The Fifth Sunday in Lent
The Very Reverend Torey Lightcap

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

Our readings for today should leave us with no doubt
That God is in the resuscitation business,
The rescuing business,
The retrieval-of-lost-things-and-people business,
The taking-what-is-thought-to-be-gone-and-making-all-things-new business.

Did you hear it in the psalm?
The writer is at the bottom of a dark well,
But even there, with time, he finds forgiveness, patience, redemption, and renewal.

Did you hear it in the words of Ezekiel?
It is the hand of the Lord that wraps the sinew and lays the flesh
Over the valley of the multitudes of the dead;
It is the word of the Lord that commands the winds to come and breathe on the slain,
And make them live again – bone to bone, breath to breath reviving.

Did you hear it in the words of Paul, in his letter to the Romans?
Even the body, he says by way of metaphor – even the body, dead weight from sin,
Can be gotten back by God, life breathed into mortal flesh by God’s spirit.

When I was a kid, we went to church. A lot.
Every year, generally in the heat and slump of the summer, we had what we called revival.
For one week, every night, Monday through Saturday,
We would forego our evening obligations –
To television, to baseball games, to reading, or just goofing around –
And we would trek down to the church –
A big white square with a baptistry and a choir and a pulpit with ferns on either side –
And we would submit our flesh, as it were, to God’s reviving powers.
There was usually an electrified speaker from out of town, a Brother Tom or Brother John,
Who would preach – now, picture this – for about 45 minutes per night
On any number of topics he had on his résumé.
It reminded me of that scene in “The Apostle,” when the preacher tells the radio station manager,
“I can preach on the Holy Trinity, Old and New Testament, hell, resurrection.
You name it, I can do it. I can preach on the Devil backwards and forwards,
Anything, but no tongues.”

So. This Brother John or Brother Tom
(One year, in absolute wild abandon, I think we even had a Brother Tim) –
The preacher would hold forth, hold forth ,
Over several evenings drawing our attention inward to a focused point.
Fixing us on the absolute centrality of our sinfulness, totally convicted by our depraved natures.

We would be taken into the depths of guilt.
Not “You didn’t set the table for dinner” guilt,
But “You know what you did and it’s so bad you’d never even put words on it” guilt.
A good soak in that guilt, and you were at the end of your rope.
By Thursday or Friday, you were looking for an exit from it, and needed to stay tuned in.

Out of that guilt, in our desperation, we would be shown the death of Jesus on the cross.
We would be told that in giving up Jesus to death,
God was making an exchange for our sins,
So that when we died, instead of going to hell like we deserved,
We could go to heaven,
And heaven was a much nicer place.
But we wouldn’t get the final word until we died.
So we had to do something on our end to get to heaven, something to make it stick.
Pray a particular kind of prayer.

It was all way more nuanced and sophisticated than that, than how I remember,
But I also recall that it was kind of stark and earth-shattering.

As with most things in life, over the years, I kept some of it, and I let some of it be .
The idea that out on the furthest reaches of my existence,
God was still interested in running a grand restoration project called Torey.
That there was no place I could go that God was not present and loving me –
Granted, this was a strange way to talk about love, but the basic concept still stuck –
That I was loved no matter where I went, and Jesus was the proof of it.
I thought, What if I become a diver and go further down into the water than anyone ever has?
What if I drill to the middle of the planet?
What if I stand on a high, lonely mountain somewhere and shout and shout
But I’m so far away that no one can hear me?
I think I even asked my mom,
What if I become an astronaut and get shot out of the galaxy,
And it’s just me and space and space, and space?
Sometimes I would lay in the back yard and look up at the stars –
What if I die? What then? …
As I got older, “if” became “when.”
And I ended up learning it again and again, every few years,
As a teenager, as a young man, as a man in the middle of life:
Wherever you go, God already is . AND … God is restoring you to wholeness.

I would learn it, and then forget it, and then have to re -learn it: a constant work in progress:
God is present. The spirit of the Lord is for life and revivification.
Carrying that teaching around was like carrying water in a pot with lots of holes:
Before long, there wasn’t enough of it again, and I had to go back to the source.
This is the human condition: to be assured, and then to wonder anyway,
What if I die? What then? … Even then, O God? Even then? … Even then.

Did you hear it in the reading from John? Did you hear it from the words of Jesus to Martha?
“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.
Do you believe this?”

If you didn’t catch it then, perhaps you felt it in the tears of Jesus – the grief,
As he weeps over his friend Lazarus, “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”
If not then, perhaps you caught it in the fortitude of Jesus, saying,
“I don’t care if there’s a stench – witness the glory of God!”
Or maybe you heard it in Jesus’ prayer, or in his shouted words to Lazarus,
Or maybe you caught the reflection of it in the eyes of those standing close by,
Who, it says, simply believed in him.
In the closest translation we have from the original, and throughout the Gospel of John,
It’s “believed into him.”
A small point, seemingly, but it has always reflected to me that we truly are in progress.

These words are going out on a day when this planet
Is becoming stunted by its own grief with respect to COVID-19, Coronavirus.
This new thing is changing how we think – is changing us, right now.
This is a “wedge” moment in our society.
Just like with JFK, or 9/11, there may come a time
When we talk about what reality felt like before and after.

There are a lot of survivors of coronavirus, and there have been a lot of deaths , too.
Soon enough, the first waves of disbelief
Over those staggering statistics attributed to the pandemic
Will give way to something else.
Shall we name a few of those “something else’s”?
… Some will retreat, and believe further into the narrative of fear.
… Some will respond in anger, lashing out at the world.
… Some will plug their ears and try to whistle all the way through.
… Some will look for things to soothe themselves with –
And some of that will be helpful,
And some of it may mean calling a sponsor and talking it out.
… Some will keep getting up and taking showers and walking the dog.
… Some will reach out, find some way to extend themselves, bridge a social distance.
… Some might do any or all of those things depending on the day.
It doesn’t fall to me to tell you how to process your own individual grief.
I can only say, in small words,
Let it come, and at a later time that will make itself known to you, let it go.
Then repeat as necessary.

And let this image linger with you.

God in Christ, weeping at the grave of his friend, acknowledging the depth of his losses.
God in Christ, there to receive Lazarus as he stumbles out of the tomb and into the light.
God in Christ, reconciling the world to death through the blood of the everlasting covenant.
God in Christ, quick to forgive, reconcile, and restore,
In death and in life.

We seem destined to forget, but God is faithful, and ready to teach us again:
Wherever you go, God already is . AND … unlikely as it seems,
And for as long as it has to take,
God is restoring the universe to wholeness.