Tag: death

Dancing in the Spirit

Genesis 1:1-5water
Mark 1:4-11

Water throughout the Bible –

In the beginning – our translation today says a wind from God sweeps over the face of the waters. But this could also be translated as the spirit of God hovered, the breath of God danced, the soul of God fluttered.

Much like a dove’s flight.

A dove’s flight tells Noah when the waters are receding.

The Spirit, like a descending dove, alight upon Jesus at his baptism in waters bringing God’s personal words of love.

Water in the Bible is the source of life. Out of water, God brings forth peoples and animals, plants and insects, birds and fish. Out of water, to this day, we are born from our mothers. Water is life.

Water is cleansing! Water is used as a holy bath before approaching the temple of God. Water is used to cleanse hands before prayer, and feet upon entering houses, and, of course, our baptisms.

Yet, water is also death. The Red Sea parts for escaping Moses, but it comes back together to kill the Egyptians. Noah and his family survive the flood, but that flood kills all other humans and animals and life.

Hand in hand, life and death, water is given to us.

Baptisms are the same water. The water God first made, and the water that Jesus walked upon… but also the water that makes up blood, spilled on battle field after battle field, city after city, and upon the cross.

Water changes, is renewed, but remains the very same water, same molecules, through all time. Through rain and snow, through rivers and underground creeks, through oceans and through the organs of animals and leaves of plants. I’m sure you’ve heard the joke that we’re drinking dinosaur pee. We are. But we’re also drinking the water that Abraham gave to visiting strangers – angels! – and the water God gave to Hagar and the water that anointed Jesus.

Water is death and life. Water is full of billions of previous creature’s lives and it enables the current life of billions of creatures.

The spirit of God dances throughout it.

When we are baptized, we are baptized not just in the name of God, Christ, and Spirit… but we are baptized into the DEATH of Jesus.

Symbolically, we drown. We go down. We die. We return to water, or rather, return the waters God gifted us.

Symbolically, we cease.

Spiritually, the old us DOES die.

And in the baptism, with coming up, with drying off the water, we are baptized into the LIFE of Jesus. A new life. Reborn. Reborn of not just water, but also the Spirit of God.

Symbolically, we have over come death.

Symbolically, we have emerged back into the world anew.

Spiritually, we are a new creation.

In baptism, we die and conquered death. We follow Christ to the grave and beyond. We see and affirm that nothing can separate us from the Love of God. We see and affirm the Spirit that dances all through creation also dances within us. We see and affirm the way of Christ is one of life and death, joys and sorrows, mixed blessings, muddy waters that are hard to discern and crystal clear waters that refresh us again and again. We see and affirm we are followers of Christ.

We see and affirm we are the children of God, loved, beloved, and with whom God is well pleased.

Rejoice in your baptisms! Remembered or not. Rejoice in other’s baptisms! Seen, or not. Rejoice in the baptisms that have happened, are happening, and will happen – for the Spirit unites us all as one in holy rites such as these.

Amen.

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Why Have You Cast Me Off?

Psalm 43: All Saints Sunday sorrow.jpg

You are the God in whom I take refuge – why have you cast me off?

Why must I walk about mournfully? Oppressed?

The Psalmist demands an answer from God. He or she cries out – God – my God – why have you forsaken me? Why is this happening?

The Psalmist tries a plea, show me any light, any hope, God, and I will follow it to you.

The Psalmist tries to bribe God. I will come to your altar, God, your church, and praise you with exceeding joy…. if you give me any hope.

And the Psalmist chastises themselves, “Why are you cast down, o my soul, why are you disquieted?” Why are you sad? Soul, you should take hope. For I shall praise the one who is my help, my God, again some day.

And the psalm ends.

Does hope come? Does the psalmist ever get out of their sorrow? Does God ever send enough light that the singer can see where to find God?

We don’t know the ending.

Psalms are songs gifting us prayers and words to express how we’re feeling right now.

And right now, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

Who sits here feeling forsaken, abandoned, cut off from God’s light? You don’t sit alone. 3000 some years ago, this writer felt the same.

Who sits here trying to cling to hope for a brighter tomorrow, who tells themselves good phrases like ‘Take heart,’ ‘This too shall pass’? This psalmist did, too.

Who sits here longing for the mountain of God where every tear is wiped away and death is no more? This ancient person, did, too.

Jesus told the people around him: listen to these teachings in scripture. Listen to the hope offered and the promises.

But Jesus said don’t tie up the problem with a pretty bow and hand it back as a burden. Don’t go using scripture to harm people. Preach the good news, preach the hope, but do no religious violence.

This often means sitting with the psalmist in that uncomfortable zone of not knowing why there is sorrow. Not knowing what tomorrow will bring. Not knowing if there is a happy ending.

