Thank God it’s never too late!

(Sorry I’ve been late in updating this blog… but, stay with this title says it all)

A Sermon from the 5th Sunday in Lent

“Jesus said to [Martha], “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” –John 11:23-26

Children’s Time: Psalm 56:8 – “You have kept count of my sorrows; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” In our lesson today, Jesus cries when he is told his friend has died. Crying is what we do when we’re sad, hurt – or even happy! In the Bible, King David asked God to put all his tears in a bottle. He believed God kept track of every one of them. We can be thankful that God knows our sorrows and that we’re never alone when we’re sad. That is the time God chooses to work. When it seems too late and all is lost God has something else to share – new life!

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

“It’s too late. It’s all over. You just missed it, Jesus.” That’s what they said. “He’s dead.”
This is when God does what God does best. When all else fails – and the tears begin to fall – and all that’s left is a pile of bones at our feet – God rolls up God’s sleeves and gets to work at bringing new life.

Lazarus is raised from the dead! And, notice once again, that it’s never just about the miracle… Remember Jesus’ talk with the blind man? Yes, there’s a miracle, but it’s about “seeing” more than simply “receiving your sight.” The same is true here. The raising of Lazarus is about more than Jesus raising him from the dead – it’s about living the life we have in Christ, while we have life and breath within us!

There’s no easy path that leads to life. Anyone who has struggled through hardship can attest to that. Going to the town of Bethany was dangerous for Jesus. It lies a couple miles from Jerusalem where they had just tried to stone him to death. So, he’s taking a risk in going. I want to invite you to come along on this journey – to not skip over the Passion of Christ and Good Friday on your way to Easter.

Today is Cancer Awareness Sunday: We’ve been having this special emphasis Sunday for a few years, now, not only to support our youth who raise money for the Relay for Life benefit to fund cancer research – but also to stand with those who suffer from the effects of cancer, and to pray for healing in body, mind and spirit.

Many of you have heard me speak of my own experience with this disease. Both of my parents died from cancer, just a few years apart, both in their 60’s. My pastor who confirmed me died of cancer. I’ve had youth in our church die from cancer and I have many friends who are survivors of this vicious, relentless disease that overwhelms the body’s ability to function normally.

And so, we often pray for healing of body, mind and spirit. We pray for strength sufficient for each day. We walk boldly into the darkness trusting in the light of Christ. My mother once said: “I may have cancer, but cancer doesn’t have me.” There are victories of life that cannot be measured by blood counts and MRIs.

And even if you have not been affected by cancer, we all have a story to tell – something in your life that has brought sadness, anger, loss and grief. Today’s first lesson (which we’ll get to in a moment, from Ezekiel 37) recounts his vision of a valley of dry bones – the bones of his people living and dying in exile – without a home. The Lord asks him: “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel replies in his grief: “Lord, you know.”

I wrote a song about this that I’d like to share after the sermon – that has helped me put to music the vision of Ezekiel. 2nd:Then during the offering, (1st:A couple weeks ago), we’ll hear the song “Dem Bones” by the choir. It’s a Negro Spiritual born out of the pain and grief of a people who were taken from their land and made slaves here in America.

“The toe-bone’s connected to the… foot bone! The foot bone’s connected to the… ankle bone! The ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone – now hear the word of the Lord!”

So, what is your Dry Bones experience? Ezekiel’s Vision will mean something different to you, than it did to the African slaves who wrote it. Allen Dwight Callahan (chaplain at Brown University, Providence, RI) submits this testimony of an ex-slave from Kentucky, who explains how he and his companions would extemporaneously compose Negro Spirituals:

“Us old heads used to make them on the spurn of the moment, after we wrestle with the Spirit and come through. But the tunes was brung from Africa by our granddaddies. They was just militar[y] song… they calls them spirituals, because the Holy Spirit done revealed them to them. Some say Mas [ter] Jesus taught them and I seed them start in meeting. We’d all be at the prayer house the Lord’s Day, and the white preacher he’d explain the word and read where Ezekiel done say—Dry bones going to live again. And honey, the Lord would come a-shining through them pages and revive the old nigger’s heart, and I’d jump up there and then and holler and shout and sing and pat, and they would all catch the words … and they’s all take it up and keep at it, and keep a-adding to it and then it would be a spiritual.”

Did you catch that – how the spiritual was born out of “wrestling with the Spirit?” That’s the kind of work that only happens on Good Friday – or when you’re standing all alone in a valley of dem bones. You can’t wrestle with God when you avoid the hard questions about why things happen.

This came up at our first communion class, when we had children and parents learning about Jesus’ Last Supper. I was teaching about the Passover, the night God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt by killing the first born of all the Egyptians (the Jews were protected because they had put lamb’s blood over the doorposts of their homes). Most people have heard this story, but there is a question that lingers in the air if you’re paying attention. One of the parents picked up on it and asked: “How could God do that to those innocent children? Why not just go after Pharaoh and take him out? Those first-born kids didn’t do anything to deserve that!”

And there it was. The wrestling with the Spirit amid the death and the bones. Why do things happen the way they do? Why is this a part of our story?

I didn’t have a neat and tidy answer. I still don’t. There’s nothing tidy about wrestling with God. Jesus modeled that for us when in the Garden of Gethsemane, he questioned God: “If it is your will, let this cup pass from me.” It was a bitter cup to drink… but he freely gave himself for the salvation of the world!

Barbara Brown Taylor said this about it:

“[We have] a God who resurrects us from the dead, putting an end to it by working through it instead of around it—creating life in the midst of grief, creating love in the midst of loss, creating faith in the midst of despair—resurrecting us from our big and little deaths, showing us by his own example that the only road to Easter morning runs smack through Good Friday.” (The Christian Century, March, ’96)

There are no shortcuts to the tough questions we have about God or about cancer or about our own personal valley of dry bones. The road to the joy of Easter runs smack through the Holy Cross of Good Friday.

And maybe that’s why Jesus says to Mary: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Some scholars have left out that second part, over the years, thinking it was redundant. “I am the resurrection and the life.” What’s the difference? But there are really two things Jesus is referring to: 1) resurrection on the last day… and 2) the life God intends for us here and now.

Lazarus was raised from the dead… but not resurrected – only resuscitated. In time, he would die a human death. He wasn’t raised to eternal life… he was raised to new life. It’s what God intended for him – for us all – that we have life – and have it abundantly. Why the path to that joy leads through such misery, I can’t say. I would just as soon avoid the pain altogether, and the sorrow along the way.

But thanks be to God that it’s never too late. That it’s never over when we walk by faith. Let us pray: O God, thank you for opening the door to eternal life for us all on the last day – and thank you, even moreso, for the life you give us today. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

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