Alleluia! Christ is risen! A sermon for Easter Day 2014

What powerful and wonderful words they are that we claim and proclaim this morning; words that change everything. It was just three days ago that we gathered to celebrate the last Supper and watched, and participated, as Jesus washed our feet and we washed the feet of others. We listened as Jesus instituted the sacrament, the bread and wine, the Body and Blood, the sign and symbol of Gods ongoing presence among us. It was just three days ago that we stood numb and then fled in panic as Jesus was arrested and taken from us. We gathered the next day at his trial and we shouted “away with him! Away with him! Crucify him! Crucify him!” And then we stood in shock as he died on a cross and was laid in a tomb.

But today we come here to this place, we duck down and walk through that threshold, entering the tomb and finding it empty we proclaim

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

So maybe… that’s enough… Maybe at this moment, having claimed and proclaimed those words, we are all ready to come to this altar, to this table and to share the sacrament so that we can hurry home to our brightly colored eggs, and to our piles of chocolates, and to the ham that is warming in the oven. But I think that before we allow ourselves to do that we need to grapple a little bit with the story that we have been given for this morning.

The story that we read this morning is a gift.   A story rich with drama, with surprise, maybe even a little comedy. In this story we have three people running back and forth to and from the tomb, three people who are already very familiar to us.

First there is Mary Magdalene. Now we know Mary as a person of great status and stature among the Disciples. We know this because she is named as one of the women standing there at the foot of the cross as Jesus dies. She is there with Jesus’ mother and his Aunt. Her status is affirmed by he presence in such company and because she is mentioned by name (John 19:25). Mary Magdalene is someone who was there right to the very end standing on the “inside” with the people who were closest to Jesus.

But there is something very familiar about what she is doing in this story. She is out in the dark, in the middle of the night, before the sun has come up.   And she clearly expects to find the stone still blocking the mouth of the tomb. She hasn’t brought anyone to help roll away the stone. She hasn’t come with spices or ointments to anoint the body. She doesn’t seem to have a plan of action. She is there grieving, lost, in despair. And all she can think to do in this moment is to come to the place where his body is laid in a desperate attempt to be near to Jesus.

Now we know what her despair is about in this moment by the way that she interprets the open tomb. She doesn’t look inside. She doesn’t know that the body is gone but she runs to the Disciples and she says, “they,” they have taken the body away. Mary’s greatest fear in this moment is that the powers of this world, that ill defined “they,” have triumphed once again; that the movement towards freedom that she had sensed, that the light that she thought she was seeing, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, had been extinguished. Mary is there in this moment fearing that all of the promises that she has heard and felt have come to naught. Mary is afraid that the light has come into the world and that the darkness has overcome it once again.

We have two other people who are running in this morning’s story. The first is the Beloved Disciple, the Disciple whom Jesus love, and he is so upset and so anxious that he outraces Peter and arrives at the tomb first. Here is a person who has felt God’s touch, who has felt God’s favor and God’s love in his life. And in this moment when Jesus lies dead in the tomb he must long beyond reason and beyond hope to feel that love once again. He is in the dessert… He is lost and alone. He races to the tomb trying to re find that connection, to be reconciled, to be in communion once again with his Lord and Master and friend.

Then we have Peter who is probably in a very different place as he runs towards the tomb. Having denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed he is rushing to the tomb with some level of guilt and shame and remorse. Maybe he let the Beloved Disciple get there first so that he could evaluate the situation before he went in. But in his inimitable fashion Peter arrives at the tomb and blunders through the door, probably elbowing the Beloved Disciple out of the way.

 

All through this season of Lent, and especially now in Holy Week, as we have listened to these stories and we have participated in them, we have been invited to see ourselves, to feel ourselves as part of the action; to make these stories present for ourselves here and now; to make them present and true for the world in which we live. So I think that there might be a temptation here to identify too closely with any one of the three characters in this story. We have all arrived here at the tomb this morning with a different stance, a different posture, a different pain or grief that we are bearing. Some of us may have arrived worrying that the powers of this world have indeed triumphed and that the darkness has overcome the light. Some of us may have arrived here this morning in the midst of a dessert, dry experience, longing to feel once again the connection with God that we have felt at other times. Some of us may have arrived here with some sense of remorse or guilt, or even shame, hoping to find release and forgiveness.