It often means realizing our best intentions to say something nice, or scriptural, are actually harmful… for what the psalmists and the person mourning needs is presence and abiding love… they need an invitation and permission to bounce between hope and hopelessness just like the psalmists… and don’t need a judge telling them how to feel and think.

Do you know someone who is hurting?

Words like, “God must have needed another angel” sound nice… but are actually a burden implying God in God’s selfishness killed your loved one. Try instead, “One of my favorite memories of our loved one is…” or “Tell me one of your favorite memories of them.” Either of these open the dialogue up to be a conversation instead of a burden.

Instead of, “Be strong,” which implies it is wrong to feel sad, and is a weakness, say “We all need help in times like this. I am here for you.”

Try not to say, “Don’t cry, they’re in a better place,” which implies not only that it is wrong to cry, but also that being with the mourners was hellish. Say instead, “I wish I had the right words. Just know I care.”

Words like, “It’ll get better,” may be true… but are a burden, because that is not where a person mourning is sitting at right now. Silence, companionship, a hug, a dropped off meal, a check up calling or writing months or years later saying, ‘I know you’re still hurting, and you’re still in my prayers and thoughts’ does much more good than reassuring the person now that tomorrow is brighter.

Because when we’re mourning, tomorrow may not be brighter.

It may take years. Or decades. Or it may not be better until we’re in heaven and God wipes those tears away.

The one who know is hurting?

Just cry. Just sit. Let the mourner lead you.

The greatest among us is a servant.

The blessed among us are those who weep.

The psalmists leads us in his or her mourning from despair into hope and back and forth again. And God goes with them the whole way. We ought to too.

Today we remember all of us who are in mourning. We remember all who have died and leave behind beautiful, complex, lives and stories and memories for us to carry on.

And we remember all who have died and leave behind words unsaid, mysteries, and pains never addressed. We remember we are a community.

A community of saints, living and dead, born and not yet born, and never born, who all make up the body of Christ.

And we practice what we teach – to truly rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. To hold both the promise of new life with the pain of mortality. To embrace each other as who we are, where we are, and to love one another with the deep, abiding love God gives us.

Amen.

Clean Water is Life

Exodus 17:1-7

maria_pr_valentin_47-edit1_custom-316168977226453a3a91d20085eb3365e2901f07-s1300-c85
Puerto Ricans getting water from drainage pipes. Photo by Maria Valentin for NPR

Matthew 21:23-32

Rev. Anathea Portier Young quotes the Israelites, ““Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7). What proof and signs can persuade a thirsting, frightened people that God is with them and leads them in the wilderness?

If God is the God who saves, who gives and sustains life, then God in their midst and in their inmost parts must provide, at the very least, that which is necessary for survival.

One hundred hours. That’s the oft-cited statistic for how long a human body can typically survive at “average” temperatures without access to water. Today’s Sinai Peninsula,” where the Israelites are wandering, “averages 82° Fahrenheit in May and 91°F in June. For those same months, average high temperatures are 95°F and 104°F respectively. In such extreme heat and with exposure to sun, the timeline for survival shortens” by half.

“Now we’re down to fifty hours. Exertion — such as walking long distances in the day time, carrying one’s belongings, tents, and small children, and wrangling livestock along the way (compare Exodus 17:3) — shortens the timeline further…”sustained high sweat rates can reduce estimated survival time without drinking water to as little as seven hours, or approximately the time it takes to walk twenty miles.” One long, day’s march on an unusually, but not impossibly, hot, June day was all it would take to finish God’s people. Because they had no water.

So if God is with them, in the midst of their inmost parts, the very organs, blood stream, and cells that require water for nutrition, metabolism, temperature regulation, waste removal, shock absorption and more — why is there no water?” ((https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3432))

It’s 90°F in Puerto Rico right now. And raining. It feels like it is 102° with the humidity.

There is no public power. And there won’t be any for months.

Some people have generators.

Their generators are out of gas.

The gas stations are out of gas.

No AC. No ice. Not even fans… and sweating in 102 degrees.

Water is life.

The Israelites plead with Moses – they are going to die without water.

The Puerto Ricans are pleading with the world – they are going to die without water.

Lucky Puerto Ricans have access to springs or well water, like we have here at the church. But how much water are we going to get without electricity? We don’t have many hand pumps many more. They don’t have many hand pumps either.

And what happens to our bathrooms? A week with no shower, no flushing the toilet, no washing hands, no washing clothes, no brushing teeth, no… watering the animals?

Puerto Ricans are living out of bottles of water or small springs or open rivers. Last month they were people just like you and I – American Citizens living normal lives. Today they are fighting for every second of life.

No gasoline for generators means stores close. No place to buy water. Not like there is any left, anyways.

You may have heard on the news there are 9000 shipping containers in the ports of the island. That is correct – but they were there before Hurricane Irma and Maria hit. They have shoes, TVs, computers, and things businesses and people ordered before the hurricanes. Not a single container of food,  medicine, or diapers is left.

