This is the sermon the Rev. Dr. Robert Pace preached at the online worship service at Trinity, Fort Worth, on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 29, 2020. It was the first worship service he has led since Ash Wednesday, for soon after that, he became ill with what he thought was the flu. On March 10, he learned that he had tested positive the the coronavirus Covid 19, and was hospitalized with pneumonia. He was finally released from quarantine on March 19. Read more here.
Year A, Lent 5
The Rev. Robert F. Pace
In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
We are living in extraordinary times.
For us Christians, today we mark the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Normally, we might think about this Sunday as the one that’s gotten us “almost to the finish line.”
“We’re almost there!”
“We’ve almost made it through Lent.”
“We continue our Lenten practices and disciplines for just a couple of more weeks and WE WILL BE AT THE GREATEST CELEBRATION THE CHURCH HAS TO OFFER—EASTER!”
But today… we have to admit, there’s an overlay of something else that kinda blows all of that out of the water.
We don’t really have the usual markers of “just two more weeks, and we can celebrate!”
No, instead, we have pandemic.
Instead we have the growing threat.
Instead, we have this virus that’s still expanding exponentially in our country and in our world.
It’s not going to be over in two weeks.
We are not going to be all sitting in these pews for Easter. Of course, we’ll still celebrate Easter… just in a new a different way than we are used to…
And that’s a hard reality.
So one of the important questions we have to ask: Where is God in the midst of this Pandemic? Where do we find God in our fear? … in our worry?… In the growing reality of more deaths and more illness? Where is God?
One of the realities many of us are facing in the midst of this time of being locked down and physically distanced from each other, is it’s hard for us all. Many of us have personalities that say: “let’s get on with the action.” We’re ready to “move forward with things.” It’s hard to just be “in the moment.” We might describe ourselves as “doers” rather than “’be’-ers.”
This extraordinary season, however, is calling us to live differently. To “be” and to “do” in different ways.
Now, of course, the hankering to “do” isn’t a bad thing. When we look at the Bible, ideas like faith, belief¸ and discipleship are all related. They all point to how we live our lives in response to the Good News of God’s reconciling love and grace.
But I’ve talked with many of you these past couple of weeks, and I’ve heard your frustrations. “All I have been able to do is check in and pray for ‘So-and-So!…I haven’t really done anything for him.”
What we’ve come to, of course, is that being connected … being loved… and having someone praying for us is a pretty big deal.
During this time of pandemic, we are all affected. We are all struggling to seek God’s path… to find God’s presence… to be God’s hope in a world that desperately needs that hope.
Let’s also remember that the Season of Lent is supposed to be time to remind us to look inward and find that presence of God. We deepen our faith through our spiritual practices in order for us to be able to move forward in the paths of doing God’s work in the world.
Today we heard Ezekiel’s vision about being set down in the middle of a valley. As he looked around he saw nothing but dry bones.
Ezekiel provides this vision for the people of Judah at a time when their hope is gone. The Babylonians have conquered them. Jerusalem is plundered and in ruins. The holy temple is completely destroyed. The Jewish soldiers have all been killed. The Hebrew leaders have been put in chains. The elders, women, and young people have all been carried off to Babylon. Ezekiel witnesses all of this. He sees the soul of his people withering and dying like a valley of dry bones. It appears that there can be no hope…no resurrection.
God asks Ezekiel…God asks all of us who are facing a time of difficulty, or stress, or stagnation, or even death…: “Can these bones live?”
Ezekiel responds: “O Lord God, you know!”
What an answer! This is the answer. God does know. This is the God who created us. This is the God who from the beginning has sought nothing but to call us into abundant life, despite our continued choices for death.
But still, for us today, as we walk through this unprecedented time of uncertainty… of hopelessness… of fear… of worry… through this valley of dry bones, we wonder what else is next? Where is God in all of this?
But today we hear a promise that only God can give. God tells Ezekiel to speak to the bones, saying: “Thus says the Lord God: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live.” God promises that the bones will have skin and flesh and sinew. But most importantly, God promises to “cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.”
I admit that breath is something I cherish in ways I had not paid close attention to in the past. Covid-19 stole my breath. I am grateful it’s now returning. Worldwide, Covid-19 has taken the breath of more than 590,000 people so far. Of those, more than 29,000 have died.
Breath—the life-giving ruach—breath is the Spirit of God. It is what Genesis tells us that God breathed into the nostrils of the first human creature to make life.
The breath of God moves into the world. It frees people from those things that bind them. It raises them into new life.
So where is God’s breath in the middle of this crisis? How do we see God in this crisis? How do we recognize God when we are suffering, or fearful, or scared, or lonely?
The Gospel reading from John gives us incredible insight into this exact question.
It’s powerful and wonderful.
Jesus hears that someone he loves—Lazarus—is ill—near death even. Before Jesus arrives, however, the friend dies.
When Jesus gets to the scene, he sees the sorrow and grief of Lazarus’ family and friends.
And here’s the part of this story that just jumps out and screams to us: Jesus… God in the flesh… The one who came to redeem the whole world…
This is the Jesus who is overcome with the grief of emotion and loss. Jesus is connected to the community in an intimate, intense, personal way… even though he knew that death would ultimately be defeated. Jesus wept… You see, God weeps for us. It’s important for us to know that God is in the midst of our joys and our sorrows.
There’s not a day since I first became ill with this Coronavirus that something hasn’t made me tear up with emotion. Some days, it’s news of another death. Some days it’s a wonderful, joyful video of people being kind to each other. Some days, it’s a simple card I get in the mail. My emotions have been raw.
And I realize it’s the reality that we’re all connected to each other. We’re connected in life and in death. These emotions are a reminder of this precious, God-given, fragile connection.
We are connected because we are a human community—just as Lazarus’ family and friends were connected.
At the tomb, Jesus told Lazarus to come forth. Jesus told Lazarus to come out… to be unbound… to breathe.
We come forth. We breathe. We show the face of God in these extraordinary times by being the community that supports one another.
But we continue our efforts to defeat the virus by staying physically distant. By limiting our physical contact. By loving one another through staying in.
But we breathe the breath of God into the world by our daily connectivity… We check on those who are vulnerable… We pray for those who are sick… we praise God and pray for the medical professionals, the police officers, the delivery drivers, and so many others who keep us going in this uncertain time… we send cards and emails and tweets and Facebook comments… we support those who are in great need… And we admit to each other when we need extra help, and ask for it… Because that’s what community is about. That’s who we are called to be.
We ARE living in extraordinary times!
But we never back away from being God’s love in the world.
And that’s where God is in this midst of this crisis.
Some ideas here from James A. Wallace, “Ezekiel 37:1-4: Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Pentecost.