I would like to invite us to avoid the temptation to identify too closely with any one of these three characters and to recognize that, in fact, we should be identifying with all of them.

Now, and at different moments in our lives, we will arrive at the tomb bearing different burdens carrying different crosses. Gathered together in this room today bring we bring with us a vast variety of experiences. The journeys that have brought us here are all different and uniquely our own. We come from different backgrounds and different places and when we arrive at the tomb together we need, we long for, we are seeking different things.   What we need, long for, seek this year is different from what we needed, longed for, and sought when we came to this place last year and is likely different that what we will seek when we come again an year from now. So identifying to closely with Mary, or Peter, or with the Beloved Disciple is limiting in a way that is not reflective of our experience of life and the ways that we grow and change. When we experience and participate in this story we are not one particular character in the story. We are every character in the story.

I think that recognizing that this is not “my” story, or “your” story,” or “this person’s” story, or “that person’s story,” but recognizing that this is in fact “our” story also brings us much closer to the way that the early church and the disciples saw these stories and with the way that the early church saw themselves as being in communion with one another, as one Body. This remarkable story, with all of its layers of meaning, all of its possibilities, is “our story” as a community, as a people, as the Body of Christ.

Now there is some danger, risk and discomfort in seeing this as “our” story. Because we may not want to bear the cross or the burden that someone else has carried to the tomb this morning. We are busy enough carrying our own. And to see this story, every bit of it as “ours” means that it is not the Jews who crucify Christ. It is not the Romans who crucify Christ. It is “we!” Because every character in this story is each and every one of us! Multi faceted and multi layered, complex and irreducible to one experience, event, or story line.

So this is “our” story to tell and to bear, with all of its pain, with all of its cruelty, and with all of its betrayal. But it is also our story with all of its joy. Because when we see this as “our” story, when we see ourselves as every character in the story, then grace, relief, and release that each and every person in this room feels today also become “ours.” Mary Magdalene arrives here in the empty tomb worrying that darkness has overcome the light and she discovers that the light has prevailed. Jesus has risen and he stands here in the garden and calls her by name.   So we know that the light has come into the world and the darkness has not overcome it. Her fear has turned to joy.

It hasn’t happened here in this moment yet but “our” story will go on show us that the Beloved Disciple will again feel that touch, that communion, that closeness with his Lord, Master, and friend, with the God who loves him.

Peter, who denied Jesus three times will be invited to breakfast and told three times to feed God’s sheep. Peter will find that absolution and forgiveness for which we all long.

No matter which cross, no matter which burden we carried into the tomb with us this morning, all three of these redeeming story lines are ours for the claiming. And that is the source of our joy, celebration, and hope.

If this story, every bit of it is “ours” then this story shows us that, having found the tomb to be empty, we need to stand and bear witness, to testify to one another about our own journey, about our own path, about the burdens that we brought with us today, and about the way that they have been lifted.

Mary Magdalene has an encounter with the risen Lord and she runs to tell the disciples. The first evangelist, spreading that word in a way that will change the world and set it on fire. We are called to do that same thing; to describe our experience standing in the open tomb, discovering that Christ has risen and explaining to people how that has changed our lives.

So I am going to pass the microphone around and ask everybody to take a turn and tell us your story…. No? OK. I’ll tell you what. We’ll give you a little time to think that through and to rehearse it; to work on it so that when you are given the opportunity to testify about the empty tomb you are prepared and in t a place to do that with joy, and with passion and with conviction.

In the meantime as we work on our story, as we listen to the people around us and and let their stories enrich our experience and our understanding, as we let their testimony lift us up when we fall, and support us as we walk this path… We will just speak in shorthand to one another.

We will stand here in the doorway of the empty tomb, looking out into the world that is now illumined by the new light of Christ and we will say

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Amen!

Advertisements

A Sermon for Good Friday 2014

This sermon is based on the readings and the collect for Good Friday in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

You can listen to an audio recording of the sermon by clicking the player below.

