“I am Resurrection and I am Life,” says the Lord. “Whoever has faith in me shall have life, even though he die. And everyone who has life, and has committed himself to me in faith, shall not die for ever.” Amen.
I still remember the phone call on July 13th, 1994. My dad and I were sitting in our den when a friend called and said, “I’m sitting on my front porch watching flames leap into the sky. It’s St. James’s—I think the church was struck by lightning.” Although we were living in Maryland, most of our family lived in the Petersburg/Richmond area, and I had worshipped here on several occasions. My dad and I couldn’t quite believe it—the church was burning. That night many from St. James’s prayed, I expect, in the words of the psalmist, “Out of the depths. . . Lord, hear my voice.”
Today’s readings contain an incredible amount of raw emotion. Part of the human condition involves those times when we’re in the depths and struggle to lift our voices to God. Even Jesus, in the lesson from John, is greatly troubled and weeps. This picture of Jesus weeping is striking, and the Prayer Book’s Burial liturgy reminds us of it when we ask Christ to comfort us in our sorrow. Sorrow and pain is real, and all of us will encounter, if we haven’t already, sorrow that threatens to drown us.
I don’t think I’m alone in trying to claw my way out of sorrow. We’re often taught in our culture to be self-reliant. When times are tuff, we’re told to “pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” Then, when we come out of sorrow and when we achieve success, it’s easy to think that the good we achieved is because of our efforts. After all, isn’t that the American dream—work hard and you’ll achieve success. Don’t let yourself be pulled down by sorrow, just “keep on chugging.” And if someone is poor or outcast, well it’s their own fault. They just didn’t work hard enough. I try to avoid these thoughts of assigning credit or blame on people, but it’s not easy.
This assigning credit or blame to ourselves or others is the fundamental sin, I believe. And it’s a sin that we’re called on to confront during Lent. On Ash Wednesday, which marked the beginning of Lent, the Prayer Book called us to observe Lent through “self-examination and repentance.” This self-examination has the potential to remind of us the death we carry within us—namely, the idea that we achieve life on our own. To experience the fullness of true life, we’re called to repent of our self-reliant ideas, which bring death, and realize anew that true life is a free gift of Christ.
Both the Ezekiel and the Lazarus stories illustrate so well our powerlessness concerning true life. Ezekiel is a strong example for us. When he’s set in the valley of dry bones, and God asks him, “Mortal, can these bones live?” He replies, “O Lord God, you know.” Now especially in this election season, we might hear that as Ezekiel dodging the question. But in fact, I think it shows his pure faith. Ezekiel understands that he has no idea about life and death—only God does. Only God has the power to give the bones life, so only God knows whether or not the bones will live.
And when life comes, it is from the Lord. The interesting thing here is that Ezekiel plays a crucial role in God’s giving of life. He doesn’t give the life, God does, but the first stage of God’s gift of life is worked through Ezekiel. Before doing anything, God first commands Ezekiel to prophesy. Once Ezekiel does so, then God gives the bones sinews. Ezekiel, on God’s command, prophesies again, and God gives breath. I love these images of the bones coming to life. They key is that Ezekiel realizes God’s power of life, and he does his part, as God wills, in God’s working of creation. Ezekiel understands that whatever role he plays in giving life is a role given and made possible by God, not by his own will or efforts. At the end of today’s passage, God summarizes everything that has happened in the valley of dry bones, saying, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” The bones live, but in listening to and following God’s will, Ezekiel too was given God’s spirit and true life.
The gospel lesson shows this same progression. Mary and Martha understand that they have no power of life and death, so they call on Jesus. Jesus, echoing the words of God in Ezekiel, says that “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.” Jesus ultimately gives life to Lazarus, but the people have their role to play in this gift. Before he returns the breath to Lazarus, Jesus tells the people to “Take away the stone.” Often, God’s commands don’t seem to make any sense, and Martha replies, “Lord, already there is a stench,” or, in the wonderful words of the King James version, “Lord, by this time he stinketh.” But removing the stone is their role in God’s giving of true life.
Sitting in the choir loft, as I did for several years, one has a direct view of those words over the altar. “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only.” Once we accept that God has the ultimate power of true life, we’re called to discern what God would have us do to prepare the way for life—would God have us prophesy, would God have us roll away the stone? When we listen to the word in all its forms—in the Scripture, in the Sacraments, incarnate in one another here in the holy assembly (the Church)—in the many forms of the Word God gives us the answers. But then we’re called to do—to act. And in acting, in doing the will of God, others see the power of God. As Jesus says, “I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When we speak in words and actions, the crowd can see that God has sent us as well—that we are followers of Christ and that all are invited to join us.
I’m inspired by all that is going on at St. James’s to listen to and act on God’s will. The building expansions will bring new life to this congregation and the greater Richmond community. And the New Orleans mission will bring life not just to this congregation but to all those whom the mission group helps. But I call on all of us to remember that it is God who gives this life. St. James’s isn’t able to expand its facilities or participate in missions on its own accord—we didn’t earn any of this. God gives these ministries as a gift to us and to all people. In these final days of Lent I invite us to continue our self-examinations and to admit when we’ve thought that the life we have is of our own making, and to repent of that sin of which we’ve been guilty both in times of sorrow and in times of joy—the sin of self-reliance. And let us continue to be open to God’s word in all its forms so we can act as God calls us to act to bring forth the life of God into the world. This doing of God’s will doesn’t get us into heaven—Christ’s death and resurrection does that. And because we’re going to heaven we’re called to follow God’s will for new life. And when our actions play a part in bringing life, let us avoid the temptation of thinking that we’re responsible for life and remember that it is God who gives life by working in, with, and through us.
For none of us has life in himself, and none becomes his own master when he dies. For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord, and if we die, we die in the Lord. So, then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession. Amen.