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March 13, 2005 (Lent V)—“Hope in the Valley of Dry Bones”

Pastor David Barber

Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45

Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

It was suppose to be the biggest Easter Egg Hunt on the island of Oahu. At least that's what the postcard said. But I wouldn't know. I didn't go.

It was sponsored a week ago by King's Cathedral--a mega church that's trying to stake a claim out in the Niu Valley Shopping Center. I said to my dog, "Don't they know it's still three weeks before Easter and they're advertising the largest Easter Egg Hunt on the island of Oahu! What's the matter with them?" Well, the dog slinked off--not wanting to be a participant in any tirade like this.

But then again, maybe they read our Scripture readings for today--the stories about the dry bones and Lazarus coming out of his tomb. Maybe they said, "if the Lutherans can have these kind of resurrection stories two weeks before Easter, then we can have an Easter Egg Hunt--not just a simple hunt, mind you, but the largest one on the island."

Well, we may have our resurrection stories, but we still have to walk through a couple of cemeteries before we get to Easter. Maybe that's why we're given such stories in this Season of Lent. We get a glimpse of what lies ahead. Jesus does for his friend Lazarus what God will do for him.

It's his assurance, and it's our promise that there is an energy loose in the universe that is stronger than death. It is even more powerful than our fear of death. It's a power that calls us out of every stinking tomb that confronts us and all the big and little deaths that stare us in the face every day.

What we notice in both our readings from Ezekiel and the Gospel for today is the complete futility that both of these stories illustrate. We're not dealing here with some folks who have temporarily lost a pulse.

We're not talking about resuscitation so that folks can go on living in the same old way. We're talking about hope to hopeless people, which is a present reality for those who put their trust in God.

In Ezekiel, bodies have not just died, but in fact, they have decayed to the point where there's no flesh at all. There's no skin, no muscles, no tendons, or ligaments. Ezekiel is plopped down, right in the middle of a bone yard.

In our Gospel we're told that when Jesus heard that Lazarus was ill, he didn't go right away to Bethany. He stayed two days longer in the place where he was. He didn't arrive until Lazarus had been dead for four days. He missed the funeral altogether, and he was suppose to give the eulogy.

I always chuckle when I read these words because I picture doing something similar in my own ministry. For instance, imagine a 3:00 a.m. phone call to my house.

"Pastor Barber, this is Queen's Hospital. We've got an emergency here with one of your families. There's been a terrible car accident. Can you come up immediately to be with the family?"

And I respond, "Well, I have a few more hours to sleep. Then I have to shave and shower, eat my breakfast, and read the paper. Then I should be there pretty quickly unless the traffic is bad."

Wouldn't that be great pastoral care and something every supervising pastor should model for their interns? It might just be enough to call an emergency meeting of the church council to consider disciplinary action!

The four days that Jesus waited are significant. First, Martha is concerned that the body will stink because decay has already set in.

Second, in Jewish thought four days is significant, because up to the fourth day, there might be an opportunity for revival. Apparently, the spirit of the deceased hovered around the grave for four days before departing to its residence in Sheol.

What we have here in both of these situations is not just a CPR effort on the part of God. It's not just a matter of beating unfavorable odds. All life is gone, and from a human point of view, these situations are completely hopeless and irreversible.

It's into all these desperate, futile, and impossible situations that our Lord comes with the promise of new life. It's to all of these desolate and dried up areas where our lives begin to stink and where our hope is completely lost that our Lord breathes into us his dynamic and vital breath.

In his book, The Old Man and the Sea, Hemmingway tells the story of a man who struggles to catch a huge marlin. When he finally catches it, there're so many sharks in the water that by the time he lands it on shore, there's almost nothing left but the skeleton. It's been picked clean.

There are those times in our lives and in the life of the world when the sharks have picked the skeleton clean, and we're left with nothing. The sign of Lazarus doesn't tell us, "Hang in there and Jesus will fulfill your expectations."

But rather, to those who believe, Jesus will renew our faith and give life in the midst of death in all its many forms. God does not--God will not abandon us, and God promises to be with us through the most isolating and threatening experiences.

