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.
Isaiah 11: 1 – 10
Psalm 72: 1 – 8
Luke 10: 21 – 24
We’ve probably all seen them somewhere: in a poster shop; at an art gallery; on a book or magazine cover. Depictions of the peaceable kingdom, as this passage from Isaiah is often called, are popular among artists and illustrators from a variety of traditions. One nineteenth century artist, Edward Hicks, even painted 62 slightly different versions of the peaceable kingdom!
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain….
But I am not an art historian, and this is not an art appreciation class, and as fascinating as it is to consider why Hicks painted so many different version of this passage, and what those differences might mean, the real question for us tonight is not, why we should care about Hicks, but why this passage from Isaiah is so important!
Growing up, I shared a bedroom with my older brothers, Charlie and Chris. This wasn’t a problem, except when it was. On one occasion, they and their friends decided to play parachute, jumping from the top bunk, where Chris slept, down onto my bed. By the time my mother got home and discovered what we had been up to, my bed was a wreck, and my mother was furious. Needless to say, a new mattress and bedspring had to be purchased in order to make my bed usable again.
More problematic, at least for me, was the closet. As the youngest of the three boys, I went to bed earlier than Charlie and Chris. By the time they came to bed an hour or so later then I, it was usually much darker, and the darkest place of all was the closet directly opposite the foot of my bed. Now, I wasn’t afraid of the dark … well, not much at least. What I was certainly afraid of was the darkness of the closet. It seemed like a great gaping black hole, and I was terrified of it. I thought that I could get lost in that darkness forever. I would only be able to fall asleep again if the closet door was closed. And that was the problem. Either on purpose or accidentally Charlie and Chris would frequently leave the door open and I would have to timidly ask them to close it. By then they too were in bed with the lights out, and they would sometimes refuse to get up and do my bidding, so in fear and trepidation I would either whimper until they did so, or steel up my courage and do it myself, scurrying back to bed as quickly as I could, once the dreaded task was completed.
That was a long time ago, and by now, most of us are too old, or too sophisticated to be afraid of the dark. We no longer need big brothers to protect us from whatever is lurking in the back of the dark closet. We no longer dread falling asleep with the closet door open, with that great gaping darkness threatening to swallow us whole. We’re no longer afraid of the dark … well, not much at least.
I was listening to public radio yesterday and learned of a new book written primarily for women – but with application for us all, I would imagine. It’s called Overwhelmed. The title struck me as particularly appropriate for the times in which we are living. Many of us find ourselves overwhelmed by the pace of life, by the expectations placed on us by our families or our work places, by the culture in which we live or by the demands of technology. We feel overwhelmed at times by the political tensions that are so evident right now in our country, or by the threats of enemies abroad. We worry about gun violence, climate change, and economic stability. Life can sometimes feel overwhelming and the temptation to desperation or despair very real. Perhaps you are even now in such a place, uncertain about your future or our future as a nation and a world.
Where do people of faith find hope in times of trouble? Where do they turn in times of duress, when their world has been turned upside-down, when their expectations have been shattered, when even their beliefs and assumptions have been called into question? A look at today’s gospel lesson may help.
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Saint Paul’s self-revelation about his “thorn in the flesh” is quite mysterious. Whatever this suffering is, Saint Paul has been praying fervently that this “thorn” be extracted from him, but to no avail. There are two mysteries here. For one, we don’t know what this “thorn” is. We’re never told anything further; however, that fact has not stopped endless speculation down through the centuries what the thorn might be. Is Saint Paul’s “thorn” something related to his family of origin, to his good standing in the synagogue, to someone who is out to get him, or who won’t forgive him, or who won’t respect him? Is the “thorn” related to his physical or mental health, to his sexuality, to an addiction, to an unmet desire of his heart? We have no idea, other than that it is very painful.
Saint Paul is writing an open letter to a local church. The letter hit home. The letter was saved, copied by hand, and widely circulated for more than two hundred years, only gaining in authority as the years passed. The letter was ultimately recognized as belonging to the Canon of Holy Scripture. Why was this personal letter saved, circulated, and so revered? Because Saint Paul wrote of a truth that others can relate to. He’s not just telling his story; he’s telling our story. Everyone has their own version of a thorn or thorns in the flesh that don’t go away. Thorns are very painful.
The Great Vigil of Easter
Romans 6: 1 – 13
Mark 16: 1 – 8
Every once in a while I’ll be minding my own business, and suddenly, in the middle of Morning or Evening Prayer, something is read and my attention is instantly arrested. A word, or a phrase, or an image from Scripture leaps out of the appointed reading at me, and for the next hour, or day, or week, it returns to me over and again. That happened a week ago, on Palm Sunday, at Morning Prayer, and suddenly what we say in our Rule of Life became immediately true. We read there that in our worship the Spirit sometimes touches us immediately through a word, an image or a story; there and then we experience the Lord speaking to us.