Let alone water. What is in the stores does not satisfy.

No gasoline means no way to travel but by foot to get to a spring. And wait in a long line. And carry that water back jug by jug.

Nothing but spring water by foot means every elderly person is at the pure mercy of neighbors and friends and family and strangers to help them survive.

Baby formula made with river water – unfiltered, and can’t be boiled because the wood is all soaked for fires and there is no gas for electricity or a stove.

Dysentery. Dehydration. Death is settling into the cities and villages and rural houses of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Clean drinking water is life. The Bible was written in a time and place where people understood that so innately and KNEW what it meant to face times of water shortage.

We are blessed here in Ohio with an abundance of fresh water.

But if we were hit with a 50 mile wide tornado — which is what the hurricane was like — many, many of us would have issues getting drinking water after a week or two of no power, no gas, no aid.

Moses pleads with God, “What shall I do?!” And God answers – step out and act.

Jesus sits today and tells the people it’s not our words God wants, but our actions.

Pray for the world and ACT for the world.

See the need and donate funds.

See the injustice and cry out for those who are silenced.

See the hurt and offer your help.

Come to the table this morning thinking of Christ’s words: come for what satisfies – not 9000 boxes of shoes and TVs and books – but food, and drink, community and Christ. Think of those who sit with us taking communion sweating in churches, thirsty, on hot islands. We are all one body. They are the Body of Christ just as you are the Body of Christ.

Come, let us recommit ourselves as rainbows of hope after storms for our hurting world.

Amen.

To be or not to be?

Jonah 3:10-4:11 Tennant_and_Tchaikowsky_as_Hamlet_and_Yorick
Philippians 1:21-30

“To be or not to be; that is the question” is a famous phrase from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, and is spoken by Hamlet. He asks – what is better? To live; or to die? Back and forth Hamlet goes, considering the pros and cons of living or dying.

In our scripture readings today, both Jonah and Paul are considering living or dying, too. Considering if life is worth the effort to keep fighting for every second.

The word of God has come to Jonah and told him to go to the home of his enemies, to warn them if they don’t repent, God will destroy them. Instead, Jonah runs the exact opposite way. And runs and runs. And each encounter he has with death – storm, whale, desert – he doesn’t die. Finally he delivers the message half-heartedly to the city of Ninevah. Instead of killing him, as what happens to most prophets, the city immediately changes their way.

He’s the most successful prophet.

And yet, Jonah gets very mad, for now God won’t destroy the town. Jonah complains to God – “This is why I didn’t want to come! You, God, are too merciful and loving! You should kill me now! It’s better I die than I live.”

I wonder, what is too much for Jonah, so much that he wants to die. Is God’s mercy too much?

God’s care for the righteous and the unrighteous too much?

God’s love for all people too much?

I wonder if Jonah wants to die because he’s saved his enemies. When he goes home, what will his neighbors and friends say when they hear that the Assyrians are doing just fine, even after all the murder they did to the Israelites, because Jonah went and preached to them.

I wonder if Jonah wants to die because he feels his life has no meaning whatsoever. He knew from the very beginning that God wouldn’t kill all these people. So what was the point of even going?

God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be so angry?”

Jonah doesn’t answer, but goes out of the city, makes a little tent, and sits to watch and hope that the city doesn’t keep up their changed ways… or God changes God’s mind again. Jonah wants God to destroy Jonah’s enemies.

As Jonah sulks, God causes a bush to grow and give Jonah shade. Jonah goes from very angry to very happy. The next day, a worm eats the bush, there is no more shade, and now it is hot and windy.

Jonah tells God, again, to kill him. This time because he is suffering from the heat and dust.

God asks Jonah – is it right for you to be angry about the bush?

Jonah replies: “Yes! Angry enough to die!”

God replies back, “You didn’t plant the bush or cause it to grow. It just appeared and disappeared. I made people, and cause them to grow, and they’ve been here a long time. Shouldn’t I be concerned about Ninevah, with its 120,000 people who don’t know right from wrong, and all their animals?”

The book doesn’t record Jonah’s reply.

Maybe Jonah replied once again, “Yes, angry enough to die!” This would mean Jonah thinks God should be so angry when someone hurts people that God would be willing to die.

Or maybe Jonah’s answer is again, “I knew you wouldn’t harm them. Just let me die.” Jonah continues to sulk and miss God’s point and message of universal love.

I read, that for Jonah, life is cheap. He’s willing to give his life up out of anger over a bush; and he’s willing for innocent people and animals to die because he doesn’t like their leaders.

God, however, says life is not cheap. God tries to show Jonah again and again that even a bush has worth. People have much, much more worth.

Not a sparrow falls without God knowing. And we are worth many, many sparrows.

