PRAYER AS LENT WINDS DOWN
Lent’s days are winding down, Merciful God,
and we are no closer to having contrite hearts.
Our small complaints still loom large,
and we don’t hurry to show mercy, or rush to be kind.
The old habits of Fat Tuesday are still alluring,
and we resist the emptiness of the desert that reveals you –
the places where you make yourself known to us,
where you wait in the quiet for us to be ready, still feel alien.
Yet, Loving God, we come to you,
trying to lose our lives for the life you offer,
seeking the wisdom of our brother Jesus,
hoping to be blown open by the Spirit.
Bring us fully into your Lenten gifts, we pray,
and accept the Lenten gifts we offer to you. Amen.
PRAYER OF ILLUMINATION
Gracious, loving God, in Jesus of Nazareth you shared our lives.
You knew the joys and the sorrows, you felt the sting of death.
Gracious, loving God, in the Christ’s resurrection you reveal a new hope;
a promise that in the end life wins.
Gracious, loving God, in the healing of souls Jesus reveals your mercy and forgiveness.
We are unbound and set free, led into the life of eternity.
God of Life, God of Grace, God of Hope, God who calls us by name;
we trust and know your voice, we respond to your call, we rejoice in life renewed.
And so we live as people of hope, citizens of the Kingdom.
Each and every day. Amen.
37 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. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath[a] to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath[b] in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath:[c] Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath,[d] and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
As we move into our second week of physical isolation, I received poetry written by a retired teacher and chaplain. Her poem has made her the poet laureate of the pandemic. Maybe you have read these hopeful words by Kitty O’Meara:
“And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.
And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.”
To O’Meara, this is a time rife with frustration—as well as the potential for transformation, as her poem demonstrates. “We can wallow where we are or we can see the invitations. Anything that you can tap into that allows your feelings to be expressed creatively will do that for you. You will feel better on the other end of it. You will be changed,” she says. Yes, this is a season of frustration, but it can also be a season of change and creativity, if we recognize that in the midst of death and loss, there can be life and growth, if we will look for the signs of life. That is what our scripture from Ezekiel and John point to for us today – signs of live. Let us revisit Martha and Mary’s situation.
Martha and Mary send word to Jesus: “Lazarus is sick, really sick. We don’t know whether he’s going to make it.” They’ve heard the same stories as everybody has heard, how Jesus made a blind man see and healed a sick little boy. Maybe, just maybe, he could heal Lazarus, but at least Jesus needs to be here with his friend in his hour of need, and he ought to be here with us.
You would assume Jesus would drop everything and rush to Bethany to the bedside of his best friend. He doesn’t. He stays where he is for several days. And then he decides to go. It’s dangerous. There is growing concern about him in Jerusalem, among the religious leaders, about what he’s up to, the crowds that gather, the potential for public disorder. Some people are calling him the Messiah, the one who will lead the people to throw off the yoke of their oppressors. The religious and political leaders in Jerusalem live with constant fear of a Roman crackdown, and frankly, this Jesus sounds like trouble. One of the twelve, Thomas, understands the risk of going to Bethany, just two miles outside the capitol city. “Let’s go and die with him,” Thomas says.
So they set out. Jesus has delayed—dallied, you might say. And sure enough, Lazarus dies before he gets there. Friends from the village have already gathered at the home. They bring food; they sit with the devastated sisters; trying to be helpful, they say comforting things; and they weep along with them, which is sometimes all you can do to be helpful in that situation.
Martha sees Jesus coming down the road, runs out to meet him. And she’s not happy. “You’re too late. You might have been able to help. At least you could have stood by his bedside and held his hand; you could have at least told him you loved him and said good-bye.”
