Who Could Stand

Learning to Live Inside Out

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A

Here at the end of the Lenten observance (well, almost the end anyway), we have hints of Resurrection. We have “a foretaste of glory divine,” as the hymnist Fanny Crosby says. As if the Spirit and the lectionary preparers knew that we would need something to help us through the next couple of weeks. As if they knew that without this reminder, we would find it a very hard road as we made our way stumbling behind the Christ who suffers and dies for us.

“If you should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3) The psalmist asks an important question and makes a profound assertion. The question, of course, is obvious: “Who could stand?” If God held everything against us, if God kept an account of wrongs and weighed our worth, what hope would we have? And the answer is just as obvious, though unstated: “No one could stand. No one would have a hope.” That’s about as bleak as it could possibly be.

Except that is not where it ends. In fact, it is a springboard into a wonderful possibility. “But,” says the psalmist, “there is forgiveness with you” (v.4). What a beautiful possibility: what a ground of hope and life. The psalm practically runs from there to the end with joy and wonder both. That’s where I’ll put my life; that’s where I will lean; that’s for what I will wait. That – that forgiveness thing. And I’ll be on the lookout for it with more eagerness than those who watch for danger coming over the hills, those who watch for enemies at the breaking of the day.

And then the natural progression of this hope is to invite. This isn’t just for me, the psalmist sings, it is for all. For any and all, let’s put our eggs in this basket; let’s place our bets on this possibility; let’s live our lives in this truth. It is an all-inclusive grace and an open-ended invitation. This is where we want to go, who we want to be together.

The familiar passage from Ezekiel is also about all, about the community. We sometimes forget that as we read. Maybe it is because the prophet is telling his own story here. “The hand of the Lord came upon ME.” Maybe that’s why this becomes such an individual story when it isn’t about individuals at all. The passage ends with a vast multitude, for heaven’s sake. Yet we insist on hearing it as a multitude of individuals. And this is about being built up. It’s about getting what you need to keep going. It’s about God who can revive you no matter how dry you are. God can breathe into you a new life, no matter how much you are gasping for air. I’ve heard and probably have preached too many sermons along those lines.

Full disclosure, that’s not all bad. Certainly, souls, individual souls, need reviving. Certainly, breath can come to reanimate those who have had the wind knocked out of them. Certainly, there is something there for the individual yous in this story. I understand the desire to take a personal day off work. I need a personal day. You need a personal day. Everyone needs a personal day. Wonderful. Let’s make it happen. Personal days for everyone!

But that limits the power of this passage, both historically and today. The passage includes verses 11-14 because they function as an explanation of Ezekiel’s vision. And verse eleven begins “These bones are the whole house of Israel.” The whole house. Not just individuals. Not just one on one, but all together. So, then if you go back to verse three, where God says to Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” God isn’t referring to any specific individuals. Can this one live; can that one? Can you live? Can I live? No, as important as those individuals are, God is talking to Ezekiel about the whole community, the family of God. The body, we have come to call it, the body of Christ.

We live in an era of massive and rapid change. One of those changes is the loss of influence of institutions like the church. Not just the church, by any means, but the one that concerns us in this space. The church is seemingly on its way out. Or at the least the church as we have known it for the last however many years we want to count. And now here we are. Set down in the midst of this valley of bones. Of what once was. Of what our expectations are. This is where we are. This is the world in which we live. But, and this is important, not because we messed up. Not because we lost something, or broke something, or did something wrong to this gift called the church. No, we are here today because this is where God wants us. This is our paradise.

I know, sounds outrageous, right? In the midst of decline, in the midst of struggle, of conflict and disagreement and longing for a past that may not have been real, to call this paradise seems ... offensive. Or a scam of some sort. Like I’m trying to divert the blame for the mistakes we have made or something. Maybe. But look again. “The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones” (Ezekiel 37:1). Set me down. Did you know that is the same word that is used in the beginning of Genesis? He set them down in the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:15). Maybe this is where God wants us—here in this place where what used to be so easy now involves effort and commitment and faith.

He set us down here in a church that is facing an uncertain future and asks us, “Can these bones live?” And our response is often one of despair. If only. If only it was like it used to be. If only we could turn back the clock. If only we just advertised more, just opened the doors wider, just went back to what used to work, even though it was already losing ground. Can these bones live?

