Sermon: ‘I am going to bring you up from your graves’
Lent 5A: Sunday 29 March 2020
Rev. Daniel Mossfield
(Crookwell Uniting Church)
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.” (Ezekiel 37.11, NRSV).
We are cut off completely…
A people without hope. Living in despair and fear. Stolen away from their ordinary lives by the rudest of interruptions. Desperately aware of the realities of violence and their own mortality. Dragged away from their source of life: the very house of worship where they first learned about God and expected to encounter the real presence of God among them.
Now stuck. Uncertain if God has abandoned them. Unsure about how to worship God in this strange and foreign place. Afraid that perhaps God was never really there at all.
It is to this people, the exiles in Babylon, that God sent the prophet Ezekiel both with words of challenge and a message of hope.
But I suspect that this week God could just as easily have sent the prophet to us in our fear and despair:
As we lament at the loss of a life we have so often taken for granted. As we watch the nightly news, or hit refresh on our Facebook feed, consuming the fear of what is happening in the world, like a drug to which we are hooked. As we roll our eyes, and grumble at empty supermarket shelves, and greedy, hoarders, before jumping on the bandwagon and making sure that my family, at least, will have enough for the next fortnight.
Right now, as a society, perhaps for the first time in the living memory of most of us, we finally get it. We finally get what it looks like to be completely overwhelmed, not just as individuals, but as a whole community.
Perhaps now, more than ever, we get what it must have felt like for Israel in the exile. To feel a despair that says we are without value and without hope.
Perhaps now, we can understand how God’s people, though they still lived, were already dead: a valley of dry bones.
For not all deaths are physical. And not all graves require concrete headstones.
And so often, in the fear and rush to preserve our physical lives, we lose ourselves. We lose our spirits. We become isolated from one another, not only physically, but emotionally. And we allow our love, our generosity, our compassion and our community to suffer instead.
And at the end, we are left, looking at a valley of dry bones we hardly recognize, asking ‘can these bones still live? Love? Suffer with another? Act generously? Not be afraid?’
This week, as I have wrestled with how to respond to the current crisis, and been rushing around figuring out how we be the Church in such a time as this, I have found an anxiety rising up in my chest at just how unprecedented this all seems.
It is an anxiety I know well. It is the anxiety or fear that somehow, I have to solve this whole dilemma all by myself.
I wonder if you have felt the same.
Sometimes, however, it is helpful to recall that while this experience may be new for us, it is hardly unprecedented in history. The Church around the world has been here before. The Church in history has been here before. And, without doubt, our God has been here before.
And, it was helpful for me, this week, to encounter an essay written by the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther during the 16th Century, when his city of Wittenberg was hit by the bubonic plague, and the church had to figure out how to respond.
And Luther, it seems, witnessed many of the same things we are now: some people motivated by selfishness and self-preservation, abandoning their neighbours; others driven to paralysis by fear and despair; and others still moved by a bravado that God would protect them no matter what they did, so they would just do whatever they wanted, damn the consequences.
Luther, however, responded that in such crises as these, the way of faith is one grounded in the command to love our neighbour through whom God comes to us.
In his own words, he said, and I quote:
‘Now if a deadly epidemic strikes, we should stay where we are, make our preparations, and take courage in the fact that we are mutually bound together […] so that we cannot desert one another or flee from one another.’
‘I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others […] If my neighbour needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person, but will go freely.’
‘[A]ll of us have the responsibility of warding off this poison to the best of our ability because God has commanded us to care for the body, to protect and to nurse it so that we are not exposed needlessly. In an emergency, however, we must be bold enough to risk our health if that is necessary. Thus, we should be ready for both – to live and to die according to God’s will.’ [End Quote].
Of course, this is easier said than done. And, it is hardly good news.
For, when we feel ourselves trapped in a state of despair, the obligation to suffer with our neighbour can simply feel like one ask too many. It can feel like something I simply don’t have the capacity or energy or love for.
It can make me want to cry out in frustration, ‘please God. Just leave me here to hide. Don’t ask any more of me. I don’t think I have anything left to give.’
It can feel just as hopeless as staring at a valley of dry bones.
But, therein lies the good news of this passage. Indeed, therein lies the good news of the whole of Scripture.
Because it turns out that hopelessness and despair and fear and death are exactly the places that God seems to show up.
That it is in the midst of our greed, our brokenness, our isolation and our separation from one another, that God arrives breathing the Spirit of new life into our lungs like that first gasp of fresh air after holding your breath under water.
It is to empty tombs, and murderous crosses, and exiled nations, and destroyed temples, that the living God arrives to minister to God’s broken people.
And it is to our graves, both physical and symbolic, that God calls out the gospel promise: ‘I will bring you up from your grave, O my people […] I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.’
‘I will bring you up from your grave, O my people […] I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.’
Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran Pastor from the US who I am fond of quoting, puts it this way:
‘God simply keeps reaching down into the dirt of humanity and resurrecting us from the graves we dig for ourselves through our violence, our lies, our selfishness, our arrogance, and our addictions. And God keeps loving us back to life over and over.’
‘The Christian faith, while wildly misrepresented in so much of American culture, is really about death and resurrection. It’s about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small.’
In the midst of the present crisis and pandemic gripping our world, perhaps it is foolish to have hope.
The thought has occurred to me more than once this week. I realize, even as I say it now, just how foolish it sounds.
And, perhaps it is foolish to proclaim life at a time when so many have died, and many more will.
Yet, I cannot rid myself of this niggling sense that if it is in such times of brokenness and despair that God comes, that God loves, that God breathes new life into the dust of our aching bodies and souls – then why should now be any different?
Indeed, perhaps, our hope is even as foolish as promising restoration to a people violently ripped into exile.
Even as foolish as prophesying to a valley of dried-up bones.
Even as foolish as encountering resurrection in the shadow of crucifixion.
Thank God that our God should be so foolish. Amen.
 Martin Luther, ‘Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague,’ in Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 43 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), pp. 119-38.
 Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint (FaithWords. 2013), Kindle Edition, p. 174.
 Ibid, pp. vii-xviii