Our Lectionary Readings from this week ::
Ezekiel 37: 1-14
Romans 8: 6-11
John 11: 1-45
If you’d like to see these readings and this sermon read aloud, you can find that on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCq-G43scrbcZjx6veG3_IUg for RefLuthKS. And if you’re here to read, read on:
Let’s not kid ourselves. The scripture readings this week are heavy with the weight of death. Within them, and within us there is confusion. There is sadness. There is anger and there is fear. But there too is life. Rebirth. Redemption and hope. So at the beginning of the message here today, I offer this: much of the road ahead may be dark, but we musn’t forget the light we know comes at its end. In just two weeks, Lent will be finished, and the Resurrection will again burst upon the world. But today, we walk yet in the wilderness. Let us give strength and encouragement to one another, trusting in Christ as our hope even as we look fearfully ahead to the cross.
I want to place our focus onto a single sentence spoken by Jesus in our (very long) reading from the Gospel of John: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” I point our attention to this one phrase, because I think Jesus utters it to lay a scriptural cornerstone that will remain solid during the uncertainty that lies ahead. Here on Earth, there is some debate amongst cultures and peoples about death, but it really is one of few things we agree is pretty absolute. We know this, and Jesus knows this. But he also knows that God does not come from the Earthly realm – death to God is simply a state of being, not unlike wakefulness, or sleep. It has no real power when compared to the strength of the Creator of all, and so Jesus, with an almost alarming level of coolness, waits two days before even setting out to see his dying friend. Because he knows death is no real barrier for the God given life that comes after it. And when finally he begins the journey back to Bethany, he offers that line, “our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” And the question, church, that has been sitting heavily on my chest this week is, are we awake? Or are we asleep?
When I applied to the YAGM program, I was a privileged, ignorant starry-eyed seminary-hopeful. The only time I had experienced outside my native culture and people was a semester abroad in Italy, a nation which I love, and for whose people my heart aches in the face of this pandemic. But I wouldn’t dare to say, that those four months traveling Italy, living with more than a few creature comforts, even came close to breaking me out of the fortress that was my “American” privilege. No, really it just fed a hunger I’ve always felt: for learning, seeing new places and new people. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But it’s that excited hunger for travel, that drove me to apply to YAGM, all dressed down with the humility of the phrase “global mission”. But that wasn’t what God had in store, and I’ll never forget the moment that I first realized my YAGM year would be something altogether different than anything else I’d seen before.
You see, when I was first accepted to the program, YAGM was planning on sending me to either the United Kingdom, or Southern Africa for my year of service. And the biggest part of your placement decision comes from two interviews you have with the respective country coordinators. As I sat down with Reverend Alex LaChapelle for my Southern Africa interview, he asked me a number of questions about my life, my upbringing, my passions, and my reasons for applying to the program. And then Alex asked me a question that, at the time, blindsided me a bit. With a kind smile on his face, moving smoothly from the previous sentence, he asked me, “Are you racist?” And that was the first time I felt God strike my bubble with his fist. Because with that question, I felt every excuse, defusing comment, and rebuttal leap into my throat, urging me to scoff and say, “no!” But the time I had spent in discernment that weekend, talking with my global colleagues, and just listening to them meant the integrity of my shield had been broken, and that now all of Creation (not just the privileged United States part) was poured into me, and I now could see my fear, my insecurity, and my ignorance, and knew the answer to Alex’s question really was “yes”. Even though, if memory serves, I actually just sort of sputtered nonsense for about thirty seconds.
I think this is why, a few years back, the word “woke” came back into the common use within social-justice circles – a term meaning, “one’s alertness to injustice in society, especially racism”. The thing is, a person doesn’t get to declare themselves “woke”. It can only come from somebody else, because to put it simply, if you’re asleep it’s awfully hard to know whether you’re dreaming. It takes something shocking. Something surprising. Sometimes something horrifying, to help us distinguish between dream and reality. Sleep and dreams play heavily into scripture, from Jacob’s Ladder, to this week’s the Valley of the Dry Bones, to our Gospel. Wakefulness versus sleep, death versus life. So in John today, it isn’t all that strange to hear Jesus referring to Lazarus as “sleeping”, knowing well that his friend was already dead. So often though, we assume phrases like, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” or “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” We take those to mean that God does these bad things just so that later Jesus can perform the miracle. Mari mentioned the same dilemma just last week in the story of the man born blind. But instead I look at it in a different way. All through the time and space of Creation, God takes bad things, terrible things, that happen throughout human history, and uses that painful and heart-rending brokenness to create new opportunities for life and for love. Letting free will take its course, letting chaos roam, but making beauty wherever God can in the aftermath.
Now church, I want to pause for a moment, because I won’t pretend to have the answers for every bad thing. I can’t tell you why Lazarus had to suffer for days, and finally succumb to his illness, while Jesus took his sweet time getting to him. I can’t tell you why I had to watch my grandfather’s body wither and die to the demon of cancer. I can’t tell you why right now thousands of people’s lungs are around the world are scarring, failing to draw breath against the onslaught of this virus. I can’t tell you why we so willingly took sin onto ourselves and brought brokenness into the flawless beauty of the garden. I deeply feel that pain, the anger of not understanding. But church I can also tell you, that our God struggles so violently for us against evil, that God took on an Earthly body, and let his own lungs fill with fluid and fail upon the cross, so that we might breathe eternal life. Not with lungs but with the Spirit – the Ruach, the divine breath that fills the bodies around Ezekiel in that valley dreamscape today. God pursues us, regardless of the danger – after all, Jesus knew going to see Lazarus meant returning to a town that had just tried to kill him. Our God always pursues us, to enter into our brokenness and pain, so that the Creator might cause new life to burst from the cracks. I know that doesn’t answer everything – goodness how I wish it could right now, but we must leave it there, letting that Lutheran “What does this mean?” dwell in us, and come back to today.
Are we awake? Or are we asleep? I think most of the world is sleeping. I think I am still sleeping. I just wish it wouldn’t take things like the coronavirus to wake us up. For us to realize our neglect of our bodies and our minds. Our neglect of our families and our relationships. Our societal neglect of our fellow human beings, both the millions here in the United States who live paycheck to paycheck and now face absolute uncertainty, and moreover the hundreds upon hundreds of millions around this planet who do not have the privilege to “react” to a global pandemic, and quite simply face life, or death. Our global body is cracked and broken. I would ask where that leaves us church, but Paul has already given the joyful answer: “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead [, or rather if the Spirit of him who raised Lazarus from the dead] dwells in you, he who raised [them both] from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”
That is the answer church. We need to keep letting God’s power and Spirit flow through this broken body that it may again have life. That we might remain awake and in God. My siblings in Christ, and all across the world, I end now with that Lutheran twist to the recipe – the reality that this is not something we’re going to be able to do perfectly. There’s a lot of brokenness in this imperial, patriarchal, homophobic, white supremacist body we live within, but when we find our fear and fragility catching in our throats, that is a time to rejoice in the grace of our Creator, which gives us strength and hope, not to utter a no no, but a yes yes! And it’s to that joyous truth in the face of our struggle that I give an amen.
In peace, grace, and acknowledging coffee plays a role in the wakefulness too,