Saturday, December 29, 2018

What can we say March 29? Lent 5

    {My thoughts on preaching during the coronavirus crisis, even to an empty room, check out "Preaching Online, and Covid-19" - updated now to show what we did on Sunday, which went as well as I could have imagined... and then what went well has us raising questions about what we need to do differently once we're back to normal!}

   Lent is the season of ashes, and ashes are what’s left of us when we’re done. The Covid-19 crisis makes all of us feel our ashen existence. Our Old Testament texts thrust us deeply into the dark loss that is the inevitable fate of human life, and then into the glorious hope that hasn’t arrived yet but surely will, not due to our heroic efforts or even our clever believing. It’s all God – and it’s all for God.

   Ezekiel 37:1-14 is a powerful text, although we might miss how utterly shocking it is. Artists started depicting it at Dura Europos (3rd century, in modern day Syria) – and it inspired the catchy “Dem Bones” spiritual. Ezekiel is vouchsafed a vision of a valley of dry bones. 
 We might recall those horrific photos of dead Civil War soldiers strewn over battlefields at Antietam or Gettysburg. In Ezekiel’s vision, the death was some time ago, as the bodies have decayed to nothing but the bones. Don’t forget: in Judaism, a corpse was an unclean thing to be dealt with quickly or avoided. This valley isn’t a cemetery, but the epitome of uncleanliness. But the prophet doesn’t recoil, revolting and nauseating as the scene may be.

   The prophet isn’t like us, presuming upon resurrection as a natural right. It’s impossible, inconceivable. In the Old Testament, when you die, you’re dead. When the nation was devastated, it was over. Walter Zimmerli’s eloquent assessment is worth quoting at length: “We hear not the man of God who is gifted with special insight, but simply the man who knows about God: ‘You know.’ This has two sides to it: the admission of the powerlessness of man who, faced with such an irrefutable victory on death’s part, is incapable of saying anything about the possibility of life; at the same time, the knowledge that he is replying to the God whose abilities are not curtailed by man’s lack of abilities.” We are feeling powerlessness, and keenly these days.

   Human ability took humanity from God’s solemn warning way back in the Garden of Eden (“on the day you eat of this fruit, you will die,” Gen. 2:17) to its sorry fulfillment in the Exile. The nation doesn’t repent; the people don’t engage in a season of Lenten repentance. God just saves them – and it’s the wind, the ruah, the same moving air God used to create Adam in that Garden (Gen. 2:7) that now blows and fashions new, impossible, miraculous life.

   How to preach such a text? Can we trust Ezekiel’s vision to be its own illustration? His vision was his preaching illustration; can we improve on it? We can guide people into (hopefully) a dawning realization that on our own we have the ability to break God’s heart and wind up dead. That’s it. As a Church, or if we think of our nation, we cannot fix what ails us. It’s a fallen, broken world. It’s God, or nothing.

   Of course, we can rightly discern personal, psychological hope in our text. Ponder the anxiety, depression and discouragement people feel when they simply watch the news - the way the political becomes personal for most. Ezekiel's vision might just suggest that God can even take away such despair, and raise us from the graves that our hearts can become.

   Fascinating: in the book of Ezekiel, God saves, not so much because he adores the people or the nation. Rather, God may save in order to keep from looking bad. What lengths will this God go to in order to protect his image, and to reveal himself to the world? God uses the very same prophet who pronounced and enacted through signs God’s judgment now to deliver this message of new life. Prophets do judgment; prophets do hope. Prophets “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Too often, preachers and prophets whiff on this; John Goldingay is right: “The true prophet knows what time it is.” In the hopeless depths of exile, it’s time for hope.