Martha and Jesus exchange the kind of customary euphemisms we reach for at the funeral home: “He’s in a better place now.” We don’t know what else to say. And to Martha, Jesus says the most astounding, astonishing thing: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even those who die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Martha runs to tell her sister, Mary, that Jesus has finally shown up. Professor Frances Taylor Gench, says about the two sisters, “Don’t you just love these uppity women?” In a time when women were regarded as chattel, property, Mary and Martha insist on being taken seriously, and they are angry. Mary is just as irritated with Jesus as Martha is: “What took you so long? He’s already dead,” Mary says, overcome again with her grief. Finally Jesus shows some emotion. When he sees the neighbors weeping, sees Mary, dissolved in tears, he weeps too, finally—weeps for his friend, for his dear friend Lazarus, who is now dead and, in his tomb, and has been for four days. “Show me where he is buried,” says Jesus.
Finally Jesus arrives at the tomb. “Open it.” Martha, ever persnickety, always practical, calls attention to a delicate detail: “There’s going to be an odor.” Jesus continues: “Open it”—one more interruption—he prays to God. The neighbors, the mourners, are there too. They have come along to see what would happen. They are fascinated, obviously. Who wouldn’t be? Maybe they are also terrified.
“Lazarus, come out,” says a loud voice piercing the shimmering heat. And Lazarus walks out, grave clothes and all, blinking in the bright, midday sun.
What is it a sign of?
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” “In him was life and the life was the light of the world. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”
That’s what it’s a sign of: life and light that shines in the darkness; light that the darkness does not overcome.
In the popular mind, Christianity is about life after death, getting to heaven when you die, “pie in the sky by and by” as someone put it. It is about that, about a love from which not even death can separate us, about a light no darkness overcomes. But even more, it is about life now—full, rich, complete, deep, free, whole; life now. “Eternal life,” Jesus called it, a quality and depth of life that begins now, in this life, and is not interrupted by death. “I have come,” he said, “that you have life and have it fully; I have come that my life—my joy—may live in you.”
What do you suppose Lazarus did after his sisters and neighbors helped him out of his grave clothes and he walked out into the bright sunshine? My modest guess is that he said, “What’s for dinner?” My guess is that every meal was now different. Every morning when he awoke, every sunrise and sunset, every day blessed, enhanced because of the nearness of death. My guess is that his love for his sisters and their life together was so very precious that it felt almost as if it was all brand new and that he couldn’t stop thanking God for the miracle of his one and only LIFE.
That’s what it is a sign of.
I loved something Marian Wright Edelman said once: “Do not die before you die. See and listen. Bask in the countless miracles and beauty all around you. Stay awake and alert to the incredible currents of life everywhere”
Henry David Thoreau said he wished to learn what life had to teach now “and not when I come to die, discover that I had not lived”
Wendell Berry: “The question before me, now that I am old, is not how to be dead, which I know from enough practice, but how to be alive, as these worn hills still tell, and some paintings of Paul Cezanne, and this mere singing wren, who thinks he’s alive forever, this instant, and may be.”
It is a sign that this life is so very precious precisely because it is limited. Lazarus grew old and died again, but my guess is that he lived every single day of the rest of his life with tears of gratitude in his eyes.
“Live” is the word here. Live today and every day. Open your eyes and mind and heart and soul to the stunning fact of your own life. Don’t put things off. Tell those you love that you love them. I spoke to my father yesterday, he taught me about grace by saying those words that men of his generation rarely said, “I Love You.” Every time after we finish a conversation, we say, “I Love You.” As he enters into his late 70s and is showing signs of memory loss, he continues to remember to tell me that I am loved. He shows me that we are called to “LIVE” fully and care for those around us, even as we all march towards our earthly death.
That is the truth to which this sign points us: Death is dead through Jesus Christ Take off your grave clothes. Leave behind everything that binds you, everything that limits you, everything that keeps you from being everything God created you to be. Walk into the sunshine and live every single day of your life fully, with the tears of gratitude, for the miracle of it, in your eyes.
Jesus is walking toward his death now—a final visit to the city, a last supper, a cross looms—but so does Easter and another empty tomb. He has already begun to do what he came to do; there is light shining in the darkness.
“And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.”
Commentary provided by Frances Taylor Gench, Elena Nicolaou, Kitty O’Meara, David Lose, Marian Wright Edelman, Karoline Lewis, Meda Stamper and John Buchanan.