Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
March 09, 2008
Fifth Sunday in Lent
John 11:1-6, 17, 20-28, 32-45
Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
We know that faith in the resurrection of the dead is at the heart of Christian faith, and yet stories like these from the Bible are astonishing: Lazarus staggers blinking into the light of day, gasping for breath. The prophet Ezekiel looks out over the valley of dry bones and shouts to the four winds, and a vast multitude of skeletons rise as one body to stand up again. For God’s faithful people, passing through the valley of the shadow of death is always only a brief passage on the way to the banquet table of new life.
I’m sure many of us can quote from memory John 11:25, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live....” This has been a favorite verse for generations of Christians – many have felt its comfort at funerals. But in this age of horror movies – full of mummies, skeletons, and zombies – Ezekiel’s bone-strewn battlefield or the dead and rotting Lazarus may just as easily give us nightmares. The raising of Lazarus is one Bible story I’d prefer NOT to see re-enacted. Are you sure you want to roll the stone away from that dark tomb, Jesus? I think Martha, the sister of Jesus’s dead friend, has the right idea – don’t do it! “Lord,” she says, “already there is a stench because [Lazarus] has been dead four days.” It’s easy for us to be overcome by the stench of death. We’d prefer to shut the realities of death out of our lives – to avoid looking at it. You have to be careful, these days, if you decide to eat something in front of TV – between the bloody violence of action movies, or the news, and lions disemboweling zebras on Animal Planet, sometimes I have to switch channels several times before I can settle my stomach!
And yet, during this season of Lent, especially as we approach the sad events of Holy Week and the crucifixion of Jesus, it is appropriate to look again at death. Because some people aren’t lucky enough to get that choice – death is all around them. Ezekiel’s people, almost 600 years before Jesus, were carried off to Babylon in chains. They were led into slavery – leaving behind on their battlefields many of their country’s finest, strongest, and bravest soldiers, their bodies lying unburied in the hot sun. Later these were the dry bones the prophet Ezekiel saw returning to life in the vision he shared with his people in exile. This prophesy probably gave hope to Christian converts of the Cherokee nation, who survived their death walk on the “Trail of Tears” to return to Appalachia. This prophesy probably gave comfort to those who looked over the fields of Gettysburg and listened to President Lincoln and tried to believe that our country might one day be united again. This prophesy probably gave comfort to the families of the 6 million Jews who did not survive the Holocaust, who had to see their people bulldozed into mass graves on the newsreels. The Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem offers these words of hope from Ezekiel 37, verse14, “I will put my spirit within you [says the Lord], and you shall live....” Maybe Ezekiel 37 can give hope to our soldiers and the people of Iraq (like our refugee family, the Abtans), as they pray for the restoration of peace there.
I hope it gives us all hope, because sometimes you can’t change channels on your own life. Like Ezekiel, sometimes we find the hand of the Lord is a terrible thing that sets us down in a bleak valley where death is all we have to look at, for as far as the eye can see. Horror and fear make it hard to breathe, much less pray. Sometimes when death stares us in the face, all that people can do is cry aloud into the wind, like Ezekiel, and call for the breath of God to breathe for us. We may have to pray for the eyes of blind faith to see for us. Sometimes that’s where my job as a preacher, and as a pastor, begins.
One Monday in August 2006, I got out of our weekly church staff meeting and the secretary handed me the phone. She said, “It’s the mother of a bride.” So I picked up the phone, and asked the usual question, “What date were you looking at?” I was turning my calendar to the next summer. “Tonight,” she said. “Tonight at 7.” “Tonight?” I asked. “Well,” she struggled for words. “It’s kind of an emergency.” She told me her only daughter Emilie had been planning to get married sometime in the next year, but she had just found out the previous Thursday that she had cancer. It was such a horrible, rapidly spreading kind – no one had so far survived it. And yet, the doctors still held out some hope, since Emilie was only 23. They were doing a full hysterectomy in just 3 days, and then they were going to start a very aggressive chemotherapy. She was a hairdresser, and as you could imagine, she wanted to get married in a hurry, while she still had hair.
