Sermon 3/26/23: Living Life on God’s Schedule

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5 Lent

Psalm 130; Ezekiel 37:1–14; Romans 8:6–11; John 11:1–15

Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. John 11:21

As I have often reminded us, the lectionary which we hear at Eucharist is repeated on a three-year cycle, and we moved in Advent 2022 into the “A” cycle.  In so doing, we cover the major and minor prophets, the psalms, and other readings in the Old Testament.  Likewise, we journey through the New Testament, with both compilations making what I call our Book of Records or, in common language, the Bible.  While reading again last week the lesson from the prophet Ezekiel, just so beautifully read, the image of my former graduate school philology professor flashed onto my mind’s screen.

On the first day of classes (at the University of Frankfurt, then West Germany) now decades ago, because the professor (Regenstein) had published several well-received books on philology, I was expecting a profound, a brilliant introduction to our seminar on the study of development of languages.  My disappointment was correspondingly great, because what he said was “oral history is the foundation on which all history is based and that is what makes the study of the development of languages so important.”

Storytelling?  For storytelling, I could enroll in literature classes! I wanted to learn how languages had evolved from a common stem and continued their advancement into the various tongues now spoken and now so different, that we need to employ translators or interpreters, if we are to communicate across national and language barriers. Yet, if we but allow ourselves to be human, we are confronted with the fact that our first encounter with language acquisition is oral.  Yes, I learned how “d” became “th,” as Bruder became “brother,” or “pf” became “p” as “Pfund” became “pound.”  That was just the beginning.  But how correct Regenstein was!

I remembered that simple observation, as I read this week past the accounts of Ezekiel’s prophecy and John’s recollection of the recording of the relationship between Jesus, Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus.  How we humans connect to and with each other and thereby give rise to a resurrection of generations past, was reinforced for me in an experience not as ancient as Ezekiel or the Gospel according to John.  At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, while taking appropriate precautions, I visited a parishioner.  My visit was just a routine pastoral call.  It was not one to discuss pledges.  It was to share: I with her the Holy Sacrament, and she with me whatever she chose.   

She chose to show me photographs and share with me stories about the people in those pictures. During that visit, I gained a glimpse into the bigger historical picture of our parish family, as well as of our immediate neighborhood.  In telling me the names and tales of long deceased childhood friends, relatives and acquaintances, individuals whom I would never meet in this lifetime, she revealed concerns, successes, and losses about herself, which I, because of social etiquette and my own ignorance, would never have formulated into questions.  She connected the dry bones of Ezekiel.

When we read biographies or share oral family histories, we, you and I, learn not only about others, but also about ourselves.  In discovering the strengths, weaknesses, successes, failures, foibles, high achievements of others, we discover more about our own lives.  It is inevitable that we fantasize about the figures in the biography, just as we imagine how our lives might have been.  That recognition is the beginning of discovery, or often a rediscovery, of who we are.  That moment is a resurrection.

So it is also in the stories of the Bible, our Book of Records.  We recognize ourselves in Biblical stories: the Prodigal son (or daughter), the Good Samaritan, Virgin Mary’s discreet husband Joseph, the beleaguered Job, devoted Sarah, wife of Abraham, Judas Iscariot, when we betray the trust of a friend.  We are there in those stories, even if we do not give voice to our recognition.  And we are there in the Lazarus Story, as well.

John is a biographer whose subject is Jesus of Nazareth.  And like any good biographer, John weaves into the main narrative a side story which is critical in piquing our interest, but which, in so doing, tells us also more about his primary subject.  The secondary biography, the Lazarus Story, does more than provide the illusion of the passing of time, which in this instance is clearly stated, as is often evident in literature. 

John’s biography of Jesus is subtle on what is, in this instance, important, namely we learn that we live life on God’s schedule.  Moreover, it is evident that Jesus is always in complete control.  There is no uncertainty of voice; no weakness; no indecisiveness in actions.  He listens to, but very coolly rejects the temptations placed before him by the devil.  He listens to, but always outmaneuvers his critics and adversaries, including those Judeans who would stone him.  Jesus is absolutely clear from whom he has come and why he is here.  A two- or three-day delay is essential to the biography.

In the story of Lazarus, we are rightfully reminded how interwoven our lives are with each other.  Mary and Martha were supported by members of their immediate circle of family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances.  They became the sinew that put muscles on emotional and fragile bones, thus allowing them to proceed on their daily journey and to accomplish those tasks that are placed before them.  Mary, Martha, and their companions make real for us the vision which Ezekiel experienced.  We, thereby, are reminded at the same time of our own dependence on the God of Creation.

It is because of that familiarity and interdependence between Jesus and Mary and Martha that, on this Fifth Sunday in Lent, we hear and participate in their grief.  They are real individuals to us, because we are them.  There was an unspoken and unwritten expectation of support.  That is what community and the Church are all about.  We care not only for our individual selves, but for the other. 

The early church clearly recognized itself in this biography within a biography.  Living with loss was their daily state of affairs.  Jesus, in whom they had banked their hope, was not physically there.  Like Mary and Martha, they petitioned: “Jesus, if you come soon, we will be restored to wholesomeness.”  Separated now from each other, you and I, millennia removed from Mary and Martha and from the early church, share in their loss, their despair, and their grief.  Yet, we find in that historical mirror more than grief; we find hope reflected there.

Jesus asked them then, and asks now us the question: “do you believe in the resurrection?”  Sure, on the last day, responds the sister.  Jesus corrects her.  No, not the last day—now!  ‘I am resurrection and life,’ says Jesus, not future tense—now!  Jesus redefined hope.  He redefined what it is to live a resurrected life.  Not ‘in the sweet by and by’—as sweet and enticing as the lyrics from that song may be.  But in the here and now.  Where there is Christ, there is resurrection power.  The power of the resurrection is discerned in and displayed by those in our national and global communities who put themselves at risk, in order to minister to those who are ill, both in mind and body.

The story of Lazarus reminds us that reality transcends the visible moment.  Just because the present seemed for Mary and Martha empty, it did not mean that the future is hollow.  And so it is then, that our story, yours and mine, gets attached to that ancient biography.  And our stories, though sometimes overwhelming or seemingly of no significance, have been redeemed from the edge.  The bottom line is triumph—Christ’s triumph.  Through God’s grace, we recognize our names in the story, although perhaps not according to our timeline.  And so it is that we shall emerge a stronger and more loving community.  And that for me is the resurrection of our time.  Amen