5th Sunday in Lent         April 10, 2011                          St. John the Evangelist, Saint Paul

Ezekiel 37:1-4              Psalm 130                                Romans 8:6-11 John 11:1-45

Today we begin in earnest our journey toward the cross of Jesus.  We wrestle with life and death images and what it means to have life.

“Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord,” writes the Psalmist clearly from the darkest part of the valley of the shadow of death.  People of God have forever experienced the depths of despair!  Paul said, “Things are so bad that we do not even know how to pray for relief.”  Yet, once we call to the God whose property it is to restore us, and who does so out of love for us, then the work of redemption has begun.

Death is the context of doubt. As long as there is life there is hope, goes the aphorism. But when life ends and death closes the door, doubt about life and faith and even hope itself enters in.  Death is the essence of dry bones.  It is the ultimate depth of the Psalm.  Death is the logical end of the flesh in Romans.  Death now is the silent witness to the events of John.

The Gospel story begins several miles outside of Jerusalem is the town of Bethany where Jesus’ friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived.  The sisters send word to Jesus in Galilee that Lazarus has become ill.  It doesn’t sound like an invitation for Jesus to come and restore Lazarus to health, or an opportunity for Jesus to come visit him in his illness, or before his death.  It only sounds like an announcement of fact – “He whom you love is ill.”

Jesus and his disciples remain where they are for two days when Jesus announces that Lazarus has died and it is time to go to Bethany a two days journey.

In his book, The Confession, John Grisham describes in detail a mother’s experience of her son’s death.

Falsely accused, Dante spent his last days on death row in Huntsville, Texas, convicted of the murder and rape of a young high school girl.  The death chamber was small with a single bed in the middle of the room.  The bed was covered with a clean white sheet freshly changed before each use.  The room smelled of antiseptic, some used to clean the arms of the convict for the purpose of injecting the deadly needles.  Some of the antiseptic was used to cover the odor of death.  Once the signal was given the three deadly drugs were administered, one at a time.

Death came within minutes.  Dante’s body was carried from the room through a side door and was placed in a hearse for the trip to Dante’s home town.  There his burial service would be held in the church where he had grown up.  The hearse carrying Dante’s body arrived at the funeral home where the director and four pall bearers opened the door and removed the casket, taking it in through a side door of the building.

Dante’s mother arrived a few minutes later and was met at the front door by the funeral director.  After some time with family members and a few friends, the funeral director led her down a hallway to where Dante’s body lay.  She entered the room alone, closed and locked the door behind her.  There on a table lay her son, Dante, his body covered with a white sheet.  He was still dressed in the cheap white shirt and worn khakis, given him at the prison.  His mother held his face in her hands and kissed his forehead, his nose, his lips and then his cheeks.  It was the first time in 8 years she had been able to touch her son.  She undressed him and began the process of making him ready for burial.  His skin wasn’t cold nor was it warm.  She touched the scar he got as a young boy when he was hit by a rock.  The tears rolled down her cheeks and washed over his body.

She cut off the shirt, the pants, the underclothes, dropping the pieces on the floor.  She would gather them up and later burn them in her back yard.  As she went about her work she began to sing, “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on let me stand.”

Finally, he was naked just as he had been when he entered the world.  She drew warm soapy water and began to wash his body.  Gently wiping the soapy water over his face and then his chest, she washed away the smell of antiseptic and prison.  When she had completed the task of cleansing his whole body she dressed him.  His body was beginning to grow stiff and more difficult to move but she dressed him.  She put clean underwear on him, new socks, a white shirt and the pants of a suit and completed the task with a tie, suit coat and shoes.  She leaned over him and said, “Get up Dante and let’s go to church.  You’ll find a wife there and have many children.  Come’on now, let’s go.”   But he didn’t move.

The scriptures don’t tell us how Lazarus died.  Nothing is said about how his sisters, Mary and Martha, prepared his body for burial.  But there is no doubt in my mind that they did something similar to what Dante’s mother did.  I am certain Mary and Martha cleansed his body, anointed him with oils fragrant with perfume and as they did this, their tears must have mingled with that oil.

