Fifth Sunday in Lent
John 11:1-16; 38-44
At the beginning of this month—four weeks ago—I met with my spiritual director for our regular appointment. The conversation naturally turned to Lent, and she asked whether there was anything that I was going to take on or give up. There were two practices that I mentioned as part of my Lenten discipline for this year: I wanted to start going to the gym, and I wanted to attend a morning prayer service at a church near my apartment at least once a week.
Needless to say, neither of those practices have quite panned out for me, as both the church building and the gym are closed until further notice.
Yet our current situation has forced all of us to give up far more for Lent than we could have imagined. As we grapple with the responsibility of social distancing and limit the time that we are outside of our homes, there is a long list of things that we have had to abandon not only for this season but for the foreseeable future. Attending worship on Sunday mornings has changed to watching a livestream on a computer; grabbing coffee with a friend has transformed into virtual happy hours via Zoom; Saturdays in the park have turned into yet another day on the couch.
The fact of the matter is that there is still so much that we do not know. We do not know who all will be affected, when all of this will subside, or even what tomorrow is going to bring.
When there is so much that is unknown, it seems that the temptation to give in to fear is that much more compelling, the fear that leads us to hoard food, toilet paper, and all other kinds of provisions. Those feelings of depression, anxiety, and despair that are often out of our control might become even more unruly. The tendency to turn inwards and become isolated can override our fundamental need for connection and community.
But if there’s any good news for us today, it needs to be the good news that some other response is possible.
In our lesson this morning, the prophet Ezekiel is ushered out and set down in the middle of a valley full of bones, dry and dusty. God asks him whether the bones might be able to live, and he responds with the best answer that he can muster: “I don’t know, but you do.” Rather than ending this vision there, however, God commands him to prophesy to these bones, saying to them that God will cause lay sinews on them, cause flesh to cover them, and put breath in them, and they shall live.
And so Ezekiel does as he is commanded, and he’s met with a terrifying rattling sound. The bones began to form skeletons, and on the skeletons came sinews, and flesh and skin covered them. Yet still they are dead.
God then tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath itself, that it might come from all over and breathe upon those bodies. He does as he is commanded, and the wind begins to rush over and through all of them, and they stand on their feet, fully alive.
God explains this fever dream to Ezekiel by saying that the bones are Israel in exile. Sure, they might be technically alive, but their spirits are dead. Their trust in the Torah and the Covenant dried up; their hope is lost. And in the same way that Ezekiel prophesied to those bones and to the winds, so too is he to prophesy to his people that God will open their graves and raise them up; God’s spirit will be within them and they shall live and be placed back home.
It’s possible that you have felt like a collection of these bones this past week, dry and dusty, hopeless and disconnected. And, quite frankly, that’s okay. I have more than a few times.
It’s okay to feel discouraged by the news. It’s okay to feel afraid for yourself and for others. It’s okay to feel worried about how you’re going to survive without a paycheck. It’s okay to feel exhausted and like you need to take a nap every once in a while. It’s okay to be sad about having to cancel a vacation.
There is no “correct” way to feel in the midst of all of this. We are still learning this new normal; we are figuring out what life looks like in the middle of all of this.
But yet there is still good news in the face of all of this: God is not finished with us.
On those days where you feel like a bag of bones, God is still beckoning the Spirit to revive us. On those days where you feel like you’re in the tomb with Lazarus, Jesus is calling to you from the other side of the stone. On those days where you feel like the life has been taken out of you, God is still working for your good; for our good. Regardless of where you are or how you feel in this very moment, God is working for your resurrection in this very moment.
Even when so much seems unknown on this day, we know who is alive and active, who is liberating and healing; who is with us. And when God is with us, there is another way to respond to the chaos that dominates our attention. We can respond from love rather than fear; out of hope rather than despair.
For while I don’t know exactly how I’ll feel tomorrow, I know that I am going to wake up in God’s grace and fall back asleep in God’s grace. I do not know when I will get to see friends and loved ones in person again, but I do know that they are being held in God’s mercy in the meantime. I do not know when we will gather back here on a Sunday morning, but I know that the Spirit of God is abiding with each and every one of us in this very moment.
And I know that can make all the difference.
So this morning I pray that you may take a look around you and act out of that love and that hope. Maybe it means checking in on a friend or family member who you have not heard from in a while; maybe it means turning off the news for a while. Perhaps it’s taking the time to do some cleaning to make yourself feel healthier; perhaps it’s ensuring that you’re taking whatever steps are necessary for your mental health; maybe it’s finding time for prayer that has been missing. I’m certain that it means staying home for the sake of your own health and the health of all of those around us.
After all, it is still Lent, which means that we still have some work to do. And while we may not know what all the next few weeks are going to bring, we do know that Resurrection morning is still coming.
Thanks be to God.