There are no lives that are truly meaningless. Somewhere, somehow, every person is called to bring good into the world. Some do this like Paul, with eagerness. Some do this like Jonah, begrudgingly. But we all have the call, the invite, to deep meaning and purpose to our lives.

Even so, death can be a sweet thought.

It is for Paul.

Paul is pretty much sitting on death row. He is accused of sedition, of encouraging others to be more loyal to someone other than Caesar… and he is very guilty. So guilty, he is STILL preaching against Rome through his letters to the young Christian churches. This letter today is addressed to the church in Philippi and full of messages such as “don’t be intimidated by your opponents” and they may destroy your body, but not your soul.

Paul also writes about considering death. How can you not contemplate death when you can feel it coming closer and closer?

Paul writes, “I don’t know which I prefer” living, or dying. To paraphrase, he says: If I die, I know I’ll be with Christ – and that is far better than any day here on earth. But if I live, I can help you all and encourage you. I guess, living or dying, I am with Christ. And living or dying, I gain.

Since I don’t know if I’m going to die and see Christ, or be released and see you, give me this comfort: live your lives in a manner worthy of the Good News of Christ. So whenever I hear about you here in Rome or there in heaven, I’ll hear you are standing firm together and striving together in the faith of the Gospel.

Paul is considering his death because it literally may be this afternoon, or tomorrow, or in years. But he can feel its presence. And he has decided – he is ready to die. Death no longer scares him. He welcomes death, even.

Have you ever met someone who is ready to die? It is unnerving. Every creature has a survival instinct that makes us fight tooth and nail to survive, to live. We abhor death, and avoid it, or try to make it pretty and sanitized. We say euphemisms – she passed away. He is in eternal sleep. They went to heaven.

Death is taboo.

But Paul is welcoming it. And sometimes, people we love welcome death too.

Someone I love recently told me she is ready to die. I wanted to protest and tell her I want her to see my daughter grow up. I want her to always be around in my life because she’s always been in my life. I want to know so much more about her childhood and have a million conversations I’ve put off or not yet even considered. I want…

And I realized, all my protests against my loved one dying are because of things –I wanted–.

I paused in our conversation, and I considered her life, and what she wanted.

She wants her parents, and siblings, and even some children, who are all long dead. She wants to converse with friends about times no one else alive remembers. She wants to be less lonely.

She wants to be in less pain and misery. Every day there is more of both as her body slowly dies and she knows there will be no more better days… only worse and worse days trapped in this fragile flesh body.

She wants to pass with dignity and grace.

If she gets her druthers – at home and in her sleep. Who wouldn’t want to go that way?

And if that’s not possible, then in a nursing home where there are people to care for her without being a strain on her family.

And she is ready. Ready to die.

I am not ready for her to die.

When I worked at Children’s Hospital, sometimes doctors or nurses or chaplains asked parents, “Who are you doing this treatment for? For your child, or for yourselves?”

Is it in the child’s best interest to do another round of chemo that likely will not work but which will make them very, very sick. There is a slim chance it will save their life… but the evidence in this case shows it is much more likely the child will spend their last month in misery. Is it better to go for this tiny slim chance, or is it better to have the child go home and die with grace and dignity?

What does the child want?

Dylan Thomas wrote a poem called “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The refrain is “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” He tells wise men, good men, wild men and grave men to fight for every single second of their lives and not to die gently, peacefully. The last line is addressed to his own father who he pleads for any blessing, any word — just don’t die and rage instead against death.

Who did Dylan write the poem for, and who was he considering?

His line to his father is: “Curse me, bless me… I pray.”

Sometimes, the most loving thing to do is to accept the person we love, that we are going to miss more than our own lives, is ready to die. Accept their choice, and help them go gently into the good night. Help them die in the manner they choose. Love them, as they let go bit by bit, of this world and step into the next.

Love them, and support them, when their wishes for their lives, and deaths, are counter to our own.

Love them, and support them, and know that death is hard work and as they go about the hard work of dying, we are called to be Christ for them. To walk along side them. To be their advocates, to give them agency, to give them dignity, and to help them depart to Christ.

It is actually a blessing when our loved ones jar us with mentioning their preparations for death. That panic we feel tells us how much we have left undone. Moves us to have those conversations we have put off and do those things we always said we’d do someday.

It is a blessing, because we can work on ourselves accepting our loved one’s desires… and when they ask for the permission to let go, to stop fighting, and go home… we can take their hands and say, “Well done, Good and Faithful servant, enter now into the joy of your Lord.”

“It’s okay to die.”

We know it is okay to die because it is not the end of God’s story. It is not the end of ourselves. Death is not the final word – there is a resurrection and a victory.

So… Is it better to be or not to be? That is not the question. The question is: In who’s interest am I acting? Whom am I considering? How can we face this transition together?

Amen.