She had called her parents and brother in Vermont to fly to California. She bought a wedding dress on Friday and got her friends to help cook food and set up her house for a party. Her fiancé was renting a cottage on an Orinda hillside, as a live-in caretaker for a large property. The wedding was on the terrace by the pool, as the sun was setting over the valley to the west. So less than 5 hours after that phone call, I stood there staring into the faces of dozens of Emilie’s closest family and friends. They looked pale, even with sunset on their faces, and unsteady, stricken with grief. Their eyes were pleading with me to give them a word of hope. They were dry bones who wanted desperately to live.
It was hard to breathe. The words to begin the wedding were blurry on the page before me, and besides, they sounded trite to me. “Dearly beloved…” It just wasn’t enough. The only prayer I could imagine speaking at that point was an angry one. Like Martha and Mary, I wanted to shout, “Lord, where were you? If you had been here, this would not have happened.” But like Ezekiel, I knew I had to prophesy. I had to shout into the wind and offer some small word of hope. But I didn’t know what to say. “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me” was all that went through my head in that silence.
And that’s when I saw the risen Christ in the eyes of Erik for his bride, and in Emilie’s face set on her groom. They were clinging to each other – God had given them to each other, and already they were one flesh. I almost laughed out loud, as I heard in my heart those Easter words from 1st Corinthians 15, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” I was looking into the rubble of ruined lives – what any sane person living in this world would call a disaster, and I was called to proclaim the Good News. Love is always stronger than death. I prayed that through the eyes of faith, through the power of the Holy Spirit, they could see the dawn of resurrection that I could see in the golden sunset shining in their faces.
I have no idea of what I actually said in the homily, because I’d had no time to write anything down. What I do know is that I saw the guests at that wedding come back to life before my eyes. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised – because resurrection always comes to us like that, as a surprise. They listened to the Good News of God’s love. They prayed with strong voices, like people who hadn’t been to church for a long time. They gave thanks for the glory of our brief days on earth, and they cried. We all cried. But at the end of the service, when the pastor usually does the blessing for the bride and groom, I invited them up and we all gathered around Emilie and Erik to lay hands on them. We prayed together for her healing, and for God to bless and prosper their new life. And somehow, at the end of all that, those skeletons got ready to sing, and to dance. They were ready to laugh, because they had seen the truth, as I had. They had witnessed the power of God to restore life. Emilie and Erik’s love was stronger than death.
The last time I saw Emilie, I went to her house for a haircut before I moved here to Connecticut. She didn’t want you all to have to see my split ends, and I wanted to donate a foot of my braid to “Locks of Love” in her name. We’ve had her on our church prayer list for a year, which meant a lot to her mom Kathy especially – she’s a member of the United Church of Christ in Vermont where Emilie was confirmed. Kathy and I kept in touch by e-mail over the last 18 months. I heard about the chemotherapy, the alternative treatments in Europe, several major surgeries, and finally, just last month, I heard Erik was taking Emilie out the rainy and cold Bay Area. He was taking her down to Southern California, because it was time to enter hospice care, and she wanted to die there, in the sunshine – like on the summer day they got married.
After the Personnel Committee meeting Thursday night, I got the e-mail that she had died, exactly 19 months after her wedding day. And her mother wanted you all to know how much your prayers were appreciated, because it connected that family to the spirit of God that is so much bigger than a single family or a single family’s church. She also wanted us to know that even though the cancer wasn’t cured, her mother’s prayers had been answered, and through her illness, Emilie and Erik both found their faith again. They found fullness of life, like most of us never know, because each day they were given to be together was so precious. They knew beyond a doubt that a Power far greater than they could imagine was holding them up when they were too weak to stand.
You know, a day comes for all of us when we face a “valley of dry bones” spreading out before our lives. A day comes when we have to stare at the stone door of a tomb where someone we love lies in the darkness. The voice of God, the very breath of God, is there with us, calling us to new life. The voice of God, the very breath of God, is ready to blow into us and help us to stand up again. The voice of God, the very breath of God, is even now restoring us to life.
Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.
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