The Fifth Sunday in Lent – April 2, 2017

March 23, 2017 | by Bruce Epperly

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Ezekiel 37:1-14 Psalm 130 Romans 8:6-11 John 11:1-45

Ezekiel’s question – “can these dry bones live?” – is at the heart of today’s readings. Death surrounds us – personally and planetarily. Our mortality is ever before us, especially once we have passed midlife. My grandchildren, aged four and six, even reflect on when I am going to die! I assure them that just as I performed their father’s and mother’s wedding and baptized them, I plan to live long enough to perform their weddings and baptize their children. That’s a happy fiction, and it may happen, but that means that I will need to make it till at least my early 90’s in good health.

In the midst of life, as Luther once said, we are surrounded by death. Our hope, as Luther continues, is that in the midst of death, we will be surrounded by life. Or, as Alfred North Whitehead notes, life begins with youthful dreams and culminates in tragic beauty. Our hope is that beyond tragedy, there will be great beauty of spirit, and that our lives, in living and beauty, will be works of beauty. Our hope is that our quest to save the Earth will evoke a burst of divine energy to bring new life to a dying planet.

Ezekiel sees a valley of dry bones. The nation is decimated. All hope is lost. All that is left are corpses of a once proud nation. Is there any hope for the prophet and the nation?

We also ask: Is there any hope for us? In the current political and social context, it is easy to give up hope for the future. The current administration is relaxing environmental regulations and the nation’s top environmental administrator has doubts about climate change, despite the preponderance of scientific evidence to support humanity’s role in destroying the foundations for life. Programs for the vulnerable are being cut while arms budgets are increasing. A wall is contemplated and hate crimes are on the increase. Politicians intentionally choose death for short-term economic gain. As we look toward the future, can these dry bones live? Can our nation survive? Can we love God in the world in the flesh and against all odds and the machinations of political leaders hear the voices of prophets rather than profits?

The Psalmist speaks from the depths. The individual and nation are at risk, in part due to their own behavior. Our behaviors have deafened our ability to hear the divine voice. We can’t take back the impact of our waywardness in terms of ecological destruction, injustice, racism, and sexism, but the Psalmist prays that mending our ways will enable us to hear God’s voice once more. We must be patient, but we must still pray. We must “wait on the Lord,” opening to the possibility that we will encounter God again.

Paul’s words to the Christians at Rome focuses on the life-giving power of God’s Spirit. When we experience God’s Spirit, we move from the deathful ways of the flesh to experience God’s new life. Now, it is important to note that “flesh” does not mean bodily existence, but life in opposition to God’s ways, life focused on self-interest and personal gain, rather than planetary and communal well-being. Life in the flesh is deathful to ourselves and the planet. The work of the Spirit is interdependence, not isolation. Living in the Spirit enables us to experience eternity in the midst of time. Perpetual perishing is no longer a tragedy, but awakens us to seeing our lives as part of God’s holy adventure.

John’s Gospel proclaims that “Jesus wept.” Jesus does not turn away from suffering and death, but embraces its reality. He feels it from the inside empathetically and passionately. He is our companion, the “fellow sufferer who understands” from the inside, who experiences both our pain and joy, and redeems our pain and suffering by sharing it. God is not apathetic but empathetic, and God experiences the pain of at-risk polar bears, vanishing species, refugee children and their parents, and our own pain as we struggle with hopelessness about the fate of the Earth.

The cross is on the horizon, and Jesus’ own death is imminent as he turns his face toward Jerusalem. Lazarus dies and, yet, according to the scripture, Jesus brings him back to life. Such miraculous events simply don’t happen, or do they? Certainly, corpses don’t come back to life. Dry bones don’t rise. Yet, God can revive the dead in spirit; God can bring forth life where death is all around.

While this passage is not primarily about everlasting life, it challenges us to consider resurrection living in the midst of life’s perpetual perishing. It reminds us that our lives matter to God in all their earthiness and mortality. God treasures our mortality, and our lives move on in God’s everlasting adventure. It also challenges us to consider the meaning of the afterlife. Images of immortality need not deter us from loving this Good Earth in all its wondrous temporality. (For more on a process vision of life after death, see Bruce Epperly, From Here to Eternity: Preparing for the Next Adventure, Energion.)

Ezekiel’s question is ours, if we are honest. Can the Earth survive? Can our congregation be revived? Can new life emerge from a threatened planet? Our hope is in God’s life-giving breath that challenges and inspires us to be companions, actively choosing life and claiming resurrection in a death-filled world. Our hope is that these dry bones can live and that in the midst of death there is new life abounding.