Lent 5A (April 2, 2017)

God is about more than explaining the inexplicable. A God who merely explains the inexplicable gets referred to mockingly as a “god of the gaps.” This god fills in the gaps in our knowledge. When we fill in the gaps, we no longer need the god. People have been struggling for ages to talk about a God who is more than just a handy explanation for the mysterious. The struggle pre-dates the scientific revolution. It is at least as old as Jesus’ career. It plays out in the sign he performs in today’s gospel. It’s the last sign of Jesus’ conventional career, the last of the seven signs in the first half of John, what some John scholars call The Book of Signs. Jesus started out with turning water into wine, revealing his glory and bringing his disciples to believe. We’re told that in raising Lazarus Jesus’ glory was revealed to Martha, who had believed. The story was plenty long. If we read on we find that many hear about it and instead of having faith in God and Jesus, they decide to kill Jesus. The signs Jesus performs sometimes lead to faith, sometimes don’t. Such is life. It’s like the poll published in the New York Times on March 21. Sixty-nine percent of Americans believe climate change is real, and is human-made, and will affect America in their lifetimes. Only about twenty percent believe it will affect them personally. It’s real, but not real for me. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Some people believe in God, others who already hated Jesus decide it’s time to get rid of him.

It’s been that way with all of the signs. They lead some to faith; they don’t do it for everyone. You’d think raising the dead would do it. Nope. And there’s no question of whether Jesus did this. The question is purely one of faith. Even the idea that the dead would rise is mentioned almost offhand. Jesus reminds Martha of it, and she affirms her trust in it, like we know it and know it should comfort us. The question, rather, is if we will live trusting that in Jesus the resurrection is already present. Do we trust Jesus is God, and therefore live out a life of radical hospitality—welcoming each person specifically for who they are—and helping those before us, whatever their needs? That’s the question. It is a monumental task Jesus sets before us. Faith isn’t easy; it’s letting go of life and death as we know them. Most of us are okay with letting go of death as we know it, but that is because the natural tendency is to assume that once death is eliminated the afterlife will look like things we know, but only better, like there’ll be hockey but no shootout. If you can’t win the game in sixty minutes plus overtime you don’t deserve to win. God knows that. Everyone knows that. That’s gonna get fixed. No. Jesus calls us to a life not necessarily bound by the past. We aren’t automatically sure we like the sound of that.

The uncertainty is what makes the scene in Ezekiel 37 so enduring, for me. The image of a “valley of bones” is creepy enough, but Ezekiel notably offers no detail about the task of the newly resurrected. They face a “what next?” That’s kind of a theme in Ezekiel: It’s you, God, and your neighbor. What next? Ezekiel lives through the fall of Jerusalem—he is in the first batch of exiles, living in what is now southern Iraq when Jerusalem is destroyed. Ezekiel’s tradition expresses God’s methods in Exodus 20: “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the sins of their parents even to the third and fourth generation, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” We bear the sins of those who went before us. This concept is strong in the Hebrew tradition. The two parallel histories of Kings and Chronicles explain the fall of Jerusalem in these terms. 2 Kings 23 says that despite Josiah’s reforms, God is just too angry at his predecessor, Manasseh. 2 Chronicles 34 says that the prophet Huldah prophesied that God’s wrath at previous generations was kindled, and there was no stopping it.

Around the same time, Ezekiel, living in Iraq, receives the Word of the Lord, saying, “Why would I do that? No, each of you is responsible for right now.” This does a couple of things. You are no longer to see bad things as being the inevitable price of your father’s sins, so you’re not trapped by your past and you can’t just blame stuff on your dad. There’s an ecological crisis? “Our forebears shouldn’t have burned all that coal and dumped all that waste.” I’m not talking to them. I’m talking to you. What will you do? Systemic racism runs through our whole society? “Hey! I’m not racist. I never owned a slave.” I didn’t say you were or that you did. I am asking you what you’re going to do about it right now. People don’t know Church as welcoming? “Hey, we don’t judge people like my parents did.” I’m not talking to them; I’m talking to you. [About a hundred years ago the Jewish philosopher Herman Cohen argued that this revelation to Ezekiel was the turning point in Judaism.] A person is henceforth responsible to God for all actions regarding their situation. It’s you, God, and the world: what next? There’s no buffer of society or preceding generations. God is right there, going, “What next? What next, Tim? What next?”

The Valley of Bones scene embodies that “what next?” God plops Ezekiel in the middle of the valley. Son of Man, can these bones live? That’s no pressure. Ezekiel responds, “I’m gonna guess you know where you’re going with this.” God says, Tell the bones that God is bringing them back to life. I didn’t put these dead people here, you know. I didn’t say you did. I am talking about now. So, he prophesies. “Uh, they’re not breathing, God.” Tell the Breath to go into them. “The Breath? The Spirit? That’s God. That’s you! You want me to tell you to do it?” Prophesy to the Breath, Zeke! “Geez, okay.” And they live. Creepy enough. Then, the haunting part. God says: This is every Israelite, Zeke. The living ones, too. They say they are dead, dried out, cut off. Tell them they are no longer trapped by the past. Tell them life and death as they know them aren’t my last word. Tell them they are responsible to me and have holy work to do. Like what, we ask. God concludes, I will act. It will happen. Next. What does the future look like for this mass of resurrected people? I don’t know. We’re living into it every day.

Martha lives into it. When Jesus says, “I AM the resurrection and the life…Do you believe this?” he asks, “Do you trust me enough to let go of life and death as you know them, and to let your life be one of radical hospitality and serving the needs of your neighbors? Will you live into this every day?” That is what Martha affirms.

Jesus, for his part, knows that while he stays, the cycle of signs, which produce faith in some and resistance in others, will continue. Moreover, the attitude of the faithful will be stuck with the initial words of Martha and Mary: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In other words, if Jesus stays, we will just keep waiting for him to welcome and serve others. Why didn’t you welcome and serve them? “I don’t know I thought you were going to.” So, he does one last big “sign,” which takes up the second half of the gospel, the “Book of Glory.” As he told Nicodemus in John 3, “the Son of Man must be lifted up,” crucified for all to see, raised from the dead so that life and death as we know them are no more, and, ultimately, ascended into heaven, to the Father and the Spirit, the Breath. For Jesus, the Son of Man, will prophesy to the Breath, and say as he had Ezekiel say, “Breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” Jesus perpetually sends the Breath of God to inspire us to live into the resurrection.

And thus we, too, are living into the resurrection. We are works in progress. Every day we try to live trusting God enough to welcome people specifically as who they are, and to serve them as they need. We cannot prove or disprove God: it’s not like we’ll succeed where Jesus’ signs failed because now we’ve got great arguments to prove God exists. A lot of the miracles Jesus performs are things we can do today with medicine or technology, so we can’t fall back on those as an airtight reason to believe. But those things only ever were at best amusing diversions compared to what remains. What remains is the challenge to live trusting that it is God, us, and our neighbors. What remains is the challenge to believe in the incarnation, that God is in our neighbors and we behold God’s glory when we welcome and serve them, letting go of life and death as we know them. What remains is What Next? For God declares, “You shall live, and you shall know that I am God.” And by the Breath of God we reply, “What next?”