Sunday, March 9, 2008

"Can These Bones Live?" A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Lent

Ezekiel 37 is such a wonderful text to preach on! I was quite excited about this sermon, but with the torrents of snow that fell on Saturday, I thought I'd never get to preach it in person. However the weather cleared overnight and we had good worship. God is good.

Preached at Grace Church,Ilderton and St. George’s, Middlesex Centre, 9 March, 2008

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

“He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know”. (Ezek 37:3)

Tourists going to visit the Asian country of Cambodia these days want to visit two places. One is the famous and ancient Buddhist temple of Angkor Watt. The other is the infamous and recent Killing Fields where the Khemr Rouge dictatorship killed some 1.7 million of their fellow citizens in the 1970s. At Chuong Ek, one of the principal sites of the massacre, tourists can walk over a soccer-field sized area where bones and scraps of clothing have emerged in recent rainstorms. At Tuol Seng museum in the capital, Phnom Penh, visitors can see the skulls of 8,000 victims in a glass shrine. According to one National Geographic reporter, the site “stuns” visitors into silence. In those moments of silence, I wonder how many visitors might ask themselves in a hushed voice, “Can these bones live?”.

“Can these bones live?” In our first lesson, God asks Ezekiel this question the midst of another killing field. The bones scattered about the prophet’s feet do not inspire much optimism. With considerable understatement, the scripture reports that the bones were “very dry” (Ezek 37:2). I can imagine Ezekiel staring about him in silent horror, like the tourists at Chuong Ek gazing at the skulls and scraps of cloth. The last thing he surely expected to hear in that desolate place was God asking if these bones could live. The prophet dodges the question. “O Lord, you know” (37.3), he says, when what Ezekiel is no doubt thinking is “Lord, get real, these are dead, dry bones – what are you talking about?”

“Can these bones live?” I think that when we are in the presence of death and despair, God’s questions can seem pretty foolish. Take Martha from today’s gospel reading. Jesus has seemingly ignored her urgent request to come and heal her brother, Lazarus. Now Lazarus is dead and sealed in his tomb behind a great rock, so she’s not in a very charitable mood at this point. Nevertheless Jesus looks at her and says “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23). I don’t think this hope sounds very credible to Martha. If it was believable, she would have responded with something more than a religious generality, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (Jn 11:24). This response seems merely dutiful, like a congregation saying at the end of the creed that they believe in the resurrection of the dead, but with no great anticipation that it will happen anytime soon.

“Can these bones live?” In the moments before the stone is pulled away from Lazarus’ tomb, Martha doesn’t believe that dead bones can really live. If she really believed that bones could live, would she have warned Jesus that the body has been in its tomb for four days, and now stinks? No, of course she doesn’t believe that these bones can live. Martha may hear Jesus say “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn 11:25), and she may want to believe it, but when faced with the finality of a great rock and a charnel stench, it is too much to believe.

“Can these bones live?’ When we ask the question, the answer will be always be “No, how can they?” When God asks the question, the answer is always “yes”, because God asks the question with the breath of his Spirit, and that Spirit is life.

“Can these bones live?” You ask the question while standing in front of your mirror in the gray light of dawn. Even the act of shaving or putting on makeup seems like too much work. You just want to go back to bed and forget the chores and the bills and the challenges of the day ahead. But God asks the question and his Spirit reminds you that you are a loved child of God with unique gifts and abilities. Just take my hand, Jesus says, and we’ll get through worse than this.

“Can these bones live?” You ask the question while reading the Anglican Journal. Churches and bishops just down the 401 are suing one another over who owns the keys. Congregations are aging and closing. You wonder why you ever gave your time, treasure and talent to such a sorry business. But God asks the question, and his Spirit reminds you that the church is and always has been the bride of Christ. Just watch my church, Jesus says – isn’t it beautiful when it loves and serves and worships?

“Can these bones live?” You ask the question in the wreck of a relationship, when no one’s talking, and it’s hard to feel any warmth, let alone love. Bitterness and anger seem almost comfortable. But God asks the question, and his Spirit gives breath to words of truth and love. Let me help you, Jesus says, I know a thing or two about forgiveness.

“Can these bones live?” You’re standing in a cemetery, on a cold fall day, looking at the grave of a loved one. Dry leaves rustle and crack under foot like old bones. You wish more than anything that you could hold that hand again, hear that dear voice. But God asks the question, and his Spirit blows in the leaves, the same spirit that breathed life into our Saviour in his tomb. I am the resurrection and the life, Jesus says. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?

“Can these bones live?” In this persistent winter, it’s hard to believe that two Sundays from now, we’ll gather to celebrate Easter. It may be blowing snow like this weekend, the tulips and daffodils may still be weeks away, but we will celebrate Easter. We will be reminded that our identity as a people, the thing that unites us, is our belief that these bones, our bones, can in fact live. We don’t believe because we ask the question. We believe because God asks the question. God answered the question by raising his son from the dead, so that all may live.

Jesus says “Lazarus, come out!” and the dead bones live. Day by day, Sunday by Sunday, Jesus says “Grace Church/St. George’s, come out!’ and we respond. No matter how hard our days can be, how dry our bones can be we find that there is strength and life and joy in us. We come out because Jesus calls us, and Jesus knows that our bones can live, now and forever. Amen.

©Michael Peterson+ 2007

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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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