On the 5th Sunday of Lent this year, I chose to focus on the Psalm and Old Testament Lesson as they speak more to our current situation. The Old Testament lesson is the best-known one from the prophet Ezekiel, the Valley of Dry Bones. So much more in this lesson amid a pandemic.
1Out of the depths
I cry to you, O Lord;
2O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.
3If you were to keep watch over sins,
O Lord, who could stand?
4Yet with you is forgiveness,
in order that you may be feared. R
5I wait for you, O Lord; my soul waits;
in your word is my hope.
6My soul waits for the Lord more than those who keep watch for the morning,
more than those who keep watch for the morning.
7O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is steadfast love;
with the Lord there is plenteous redemption.
8For the Lord shall redeem Israel
from all their sins.
1The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
7So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11Then he said to me, “Mortal, 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.’ 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”
Dear beloved of God, grace to you and peace this day, from our loving God through Jesus the redeemer. Amen.
Usually on this Fifth Sunday of Lent, in Year A of our lectionary or readings cycle, we would hear the gospel story from John when Jesus raises Lazarus from death.
It’s an incredibly powerful story, with multiple levels and lots of vignettes from which to preach.
But this year – I just don’t think we’re there yet. Not for a while.
As more carefully collected and interpreted numbers about the coronavirus pandemic are made known, it’s become increasingly obvious that we are in this for the long haul. Even though the calendar may say “Fifth Sunday of Lent” – honestly, it feels more like the movie “Groundhog Day” but substituting Ash Wednesday for the February 2nd event.
Every day when we wake up it’s to more reminders that indeed we ARE dust, and to dust we shall return.
So that’s why I thought we might take a look at the psalm and the first lesson appointed for today. They are timely in a way that God makes happen despite our best human efforts at regulation.
Psalm 130 is called “a psalm of ascent” meaning that it was sung by the Jewish people as they ascended to the temple in Jerusalem. It’s considered a “penitential” psalm of lament – you could say that it’s a kind of confession, an owning of their situation.
Don’t these words make sense for us today? “Out of the depths…I wait for you, O Lord…in your word is my hope.”
We are certainly calling from depths. Depths of isolation. Depths of the unknowing, of fear and uncertainty.
It’s like standing in a cavern or canyon, surrounded by rock walls, and shouting “hear my voice, Lord!”
The sound might bounce and echo off the rock, creating a punctuation of its own.
Out of the depths. The places where we aren’t sure we can be seen, the places of deep darkness and unsure footing, where we sense that the climb out will be treacherous.
While we can’t be certain that this will be the character of the next several months, we would be wise to consider the possibility.
And so of course we cry, “o Lord, hear my voice!” and then we proceed to wait. Wait for God, and wait for hope.
And that’s where it gets hard. The waiting.
I was reminded this week of the Blitz of Britain in WWII, which concentrated on but was not limited to London. It began in September 1940 and continued through May 1941.
One of the by-products of the Blitz was the blackout – when all indoor lights had to be extinguished from dark to dawn, every night, for six years. This was so the enemy planes wouldn’t be able to see cities and towns from the air. It was not popular, but the people of Britain knew it was critical. And so all turned off their lights, to protect one another. And they waited – for the inevitable air raid sirens.
And they waited for hope, which came in excruciatingly small doses, but it came.
Of course, this is not an apples-to-apples comparison; war and a novel virus are two very different things. But waiting for the Lord is as old as the hills.
So is God’s showing up in response to that waiting.
In our story from Ezekiel, we are witness to an almost macabre scene: a field of dry bones. The way the prophet describes this scene, you get this incredible sense of utter desolation and despair. There is no hope here whatsoever of any kind. It’s over and done. Whoever these folks were, they have left the building. We’re verging on the zombie apocalypse here.
But who asks if these bones can live? GOD.
And Ezekiel, of course, answers probably like we would: uh, God, YOU know the answer to that, not me.
Talk about your role reversals.
And here’s what I find interesting about this story: God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones. God doesn’t just up and make the bones come to life, he deeply involves Ezekiel in every step of this process. From words that cause the bones to be connected with cartilage and sinew and muscle, to words that call upon the breath of God to breathe into these bones, the prophet Ezekiel – the human being – is intimately involved in the work of God on earth.
By calling on the four winds, God has Ezekiel participate in summoning the whole of creation as a partner in making all things new with these bones.
And in that process, we realize it is not simply the four winds, but the universal breath of God – the ruach, in Hebrew – that breathes life into all of creation. The four winds ARE the breath, the ruach of God.
Think about the winds we have here in the Columbia River Gorge. POWERFUL winds, particularly coming from the east and raging down the Gorge towards the ocean. It’s almost overwhelming to think of them as part of the breath of God, the ruach – but strangely, it works.
The other detail I notice here is in both Psalm 130 and Ezekiel, the concern begins with the individual and moves directly to that of the community, the entire assembly. In the psalm, the pronoun moves from “I” to the proper noun “Israel.” In Ezekiel, the prophet has an experience of God, and then the community is promised an experience of God.
God tends to work through individuals (and flawed ones at that) but God is always working FOR the good of the whole people of God AND for the good of all creation.
But at times like these, I wonder if we don’t feel a lot like Ezekiel, saying “I don’t know, God, you tell me.”
You tell me. Not a flippant dismissal, but a real demand. YOU TELL ME, God. What is this all about? Why is this happening?
We are yearning to hear a word from God, a word that will give us hope.
Do you remember some weeks ago, we read the story of Jesus being asked by the disciples of John the Baptist if he, Jesus, was the Messiah?
And Jesus answered, tell him what you see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, and the sick are healed. In other words – don’t go by what I say, go by what you see.
What do we see around us?
Well, on the one hand, I haven’t seen a package of toilet paper or a bag of flour on a store shelf in three weeks. Don’t get me started on that!
But I also see our congregation checking in on each other. Figuring out how to best utilize the resources of 3 Squares so that kids have food. Letting our friends and family know that we have online resources available for whoever needs them.
I see reports of health care professionals working way beyond the call of duty to care for those sickened by the virus.
Every day, I see fewer and fewer people in stores as we figure out how to hunker down, how to stay home and stay safe.
I see people spending time with their families, and figuring out how to build time into the day to take a break from each other.
I see people getting out and walking, keeping safe distances, calling out or waving a greeting to everyone they pass who is of course walking on the other side of the street.
I hear about a neighborhood call and care group, organized in the City of Portland like the way we’ve organized call groups at Shepherd of the Hills – and I hear the folks in those groups talk about what a difference it’s making in their lives.
I see God working in all of this – not taking advantage of the situation, but using it for good.
Not making light of it, or underplaying what is still a critically dangerous situation. But God reminds us in the midst of it all that God is with us.
By our compassion and care in the world, God begins to hang sinews and muscle on these bones of a society ravaged by a pandemic.
It will be slow going. Reconstructive surgery generally is slow going.
Folks have wondered aloud, “how long will this be in place?”
None of us can answer that.
The next question invariably is “when can we get back to normal?”
I have begun to think that we never will get “back to normal” because it’s time that we create a new normal, one that is not only sustainable but life-giving for all of creation.
That’s what happened to the bones in our story. They were enlivened to a new normal.
“I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live…..then you shall know that I the Lord have spoken AND WILL ACT.”
Friends, this is our assurance. God has spoken and will act.
Our role now is to be Christ to one another and to our neighbor, and to dwell in this holy time of waiting for God.
We wait for God not to be with us, because God already is.
We wait to hear God’s voice, and discern God’s direction for us – anew.
God has spoken. And God will act.
May we lean in to hear, and look up to see.