One of the most misunderstood spiritual practices, Forgiveness, is the theme this week at Calvary. Rev. Victor will explore the many facets of Forgiveness alongside some miracle-music “It’s Quiet Uptown” from Hamilton.
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb of Lazarus. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of Lazarus, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Abba, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and [God] brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. [God] led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. [God] said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then [God] said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then [God] said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as [God] commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
The theme for this season of Lent is based on Psalm 30. Our From Mourning to Dancing series was planned well ahead the current coronavirus crisis, but now it’s clear that God was very involved in our plans. As this season before Easter has progressed, we have studied scripture in conversation with The Book of Joy, Douglas Abrams’ beautiful account of a week-long conversation between the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The wisdom of these two leaders balances nuance with simplicity. Both men have known great loss and suffering, even exile and isolation. So, I thank God for helping us prepare for what one Tweet recently called “The Lentiest Lent Ever Lented.”
Over the course of my lifetime wise, nuanced public discourse has been supplanted by base emotions: outrage, fear. Plastic celebrities have replaced leaders. We glue to our devices that provide us with the immoral sideshow where up is down and wrong is right. This is not new. History is a pendulum that swings from peaceful progress to violent fascism and other poles yet to be discovered. In the liminal (in-between) times, those who find God’s law of love incompatible with their selfish goals begin to act out. And now, at the most inopportune of times, while our president punishes governors who not praise him adequately, we are walking together toward what feels like the valley of the shadow of death. As it was with our biblical ancestors called Israel, our capable leaders are exiled to the margins, and we sing God’s song in a strange land, We sing God’s praise together, and in that we find our strength.
In 592 BCE, the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel began speaking to the people who wrestle with God, also known as Israel. Generations before, King Nebuchadnezzar had devastated Jerusalem and marched the Jewish leaders up into Babylon. With the temple in ruins, the people want to know why God would let this happen. Why doesn’t God do something? What went wrong? Why were we not prepared for something like this?
For chapters and chapters leading up to our reading today, Ezekiel has describes the dark swing of the pendulum and lands on a terrible image of a people who have given into their despair. Metaphorically, in his vision, Israel has become a vast plain of bones, buzzards circling overhead. He hears the body politic speaking: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Babylon had disconnect them not only from God (in the temple) but also from their families and their beloved community, their support systems, the source of shalom.
God’s Will Is Sholom
This was never supposed to happen, not ever! God does not want anyone marched off into detention or cut off from their community. One of God’s names is Shalom, which actually means prosperity, wholeness, peace. Shalom is not personal tranquility. Shalom is relational and depends on everyone getting what they need to survive. That might sound like welfare—because it is! Shalom means welfare for the people who wrestle with God, all the people who wrestle with God.
The Power of Ruach
The great Robert Alter translates the opening of today’s passage from Ezekiel: “The hand of the Lord was upon me, and He took me out by the wind of the Lord and set me down in a valley and it was filled with dry bones.” The wind of the Lord blows Ezekiel into the valley. Used nine times in this passage, the word ruach means spirit, breath and wind, all of these meanings at the same time, every time.
Can you perceive Ezekiel’s ancient message-in-a-bottle tossed down over centuries, meant for us, a lifeline for today? Verse 5, God says the ruach spirit will enter the people in despair, and their dry bones will live again! Verse 6, “I am about to bring ruach breath into you and you shall live.” The spirit and the breath are one with the wind that causes the bones to stand up and reassemble themselves bone to bone—creepy, yes, but good creepy and about as hopeful as Ezekiel gets. Verses 8 and 9, God’s tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the wind itself. Although “to prophesy” means to predict in secular settings, in the Bible “to prophesy” includes describing the current situation and where it is leading us. Prophecy means exposing evil and spinning every detail to favor our God of Shalom. Ezekiel confronts the bones and the wind with the truth of God’s will, what God is already doing, the imminent transformation. Ruach is entering, even right now, all those who are cut off, left behind, exiled. And God’s ruach-windy-spirit-breath is inclusive, unconditional and free for everyone, especially those who think we’re done for. The ruach makes the dead live again. In the vision of Ezekiel, resurrection is already underway right here, right now.
The Raising of Lazarus
The good news of John’s scripture is even more physical, more incarnate. Those of us who grew up hearing the King James Version of this story especially cherish verse 39: “Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been four days.” Lazarus is physically dead, and he stinks. Arriving “too late the Heartbroken Jesus views the body of his lifeless friend, gives thanks to God and speaks words of life, “Lazarus, come out!” meaning “come out” of your cave. Why didn’t he say “I compel thee come back to life” or something like that? Come out? In Jewish mysticism, a cave is a symbolic place indicating death or despair. To be in a cave is to find oneself in a place with no foreseeable future, a place where even prophets can’t tell us what will happen, and we are blinded by the darkness of exile.