"At this very moment," says Jesus, "I'm rolling away that immovable stone in front of the cave that entombs you. I'm calling you out from the stench of death into the fullness and sweet mystery of life."

I'm calling you out by name. Come out! No matter what you have done or failed to do, come out from whatever entombs you and from whatever stench you carry within you.

Christ comes to you in the valley of the dry bones where the sharks have picked the skeleton clean. "Come out," says Jesus, "into the abundance of hope and new life. For I'm in the business of creating life where there is grief, creating love in the midst of loss, and hope where despair has overwhelmed you."

This struggle between hope and despair is depicted in a movie that was released a few years ago. Hurricane Carter is the story of Rueben Carter, a fantastic and gifted boxer. He was imprisoned for life in 1967 by an all-white jury for a triple murder he didn't commit, and he received three life terms.

When he was reconvicted in 1974 for the same crimes, Carter was so devastated that he told his wife to divorce him and move on with her life. "I'm dead," he said. "Forget about me."

While in prison, he wrote his autobiography The Sixteenth Round--also published in 1974. It became a best seller but then was quickly forgotten.

But he wasn't forgotten. Years later a Black teen from the getto finds a copy of Carter's book at a used book sale, and he buys it for a quarter. Moved by what he read and convinced of his innocence, the young man writes a letter to Rueben Carter. A relationship begins and a process is set in motion, which eventually leads to Carter's conviction being overturned.

What is significant is the name of this Black teenager. His name is Lesera, which means Lazarus. Carter tells him that hate had killed and buried him, forgotten in the prison walls, but Lesera's love had raised him and given him life once again.

Hope in Hebrew means to twist around like strands in a rope. Small incremental deeds of love and mercy all play a part in Carter's journey to freedom. These strands come together to provide a lifeline or a "rope of hope" that results in his release from prison in 1985.

As for Lazarus he comes out of the tomb still bound by the bandages of death. And what does Jesus say? "Unbind him and let him go!" The people are called to unbind their brother and turn him loose.

It could be said that God is in the business of calling us out, but we're in the business of removing the bindings of each other. Is there a ministry here of unbinding one another and letting people go?

"Unbind my people and let them go," says God. "Dismantle the chains of oppression. Remove the stinking constraints of affluence. Unwind the bandages of homelessness. Work to eliminate the bondage of war so that all my people may know the joy and freedom of resurrected life.

When we lived in Loveland, Colorado, there was a woman there by the name of Binh Rybacki. As an 18 year old college student, she became a refugee when she fled Saigon just hours before it fell to Communist troops from the north.

Now she's in the business of unbinding--letting children go--one child at a time. Through her own resources and the donations of others, many orphans that she adopted are receiving care. These children, the homeless ones are called the dust of life--as if you could just blow--poof--and they would all go away.

I mention this not simply because of her work with these needy children, but because her journey was made possible by the congregation I served before I arrived.

This congregation heard the call of the gospel, and by working with Lutheran Immigration Services, they involved themselves in the work of freeing folks from their oppression.

She was baptized in that congregation so you just never know what seeds are being planted and what fruit will be produced when the Spirit moves through a congregation and involves itself in the ministry of unbinding.

We do the work of unbinding--sometimes in monumental ways, but more often than not, in small ways. We do it one heifer at a time, one ark at a time, one quilt at a time, one pint of blood, or even one student at a time.

And we shouldn't be discouraged in these small opportunities for letting people go. The Jewish Talmud reminds us, "He who saves the life of one person, it is as if he has saved the life of the whole world."

I think of all those places where you will journey this week and all the lives you will touch. Has not God given you the ministry of unbinding--children, students, customers, employees, neighbors?

Has not God given you the ministry of releasing them from the stench of death so that they, too, might walk in the joy and freedom of new life in the face of their hopelessness and despair?

We gather this morning to hear the Good News, "I am the resurrection and the life" in every place of hopelessness and death.

Do you believe this? If so, may God grant you the power to become the Good News for others - giving them a lifeline of hope as well.


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