The Adventurous Lectionary: Fifth Sunday in Lent -March 29, 2020

The Adventurous Lectionary: Fifth Sunday in Lent -March 29, 2020 March 19, 2020

The Adventurous Lectionary – The Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 29, 2020
Ezekiel 17:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

I recognize that most of us will be having “virtual church,” this Sunday. We are in a wholly new time, one that few of us could imagine a month ago. Our churches have come to a standstill in terms of person to person programs and the foremost issues on most of our congregants’ minds will the impact of the Coronavirus/COVID-19 on their lives. Similar to the days after 9/11, it is essential that we address this either in our liturgy or worship. While God’s guidance and nature is faithful through all of life’s seasons, God is ever-timely, God’s mercies are new every morning in response to our personal, national, and global histories.

Today’s passages are only too apt for our current context. Lent is a season in which we confront our limitations, sin, and mortality. We are dust and to dust we return, we are finite and our finitude is the source of creativity and fear, we are sinful and sin leads to separation from God, others, and our personal destiny. This doesn’t mean that the Coronavirus is the result of our sin or God’s judgement, however. But, surely many of us are giving thought to the mortality of our loved ones, congregants and ourselves. During the Lenten season, self-awareness – moving from denial to acceptance and agency – is the source of spiritual transformation and adventure within life’s imperfections and limits.

Today’s readings stagger the imagination: dry bones dancing and a dead man revived. In the midst of death, resurrection bursts forth and we are challenged to expect the unexpected, and awaken to a world of wonders.

Ezekiel’s mystical vision sets the stage for today’s readings. The picture is both serious and whimsical. Just think of the children’s song inspired by Ezekiel 37:1-14:
Ezekiel connected dem dry bones,
Ezekiel connected dem dry bones,
Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones,
Now hear the word of the Lord.
Toe bone connected to the foot bone
Foot bone connected to the heel bone
Heel bone connected to the ankle bone
Ankle bone connected to the shin bone
Shin bone connected to the knee bone
Knee bone connected to the thigh bone
Thigh bone connected to the hip bone
Hip bone connected to the back bone
Back bone connected to the shoulder bone
Shoulder bone connected to the neck bone
Neck bone connected to the head bone
Now hear the word of the Lord.
Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.
Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.
Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.
Now hear the word of the Lord.

Imagine dry bones dancing and singing. Imagine the cemeteries emptied of their occupants, and dead relatives showing up at dinner.

As I ponder Ezekiel’s vision, I join the biblical scholars in the recognition it’s about the fears and hopes of the nation of Judah. Will the nation, whose leadership is exiled in Babylon, ever rise again? Will Jerusalem, the city of God, be restored or remain in ruins? But, if that’s all it’s about, a hopeful story from over 2500 years ago, why bother to read such a fanciful story? It’s also about the current state of Christendom and our own planet. It’s also about a nation in chaos, led by leaders who thrive on chaos and place business profits ahead of the wisdom of prophets and the well-being of its most vulnerable citizens and immigrants. It’s about us today For the first time in recent American history, many see our own nation at risk, not just from the Coronavirus but from inept and divisive leadership in this time. Will the nation as we have known it survive? Is the American spirit faltering as a result of unholy alliances and “America first” ideologies? Given our leaders’ obliviousness to environmental issues and the global impact of viruses, will our planet survive?

And, on a smaller scale, though it may seem unimportant these days, will progressive and mainstream Christianity survive – and our own congregations survive – in this time of unsettledness and threat?

The death of the old ways is apparent but will something new arise? Will these dry bones – in our churches – come back to life? Such emergence can only come through a form of spiritual CPR. The Spirit breathing in us causing us to get up and dance around! Only God’s Spirit can revive us, energize us, and empower us!

The Psalmist cries out from the depths, hoping God will hear our voices. The Psalmist waits on God and so do we. We want new life: we want to see growth in our congregations and in our spirits. We need God’s power to redeem and transform us.

The Apostle Paul speaks of being renewed in the Spirit. God’s Spirit breathes in all things, but we won’t receive we receive the fullness of God’s Spirit if we’re fleshly minded. When we are in the Spirit, our cells and souls are animated; we are lively star stuff, awakening to divine energy with every breath. In contrast, focusing on the flesh; that is, being caught up in the passing world of competition, individualism, win-lose dynamic, as the sole reality, cuts us off from the divine chi or spirit. We turn from death to life. Filled with Spirit, our mortal flesh becomes what it’s intended to be: a living reflection of divine creative wisdom, moving in tune with all creation. Life emerges from death. We can dance and jump around, alive to the energy that gave birth to the universe and makes us new creations! We can even celebrate – with full awareness of the threat – in a time of Coronavirus!

Jesus’ miraculous curing of the deceased Lazarus, like Ezekiel’s dry bones in the valley, takes us on a wild ride. It’s hard to take the passage literally; brain death occurs after less than ten minutes without oxygen, and Lazarus is dead for four days! But, in this 125 billion galaxy universe, there are deeper laws such that the dead can be revived, even after being brain dead four days. In the words of
Walt Whitman:

WHY! who makes much of a miracle?
As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach, just in the edge of
the water….These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring – yet each distinct, and in its place.

The miracle to some is not just the reviving of Lazarus, but the reality that “Jesus’ wept.” They don’t expect divinity to feel our pain: they see God on high as immune from the human – and creaturely – condition. Jesus felt pain and grief, enjoyed friendships, and was touched by the loss of his friend. When Jesus proclaims, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he is not denying the pain of death, but placing our pain in God’s loving care. The cost of resurrection is death – the death of old ways, the death of the familiar, and the death of our previous identity. One wonders how Lazarus’ life unfolded after Jesus raised him back to life. Was he considered a freak? Did he gain some sort of new knowledge? Was death still a threat to him? (For more on divine suffering and God’s relationship with the world, see Bruce Epperly, “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God,” Energion Publications and “Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed,” TTClark/Continuum.)

The Fifth Sunday in Lent is just a week from the chaos of Holy Week and it is occurring in the chaos of NOW! We are fourteen days from the surprising resurrection of Jesus, and we can’t preach resurrection glibly this year. Death will encompass our lives, and is encompassing it right now. But, there is a larger reality: for now let’s dance around, breathing deeply divine energy, and rejoicing in the love that restores both the living and the dead, giving us hope for ourselves, our churches, our nation, and the planet in a time of Coronavirus.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over 50 books including “Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job,” “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims,” and “Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles: A Progressive Vision.”

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