 

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen  (The Collect for Good Friday BCP p. 276).

 

It was just five days ago, at about 10:15 in the morning, as we were preparing to go downstairs for The Liturgy of the Palms, that one of our most engaged and involved parishioners asked me a very good question. “Why do we process outside and carry palms on this day?” I explained to him that during this season Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and that the people gathered and cried,

“The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
         Hosanna in the highest heaven!’”  (Matthew 21: 9)

Then this person asked me a great question. “I know that” he said. “But why do ‘we’ process outside and carry palm branches?”  Now just for the record, this involved and engaged parishioner was Ray Hutchinson, who is five and three quarters years old… but this was a great question. Why do “we” participate in this way?

I explained to him, standing right here in his space, that we participate in the story this was because this is not a story about people who lived two thousand years ago and who were engaged in a series of events that is distanced from us by both geography and time. I explained that this is a story that describes and defines “us,” that these stories that we read and participate in during Holy Week are “our” stories. We claim them as our own and we proclaim them as the stories of our very lives and being, the stories of identity as a community. We participate in them to make the real, present, here and now, for us, today here in this world.

Now I’m not sure… I think maybe he was a little grumpy about having to go outside into the cold… so I’m not sure that my explanation gave him cause to be excited about participating. But I’m sure that by the time we finished our parade and had come into the church he was enjoying his participation in the story and was appreciating my rather lengthy explanation to his very short question….

I think that if he had been here on Wednesday as we read the story of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and Jesus’ commitment to remain faithful to his mission and to us by sending Judas on his way, Ray would have appreciated his participation in that story too. I am sure that when he was here last night he appreciated our participation in the act of washing feet, of receiving Jesus’ unconditional love, offered to us despite our warts and unwashed feet. And I am sure that he appreciated our ability and willingness to share that love with others.

I am sure that he and all of us, having heard the reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, the story of the institution of the Eucharist, came to this table with a greater sense of appreciation,as we participated with all of our hearts, and souls and being.

Today, however, that participation takes on a different cast. Today our participation in the stories of Holy Week includes our coming to the garden to arrest Jesus. Our participation in this story today includes our choosing a bandit over the one who just five days ago we declared to be our Lord and King. Our participation in this story today has us crying, “Crucify him! Crucify him! Away with him! We have no king but Caesar!” Our participation in this story is a little more difficult for us to sit with, to experience, and to claim and proclaim.

Now just to be clear, our participation in all of these stories doesn’t create something new. It is our claiming of a truth that has always been, is now, and will be forever. We are claiming and proclaiming and participating in a story that transcends this moment and these details.  And which transcends us as individuals and as a body.   So this special way that we recollect and participate in these stories isn’t imposing anything upon us. It is in fact describing our experience, our perception and understanding of the truth, of reality, of the way life is. If we think about that statement for just a moment we will recognize its truth even in the face of our uncomfortable and painful participation in the story today.

When we fail to love one another, to love out neighbor as ourselves as we have been loved; when we objectify one another and see God’s children as a means to an end, to the advancement of our own agendas, to the meeting of our own needs; when we fail to work for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being… we are participating in Jesus’ crucifixion. We are denying the vision and dream that God holds for all of creation and the way of being one in Christ that God longs for each and every one of us to recollect, claim, and proclaim.

Our participation in this difficult, ugly, and violent story of betrayal is not something that is being imposed upon us but is something that we are realizing, recognizing, and holding very carefully about who we are, who it is that we have been, and who it is that, without the grace of God’s help, we will continue to be.

There is another change in the story today that is worth pointing out and recognizing. The collect that we heard at the beginning of today’s liturgy, and which I read again just a few minutes ago, has for this entire week been the prayer that we use at the conclusion of our Holy Week liturgies. So having gathered as a community of faith, having participated in these powerful and formative stories, and having shared in the Eucharist, we have knelt just before going out into the world to continue this journey through Holy Week, and we have heard these words.

“Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen”  (Holy Week Prayer Over the People Book of Occasional Service p. 26).

