Sermon Preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
April 2, 2017; Lent 5A: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45
Let me begin by building on the geography lesson that I began a few weeks ago. The ancient Middle East contained two centers of civilization, the first around the Nile in Egypt and the second in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that in what is now Iraq. Connecting these is a narrow strip of land, known today as Israel or Israel/Palestine. This is where the battles between these empires took place. More specifically, local topography meant that the battles between these empires focused in one place: a valley named Jezreel that marked by a mountain named Megiddo. For the people of Israel ”Har-Megiddo” (or “Armageddon”) was not some mythical site for the end of a world but rather a place where battles had happened, and where they knew battles would happen again. I have visited Megiddo and seen the ruins of an impressive fortress there, said to have been built in the time of Solomon. Archeological evidence suggest that it was an important site even before that, in Canaanite times. In this morning’s reading, Ezekiel finds himself looking out over this valley at the battlefield where in 587 BCE the army of Israel had been utterly destroyed. If you recall photographs of the rubble of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or ruins of bombed out cities in Europe at the end of World War II you come close to what Ezekiel was seeing. If that does not work, picture in your mind the twisted Gothic shapes of metal in the ruins of the trade towers after 9/11. Remember your emotions that day and you begin to feel what Ezekiel was feeling. The difference, however, is that the images of Hiroshima and of 9/11 were of destroyed buildings, not people. I knew a chaplain who was sent in to do burials of the victims after 9/11… and did funerals for bone fragments because that’s they could find. There were no bodies. Ezekiel’s vision was filled with bodies. It was filled with bones. Ezekiel was looking at the bones of his people: people in whose deaths every hope for his nation, his family, and his future had died. Looking at Ezekiel’s anguish, God asks, “Can these bones live?” and, with a great rattling, the bones connected one to another and answers his own question with a resounding yes.
This passage is particularly powerful because right now many of us are in Ezekiel’s shoes. Whether it’s caring for the environment, providing health care, improving education or welcoming refugees, all that lies before us are the skeletal remains of shattered dreams. It’s not political, it’s personal. It’s about the future of our people and the future of our planet. Like the Romans, we sense that the disconnection from the Spirit. Like the Ezekiel, we want to cry out. Like Jesus – and that famous Indian in a canoe with a tear in his eye – we just want to cry. Like those gathered around Lazarus’ tomb, we know this situation stinks but we can’t seem to find a way forward. Like them, however, we will learn that with God, there is.
This week the 156 members of churches, synagogues and other faith communities who gathered in Augusta for Interfaith Advocacy Days discovered that was true. (A quick congratulations to John Hennessy and to all those who came St. Luke’s. The Episcopalians were a powerful presence and took a real leadership role.) As this event, I saw very shy people become willing to speak to strangers, very busy people willing to take time to make a difference, and very dedicated people willing to do everything they could do to stand up and make change for good. Those people were not there to tell anyone else what to believe. They were there to put their personal beliefs in public action. They were there to advocate for people, for their children and grandchildren, and for the homeless, the hungry, and others who had no voice. If you look at a homeless person, you might ask “Can these bones live?” With some rattling, sinew connecting, an awful lot of Spirit moving, the people gathered in Augusta showed that God’s answer is yes.
If that can be true for those who like Lazarus had been already written off, it can be true for others, and even true for you. Our streets are full of people who are housed but have no home, of people who look great on the outside but whose insides are nothing but skin and bones — people for whom the spirit and joy of life has dried up or gone away. Does this sounds familiar? Like Mary and Martha, you may be angry with God, thinking that if God had been there, bad things would not have happened, your life would be different, and your loved ones would not have been taken away. Mary and Martha were right. Lazarus’ death was tragic. It didn’t need to occur the way it did. Jesus understood this. Moved by their anguish and his own, Jesus wept. Then in one of the high points of his ministry, he raised Lazarus from the dead. He felt Mary’s and Martha’ pain, heard their needs, and responded. What he did for them, he will also do with you.
The raising of Lazarus is the last of miracles or “signs” in the Gospel of John. It is the last gospel reading we will hear in church before the triumphal entry at Palm Sunday and the story of the Passion. It is in this place because it prepares us for what is going to happen next. Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus is telling Martha the lesson of Ezekiel — that even when things look their worst and when it seems her life is over, he would be there to carry her through. He asked Martha, “Do you believe this?” and she said, “Yes.” If Jesus came to you at a moment like that and asked you the same question, would you, could you, say the same? Would you, could you, believe it’s true?
Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones and the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus are provocative previews of Good Friday and Easter. The drama they describe isn’t something that just happened long ago, but is a drama in which each of us can play a part today. These readings don’t say that Good Friday won’t happen and that we won’t experience death and won’t experience pain. They do say that these things are not the end. These readings offer a foreshadowing of the victory of light over darkness, life over death, and hope over despair. They are a message that when things look their worst the Spirit of God will come and with a great rattling, we and our world will be brought back to life. New life is possible. It is real. It is happening to others and can happen even to you. Can these bones live? God’s answer for us – God’s answer for you – is yes.
 Interestingly, the same is true for “Gehenna,” the word Jesus uses for hell. Gehenna was an actual place, a garbage dump outside Jerusalem where refuse was burned. (see http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6558-gehenna) Like John’s Armageddon (Rev. 16:16), Jesus’ Gehenna uses a familiar image and place to provide a metaphor rather than a specific future location.