want to know?
Oh God, could I ever learn to love her and this child that isn’t mine?
Am I not enough to wait for?
Oh God, how could she do this to our promised future?
Mary holds the weighty knowledge of her intimate, personal involvement in God’s saving plan, as another life takes on its own weight within her body. But she holds this knowledge alongside an utter incapacity to explain that plan to others. Reading only Matthew’s text, we know at least that she has not ventured to tell Joseph.
Meanwhile, Joseph undergoes the trial of his deepest conscience: a conflict between the righteous observance of the Law, his personal instincts of compassion and discretion, and his own dashed expectations. Probably, he is gravely disappointed.
I had just loaded my suitcase into the car and was headed toward the back gate of the monastery. I was departing for a week of personal retreat and my mind was already settling into a cabin in the silent, sunlit forest at Emery House. One of my brothers suddenly thrust a small vase into my hands, with three flowers: a bright pink peony, a red rose, and a white lily. He beamed, winked, and then vanished: a guerilla ambush of kindness.
As I set the vase down on the desk in the cabin, and as I gazed at it in the days to come, it became something of a parable. The peony, by nature already large and attention-grabbing, unfolded and unfolded until she was only light and air, all her petals cast with abandon onto the floor by day two. The rose, generous but with a measured gravitas, let her petals drop more slowly. By day four, rose had departed. But the lily was a sharp, closed cone of white: fuller and rounder with every hour but cloistered within herself. I became quite certain that I would see the exact moment she blossomed. I took a long walk on the morning of day six, and of course I returned to the cabin to find her moment had arrived… under the watchful eye of God alone. Yet the fragrance filled the room, as if to thank me nonetheless for my faithful waiting and vigilant watching.
2 Timothy 2:8-15 & Luke 17:11-19
The patterns of life help us predict and control the chaos of creaturely existence. But there arises inevitably the unforeseen variable. The variable may visit in the form of a disruption in a system; as a tipping point or breaking point. Or a sudden reversal or unexpected contradiction can interrupt the flow of a familiar pattern. We witness this in all fields of human experience, from economics to meteorology to evolutionary biology to poetry. The loss of control that accompanies such variables can be truly terrifying. But there is another law of creaturely existence to bear in mind: without the unforeseen variable, genuine change cannot emerge. Without the couplet at the end of the sonnet that unlocks the poem’s meaning, the reader will remain unmoved by the galloping rhyme and meter that brought her there. For us, the Holy Spirit is this change agent. The Holy Spirit is made known within us as what theologian Karl Rahner called “an interior pressure by which we become more.” Such moments are usually the cumulative effect in our praying consciousness of many seeds of grace planted and forgotten, tended in the nourishing darkness of God. Moments of becoming unfold in real time as the fruition of a pattern, but what they point to is something altogether unpredictable. We can witness them if we have eyes to see. They break upon our hearing if we are attentive to how we listen.
The authors of scripture were well-attuned to the basic momentum of the Holy Spirit, that “interior pressure to become more” pulsing within the collective life of Christ’s new Body. They interiorized and recorded the testimony of those who had witnessed, at firsthand, the great unforeseen variable of The Resurrection. The cross and empty tomb together represented the sudden reversal by which God’s wisdom and power shone forth in the least likely, promising, or predictable ways. I want to explore the ways our Epistle and our gospel text show us this relationship between the pattern and the unforeseen variable in the shape of Christian life.
There is a subtle and mysterious power that begins to permeate the experience of someone who is becoming acquainted with the largeness of the soul – not just “the soul” as some abstractly beautiful idea, but with the largeness of his or her own inmost self. When Walt Whitman wrote the phrase “I am large, I contain multitudes” in his epic Song of Myself, he was perhaps following his own ecstatic muse toward a version of the truth we find in the letter to the Colossians. This letter, I confess, is one of the epistles I cherish most. When I read it, the most interior, intimate, and invisible part of myself feels so palpably enlarged – and empowered. Here is a truly expansive vision of Christian identity, perhaps best summarized in the single, breath-taking phrase from its third chapter: “There is only Christ: he is everything and he is in everything.” All, everything, whole, full, fullness – these are the characteristic words of the Letter to the Colossians, words by which the reader becomes something more, someone larger than life, a person filled with Life beyond his or her own.