In the context of a closing prayer, in the context of a journey that is ongoing, these words sound and feel like a plea for help, for strength, for companionship along the way. O God, we are on the road to Golgotha. We are on the path and this journey is a difficult one. We ask you graciously… graciously to behold us, to apprehend us, to see. This is a prayer for God’s presence and favor on the journey. Oh, and God, just in case you have forgotten who is asking… we are your family, the ones for whom Jesus was willing to go to the cross.   So we are not making this request out of the blue. We are yours and you are ours… So please be with us.

Today we shift that prayer from the end of our liturgy to the very beginning and it feels very different. Knowing why we are here, knowing where the story is going, and knowing how this will end… we have the temerity to pray, “Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family? “

We hear these words differently now… for whom our Lord Jesus Christ is “about” to be betrayed, and “about” to be given into the hands of sinners, and “about to suffer death upon the cross…

And just in case you have forgotten who it is that is asking… it is we who are about to do these things to Him, who are asking you to behold us in this moment.

That seems very counter intuitive. That seems like a strange request to be making, knowing what it is that is about to happen. What is going on here? I think that there is an important piece here that we need to recognize and grapple with.

I used to see this in my own children. They would behave in ways with Suzanne and me that we wouldn’t see from them in any other setting or context. They are our family.   And I believe that they were, as families are wont to do, testing us. “Yeah you say that you love us but what if we do this? What if we push this buttons right here…” There is a fabulous children’s book by Barbara M. Joosse and Barbara Lavallee called Momma, Do You Love Me? in which a young Inuit girl describes all sorts of ingenious and outrageous tests for her mother in an attempt to see if she is truly loved… What if I put fish in your mukluks? What if I put holes in our canoe? Momma, would you still love me?

Last night we participated in a great act of intimacy and love; joining our Lord and Master by following his example and allowing another to see our naked feet; allowing them to hold them, to wash them, to caress them. And then we turned and offered that same love to another. We claimed and proclaimed the truth; that God loves us unconditionally despite out warts, despite out bunions, our ingrown toenails, our hammertoes, and those strange little pinkie toes that turn on their side and don’t have a nail…    Last night we claimed and proclaimed that God loves us despite all of that.

But you know… our feet are only a small part of who we are. Today God has experienced us at our absolute and very worst. There is nothing more that we could do to prove the depths to which we can sink, the awful deeds of which we are capable. And so here in this moment, with Jesus having died in our presence on the cross, and having been laid in a tomb, having manifested the worst that is in us… we hold out our hands and ask God to behold us, God’s family. We pray that God will do so, will behold us graciously, that the truth that we claimed and proclaimed last night will in fact turn out to be the Truth.

Our worst and ugliest warts are now on display.

And so we wait.

And we watch.

And we hope.

And we pray.

Amen.

A Sermon for Wednesday in Holy Week

This sermon, given at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church on April 17, 2014, is based on the Gospel reading for Wednesday in Holy Week. 

You will find that reading here.

Here on Wednesday in Holy Week we sit riveted as the pace of the unfolding drama picks up speed. Today we hear a story that is part John’s account of the Last Supper. We hear the story that sets the machinery of the world into motion and that will finally result in Jesus hanging dead on the cross on Good Friday. It is story of terrible juxtaposition. We have the beloved disciple, the one whom Jesus loved leaning against his breast as the Disciples share this last meal together; and we have Judas, one of the twelve, leaving to summon the temple guard to the place where Jesus will be arrested. This juxtaposition heightens the anxiety we feel when we hear Jesus say, “Very truly I tell you, one of you will betray me,” and we begin to wonder if those words are directed at us.

The study Bible that I use, a New Revised Standard Version, labels this story, “Jesus Foretells his Betrayal.” The NIV uses a similar heading, “Jesus predicts his betrayal.” And the RSV calls this story, “Jesus dismisses Judas Isacriot his betrayer.” Those labels say something very clear.

We do not like this story and we don’t like Judas.

We don’t like it because it is a story about the worst that is in us, betrayal in the face of unconditional love and we don’t like Judas because he hold up a mirror fomr which we cannot avert our eyes.

But if we are driven by our discomfort to turn away from this story too quickly we will have missed a great treasure. For in this story there is good news. In fact John, in the telling of this story, has given us reason to hope and to rejoice. So perhaps a better name for this story in the Gospel of John would be, “Jesus commits himself to being faithful.”

Jesus commits himself to being faithful.

That is certainly good news. Jesus’ faithfulness to us is cause for great celebration. But why is that an appropriate name for this passage and where do we find such good news here in this story of Judas’ betrayal?

The story of the Last Supper, in which we hear this story about Judas and Jesus, appears in all four Gospels. In the three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke the story of Jesus predicting Judas’ betrayal is pretty much the same. In all three he tells the apostles that one of them sitting at the table will betray him. In all three Gospels the apostles become upset and wonder who it will be. And in all three: Matthew, Mark, and Luke Jesus says, “woe to the one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed.”

In John’s Gospel we have all of those elements but we also have a very important addition. John’s Gospel is the only one that has Jesus tell Judas, “Do quickly what you are going to do” (John 13: 27).

To understand why this little addition is so important we need to think for a moment about the Jesus of John’s Gospel. John takes stories from among the the opther Gospels and from the oral traditions and sayings of Jesus and crafts a narrative that portrays a Jesus who is in complete control of his destiny from the beginning to the end. John makes very it explicit; nothing is happening to Jesus that is beyond his ability to stop.

Earlier in John’s Gospel Jesus is talking about himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. He says,

“No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father” (John 10:18).

In the chapter following the one we read from today Jesus says,

“I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way” (John 14:30-31).

Again, in John’s Gospel, when we read the story of Jesus’ interview with Pilate, we suddenly understand that it is not really Pilate who is in control of the interrogation process. Pilate is the one asking questions but it is clear that Jesus is in charge. Pilate becomes flustered, frustrated, and angry and John’s Gospel tells us,

“Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you? Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above…’” (John 19:11).

Jesus is clearly in control of what is happening here…

Now if we were reading this story for the first time, never having heard it before and not knowing how the story ends, we would be caught up in the tension of the moment. What will he do? The powers of the world have conspired to silence the voice of Emmanuel, “God with us.” Will he put a stop to it? Surely he knows what is coming. Jesus has seen in the life of the Prophets how the world treats those who tell the truth in love and seek to bring us to a greater awareness of God’s presence in our lives. Surely he knows what fate awaits him if Judas leaves on his dark mission.

He has told the apostles that one of them is about to betray him. Will he tell them who it is? “It’s Judas! He is the one! Quick, tie him up and lock him in the closet!” Jesus is in control. What will he do? Will he abandon the humanity that he has taken on, assume his full glory and power and smite those who would arrest, torture and kill him? He is in control here… what is he going to do?

What he does is almost unthinkable. He says to Judas, “Do quickly what you are going to do” (John 13: 27).

 As we sit here reeling from the choice that he has made the story goes on. Judas leaves and the Gospeller reports, “And it was night.” Darkness had fallen on the world.

Hmmm… maybe the heading, “Jesus foretells his betrayal” isn’t strong enough. At this point in the story we might be feeling that a more appropriate heading for this story would include some really nasty epithets for Judas.

But the story isn’t over yet…

 “When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once’” (John 13:31-32).

Now the son of man has been glorified? Now? At once? In this moment when Judas has gone off to betray him? Now before he has been crucified and risen? Now, before he has even been arrested? Why is Jesus saying this here?

Remember that Jesus is in charge, in control here. I made a funny reference a minute ago to the apostles tying Judas up and locking him in the closet. I hope it sounded funny at the time but the point is a serious one. Jesus had a choice to make. Did he look at what was about to happen to him and say, “Hey Let’s just put a stop to this right now before someone gets hurt!” Or did he,

“humble himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).

John wants us to know that Jesus is in charge and he does have a choice. We did not take his life. He gave it for us.

Jesus said, “Do quickly what you are going to do” (John 13: 27) and in that moment he set the terrible machinery of death into motion. He refused to stray from the path. He refused to abandon his humanity and pull himself out of an awful and deteriorating situation.   Instead he remained obedient to the Father and to the task that he had been sent to accomplish, the reconciliation of our relationship with God and the drawing of the whole world to himself.

