Sermon, April 2, 2017
Ezekiel 37:1-14 – Dry Bones
John 11:1-45 – the Raising of Lazarus
Coming At Life (Like Deirdre)
Yesterday I drove to Des Moines for the Home-going services for my friend Deirdre. Home-going, if you haven’t heard the term before, is the way a funeral is referred to in the Black church. Deirdre was a Seminary classmate of mine, and someone I would call a friend and teacher. She passed out suddenly a few weeks ago, and never woke up. She was 46 years old with a family, so it has been pretty hard to adjust to.
The Home-going was an amazing service; a packed church, with no less than 5 ministers who each took a turn in the pulpit – and that was all before the Eulogy. There was family tributes and letters of condolence and scripture and prayer… And, of course, the strong gospel singing we all needed to lift our heavy hearts on that day.
But I learned things about Deirdre yesterday that I didn’t know before. It was well known at Seminary that Deirdre had a prosthetic leg. It wasn’t something she talked about much, except in all the ways you talk about prosthetic legs – how it made her dresses fit, the way it stopped fitting well when she was pregnant, how she wouldn’t let it stop her from dancing…. It was generally understood to be a result of cancer in childhood, but she didn’t spend a lot of time telling that story. Yesterday I heard it in full during the family tribute.
Deirdre had come into the world as a bundle of joy – she exploded onto the scene, as you might say, even as a child. She had a presence that made had everyone remember her name, and a personality that filled a room from a young age. She had apparently always had a flair for the dramatic, a bold outspokenness, and smarts up the wazoo, even as a kid.
It was in college at Iowa State, when she was about to become cheerleading captain, that she was diagnosed with cancer. Even after months of chemo and radiation treatment, and taking her leg, the doctors still told her mother it was terminal cancer.
But Deirdre lived another 26 years. And, according to her cousin, came at life with more energy than before. She was more loving, more expressive, more ambitious, more free-spirited, more politically engaged, more committed to following God’s call.
She really came at life with all she had, when she had a second chance at life. That was the Deirdre I knew. A woman who never held back what she was thinking, never let you leave a conversation without knowing you were loved, never passed up an opportunity to teach – to teach about race through the eyes of a black woman, or about motherhood, or about wifehood, or about faith. When she read scripture in chapel, it came alive and the words were forever changed in your memory.
Our scripture today is about new life. The story of Lazarus’ resurrection is, possibly, the most miraculous passage in the bible. And it has it all – faith and doubt, grief and joy, loved ones and strangers, anointing and stench. It has the tomb, the cloth, and the unbelievable. It is like a gospel in miniature.
Mary and Martha come to Jesus with absolute faith – indeed, they send word to Jesus regarding Lazarus’ condition with the same certainty and confidence that his mother Mary sent word to Jesus about the wineskins being empty at the wedding…certain that he’d know what to do. But, when Jesus arrives – two days late, of course – they probably don’t know what to think. It’s unclear here – whether these words, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” – are simple testimonials or recriminations. But what is clear in that statement is their unwavering faith. Unlike the doubtful onlookers, who – except for that one guy who said, ‘isn’t this the one who healed the blind man’ – are all standing around wondering why in the world he wants into the tomb… I mean, it had already been 4 days. The Jewish belief was that the soul left the body after 3 days – so we are told it had been 4 days to emphasize that Lazarus was, in fact, really dead. After all, there was a stench.
But Jesus had to get into the tomb, because that was where death was. Jesus had to look death straight in the face, and take his power. He had to feel the grief and do it anyway. He had to show death who was boss. More importantly, he had to show the disciples, and the Jews, the meaning of his words. This verse is John, Chapter 11. In Chapter 10, he just finished telling the disciples that he will lay down his life, of his own accord, and he has the power to pick it up again. He has the power to command life and defy death.
Very few people experience the opportunity to defy death, as my friend Deirdre did. But we all have the ability to command our lives as if we’ve defied death.
When I first met my friend Kath, I was amazed by her attitude. She had joined our small non-profit team at a time of great discord within the staff. Our executive director, who worked in a different office downstate, had hired a manager for our office – in theory, to coordinate, motivate, and improve our efforts. But rather than accomplish that, he was working to take control and driving the staff out, one by one. Kath was a saving grace in that office. She was an excellent listener, recognizing the challenging work environment but refusing to give into frustration. She was grounded and engaged with the problems in the situation while always keeping an eye towards the solution. She never let anger or resentment overshadow her mood, or her willingness to work on the problem, and somehow with her steadfastness managed to vanquish my anger and resentment, as well. I never understood how she could be so positive, day in and day out, in such a contentious work environment.
It wasn’t until later that I learned that her short, sassy haircut was actually regrowth after chemo… that she was in remission after being diagnosed with breast cancer at 36 while uninsured. That in that same past year, her brother had passed away and her mother had been diagnosed with cancer as well. Then I understood her attitude, her new job working on health care reform, her determination to use all her power to make it a good working environment… It was in fact a concentrated effort to begin life anew. Kath simply refused to let death take up room in her daily thoughts.
Jesus begins his ministry in the book of John by calling the disciple to ‘come and see’. Come and see what the Kingdom of heaven is like. Come and see what we can do together. But here, in this story about Lazarus, the invite to Jesus is also to ‘come and see’ the body – come and see death. Is it any wonder that Jesus is frustrated, that Jesus is ‘deeply disturbed’? That Jesus looks to heaven and says to God, “At least YOU understand me!” Jesus is inviting disciples to come and see new life… the world keeps inviting us to see death when Jesus wants to invite us to new life.