This Christ whose heart of love is now the center and binding agent of the whole cosmos is the one in whom the soul discovers the true measure of its wingspan. For the author of Colossians – probably not Paul, but almost certainly a disciple of Paul’s spirituality – there is a direct relationship between the expansiveness we come to know by participation in this cosmic Christ and the empowerment of the Christian. The follower of Christ knows the power of God in Christ, a power that liberates in a world filled with powers that enslave, abuse, diminish and make small.
If you have kept a journal with any regularity at any point in your life, you’ll know that reading old journal entries can be a little risky. Whenever I meet people who journal, I like to ask if they read what they wrote a year, or two years, or ten years ago. Some visibly cringe at this thought. From the vantage point of the present self, that past self narrates a story that begs not to be revisited, either because it no longer rings true, or it still rings all too true. And all of it is expressed in yesterday’s language, bristling with a permanently adolescent awkwardness. But once, when I was leading a men’s retreat, I witnessed a man read aloud from a journal entry he had written thirty years ago – in his mid-twenties. He prefaced his reading by saying that he found most of it woefully embarrassing, decidedly cringe-worthy, but that revisiting that self – and the intensity of that self’s first desire for God – was crucial to reconnecting with God in the present. He was approaching a mellowed maturity, but sought an understanding of God that he could only arrive at by praying through the lens of his first fervor. A group of twelve men – myself included – listened with rapt attention and respect.
When I imagine the apostles James and John overhearing this gospel passage each time we read it in church, I wonder if they cringe in embarrassment at a past self, still full of fervor but struggling to lay hold of understanding. I then realize that I am the one who is embarrassed on their behalf, as I conjure up my own moments of misguided zeal. I wonder if Matthew wasn’t a little embarrassed on their behalf. Mark places this audacious request in their own mouths: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Matthew presents it as a favor sought from Jesus by their mother: “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” In her great love, a mother can be excused for saying embarrassing things in public on behalf of her children.
Jesus is realistic with them. They have made a very adult request of him – too adult, in fact, too full of the world’s ambition and a worldly conception of privilege and prestige that colors their still emerging notion of the kingdom of God, where one must become humble like a child. But in reply, Jesus treats them like spiritual adults: “You do not know what you are asking.” I see his faint smile, completely free of condescension or judgement, turn into a look of utmost sobriety as he looks them both directly in the eyes, assessing their readiness, knowing that one is never ready. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” Jesus has seen their first fervor, the sudden zeal with which they stepped from the fishing boat of their father Zebedee into his tutelage and his care. He now honors that first fervor in their all-too-teenaged reply: “We are able.”
It is a grave moment of consent, to participate in their Master’s glory to some unknown degree, in some mysterious measure. It is at least clear that this will entail suffering. It is a statement of bold trust – even if its utterance is still ninety-percent aspiration, saturated with what a friend of mine who is both a priest and a mother calls an “over-realized eschatology.”
James and John don’t know it yet, but “We are able” may well be the shortest, simplest, most direct, most honest prayer of their lives. It is not, as they believe in the moment, their consent to a condition that will fulfill and validate their first fervor. Rather, it is a prayer that expresses the truest, noblest, and holiest intention of their lives, a prayer that will never be fully translatable on this side of heaven; a prayer that fulfills their vocation in God.
James and John have heard our version of their story many times. In the heart of Jesus, I imagine that they are held beyond first fervor or mellowed maturity, but in eternity, see through the lens of both simultaneously, and can say with the assurance of the saints, “We were never able. But because he took us at our word – our own impossible words – he made us worthy.” Blessed James and John, whom we remember today.