So this was indeed the moment in which to say,

“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him” (John 13:31) for, “…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:8-11).

“Jesus commits to being faithful.” That is the heading that I proposed for this story. I am not sure that I will submit that name for the next scholarly translation of the Bible./ Aside from being a little “clunky” there are many moments in the scriptures where we can say that Jesus has made that commitment. But I hope that we can see that this story is not so much about Judas as it is about Jesus.

It is important to see this as a story about Jesus because an interesting thing happens when we read the story that way. Instead of squirming in our seats wondering who he is talking about when he says “One of you will betray me” we can finally begin to admit that he is, in fact, talking about us. We are the ones who betray him. We all betray Jesus in little, and sometimes in not so little ways. When we create idols for ourselves, when we put anything in our life before our relationship with God we are betraying the Son who came to show us that it is our relationship with the God who creates, redeems and sustains us that is the most important thing in our lives. When we place more importance on things than we do on relationships with each other, when we fail to hold up the most vulnerable among us, when we exploit one another as a means to advance ourselves… we are, in those moments and actions, consigning Jesus to the cross.

When the story that we have been talking about today stops being about the betrayer and starts being about the redeemer, the one who chose to be faithful to us even when we were not faithful; who chose to love rather than abandon us, even in the face of unspeakable pain and suffering, suddenly we see that we have been given an invitation to come back to that upper room, to come back to the table.

When we read this as a story about Jesus and not as a story about Judas the betrayals that have haunted us and have kept us from approaching the throne of mercy become a little lighter. Jesus has chosen to stay with us, through the betrayal into the hands of Pilate, through the pain and suffering of the cross and through the pain and suffering of our betrayals. He has chosen, and he shows us, that he will not abandon us. We may approach and ask for the forgiveness that has been promised for he has chosen and,

“neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Amen

Can These Bones Live? A sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent.

This sermon, given at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on April 6, 2014, is based on the readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent in year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

 

It was five weeks ago that we followed Jesus into the wilderness of Lent. As Jesus walked into the desert to be tested by Satan we began our annual sojourn here in a place where the predictable patterns and routines of home of home, the landmarks and road signs that help us to navigate our lives, and the things that we often turn to for security, comfort and solace are gone… The wilderness is a challenging place, one that has the power to disorient, to confuse, and to discourage us.   It is a place where our reliance on God is tested and emphasized; a place where there is no where to run, nowhere to hide.

It would be very difficult for us to leave everything behind and follow Jesus into the desert for forty days so we have made some changes to this space and to our worship that are all intended to disorient us and to keep us from being too comfortable as we look for the wilderness in our lives. We have removed the flowers from the altar. We have stopped saying or singing “alleluia” for the season. We have changed the words of our liturgy so that we can’t say them by rote and so that their unfamiliarity might slow us down, trip us up, and cause us to pause and reflect at a deeper level.

I don’t know how effective those measures have been. It may be that for some of us who are more protestant in our leanings the appearance of the stations of the cross in our worship space this morning has finally created that desired sense of disorientation and discomfort. But I am willing to bet that for most of us none of these changes have been as effective at driving us into the wilderness as a three point shot in the waning minutes of last night’s basketball game… Actually even that heartbreaking loss in the Final Four isn’t enough to move us into the wilderness that we need to inhabit during this season. I think that the closest we can get to the king of wilderness we are seeking happens in those few moments of disorientation when we awake in the middle of a powerful and disturbing dream.

Awakening in the dark, unsure where we are, unsure whether the things we have just seen and experienced were real; before the glow from the clock radio and the nightlight in the bathroom help to orient us; so disoriented that for a moment or two we aren’t sure who we are… which character in that dream am I? Am I all of them, one of them, or none of them? There in our bed we wonder desperately how to get back to something familiar, something we recognize, something that will help us to locate ourselves in the world, in time, and in reality. There is the wilderness that we are seeking… There is the wilderness of Lent! And it is just that wilderness from which the Prophet Ezekiel addresses us this morning.

Our reading from Ezekiel starts out,

“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord” (Ezekiel 37:1).