Let’s be honest, shall we? Can these bones live? No. Face it. No. Not one of these bones can live. Not one; they are too dry. Too old. Too dead. Not one. But Ezekiel is wise enough to know that he shouldn’t voice that answer. Even though he feels it in his bones, as we feel it in ours. He wants to say, “No these bones can’t live; I can’t make them live. Too many, too dry, too broken.” But he knows better than to say so. Instead, he shrugs his shoulders and says, “You know, Lord.” And God says, “No.” As they are, they can’t, they won’t live. On their own. So, bring them together, Ezekiel. Prophesy to the bones. Bring them together. What happened next took time, and made noise, and didn’t look right for a while. Wasn’t right for a while. Until it became right. Until the breath entered and what was apart came together and stood together. A vast multitude.

We are not whole until we can bring these bones together. We are not complete until these bones can live. The truth is, we can’t make the bones live - the bones of our church, the bones of our families, the bones of our world. But God can. So, we prophesy to the bones and to the breath. To the body that we are becoming and the Spirit that makes us alive. Then maybe we can come together, bone to its bone.

Who can stand? In the face of death, who can stand? We who grieve, who can stand? We who stand amidst the bones, who grieve what was, how can we stand? That’s what Mary and Martha wanted to know, and all those who were close to Lazarus. How do we stand in the face of death?

John, and by implication Jesus, wants us to see beyond the miracle. We could stand in awe of the moment where Jesus bends the laws of creation and works something incomprehensible. But there is so much to this story that we almost have to force ourselves to look beyond that unexplainable moment. That’s why we’re overwhelmed with words again this week. Look deeper into the mirror and see your life, even if you don’t come hopping out of a tomb wrapped in grave clothes.

Like Martha, we hint at questions rather than ask them. “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Okay, thanks for the information. But then later, like Martha, we complain when those unasked questions aren’t answered. “If you had been here ...” And then we’re known to find an excuse to get away from one who wants more from us than we can give. Did you notice when Jesus starts getting into Martha’s faith statement, she slips away and tells Mary to go talk to him. “This is more your area than mine,” she says. I’m good with a spatula; you know theology.” Even the crowd at the cemetery tsks behind their hands, “You would think he could have come a little sooner.”

And then those tears. Shortest verse and all. “Jesus wept.” “Began to weep” in our translation. Those around him went “Aww, look how much he loved his friend.” Completely missing the point. Or rather confirming the reason for the tears. Of course, Jesus loved His friend, He loves all of us so much that our limited sight causes him pain. Jesus wept twice in the Gospels, here and on Palm Sunday, when he rode into Jerusalem and saw the city spread out before him, and his heart broke at the blindness, at the lack of vision, the lack of faith, the inability to see beyond that stone called death into the life of joy and peace and hope.

We sit behind those stones, stymied so long we begin to stink. Until someone comes along and says, “Take away the stone.” Wait, what? Take it away? You mean, just like that? Take it away? Or better yet, live as though it were not there? Move forward into the unknown, be unwrapped and live? Notice Lazarus doesn’t move his stone. Others move it. Lazarus doesn’t unwrap his shroud; others unwrap it. He is set free from that which binds him, from that which takes his life, by the community acting on the direction of the Christ who weeps for our blindness. The Christ who asks whether we believe.

Do you believe this? “I am Lord of life,” he says, “I am stronger than the stone called death. You need not live in fear, you need not limit your own life, your own living. Set it aside and embrace life in all its beauty and joy and risk, because I’ve got your back.” Do you believe this? Well, says Martha and all of us, kinda. Sorta. Yeah. I guess.

Somehow, with the help of friends and financial institutions of various kinds, we find our way through all sorts of struggles, all sorts of griefs and pains. Somehow, the stone wasn’t the end we thought it was. Sure, there are some more stones to move, more struggles to endure. But somehow, we moved forward. Step by step. Taking away the stones as they come. One by one. That’s how we stand, by God’s grace and Christ’s call to move stones and bind bones and within a community that walks with us through whatever comes our way. We can stand. Thanks be to God.

In This Series...

Ash Wednesday, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes First Sunday in Lent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Second Sunday in Lent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Third Sunday in Lent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes


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In This Series...

Ash Wednesday, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes First Sunday in Lent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Second Sunday in Lent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Third Sunday in Lent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes