a sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent [year A]
Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11: 1-45
Well, we’re two full weeks into a shutdown to curb the spread of a virus. What have you been doing? How have you been filling your time? For a few of you, I imagine, life continues pretty much as usual. You go to work and you come home pretty much like you always did. But for most of you, I bet things have changed drastically. We are no longer going to school, we are no longer playing on playgrounds, we are no longer eating in common dining areas. And for some people, especially those we know at places like a nearby nursing home, where the virus has already led to four deaths, life is now lonely and full of isolation. We are holed up in our homes, wondering how long this is going to last, what activities we can do to entertain ourselves.
I tell you what I’ve been doing a lot of. I’ve been watching a lot of the movie Cars, the animated Disney classic that came out in 2006. I’ve been watching the movie Cars, in fact, every single day of quarantine, which means I’ve seen it about fourteen times in the past two weeks. We normally limit the amount of time our children spend on screens, but these are not normal times, and the Cars movie is the only thing that will keep our 4-year-old son in one place for a period of time so that we can get other things done. He watches it every time like it’s the first time he’s ever seen it, but everyone else in our family can quote it line by line. We know all the characters, the songs, the subtle intricacies of the plot.
There’s one scene in the movie that really gets me every time. It’s the pivotal moment of the story, and I think it resonates with me so much right now because it reminds me a bit of our circumstances now as a country. It is the part when Sally Carrera, the charming but straight-talking Porsche girl car, takes Lightning McQueen, the vain and flashy race car, to the top of a high cliff and shows him the view. What he sees below him is the wide open, desert landscape. It is beautiful and breathtaking, but it is also almost barren. Down in the valley at the middle of this huge expanse is the little woe begotten and overlooked town of Radiator Springs.
The town, which is Sally Carrera’s adopted home, looks lifeless. Empty storefronts line Main Street, one by one. There is no business, no economy, and the remaining residents Talk mostly about the way things used to be. And off to the side of the valley lies the interstate highway, carrying cars and business and life with it right past the town of Radiator Springs.
Lightning McQueen is moved for the first time in the story. He wonders if the town could ever live again, if a spirit of new beginnings could blow there and bring it back to the bustling, thriving place it once was. At that moment the story becomes much more than a movie about cars and friends. It becomes a film about life and hope and community and history and promise.
None of us knows where this quarantine and the effects of this virus are going to take us. We look at the numbers of new cases rising, we look at the economic numbers, we read the emails from the school systems. I stand here and look out at an empty sanctuary, pews that should be filled with people of all ages, connected in joy and faith. Most ominously, we look at the rising death toll, and things are starting to feel a bit bleak, woe begotten. We need a Sally Carrera to show us the beauty among the bad news. We need a Sally Carrera who can give us a broad perspective, who can take us even to the edge of what is frightening and fearsome and speak a word of hope and life, show us there are possibilities of rebirth.
I have good news, folks. That is our God. Our God, the one who has claimed us all in baptism, looks out on bleak and fearsome and even lifeless situations among humanity and speaks words of new life.
That is precisely what we hear in this prophecy from Ezekiel about the valley of the dry bones. God takes his servant to vantage point and they survey the scene: nothing but dry, parched bones. The bones represent the whole house of Israel, all the people of God who God loves and has called forth into being. But they are just bones, scattered about and left to dissolve into dust. We may think of bones as fossils and clues to a time gone by, but for the ancient Hebrews, this was about as bleak a scene as you could imagine. If there was no breath, then there was no future, there was no life, and bones with no sinew or flesh on them cannot hold any breath.
Ezekiel is a bit like Lightning McQueen in the Cars movie at this point. He surveys the scene and the Lord says to him, “Can these bones live?” And Ezekiel just responds in a statement of faith: “O Lord God, you know.” Then the Lord God says that he will cause breath to enter them, even when they are just parched and dry, and they shall return to life. The breath will come back into the valley, and God will bring his people back into Israel, the land where they thrive and grow and live as a blessing to others.