“The hand of the Lord came upon me” indicates to us that Ezekiel is in a trance or a dream like state. He has been removed from the confines of normal space and time and has moved into a world where the normal “rules” no longer apply, where the landmarks and road signs are either nonexistent or are written in a foreign language and script. Ezekiel is in the wilderness.

Here in the wilderness Ezekiel is set down in the middle of a horrifying landscape; bones as far as the eye can see; legs, arms, ribs, and skulls; drying under the hot desert sun; so old and dry that even the marrow has turned to dust. Ezekiel is set down in the middle of this wreckage and then is led by the Spirit of the Lord round and round the perimeter of the valley so that he can see the extent of the devastation and death that the bones represent.

This would be a pretty terrifying place to awaken. We might sit up in bid, sweating, shaken, our pulse racing and our breath ragged, unsure of who and where we are . But I think that Ezekiel, if he had awoken from his dream at this point in the narrative would have known exactly where he was and where he had been because up to this point Ezekiel’s dream mirrors his, and the people of Israel’s experience in Exile.

In the year 608 BC King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon defeated the Egyptians in the battle of Carchemish.   He then turned his attention and his armies towards the people of Judah and their capitol city, Jerusalem. They arrived and were prepared to lay siege to the city when, in order to avoid the devastation that the neighboring nations had experienced at the hands of the Babylonian armies, the people of Judah, the Nation of Israel, agreed to become a vassal state to Babylon and promised to pay taxes and tributes to Nebuchadnezzar. In order to secure payment of this protection money Nebuchadnezzar took into exile, or ransom, many of the young nobles of the courts of Jerusalem.

This arrangement worked for a few years but in 599 BCE Israel revolted against Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar and his armies returned and in 597 the city fell to the Babylonian armies. This time The Babylonians took into exile the wealthy, the educated, the nobility and the leadership of the nation of Israel. It was here, in the second deportation that the Prophet Ezekiel was taken into captivity and sent into exile.

Exile was a true wilderness experience for the people of Israel. They had been separated from the land which God had given them as a symbol and a sign of their covenant and right relationship with God. They were in a foreign land among a foreign people. They were hearing stories that the folks who had been left at home were beginning to worship the gods of the land of Canaan and that they were beginning to occupy and claim the homes of the wealthy landed gentry who had been taken into captivity.   Anyone at home who had any means, any method of supporting themselves that was at all portable was leaving, going into voluntary exile in Egypt. What was left at home was disintegrating rapidly.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, those who had been taken into Babylon were being tempted by the relative wealth and cosmopolitan world in which they now lived and they were beginning to adopt the dress, foods, customs… even the songs and stories of the people and nation that had taken them captive. It could hardly have gotten worse… and then it did…

While they were in Babylon the people looked back at Jerusalem and took comfort in the one thing that Nebuchadnezzar had not destroyed, the temple of Solomon still stood. It was there, in the temple, that God came to dwell among God’s people. It was there, in the temple, that the people of Israel offered sacrifice to the Lord. And it was the presence of the temple that proved that the Lord their God had not been overthrown and defeated by the gods of the Babylonians. The temples presence in Jerusalem meant that God was still there, still reigning from God’s footstool, still working God’s purposes out and waiting to restore the people to their rightful place in the world.

Then the unthinkable happened. Zedekiah, the king appointed by Babylon to rule over Jerusalem revolted against the Babylonians, Nebuchadnezzar returned, defeated the armies of Israel and this time not even the temple was left standing! The city was razed, most of the remaining citizens were deported, and the temple was burned to the ground. It seemed that The Lord, the God of Israel, had in fact been defeated by the Babylonians and their gods, that the people of Israel would die, exiles in a foreign land, unnamed, unremembered, and un mourned in the heavens.

So if Ezekiel had awoken in the middle of the field of bones he would have recognized them, even before God identified them to him, as the whole House of Israel, scattered, dry and desiccated, their identity lost to the dust of the desert. Ezekiel and the people of Israel were losing their land, their way of life, their religion, their identity. They were as good as dead, dry dusty unnamed bones bleaching in the scorching heat of the sun.

