Sunday, March 29, 2020

Year A 5th Lent 2020 We are in Death

Year A 5th Sunday in Lent, 29 March 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“We are in Death”

The Collect
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Ezekiel 37:1-14
The 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. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I 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.”
So 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. I 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. Then 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.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
Then 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.’ Therefore 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. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I 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.

John 11:1-45
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “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. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

The readings this morning obviously have a single focus. Death. As a preacher, I could do a lot of things. I could spiritualize it, and talk about resurrection. And that is certainly there. But where we are I think that is ignoring the elephant in the room, and diverting or changing the subject.

I could pump up the fear, and urge people to make emotional decisions that are not long lasting or sincere. There are too many that are already doing that.

Some might even politicize this and say that we are all over exaggerating, but science and integrity prevent me from going there.

So how do I read these texts today? I recognize them for what they are, and I recognize where we are. They are speaking to people that either do not know what is to come, or already know the rest of the story. We, like the characters in these Bible stories, are in the midst of horror and tragedy. Are we like New York? No. Thanks be to God. Will we be? Hopefully not as we practice Social, or as I prefer to say, Physical Distancing. (We are all still socially connected, thanks to technology for those of us who have it. Pray for those who do not, please.)

On Ash Wednesday, we make a point of our mortality with our liturgy and in our words, but for me our rite is more about contrition than the immediacy and the certainty of death.

The composer/singer Randy Newman (known for “Short People Got No Reason” and movie scores like the Toy Story series) composed a Rock Opera based on the story of Faust. It has many elements which mirror the story of Job, more than Faust. It gave him the chance to do some fantastic work on some profound theology, especially on the problem of evil, hypocrisy of religion, and death. In one of the songs, Satan is singing, laughing at humanity. He berates God for, “The invention of an animal who knows he’s gonna die…”

I have been giving a lot of thought to this lately. As many of you have heard me say, the three greatest days of liturgy in the Church are the Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, with the capstone of Easter Vigil Saturday night. On Maundy Thursday we revel in the intimacy and sacrifice for love sake that Jesus was to do. On Good Friday, we hold our breath in the horror of what happened to Love Incarnate. Most of us then jump to Easter Vigil, if you come to any of these special services. Not everyone does. But tucked away, often ignored by most, is the quiet and barely attended rite of Holy Saturday. It is often me and the Altar Guild who are setting up for Sunday and a handful more.

In the Book of Common Prayer, it sits on pages 283. That is all. A single page. A collect with 6 readings, 2 of those optional, and then a closing prayer. It speaks to the isolation, the fear of the unknown, the potential death waiting outside our door.

The Collect speaks to the historical events, while conveying the emotions that are all to applicable to our times:

O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the
coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

We are in this In-Between Time. Death is lurking at our door. For the Disciples it was the authorities, religious and Roman. If they could murder Jesus, they could murder them. For us, we may have the virus and not even realize it. We isolate. We quarantine. We Physically Distance. We await the coming of a resurrection. But will that resurrection from our self-entombment be for us?

Instead of a season of self-quarantine, I see the season that we have moved into as the Season of Holy Saturday.

Just as most of us skip this rite of Holy Saturday, USAmerican culture does not deal with sorrow, grief, or fear well. We ignore it. If we do not recognize it, like some fantasy-filled child in their imaginings, it is not there. Like a child, we cover our eyes. Holy Saturday demands us to see and know that death has come, and it could come for us, we just do not know. And that unknowing is the rub. The reason that Governor Cuomo of New York said in a press conference on March 22 this: “The goal for me: be socially distanced, but spiritually connected. How do you achieve [being] socially distanced, but spiritually connected?”[Source] That is where the Church’s call is today, and giving this season a name is a way to begin the response.

We do have a name if we choose to use it, and a liturgy that reminds us that resurrection is coming. But it is not just a day or a single liturgy; we find ourselves in an unintended Season of Holy Saturday. And for many of us recognizing and dealing with these fears and the associated feelings is something entirely new.

While Jesus gave Lazurus four days, we have been given weeks if not months, planted between horror and the unknown. Like the dry bones in Ezekiel, resurrection did come, eventually. I live in the hope of that, but for this season I sit in the reality of my mortality. Each day is precious. My family is dear. Our church family is dear. We stay apart in love of those we hold most dear.

In the Holy Saturday liturgy, we are instructed to pray the spoken anthem from our Burial rites. As the Holy Saturday liturgy directs, I close with it here as well.

In the midst of life we are in death;
from whom can we seek help?
From you alone, O Lord,
who by our sins are justly angered.
Holy God, Holy and Mighty,
Holy and merciful Savior,
deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death.
Lord, you know the secrets of our hearts;
shut not your ears to our prayers,
but spare us, O Lord.
Holy God, Holy and Mighty,
Holy and merciful Savior,
deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death.
O worthy and eternal Judge,
do not let the pains of death
turn us away from you at our last hour.
Holy God, Holy and Mighty,
Holy and merciful Savior,
deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death.

During this imposed season, a Season of a prolonged Holy Saturday, may we look to the one who is with us always, even in pandemic. Amen

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Blessings, Rock