Our bones may be dry… we may feel like Ezekiel in the bottom of that valley, looking around at all the bones littering the floor. Ezekiel wants us to know that the bones are ‘dry’, to tell us that these bones were, in fact, really dead. But even they have new life potential in them. Even they can be resurrected. With a new breath from God – the word used here is the Hebrew word, Ruach. Ruach is God’s breath in these bones, God’s wind that touches the apostles in the upper room, God’s spirit rushing across the waters when Jesus is baptized, saying “this is my son, with whom I am well pleased.” Ruach is the life-force that breathes in us anew. Ruach is the wind behind our backs when we find the courage to start fresh, to renew our purpose, to pick up our life - or to lay it down for God. Ruach is the spring wind across the Great plains, bringing new life.
The valley of dry bones is our challenge, as well as our opportunity. We may feel completely cut off by the presence of God. But God can, and will, breathe new life into our dry bones.
In Chicago I knew a woman in the church I served as an intern that was a tough old bird… a notoriously caustic old woman. Her name was Dea, and nearly everyone was afraid of her. She was on the larger side, which exacerbated her bad knees, and she moved slowly with a cane. She also had a tendency to appear like she was giving everyone the side-eye or stink-eye when she looked at you.
The church had housed and supported a non-profit feeding program, called Elijah’s Food Pantry, for something like 30 years, and it was Dea who was in charge of the program. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, our patrons would file in starting a little before 9 am, sign in and take a number, and then wait to be called for their bag of food. Dea sat at this intake desk every Tuesday and Thursday, playing the bad cop; barking out numbers and hollering at people who missed their cue. The food pantry took place in the basement, and the Pastor could hear her upstairs in his office. And sometimes, he got complaints from the patrons who felt abused and unwelcome. The food pantry staff often griped that they didn’t get enough help from the congregation, but when volunteers did show up to help, the found the atmosphere just as unpleasant for helpers as it was for patrons.
Generally, Dea made the place somewhat inhospitable. My assignment during this internship was to try to alter the atmosphere in the food pantry. So, I got to know the patrons who visited the pantry, as well as the people who ran the program. I spent every Tuesday and Thursday with them, offering coffee and conversation to patrons, and an extra pair of hands to the staff.
Now, Dea had been fighting her doctors’ advice to have a knee replacement for many years. One of her reasons for putting it off was caring for her husband, who suffered dementia, and the other was the responsibility of the food pantry, and how they might fare without her. This was even though the church did not have an elevator and it was physically painful for her to struggle down the 8 steps to get into the basement, and then back up when it was time to leave, twice a week. When her husband went in the hospital for a health problem, the doctors refused to take no for an answer regarding the knee surgery, and the food pantry workers braced themselves for operations without Dea. It was during this time I started visiting Dea in the hospital, and got to know the woman beneath the harsh, barking exterior. I learned about some of the things she was clinging to desperately to make her life work, and her fears about losing those things.
Her knee surgery was a quick success, but her husband spiraled downhill and was kept in the hospital. During that time, Dea struggled with the loneliness but also reflected on what it was like to constantly be caring for someone who didn’t always know where he was. When her husband was transferred to a dementia care assisted living facility, Dea was angry and resistant. But a few months after he moved in there, Dea made an abrupt decision to move there as well. We were all quite surprised that this woman, who fought to keep things the same for so long, turned around and charged fearlessly into a completely new situation. It is true, moving to the assisted living facility allowed Dea to be closer to her husband, but the move had caused him to decline fast. She confided in me during one visit in anguish that he no longer remembered her when she visited him at the facility. In fact he died shortly after she moved there.
Dea, however, never looked back. She has found the single-apartment style homes more adequate to her physical abilities. She appreciated not having to do all the chores involved in caring for a home. And she found new life in the social atmosphere and busy activity schedule of the assisted living center. When I visited her there, she was nearly giddy with new friends and hobbies. She told me I’d have to come visit either first thing in the morning or at the end of the evening, because every other time she was would not be found in her room – she was out with the other residents, having fun. She told me the only problem she now had was that, not having to cook or clean for herself and having so many choices at meal time – that she was gaining weight.
How did the food pantry fare, you might ask? Well… the truth is the pantry staff had been preparing for Dea’s retirement for many years. As a staff, they had discussed the transition, they had chosen her replacement, a younger woman with lots of ideas and energy, but who was intimidated by the old bird and not willing to cross Dea’s bark, and they were ready. And waiting. And waiting. And waiting, for Dea to retire. It didn’t take long for them to adjust. One visit to my old church showed a slicker and more efficient food pantry that was applying for renovation grants and welcoming patrons with friendliness.
When Dea finally found the courage to let go of her fears, her grasp on the life she used to have, she found it wasn’t death awaiting her, but life renewed. God was ready to move in her life, but she had to roll away the stone and face the risk.
Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Resurrection and Jesus’ presence among as doesn't just mean life after death. God is the One who gives life, who creates life, who brings life, who restarts life, who breathes Ruach into us, anew. It means that God continues to breathe into our lives right now. Because Jesus promised abundant life, here and now, without delay. God breathes life into the spaces and places around us where we defy death by cherishing life.
The resurrection gives witness that God is a God of life, who continually seeks ways to breathe new life into us. Watch for the valleys of dry bones in your life… watch for the wind that blows across the dry spaces. Watch for God’s breath, that you may inhale deeply and see God moving in you. While we hold on to Jesus’ promise, God gives life now, without delay.