I Am With You Always

Genesis 1:1-2:4a3043479-poster-p-1-this-spiral-tree-of-life-fits-50000-species-in-one-infographic
Matthew 28:16-20

In the beginning — there was God.
Silent and deep. Empty and a void. A cosmos of nothing. No time, no space, no dimensions but God.
And God made wind. Motion. Energy.
And God spoke. Noise. Vibrations.
And then there was LIGHT.
Particles moving, vibrating, so much that they put off energy into new forms – combine into new forms – produce light.

And then God got real fancy – water and land, plants and fish, birds and animals. And finally – God’s own image: humankind.

At one time, I saw the evolution of life on earth drawn as a spiral. For a long time, the spiral has only one or two lines. Just bacteria in water. Just microorganisms in water. But then those lines begin to branch off. God gets fancy. Plants and fish, dinosaurs and animals, birds and mammals, and the spiral’s thickness went from just a hair to as much room as the page would allow. It went from a single kind of life, to more life than we can ever count. It went from God’s first creation on Earth to this very moment, where God is now recreating alongside God’s own image: us.

And, although so much time has passed, our charge has not changed. We were placed in dominion over the earth, and to subdue.

It’s a terrible way these words have been used in English. Misused. Abused. In our recent human history, dominion over the earth, and subduing it, has been permission to mold the earth however we want, use animals however we want, and use whatever resources in whatever way we want. This has even extended to other cultures and peoples.

God never meant us to take these holy words and use them as a weapon against God’s beautiful creation.

In ancient Hebrew, the original language used here, subdue is kabash. It does mean subdue, enslave, even molest or rape. However – you can only use it when the other party is already hostile. So it is a victory term, a way of overcoming something that is already set against you. Micah uses the same word to describe what God does to our sins. Our hostile sins confront God, but God subdues them and brings us to life. Our hostile world confronts us, but we’re called to subdue it and bring it to produce good fruit. It’s like… a blight on your crops. It’s hostile. It’s causing death. When you subdue it, you bring about life.

Subduing is not supposed to be about enslaving other people, animals, or any part of the earth. Nor molesting, ruining. It is about taking what is harmful and actively set against God, and God’s creation, and having victory over that.

… I think, often, it is we, ourselves, in need of being subdued. Often, we ourselves, are what are destroying God’s creation, each other, and bringing about death rather than life.

It’s kinda like Jesus said… we need to get the plank out of our own eye before we can get the dust mote out of someone else’s.

… The next word we have abused is dominion, the ancient Hebrew word radah. So often we hear this in English as dominate! As to rule and rule with an iron fist and iron will and at the edge of sharp iron!

That’s not the kind of kingship, rulership, queenship, God likes.

God tells us that the good rulers deliver the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. They have pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence they redeems the needy’s lives; and precious is their blood in His sight.

God is a ruler like this. We are precious to God. God wants us to rule like this, and in the Bible chastises those who do not heal the sick, seek the lost, brought back the exiled, bound up the injured, and strengthened the weak. God chastises those who do not help the least! Power, says God, is to be used to empower others.

So the Genesis passage shows us God subduing chaos, and having dominion over the world. God defeats death and brings forth life. Then God helps the life flourish.

And we are charged to do the same.

I think Rev. Christopher Brown of the First Presbyterian Church of Berthoud, Colorado reinterprets these verses clearly in their original meaning. He writes them as: “Be fruitful and have children, filling the earth with your life so that you can have power to fight against everything in it that leads to death. Rule with care and fairness over the natural world, over the myriads of My beautiful creatures – from tropical fish to soaring eagles to dogs and cats – every creature that is a part of this living world.” ((https://christopherbrown.wordpress.com/2009/01/03/genesis-128-to-subdue-and-have-dominion-over-creation/))

Rule with care. Fight against the powers of death.

Did not Christ give us the same example of ruling with care and fighting against the powers of death?

In out Mathew reading, the risen Christ, who has subdued death, gives last directions to his disciples. He says: “All authority in heaven on earth has been given to me.” Christ is the one with dominion. And he chooses to rule as God wishes us to: by using that power to empower others. Jesus then empowers his disciples telling them to go all over the world sharing the Good News of reconciliation with God, forgiveness of sins, a new life with God, and the greatest commandment: to love God, and to love one another.

And then, Jesus tells us, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

From the beginning, God is with us subduing evil and using God’s dominion to empower us. To the end of the age, says Christ, our God: known to us as the creator, the Son, and the Spirit — is with us, subduing evil, and using God’s power to empower us.

So that from the beginning of our lives until at last we rest with Christ, we subdue and have dominion over the earth. We fight evil and use our power to give power to others.

We take the void, the nothingness, the chaos – and speak, work, create and bring forth life.

We take our place alongside our ruling God and co-create with God.

We take each other, tenderly, in hand and help each other subdue our own evils, and have dominion – have power – over our lives.

Remember the meaning of subdue – to defeat that which destroys life. And dominion – to use power to empower others.

Amen.