Fortunately for Ezekiel, and for us, this is not the point at which Ezekiel awakes. This is not where the dream ends. God directs Ezekiel to prophecy to the bones, to what is left of the House of Israel and those dry and forgotten bones, with a loud clatter begin to knit themselves back together. As Ezekiel watches they are wrapped and bound by sinew, covered by flesh and then finally by skin!   Here in this vision or dream God shows Ezekiel a restored and revitalized Israel, brought back from the dead, her identity restored and her place in the world assured! This prophecy, delivered to the people of Israel while they were in captivity in Babylon might have seemed something beyond their reach, the promise of a great miracle that seemed, at this late date in their exile, to be an impossibility. They should have been paying more attention to Ezekiel.

 

Twenty six chapters earlier Ezekiel had shared another vision with the people. In that vision, which we may recall in the Sunday School song,

“Ezekiel saw the wheel, way up in the middle of the sky…”

Ezekiel described his vision of a great chariot with four wheels like gleaming jewels. A chariot carried by four winged cherubim. In this chariot God had ridden forth from the temple, stopping briefly at the east gate, and then proceeding to accompany God’s people into exile. Now I read several scholars reflections on this passage this week and they all used a similar line. “The prophet Ezekiel gave God a set of wheels.” Yeah. Not a great one liner but an important point. God was not confined to the temple in Jerusalem. God had not let God’s people go into the wilderness alone. God had accompanied them into the exile, into a foreign land, into the wilderness where they had sojourned for so long. Perhaps the people of Israel were so busy looking back to the temple for comfort, support and as a source of strength that they didn’t, or couldn’t see that God had been there with them the whole time!

This understanding of God as “portable,” as a companion in the wilderness, would become even more important to the People of Israel as their fortunes waxed and waned through the rebuilding and destruction of the second temple period. The sense and understanding that God is with us no matter where we are, that it is not the “house” or temple where we worship in which God lives but with and within us was instrumental in the recovery and reestablishment of the people of Israel’s identity and sense of place in the world. Knowing that the temple resides within the community no matter where it is gathered is a powerful and liberating truth about God’s ongoing presence among us, and this is an important story for us to hear no matter who or where we are.

This is also an important story for us to hear as we head into the last week of Lent. I was very intentional at the beginning of this sermon to describe our Lenten wilderness experience as something that we need, something that we enter with intention, something that we work to create. That is because we know, from our own experience and from other people’s stories, that we will at times me thrust into the wilderness against our will. Loss, grief, pain, illness, even other people’s losses and pain can all, through no fault of our own, and against our will, result in the disorientation, confusion, challenge and distress that mark time spent in the wilderness.

We also know that the way that we respond to those unbidden wilderness experiences can be shaped and formed by the time that we intentionally spend in the wilderness; measuring our own responses, examining our reactions, and developing our reliance on the one who can help us find our way to the other side. We have created our current wilderness to hone our attention and to focus our intention on God’s presence with us here even as we make our way from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day and the light and life that awaits us when that new day dawns. God is both our destination in the wilderness and our companion on the way!

If we are tempted to flee the wilderness here in these last days of our journey it may be that we have lost sight of the God who is walking this path with us. If we are tempted to run back to the things that we have given up this season; the flowers, the alleluias, the familiar words of the Book of Common Prayer; if we are ready to bail on our Lenten discipline, indulging in that chocolate bar or glass of wine, or giving up on the rule of prayer or study that we have adopted, it may be that we have turned our eyes once again to some fixed temple, some idol in which we have vested our own comfort, security and ease. It may be that we are so busy focusing on that temple or idol that we have failed to recognize that our true security has been right here with us the whole way.

For the people of Israel the joy of God’s presence in the wilderness couldn’t come until the last vestiges of the temple, the thing in which they had placed their hope and faith had gone. Only then did they lift their eyes and recognize the one who was walking beside them. As we work to find our way in this wilderness, exposing ourselves to its ability to disorient and confuse, we need to hear the story of Ezekiel’s powerful vision and hear God’s words spoken to us.

Can these bones live? Yes, we now that they can! Because we have learned through the stories of our scriptures and the stories of the countless others who have gone before us that God will be with us even in the darkest the wilderness. All we have to do is to lift our eyes and see.

Amen.