Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14 ; Psalm 130 ; Romans 8:6-11 ; John 11:1-45
In the name of Jesus, who calls us by name from death into life. Amen.
I was raised on the golden age of musical theater, and it shows in the tunes that I whistle and hum. Catch me in the morning as I’m getting ready for work and likely as not I’m whistling, “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” On my way into a stressful meeting, “I Whistle a Happy Tune.” Or when I’m falling in love, “On the Street Where You Live.”
If you were to catch sight of me singing along to all my favorite shows at Sidetrack on Sunday evenings during their weekly show tune night, you might draw your own conclusions about where my love of musical theater comes from, but for the truth you’d have to travel back in time to my childhood and the long road trips associated with our annual family vacations to Wyoming or Colorado. Mom and Dad, who met in college where they were both studying music, would sing with me and my sister for hours. We’d work our way through as many songs as we could remember from South Pacific, Oklahoma, The Sound of Music, The King and I, Camelot, My Fair Lady and Oklahoma.
My dad, who was raised on a farm in Fremont, Nebraska, tells the story of dragging his father in to town when he was fifteen or sixteen to see West Side Story after he’d already seen it himself a few times. That’s one of my favorites too. One of the few I actually own the original Broadway cast recordings of. I’ve seen it staged by high schools and professional touring companies, and it hardly matters how talented the cast is… the story of Romeo and Juliet transported to the West Side of Manhattan does all the work. I mean, sure, you get better dancers with a professional cast, but in some ways – for a show that’s all heart – it’s almost better to hear “I Feel Pretty” and “One Hand, One Heart” coming out of teenagers’ mouths. Who else has that kind of blind faith in the power of love to conquer the forces of prejudice and fear?
If I’m listening to the soundtrack in my car, it begins – as all good musicals do – with the overture. In the overture you get introduced to all the major musical themes of the show. It puts them in your ear so that when you hear the full song later you’ll be prepared, but somehow that never quite works. Take West Side Story for example, even though the very first notes of the prologue come straight out of “When You’re a Jet” I never quite remember that this is a story about gang violence, and that by the end there will be two dead young men.
Speaking of preludes and overtures, I suppose I ought to get to sermonizing.
The gospel of John has two overtures. The first comes in the first chapter – John’s prologue, the stories of John the Baptist and the calling of the first disciples. In that chapter we get the themes of Jesus’ public ministry in little foreshadowing glimpses. The second is chapters eleven and twelve – the raising of Lazarus, the decision to kill Jesus, and Jesus’ anointing at Bethany. Here we get a foretaste of the themes that will soon carry us into Holy Week, the death and resurrection of our Lord.
At the beginning of this story the disciples are like I am at the beginning of West Side Story, oddly forgetful that they are heading to a death. All along the way Jesus has been teaching the crowds and performing miracles, and all along the way he’s been threatened with stoning and has been aware of the cross that is to come. But when he announces to his disciples that he’s going to Bethany to waken Lazarus from his “sleep” the disciples are hesitant, “Rabbi,” they say, “they were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”
The answer is yes. Jesus shares with young lovers a profound confidence in the power of love to conquer the forces of prejudice and fear, and he does go to Bethany – where a family that he loves is suffering – to bring light and life to the graveyard of their grieving.
Both the reading from Ezekiel and the gospel reading from John take us to graveyards. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that in both readings we are reminded that God takes us to graveyards. For the most part we, like the disciples, would prefer not to go. We sense the threat of death, we are reminded by the bones and the stones of our own mortality, and we would like to stay away from death. But God takes us to graveyards.
There is no diminishing the suffering in these places either. In Ezekiel’s vision he is taken to a valley filled with bones, an entire nation’s worth. He is looking on the devastation of God’s people, the nation of Israel, a people exiled from their homeland, and he is asked the question that tests all faith, “can these bones live?” In the gospel it is the agonizing moment when Martha confronts Jesus outside her home, while Mary continues to grieve inside, and accuses him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s Maria, a teenager holding a gun and looking at the dead bodies of her brother and her boyfriend and wondering when the killing will end, asking “How do you fire this gun? By pulling this little trigger?…Well, I can kill now too, because now I have hate! How many can I kill and still have one left for me?”
This is not just Broadway melodrama. The scene of two sisters weeping for the brother they have lost, of a young woman holding a gun and raging against the senseless deaths of two young men could just as easily be staged here in Logan Square, and recently it has been.
In the last few weeks I have been listening to our friends and partners over at Voice of the City as they have shared tragedy after tragedy that has been heaped upon them. First it was an artist in their community who succumbed to depression and ended his life. Then, a week later it was a young man in their film class, one of their star students, involved with a gang and now in prison for shooting and killing someone else in a drug deal gone wrong. Then, days after that, the sister of one of their students shot nearly point blank in the head while sitting in a car with her boyfriend, also shot and killed. How do you hang on to hope that anything you are doing can make a difference when death keeps cascading down over you? What does love have to offer in the face of such deep prejudice and fear? It is like looking at a valley of bones and being asked, “can these bones live?” What can we say, but “O Lord God, you know.”
But the ministry of Jesus takes place in graveyards, in places where people are left for dead. And in Christ Jesus, God is taking us to graveyards as well. Here, in this prologue to the story of crucifixion and resurrection yet to come, Jesus is preparing to show us something about the power of love to conquer prejudice and fear, to bring life to places and people left for dead.
“Lord,” says Martha, “already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” The graveyard stinks because something there is rotten. We are taught to stay away from rotten things, rotten food, rotten people, rotten situations. Jesus acts against all logic though, and goes towards things that stink of death. Jesus calls Lazarus from the tomb.
This is the work of God – to bring life to places and people left for dead, to bring people called rotten and worthless and hopeless back to their families, to cross the chasms of fear and prejudice and death with and in love. God’s work, our hands. This is our work – to bring life to places and people left for dead, to bring people called rotten and worthless and hopeless back to their families, to cross the chasms of fear and prejudice and death with and in love. That is what we are doing here at St. Luke’s, imperfectly to be sure, but with sure conviction that God is using us for t
he healing and reconciliation of the world.
We feed people and families the world has left on the street. We pray with and for those who grieve and mourn. We make music and art with children from families that do not speak the same languages in their homes or on the playgrounds. We raise young men with character and hope in a neighborhood where many young men are filled with hopelessness.
We, you see, know something about dry bones and new life. We remember what it was like to rattle around inside this skeleton of a building with only a handful of people, empty classrooms and silent hallways. We remember what it felt like to hear others say of us and our ministry, “they have been dead for four days” …or four years. And we have been called out of our tomb, we have been called to be God’s hands in a neighborhood whose needs for healing and reconciliation are great.
Jesus speaks into the rotten places of the world, crying, “Lazarus, come out!” The gospel of John says the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and Jesus says to those who have witnessed God’s healing power, “unbind him, and let him go.” That is our calling, to speak to the people and places in this world, in this neighborhood, bound by prejudice and fear and death and to unbind them. To set them free.
Jesus raises Lazarus from the tomb. God breathes new life into dry bones and they live. Even on stage, you remember the ending? Maria’s words shake the Sharks and the Jets out of their sleep and the come together to lift the bodies of their friends and carry them off stage. Healing at the graveyard. A foretaste of what is yet to come.