Hope Against All Hope

Ezekiel 37:1-14sunrise-bali-1
John 11:1-45

Ezekiel’s prophecies don’t just spring to life without context. God gives them to Ezekiel to speak about the very real world Ezekiel knows.

Ezekiel was born into a priestly family of money, and power. He got an education, and worked as a priest advising the royalty of the Kingdom of Judah. Picture for a moment that Mexico and Canada get into a war… where are they going to fight? In the US. This happens to Judah, and the country begins to take sides with either Egypt or Babylon as the two nations both fight for land in the middle east. Babylon wins, and takes the nobles of Judah back to Babylon as captives. Sorta like if Canada wins this imaginary war, they take our president, his family, and our representatives and senators back to Canada. The idea is that without these leaders, we’re less likely to rise up and fight again.

Ezekiel is one of those people taken captive because he’s an important prophet. He and his wife begin to live with the other captives of Jerusalem in Babylon. There, he has prophecies that more woe is coming to the Kingdom of Judah. Sure enough, the old king’s uncle takes charge of the country, and rebels against Babylon with an alliance with Egypt. In our fake war, the president’s uncle goes to Mexico, gets support, and decides to lead a war against Canada.

Babylon’s had enough of these Judeans and Egyptians. King Nebuchadnezzar returns to the country. Clay tablets found in modern day Israel recount how the people in Jerusalem saw the signal fires of their neighboring towns disappearing one… by… one… as the Babylonian army destroyed everything and everyone in its path on the way to the king in Jerusalem. When they get there, they utterly destroys the Judean capital city. Archeological evidence shows that virtually the entire city was burned to rubble, including its walls. The Bible recounts how the king’s family was murdered before his eyes, and then the king was blinded before he was marched to Babylon. The Temple of Solomon – in all its glory and beauty – was ransacked. All the religious items, the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred scripture – all of it taken, sold, burned, or destroyed. Everyone in the city was scattered – some ran into the country, many died, and the rest were taken forcibly back to Babylon. About 1 in 4 of all the nation’s people were forced into exile.

Today, that would be like 80 million Americans kidnapped and sent abroad. 80 million people sent to a place with a different language, different religion, and different way of living. 80 million prisoners.

The people left in Judah are largely the rural peasants, the uneducated, the foreigners, and they later become known as the Samaritans, for they don’t keep burned and destroyed Jerusalem as their capital.

Ezekiel has seen visions of all of this, and has tried again and again to warn his people. He’s in exile, not able to return home. He’s seen his country defeated, and all his family and friends murdered. He’s seen the Holy Temple of God ruined, and his sacred books and items desecrated. His wife dies, and he can’t even mourn.

This is the context his bones vision rests in. He has literally seen the bones of his countrymen. He has literally seen his city, and his country, defeated. Ezekiel sits in exile with his home, his land, his people utterly, utterly destroyed. When God gives Ezekiel this vision of valley of bones… Ezekiel and the Israelites are dry. Out of hope. Out of joy. Tired. Exhausted. The ones who are still walking are zombies, husks – there is no life left in them.

God asks Ezekiel, can these bones live?

Ezekiel answers with exhaustion, “O Lord God – you know.”

You know – these bones are weary and dead. You know – these people are hopeless. You know – we don’t even have tears left to cry. We’re dry.

And God says: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord: you shall live. I shall put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.

And as Ezekiel tells the dry bones that God will put them back together, and gives them flesh, and muscle, and tendons, and skin – the bones wiggles and clatter and rattle and organize themselves back into people.

Then God tells Ezekiel to call to the four winds — call everywhere – and let God’s breath bring life. From all corners, God breathes, and the people stand up – healthy – no longer slain. No longer dry. No longer breathless.

God tells Ezekiel, “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.’ But I say, I am going to open your graves and bring you up. I will bring you home. I will put my spirit in you, and you will live. You shall know that I have spoken and I will act.”

There, when all hope is lost, when the country is destroyed and the people scattered, when so many have died and even more are living hopelessly – with one foot in the grave and just waiting for death to claim them – when the breath, the Spirit of God, is snuffed… God says, I have spoken and I will act. I am speaking and I have acted. I give you hope. I give you life. I will bring you home.

The words of God are literal for Ezekiel – God literally helps the Israelites eventually return home, rebuild Jerusalem, and the Second Temple. But God’s words are also metaphorical – the hope and life given to the dead bones is the hope and life given to the people living in exile. Do not fear. I am God. Do not be hopeless. I am God. I am acting. I am giving new life. I bring hope against all hope.