Then, sure enough, we witness one of the greatest scenes of rebirth in Scripture. Ezekiel prophesies as the Lord commands him to. The bones begin to shake to new life. There is noise—a rattling!—and they start to connect together like they’re supposed to. But even after all the bodies reassemble with new flesh and new sinew, they are still lifeless. So then Ezekiel summons the breath of God, and when the breath of God enters the people they finally come to life.
There is so much we don’t know about this coronavirus and the disease that it causes in some people. But what does seem to be the case is that people die from a lack of breathing. The virus attacks their lungs and respiratory system in such a way that they can’t get the oxygen their bodies need. This is why the need for ventilators has been so great. For many people, the only hope for life will be having air forced into to their lungs. God, as it turns out, is the great ventilator. We hear in this story that just as God’s breath first animated all creation, so will God be able to breathe his life into people who have already died and bring them to new life. God will breath and bring them out of their graves and all the way back home to Israel and into his presence forever.
This is the God we worship today, disconnected as we are from one another like bones scattered across the digital landscape. This God is the great ventilator, undeterred by anything like death or disease or decaying landscapes. This is the God who has claimed us as his own, who has called us forth to serve him through the waters of baptism. This is the God who nurtures us like a mother who pops another DVD into the DVD player to bring joy and peace to her quarantined, cooped up child.
It is the God who sends his son Jesus to the tomb of his close friend Lazarus four long days after Lazarus has died…four days after Jesus could have come to save him. It is the God who does not just confront death by the tomb there, but who also participates in the emotions of grief and sorrow and anger that everyone is feeling. Jesus comes into the scene of despair not wearing a cape, or with muscles flexed, ready to fight, or with a clipboard containing tons of answers, but with his tears. Jesus comes with his humanity on the surface, ready to feel and know what people are feeling and knowing.
And here, at his culminating moment of public ministry, at a tomb, Jesus defines himself as the resurrection and the life. He does not declare himself to be retribution or fear or power or even justice. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. The core of what God is about is bringing life from death, hope from despair.
Jesus does this because his Father, our God, doesn’t ultimately just peer at the valleys of death and darkness and quarantine from some distant vantage point. He enters it himself. He gives up his own body and his own bones and his own last breath in order to unite himself with the complete human experience so that we, then, may be united to God’s future life. Jesus carries that Spirit, that breath of God—the weeping, grieving breath of God—who can be resurrection and life in the face of death.
This week I was in the office—alone—and I fielded a call from a former member who now lives in another state. She was very distraught, and as I listened to her I could tell that she was safe and healthy, but that she was very lonely and homesick for Richmond and the community here. She got more and more emotional as the conversation continued, and I assured her that eventually she would feel more at home in her new surroundings and that new relationships would start to form. My words did not seem to help very much. Eventually she stated that she wanted to leave where she was living and come and stay…in our church building. I thought I may have misunderstood her, but she really meant it. She was willing to leave her apartment and come to dwell in our church building in order to feel less lonely and less distance and less sad.
It was such a surprising and unorthodox request—to live in a church, especially when it is so dark and empty an almost unused. The fancy automatic lights don’t even have anyone to turn them on right now, and they turn off automatically, too, so we can’t leave them burning in the evening to make the place seem more alive. Doors have stayed shut for three weeks now. But she clearly has memories of how alive and how filled with love this place normally is. She knows this is a place where live has breathed and will breathe again so much so that she’s willing to make it her home.
Friends, God will breathe new life here. God will call our names just as he called Lazarus’ from the tomb. The pews will be full again one day, the children will stream forward to the children’s sermon. We’ll gather around the Lord’s table to receive our nourishment with his body and blood. The Spirit will blow and our community will be reborn.
And our schools will be full again, full of teachers teaching and students learning. Our parks and our public spaces will be filled with life and health, and there will be no fear.
And this will all be foretaste of that day when Jesus, the resurrection and the life, will call forth all of creation from the valley of death. And we will gather together in the presence of the Lord forever—those who’ve gone before us and those who will come after—because God, the Great Ventilator, knows these bones. He knows what they’re for, what they can be and do. God knows these bones.
And God knows these bones will live.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.