Keith had been reading from Zechariah, where the Prophet proclaims that the coming ruler of God’s people will arrive humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. It’s an all-too-familiar passage that I have read, or heard, dozens of times, and because of its association with Palm Sunday, we heard it again last Sunday at Morning Prayer. In spite of having heard that passage countless time before, I have actually never heard it. Or, at least I have been so caught up with the image of the king coming, humble, and riding on a donkey, that I have never heard the rest of the lesson. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.
It was the phrase prisoners of hope that arrested me. Suddenly, I was no longer thinking about kings and donkeys, palms and processions, but prisoners, freedom, and hope. I was thinking what it might mean to be a prisoner of hope. In a sense, while everyone else was celebrating Palm Sunday, and beginning to enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby [God] has given us life and immortality, I was already at Easter, thinking about the gift of freedom and hope that comes to us through the Resurrection of Jesus. And that is where I have spent this week, living the events of Holy Week through the lens of being a prisoner of hope.
Isaiah 40: 1 – 11
Psalm 85: 1 – 2, 8 – 13
2 Peter 3: 8 – 15a
Mark 1: 1 – 8
Each year I get a little crankier and a little more annoyed by Christmas.
Now, don’t get me wrong, before you write me off as some kind of a monastic Scrooge, let me explain what I mean.
If truth be told, I actually love Christmas. I love the lights, and the tinsel, and the tree. I love the decorations, and the carols, and the crèche, and the baking, (perhaps especially the baking!). I love Christmas. What makes me cranky, and annoyed, is that what many people really just want are the lights, and the tinsel, and the tree. What many people really just want are the decorations, and the carols, and the crèche, and the baking. What many people really just want is the baby and the celebration. What many people don’t want is a saviour. But isn’t that the whole point of Christmas? And you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
For many, Christmas is about a cute, pudgy, sweet smelling baby, nestled in a bed of clean straw, in a romantically quaint, clean, rustic looking barn, amidst softly falling snow, much as we had yesterday. What they don’t want, is a saviour. And they don’t want a saviour, because that would suggest that we need saving. That would suggest that life isn’t all that we so often pretend it to be. And who wants to admit that life, especially my life, is not perfect, or that I can’t fix it?
In the minds of many, we in America are living in an era of increased hopelessness. Many of us are experiencing a level of despair beyond anything we have ever felt before. The reasons for this sense of despair are many:
The gap between the wealthy and powerful and the needy and poor seems to widen year by year, in our country and in the world at large. Many of our citizens lack job security, health care, and a live-able wage. They face an uncertain future, while others have the power to indulge themselves in luxury and waste.
Racial, cultural and gender inequality still plague our society, despite long and hard-fought battles for civil rights, equality and justice.
Climate change threatens the earth and puts countless people at risk, and yet ours is the only country in the world to exempt itself from the planet-preserving recommendations of the Paris Climate Agreement.
Our political system seems to be dominated more and more by people of extraordinary wealth and privilege. Our leaders are hampered by rigid partisanship and cannot seem to agree on the common good. Those in power seem consumed with maintaining their power at all costs. As columnist Jeff Kirkpatrick notes, “Power supersedes morality, ethics, national security, logic, reason and sanity” in America right now.[i]
John 18:1 – 19:42
Our efforts cultivating the fruit of the earth were modest at best, because growing up in Brooklyn meant not have having much gardening space. In our backyard, we had a few small rectangles of soil in which to plant our hopes for fresh vegetables and herbs. We experimented with everything from eggplants to pumpkins, but what I remember most is the tomato plants tended by my father and grandfather, taller than me at the time and filled with beautiful ripe tomatoes. That such a prodigious crop could come from so tiny a handful of seeds never ceased to amaze me. And after we had planted the seeds for next season, I waited with a mixture of hope and awe for what seemed like a miracle, new tomato plants rising from the ground in which the seeds were buried.
Nowadays, many of us who live in cities don’t consider anything about our food very miraculous, and we probably aren’t familiar with placing all our faith in a seed. But the lives of our ancestors, certainly in Jesus’ time, were intimately woven with nature’s cycles of death and new life. The fruit of each plant gives its life for the rich potential of its seeds, and each seed itself must die so to bring forth new growth.
When I began studying our gospel lesson for this morning, the first thing I thought of was an event from this past week that made all the major newspapers and has been circulating as a video on social media. The video is of Senator Elizabeth Warren confronting Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf about taking responsibility for fraud committed by his company who then scapegoated lower level employees.[i] Senator Warren’s examination of Mr. Stumpf was scathing and I have to confess I took a slight sadistic pleasure in seeing him wide-eyed and squirming as she fired question after question, admitting damning evidence into public record from what seemed to be this great chasm separating the two. After seeing the video, I couldn’t help but to think how lucky the rich man in our gospel lesson was to have had his interchange with Father Abraham instead of Senator Warren. While Abraham’s interaction with the wealthy man is firm, his tone is at least compassionate. To be honest, I think my curiosity was more the result of my recognition and identification with Mr. Stumpf. Throughout my life, I have at times made poor choices based on selfish motives. I too have had to face up to my shortcomings, ask forgiveness, and make reparations for harm caused to those whom I’d hurt. Perhaps you can relate.