The Cave Excursion
A few summers ago, my husband Lou and I visited a cave in Oregon. The website said it was easy to walk through. We parked and noticed there weren’t many cars near by, to be exact, none. I told my reluctant Lou “The website says it’s fun. We can walk all the way through a little hill, can come out on the other side.” And off we went into a half-mile cave: Lou (who is completely blind), Dervish (our three-legged Schnauzer), and me—and no one else around. A little ways in, I realized that I should go back for the flashlight, but I couldn’t see the entrance behind us. I could not return to the car. We were in the cave. Lou the blind guy said that he didn’t understand what was so scary about this, accept that the floor was comprised of jagged rocks, and we were wearing, you guessed it, flip flops. The dog pulled like crazy, wanting to smell the bats, but we persisted. I used my iPhone’s flashlight, but it just showed me brighter blackness. “Well,” I told Lou. “Well, I’ve really enjoyed our life together. I hope you’ll miss me as much as I’ll miss you.”
We walked on thinking we were probably going in circles, nervously laughing like complete fools. What if one of us fell or got hurt in this cave? What if the dog got loose and some vampire bat started sucking on him? Then, I heard voices.
“No you didn’t,” said Lou. There, I heard it again, voices. Now Lou said he heard them, too. We stumbled through the rocky darkness, thwacking our heads on stalactites and following voices that by this time we both thought were imaginary. Then finally, from a far distance, came a pinpoint of light. The voices grew more distinct. At last, we knew the way out. As we exited the cave, a large group from a tour bus was debating whether to walk through the cave. We advised them, “Oh, it’s easy! Look at us. We did it.”
Do you see the Rembrandt painting included in your worship bulletin this week? The expressions on their faces! Even Jesus looks overcome by the ruach miracle, breathing life into a cadaver. It looks like he is saying “OMG it worked! He’s back. Y’all! Lazarus! He’s back!” Every face is telling a own story in this painting, so brilliant, well worth studying and praying with. Lord knows you’ve got the time! Jesus prophesied breath back into Lazarus. And from his cave Lazarus emerges still swaddled in grave clothes. Yes, swaddled like a baby. Caves are also the symbol of the womb. What if that’s what all the current darkness is about? What if we’re not exiled in the valley of the shadow of death? What if we’re in the womb, together, awaiting rebirth?
So how do we prepare for the Easter Resurrection to come? We follow the command of Jesus, “Unbind him, and let him go.” He said it to Martha, but they all heard it. “Unbind him, and let him go.” The Book of Joy defines forgiveness as freeing ourselves from the past, letting go. The best thing about the past is this: it is over and gone. Unbind it, and let it go. Let it be what it needs to be. Don’t try to force anything. Just unbind her, and let her go.
If we do not free ourselves from the cave of the past, we will get trapped in resentment and hostility. Anne Lamott says that “not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.”
People confuse forgiveness with consent. The Dalai Lama says “Sometimes people think forgiveness means you…approve of wrongdoing. No, this not the case. We must make an important distinction… Where the wrong action is concerned, it may be necessary to take appropriate counteraction to stop it.” There’s that nuanced pendulum again: action and counteraction. “This is where the power of forgiveness lies—not losing sight of the humanity of the person while responding to the wrong with clarity and firmness.” Archbishop Tutu agrees. “Forgiveness does not mean you forget what someone has done, contrary to the saying, ‘Forgive and forget.’” And “forgiveness does not mean that you do not seek justice or that the perpetrator is not punished.” Forgiveness means putting down the sweet rat poison of revenge.
The current Nebuchadnezzar sees forgiveness, tolerance and letting go of the past as weaknesses. To echo Desmond Tutu, “Those who say forgiving is sign of weakness haven’t tried it.” Forgiveness is a sign of strength because unbinding ourselves from the past is really hard. United Church of Christ writer Molly Baskette writes:
There’s a reason Jesus…himself, the next time He bumped into three-times-denying Peter after the crucifixion and resurrection, casually asked [Peter] if he really loved Him—three times. Even Jesus couldn’t quite let it go.
O dry bones! Prepare yourself in not the cave of despair but in the womb of rebirth. Have faith that we will emerge from this cave a transformed people. We will remember the immoral actions of our leaders, and we will expect justice for the dead. Then the hard part! In order for these dry bones to live and dance again, we must forgive those who divide us, forgive the enemies of shalom who play politics with human life. Forgive them for they know not what they do. Call them out, unbind them and let them go. The process of resurrection is not always a pretty sight. It can stink to high heaven. Even the risen Christ bore wounds, just as we will, yet in our flesh shall we see God.
Amen, amen, it shall be so.