   And Israel’s deliverance is utterly unconditional. Nothing in them deserves restoration; they have zero capacity to help themselves. Ezekiel can only stammer “Lord, you know…” Zimmerli’s elegant conclusion? “Only when, as a result of this event, the great awareness dawns and men no longer appear with their own achievements, no matter how magnificently righteous these might be, but when they realize that God reveals himself in the miracle of his free promise of life – only there does God’s action achieve its goal. There all ecclesiastical prerogatives collapse, and there remains only the praise given to the God who in the majestic freedom of his faithfulness has revealed himself.”

   Ezekiel’s illustration is the kind of appalling scene from which you avert your gaze. For another way of depicting our plight, we see the illustrative stuff in Psalm 130: finding yourself in a deep, dark pit, or on a watchtower, scanning the horizon for the first glimmer of light.

   Psalm 130 is Ezekiel 37’s lookalike sibling. Jason Byassee (in his great Brazos commentary) says he can’t think of the Psalm without singing it, mentioning Chris Miner’s “From the Depths of Woe” and Charles Pettee and Folk Song’s “Psalm 130.” I’d add Arvo Pärt’s “De Profundis” and John Michael Talbot’s “Out of the Depths.” We “get” the Psalm when it’s sung, as the music can probe more deeply than words; and it’s the universal agony of it all that then inspires more music.

   One of the Church’s historic “Penitential Psalms,” the 130th inspired John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience. Dart around the Scriptures and mention dark pit moments: Joseph sold into slavery, Daniel in the lion’s den, Jonah in the fish’s belly, Jesus in the dungeon the night before his crucifixion, or lying in the stone cold tomb.

   What are the depths? Leslie Brandt, in his lovely spiritual book Psalms Now, updates the language to “O God, tonight I see You with a heart full of guilt and a mind full of bewilderment and frustration.” Compare this, though, to Ernesto Cardenal, a Nicaraguan priest imprisoned for standing with the poorest of the poor: “From the depths, I cry in the night from the prison cell, from the torture chamber in the hour of darkness, hear my S.O.S.” We know peculiar depths now with the coronavirus crisis. Explore various locations for this Psalm. Invite the pew-sitters to explore their own. And it’s a healthy Christian thing not only to fixate on me and the pit I’m in, but to ponder the Cardenals of the world and the dire straits they are in. We offer it all up to God.

   Having as much capacity as Ezekiel’s field of dead bones, we can’t extricate ourselves. Ours is simply to wait, to watch. Byassee phrased it shrewdly: “Don’t do something. Just stand there. The Lord will act.” No wonder Martin Luther thought this Psalm captured the heart of the Gospel.

   Romans 8:6-11 is fine, but not as picturesque as Ezekiel, the Psalmist or the Gospel.

   John 11:1-45 is a really long reading! It feels like we’re leaping ahead to Easter prematurely. And yet Sunday has come. And we feel the mournful ashes in the sorrow of the sisters, and in Jesus’ simple weeping. On this text, I refer you to my blog from last time around – with illustrative material from the archaeology of Bethany (as the newly constructed “wall” there now!), N.T. Wright, Frederick Buechner and Wendell Berry. 
I would add, though, an intriguing thought from Jean Vanier's newest book, We Need Each Other, which we had to cancel using for a congregation-wide study after the revelations of his abuse of women. Noting the way John 11 (not to mention Luke 10) speaks of "the house of Martha," Vanier infers that Lazarus "has a severe disability." The Catholic Church has a feast day for Mary and one for Martha but none for Lazarus (which is shocking); Vanier points out "we tend to forget people with disabilities." He riffs on his frequently voiced themes of how the disabled are great gifts to us - and how we all are sick. I wonder how, late in life, he saw himself in his wise words about our shared sickness. Picturing Lazarus in the tomb he wrote: "Our fears, hatred and incapacities to love and forgive are the graves in which we are enclosed. Jesus calls to those parts of us that are dead, those parts of us that are controlled by fear of failure or not being loved. All those fears prevent us from entering into the vision of Jesus: a Church where the weakest people transform us by their presence."
  My friend Clint McCann and I have a book, Preaching the Psalms, which you might appreciate.

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