A Sermon Preached
The Fifth Sunday of Lent April 6, 2014
St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church – Wilmette, Illinois
You all know Call and Response, right? I’d like to ask you to practice it with me now. Please open up your bulletins to the Offertory Anthem, which comes just after the Peace. As you remain seated, the choir is going to sing the refrain of “Dry Bones,” and then we will sing it back…
…So the thing that makes that work is that we sing back, right? It’s only Call and Response if we sing it back.
Couldn’t the God who created something out of nothing…couldn’t that God have raised those bones without the help of a reluctant prophet? And couldn’t the same Savior who would soon die on a cross and after three days be raised, couldn’t that Savior have unhitched the shroud from his friend Lazarus’ face?
Too often I think we forget that today’s passage in the book of the prophet Ezekiel is not the whole of the book of that prophet. We miss the violence of that book, the history of what exile meant to the people. And instead, since today’s passage is the primary thing we read from it, we reduce it to this otherworldly and strange story.
If that is all we see, what do we miss? We miss the fact that Ezekiel and the People Israel had to leave the holy city of Jerusalem, the Temple that they believed to be the place where God lived on earth. We miss the fact that their departure from the land also meant the departure from their identity. We miss the fact that Ezekiel and his Hebrew companions didn’t have to be locked up in prisons or refugee camps to be controlled by their captors, because the exile was enough. It was enough to deaden their eyes and their hearts. It was enough to deaden their hope, as they chose not to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.”
We come to this singular passage in its strangeness, which seems so far away, so unreal. Or perhaps not so far away.
The theologian David Garber says, “The miracle of this vision does not simply lie in its theatricality. The true miracle is that it occurs after the community has faced such devastating loss.” I would assert that the second part of the miracle is this: “So I prophesied,” Ezekiel says. Those bones rattle and come together with sinew and flesh and skin, after Ezekiel – that prophet who has been driven from his home and lost his wife and seen his holy temple destroyed – that same prophet still finds a way to preach to a valley filled with death. The miracle happens, not with a divine flick of the divine hand, but with a holy Call: “Mortal, shall these bones live? Prophesy. Prophesy to these bones.” – and then a human Response: “So I prophesied.”
By the time Jesus gets to Bethany and the home of Mary and Martha, Lazarus has been dead in the tomb for four days. The sisters had sent word to Jesus that his friend was sick, and Jesus didn’t come in time. Mary and Martha know that Lazarus’ death is real, and they mourn with the people who did gather at their home in time. The disciples are terrified about this return to Judea, wondering if it will mean their death, along with Lazarus, along with Jesus. Martha accuses. Mary accuses. The people criticize him for his delay. Jesus weeps.
Could Jesus have rolled that stone away by himself? Could he have gone into the tomb and brought Lazarus out? He does neither of those things. Instead, he asks people for help. He prays to God the Father. And then he calls Lazarus out of his death.
The people could have declined to respond to his call for help. Lazarus could have stayed comfortably asleep.
But he doesn’t. The final part of this miracle is that Lazarus comes out, but his face is still covered with a cloth, his hands and his feet are still tied with strips of linen. The marks of death still cling to him. The miracle is incomplete. But Jesus does not finish it himself. Instead, he calls for the response of the people – that hurting and heartbroken group of people. “Unbind him,” Jesus says. “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Dwight Hopkins teaches liberation theology at the University of Chicago. In his book Down, Up, and Over, he talks about God’s invitation to us as co-creators, about continuing as participants in the sacred work that God has begun. It’s like singing back in Call and Response in the tradition of African-American spirituals, but with this exchange stretching between heaven and earth – between God and humanity.
We know something of these texts. We know something of a valley filled with dry bones, because we’ve seen it. We see that valley with a returned soldier who loses himself in Fort Hood. We see it as a plane disappears in the Indian Ocean. We read about it as a woman is shot on Pulaski Road in Humbolt Park. We know something of being far from home, far from who we are. We know something of the otherworldly fear of this story as it plays itself out in the valleys of our own lives. We know something of those bones; because they’re our mothers’ bones, our fathers’ bones. They’re yours. They’re mine.
And we know something of sending out a plea for help and having help not come quite in time. We know something of the tension, the accusation in our voice: “If you had been here…” because it’s our brother behind that stone, there in the tomb. It’s our beloved. And he has been there four days.
But the God who created something from nothing does not preach to the bones. God calls us to do that. And the Christ who will die and be raised does not lift the shroud from his friend’s face. Christ calls us to do that.
In a heaven-meets earth version of Call and Response, God invites us to answer the question: “Mortal, shall these bones live?” Says to us: “Prophesy. Prophesy to these bones.” Christ invites us to “Unbind him and let him go.”
God welcomes us to respond as co-creators, even in our own pain and anger and accusation and fear, even in our own times of displacement and loss. God welcomes us to complete the miracles already begun.
It’s only Call and Response if we sing back.