Lazarus’ situation seems hopeless, too. Jesus was ran out of Bethany with the people there wanting to stone him to death. And now, back in Bethany, Lazarus is very, very ill. Mary and Martha have sent word to Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples Lazarus has fallen asleep – and the disciples are relieved. Oh good! Then Lazarus will be fine. There’s no need for us to go back to Bethany, which is right in the shadow of Jerusalem, and get stoned to death. But Jesus tells them plainly – no, Lazarus is dead and we are going back to Bethany. You hear Thomas say, “Well, guys, let’s go to Bethany too – might as well all die together.” They don’t have any hope that this situation is going to turn out well. They’re going to join Lazarus in the grave.

When Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany, they learn that Lazarus has been dead for four days. In ancient Jewish understanding, the soul finished leaving the body after three days. This makes sense medically – someone could enter a coma and appear dead, and wake up in a day or two… but if someone has appeared dead for three days… and rot has begun to set in… you know, they’re not in a coma. They’re not going to wake up. This person is very, very dead. Since it has been four days, Lazarus is beyond hope. Everyone knows – he is dead.

Martha goes out and meets Jesus. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died! But even now I know God will give you whatever you ask of God.” Listen to that angry accusation! Jesus – I sent you word – you knew Lazarus needed you ahead of time – yet you didn’t come. Where were you when Lazarus needed you? Now he is dead. I know you could have asked God to cure Lazarus and God would have answered your prayer.

Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha’s heard this phrase over and over. Many Jews at this time believed there would be a final day when the dead would be resurrected and stand before God. I think Martha must sigh and say, “I know.” I know we’ll all meet again. I know there’s an afterlife – but Jesus – you could have done something now! I sent for you! I called for you! And you came too late!

Jesus replies, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Do you believe this? Do you believe that a person’s body dies, but they live on? Do you believe that in Jesus, there is abundant life – even for those who are beyond hope? Even for bones that are weary, and dry, and souls that thirst, and are weighed with sin? Do you believe that we suffer death and deaths, but through it all, resurrection – new life – is always possible?

Martha replies, “Yes, Lord, I believe.” And she shares the news with her sister, Mary.

Mary comes to Jesus with the same accusation as Martha- but she comes in tears and falls at Jesus’ feet, “Lord – if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!”

I’ve said both of these prayers of the sisters. I’ve cried out in anger – God, I told you when the prognoses didn’t look good – I gave you heads up – why didn’t you act?! If you’d intervened, my loved one would still be here! I’ve also fallen to my knees in prayer and sobbed, God, where were you?

… Mary is crying. Lazarus’ family and friends are crying. And Jesus begins to cry too, and asks where Lazarus’ body lays.

Around Jesus, people mutter, “Look at him cry! Look at how much he loved Lazarus.” Others say, “He opened the eyes of that blind man, he can cure and heal people. If he’d come quicker, couldn’t he have saved Lazarus? He’s crying out of guilt.” Why do we think Jesus is crying? Maybe he knew he was going to resurrect Lazarus, and that deed – the seventh and final sign in the book of John – would lead to Jesus’ death. Maybe Jesus is crying because he knows this sets into motion his return into Jerusalem, and his passion, and the scattering of the disciples. Maybe Jesus is crying because he loves Mary, and sees how much she is hurting. We’re told he is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. But why? We don’t know.

In his agitated state, and full of tears, Jesus goes to Lazarus’ tomb. Show me him.

Martha reminds Jesus that Lazarus has been dead for four days. He stinks. He’s beyond curing. He isn’t in a coma – there is no soul left in his body. Jesus… Lazarus is beyond hope. Do you really want your last memories of him to be his rotting body? The tomb is closed. The story is done. The hope is gone.

Jesus replies, “If you believe, you will see the glory of God.” And he begins to pray over the reopened tomb – and calls out to Lazarus – “LAZARUS – COME OUT!” “Like the sheep that recognize the voice of the shepherd who calls them by name, Lazarus hears his name being called, he recognizes the voice of the shepherd, and the dead man comes out, because only the shepherd can lead his sheep out.” (Karoline Lewis)
The very dead man comes out of the grave still bound by the grave clothes. And these rags of death are unbound, and he is set free. Lazarus is alive!

Yet this very miracle, at the end of this chapter, is what leads in the book of John many to plan Jesus’ death. This final sign – that hope cannot be extinguished – is what leads to the cross.

And yet, we know, that even the cross cannot extinguish God’s ever renewing life and hope. Even should God Incarnate be crucified, nothing is ever so dead, so hopeless, to be beyond God’s saving grace – beyond God’s love.

Ezekiel stands in a landscape full of death – yet the hope for renewed life remains. Jesus stands at the tomb of his dear friend, in the shadow of the death – the shadow of the cross – Jesus knows the death and dryness of our own lives – literally stands with us in a garden of grief with gut wrenching tears – and yet, hope against all hope remains.

Amen.

One Thing I Do Know

muddyhandsJohn 9:1-41
Ephesians 5:8-14

Why do bad things happen? It’s something we ask, again and again. And the people of the Bible ask it again and again. And just like we come to different conclusions, so, too, do our mothers and fathers in the faith. The most common conclusion back then, and today, is that a person gets what they deserve. This makes us feel good, and speaks to our sense of right and wrong and justice. Bad people get punished. Good people get rewarded.