Lazarus has lain in the grave four days when Jesus arrives.  Jesus arranged this teaching device, not for himself, nor even for poor old Lazarus, but rather to display the power of God in the ultimate work of God:  the creation of life.  For the miracle to be real, the source of that miracle, God, must be seen to be real so the death of Lazarus must also be real.

When Jesus arrives in Bethany he is greeted by mourners and Martha who says to Jesus, “If you had been here my brother, Lazarus, would not have died.”  And then she adds hopefully, “Yet even now I know whatever you ask of God, God will give to you.”  (“Can these bones live?”  “Lord, you know better than I.”)   Reassuring Martha with the widespread belief in the resurrection taught by the Pharisees, Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Jesus goes to the tomb where Lazarus lay and says, “Take away the stone.”  Martha says, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  An earlier English translation puts it more plainly, “He stinketh”; and medieval artists loved to depict the crowd gathered before the tomb of Lazarus holding their noses against the anticipated stench.

Jesus calls out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  The dead man comes out wrapped in the burial cloth.  Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  Lazarus has received life and freedom.

Robert Capon says that Jesus never met a corpse he didn’t raise, and he is right.  The good news is that we do not have to wait to be buried to experience Jesus as the resurrection and the life.  All we have to do is surrender.  To open our hearts with childlike trust, and yield in faith to the people Jesus sends our way, opening to them to unbind us and let us go.

But Jesus believes in resurrection!  He not only believes in it, he is willing to die for it!

Jesus said, “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. ”

Restoring life.  We value life.  What makes us different from those who in Ezekiel’s time wiped out an entire army and left the bodies lying in a valley?    Or the Christians who killed the infidels during the Crusades?   Or the Nazis who tried to wipe out a whole nation of people?  How do we pass on to the next generations the value of life?

The Valley of Dry Bones was without life until Ezekiel prophesied and said, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”  Suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.  There were sinews and flesh covered them.”  And once again the breath of God restored life.  The master’s hand moved over the bones, the master’s breath entered the bodies and life was restored.

None of us are worth very much without the life giving breath of the creator.  We are just bones without the ruah of God and our lives don’t mean much if this is all we have:  what is here and now.  It is the miracle of life that gives us the desire for more.  It is the touch of the master’s hand that makes us valuable.

I share with you a poem by Myra B. Welch entitled: “The Touch of the Master’s Hand”

‘Twas battered and scarred, and the auctioneer

Thought it scarcely worth his while

To waste much time on the old violin,

But held it up with a smile.

“What am I bidden, good folks,” he cried,

“Who’ll start the bidding for me?”

“A dollar, a dollar,” then, two!  Only two?

“Two dollars, and who’ll make it three?

“Three dollars, once; three dollars, twice;

Going for three . . .” But no,

From the room, far back, a gray-haired man

Came forward and picked up the bow;

Then, wiping the dust from the old violin,

And tightening the loose strings,

He played a melody pure and sweet

As a caroling angel sings.

The music ceased, and the auctioneer,

With a voice that was quiet and low,

Said:  “What am I bid for the old violin?”

And he held it up with the bow.

“A thousand dollars, and who’ll make it two?

Two thousand! and who’ll make it three?

Three thousand, once; three thousand, twice;

And going and gone,” said he.

The people cheered, but some of them cried,

“We do not quite understand

What changed its worth?”  Swift came the reply:

“The touch of a master’s hand.”

And many a man with life out of tune,

And battered and scarred with sin,

Is auctioned cheap to the thoughtless crowd,

Much like the old violin.

A “mess of potage,” a glass of wine;

A game — and he travels on.

He is “going” once, and “going” twice,

He’s “going” and almost “gone.”

But the Master comes and the foolish crowd

Never can quite understand

The worth of a soul and the change that’s wrought

“By the touch of the Master’s hand.”

The Rev. Peggy E. Tuttle

Interim Rector

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