Life Renewed

Sermon by Professor Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and the Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies in the Harvard Divinity School, before an empty sanctuary. (Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)




Even during Lent, every Sunday offers a little taste of Easter — a reminder that God never tires of offering us new life, the chance to begin again.

The readings for the last Sunday of our Lenten pilgrimage seem to want to make this point. Professor Brooks has read for us the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones and the story of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead. These are stories that lead us into the valley of the shadow of death and back out again. They take us into places where hope is utterly lost—a valley strewn with bones bleaching in the sun; a tomb filling with the stench of decay. And then they startle us — shock us — with life renewed.

Stories like these, whose meaning feels far from exhausted even after millennia of interpretation, speak to us differently at different times in our lives. We hear them differently as college students than we would have as young children. What they mean to us when we are thirty may not be what they mean to us when we are seventy. In these days, with time so fearfully compressed and epoch-making changes happening inside of days and weeks, these stories might speak to us differently now than they would have even at the beginning of Lent. Four weeks ago we were still gathering for worship but taking care at the passing of the peace not to impose a handshake or a hug on those who might be feeling anxious about that virus we’d been hearing about. In a very short time, we’ve entered a whole new world. What do these stories sound like now?

Maybe it’s easier this morning than it would have been four weeks ago to hear the sorrow of the community for whom Ezekiel wrote. The epoch-making event in Ezekiel’s life was the invasion of the kingdom of Judah by soldiers of the Babylonian Empire and the deportation and exile of its people—Ezekiel among them. Throughout his writings, and certainly in this vision, we can hear Ezekiel asking: What comes next? What comes next when, as the bones themselves say, we “are dried up, and our hope is lost; and we are cut off completely”?

I asked Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz of Temple Emmanuel in Newton, who has been a wise counselor to me over the past weeks, how he thought Ezekiel’s vision spoke to us in this moment. He said that, at a time when hope was utterly lost, and the life of the community destroyed, Ezekiel dreamed of a counter-reality in which hope and life are renewed. I found Rabbi Gardenswartz’s use of the word “dream” so helpful. It reminded me of the poet T.S. Eliot’s definition of visionary experience as “a more disciplined kind of dreaming.” We may not be addressed by God and dazzled by God’s glory in the way Ezekiel is, but a more disciplined kind of dreaming is something we can all do.

And perhaps something we are being called to do. Because Ezekiel’s question — what comes next? — is quickly becoming our question. With every week spent sheltering in place, it’s clear that we will not just come blinking out of our rooms and return to life as usual. It’s also clear that we shouldn’t return to life as usual. This crisis has thrown the fault lines in our society into sharp relief and revealed that the gap between being able to work from home and losing your job, between having access to the internet and falling behind in school, between working essential jobs with protective gear and working those jobs without it, the gap between being documented and undocumented, insured and uninsured, free and incarcerated can be the gap between life and death. We need to practice a more disciplined kind of dreaming about what kind of resurrection we want to experience when the immediate danger of the virus has passed. What kind of world do we hope to live in when it’s once again safe enough to go to church together, to pass a sign of peace from hand to hand? It’s not enough to just want our old life back. Like Ezekiel, we are called to imagine more life — not just for ourselves, but for everyone.

It’s no wonder that Ezekiel’s vision has served as inspiration through the ages for people living under oppression. The great Harlem Renaissance composer, James Weldon Johnson, wrote about hearing sermons on the valley of dry bones during his childhood. African American preachers, he wrote in his autobiography, passed that sermon along from pulpit to pulpit during Jim Crow, brilliantly glossing verse 7, in which the bones begin rattling back into place. Johnson and his brother famously composed music for the refrains of those sermons — the toe bone connected to the foot bone, the foot bone connected to the heel bone, the heel bone connected to the ankle bone… In Johnson’s song as in Ezekiel’s vision the dry bones rise again, they walk around again. And if we’re listening, they call us to rise with them, not into life as it is or as it was, but life as it should be, life as it could be, life as it must be if we are all going to flourish.

Ezekiel’s vision is of the resurrection of a whole community, a “vast multitude.” “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel,” God says. This is a devastated people dreamed back into life by the prophet who shared their fate.