It goes like this: why is a man in jail? Because he has bad morals and is guilty of a crime. Why is a woman poor? Because she spends too much money and doesn’t work hard enough. How do you be successful? By following the rules.

This is an easy answer to why bad things happen, and it is usually the first answer we concluded. So-and-so had something bad happen because they caused it to happen to themselves. The Bible goes further and some authors conclude that even things like blindness, sickness, and death are caused by moral failings – caused by a person sinning. Some interpretations of Genesis? Adam and Eve ‘earn’ death because of their sin. Plenty die in the Bible because they ‘ired’ God. Today, AIDS is often called the ‘gay disease’ and called a punishment for homosexuality. People with opiate or painkiller addictions are often accused of being thieves, druggies, addicts – others say their whole identity is their addiction.

This reasoning gets tricky when we see bad things happen to good people; or good things happening to immoral people. This threatens our notion of right and wrong, of justice. See, Job was righteous – yet terrible things happen to him. Jesus is literally SINLESS and yet horrific things occur to him. We know people who would give the shirt off their backs to help another, and yet they can’t seem to catch a break. And we know of cases, like my own daughter, where a child dies before they even take a breath. Who, then, is to blame? Surely you can’t say the baby sinned. Surely you can’t say Jesus sinned.

Over the centuries, some came up with the idea of Original Sin – the idea we are all born sinful. So even brand new babies carry sin – and that is why bad things still happen. In our scripture today, some of Jesus’ disciples assert the stance that parents’ sins are passed on to their innocent children. These aren’t outdated conclusions. Both Original Sin and parents’ sins are active conclusions nowadays on why bad things happen.

It’s why so many want their children baptized super young – to wash away that Original Sin.

It’s why we always ask, “Was her mommy a druggie?” or “What did the parents do wrong?” when we hear of young babies dying, or miscarriages, or stillbirths. Someone, somewhere, sinned. Someone, somewhere, is to blame.

If we don’t have someone to blame, our sense of right and wrong, our sense of justice, is thrown out the window. We don’t like to see innocents suffering, but it makes more sense to us if we can reason their suffering is because of their parents, or grandparents, or Adam and Eve… or any sin somewhere. It lets us still say that what people get, they deserve.

Today – Jesus’ disciples ask: did this born blind man sin, or did his parents? Who do we blame for him being blind?

Jesus replies: neither. The blame doesn’t lie on the man nor his family.

Why is he blind, then? The NRSV adds the words to the scripture, “he was born blind.” The original reads, “So that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of He who sent me.” Our translation into English with its added words say the man was born blind SO THAT Jesus could show God’s work. Our translation adds in blame, and places the blame on God.

The Greek original doesn’t do this. Jesus doesn’t add blame. Doesn’t say blame the man, nor his parents, nor God. Jesus skips the blame and says if we want to see God, we must help this guy. No judgment. No placing morality on the blindness. Just saying – bad crud happens. Help each other out, and you will see God in the helping.

So Jesus does as he preaches.

And you see the result – the blind man comes to testify Christ while the whole town goes about finding someone to blame. Someone must be to blame for the blindness! Some blame Jesus – who worked on the Sabbath. Some blame the man, for secretly harboring sin. They call in his parents to try to blame them for doing something that caused their son to be born blind. In the end – they toss the man out of the town. That is easier than admitting…

… sometimes… terrible things happen… and no one is to blame.

God’s will? Maybe. Primordial chaos left over from God placing order and making creation? Maybe. Result of Original Sin, or just sins? Maybe. Just meaningless? Maybe.

Jesus doesn’t offer the answer. He says don’t worry about placing the blame, instead, do something to help the situation. Don’t fret about if the person who is addicted has an ‘addictive personality.’ Be their friend and support now. Don’t fret about if parents didn’t eat right while the baby was in utero – comfort them now. Don’t fret about if a beggar has a job, or is getting food stamps, or deserves a hand out, or what they’re going to use that cash for… just help them out, now.

Jesus isn’t amoral. He isn’t advocating let everyone do as they please and let there be no consequences. He isn’t saying sin isn’t real. Jesus picks up John’s message telling us to repent and turn to God. However – Jesus is way more concerned that we live our lives helping one another than blaming one another.

Look at how much of this chapter is people blaming each other rather than helping the blind man and his family!

Look at their final action – tossing the formerly blind man out of the town – rather than rejoicing he now has sight!

Jesus isn’t answering our theodicy questions; he isn’t telling us why bad things happen. Instead, he’s giving us a way to respond to the bad we see — respond with love. Not judgment.

As the formerly blind man said, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” No need to decide is someone is a sinner. Just be able to see them—help them, know them, love them.