The story of the raising of Lazarus is also addressed to a community, but it focuses their longing for resurrection on one figure: Jesus’s friend Lazarus. Christian communities often read and remember this story at the end of Lent. In Orthodox traditions, this Saturday, the day before Palm Sunday, is known as Lazarus Day. As Lent ends and we prepare to enter Holy Week, the story of Lazarus is there to remind us of where we are headed, to give us some hope to hold onto as the trauma of Jesus’s death begins to unfold.

The author of this story is trying to do the theological work of an early Christian community--to fashion from stories like this an understanding of who Jesus is and to tell the story in such a way as to reflect that understanding. And this creates a tension in this story between the theological points the writer is trying to make and the things that are happening. Have you ever heard a fiction writer talk about how their characters can sometimes seem to take over and tell their own story? When I read the story of Lazarus, I always wonder if that’s what happened to the gospel writer. Because the story seems at odds with itself in places. On the one hand, we are told that Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters. But when Mary and Martha send for him because Lazarus was dying, we are told that Jesus did not immediately rush to Lazarus’s side. Why not? According to the story, Jesus waits so that Lazarus will die and God will be glorified by what happens next. He waits so that those who witnessed the miracle would believe that he is, as Martha affirms later in the story, “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”

If this calculation seems cold to you, you’re not alone. Mary and Martha seem to think so, too. When Jesus finally arrives, they each greet him separately, but with the same accusation: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus first hears this, from Martha, he tells her that Lazarus will rise again, that he is the resurrection and the life, that those who believe in him will live, even though they die. But when he hears the same accusation a second time, from Mary, he is too shaken, it seems, to muster an answer. Instead, he is “greatly disturbed in spirit,” the gospel says, “and deeply moved.” Mary is weeping, and the mourners with her are weeping, and soon Jesus is weeping too. At Lazarus’s tomb, the one who had delayed his arrival at the deathbed of his friend now seems desperate to get to him. Where have you laid him? he asks. Take away the stone, he commands. Lazarus, he cries, come out!

At the beginning of this story, Jesus says that he will use Lazarus’s illness and death to reveal the glory of God. And the glory of God is certainly revealed in this story. But it is revealed in all the ways the story resists making Lazarus’s death serve that glory, all the ways it refuses to reduce the characters to the theological work the gospel asks them to perform and instead makes their full humanity visible. St. Irenaeus, in the 2nd century, wrote that the glory of God is the human being fully alive, and so it is in this story. The glory of God shines in the angry, grieving sisters; it is revealed in the community that accompanies and upholds them in their grief; it is made manifest in Jesus’s tears and in the spiritual disturbance that Jesus feels in his body. It is revealed in the man stumbling from the mouth of the stinking tomb, his hands and face and feet tangled in his shroud. And it is revealed in the words Jesus speaks when he sees him: “Unbind him, and let him go.” That is the glory of God — the human being fully alive, unbound, setting out in the light of the Lord.

As we continue our pilgrimage through Lent and Holy Week, and through the unexpected journey through a worldwide pandemic, we need both of these resurrection stories to light our path. Ezekiel’s vision reminds us that it is not just individuals who need new life. Our communities will need resurrection--our society, our world. How can we rise to new life in such a way that the common good we honor with social distancing continues to guide our choices about how we will care for each other when social distancing is no longer needed? How will we keep those commitments from drying out? How keep them clothed in sinew and muscle, how connect them to the commitments of others?

The story of the raising of Lazarus, sometimes in spite of itself, reminds us of the dignity every life possesses. It reminds us no one’s life should be reduced to a figure in a calculation, weighed against the stock market or the economy or a theology or a politics. As the Talmud teaches, to save one life is to save the world. When Jesus raises Lazarus, he also raises Mary and Martha, and the community that sustains them. He also raises himself from heartbreak and grief.

What comes next, Ezekiel asked. What indeed. For now, we have our work to do: to live not only for ourselves but for others, and especially for those most vulnerable to the virus and the consequences it has unleashed in the world. To honor the dignity of every human life by staying home on Easter Sunday. To maintain distance between ourselves and others without filling the space in between with hatred or suspicion. To open ourselves to each other’s needs in prayer and to God’s own mending mercy.

And to cultivate in these days a more disciplined kind of dreaming that imagines the resurrection of our life together in which we can all live fully alive, in the freedom that is the glory of the children of God. Come, let us set out in the light of the Lord.