Throughout this season of Lent we have begun our services with timelapse films, shot in the desert. Timelapse photography, in the words of Sunchaser Pictures, who produced this series, is a process of “taking one picture over certain durations of time that then come together to create an accelerated video image.” Partially, it’s helpful to begin our services in this way, since it takes folks some time to filter in …. but more than that, these short films are intended to help orient ourselves. They are representative of the Lenten journey: of Jesus’ journey through the desert and to the cross, and of our own journeys, wherever we may be on them.
Lets for a moment imagine the last few weeks as a timelapse. What, if anything, has been captured? Has there been any movement? Have any revelations shown forth, like the stars that appear in the night sky after the sun goes down?
I know for me, there hasn’t been much going on. Not on the surface, at least. Lent has mostly felt routine. Going to work, only to return several hours later. Followed by sleeping. Waking. Rinse and repeat. That really has been the only real movement.
But I do feel as though there has been a lot going on in the background. There has been a lot of reflection. Perhaps, if I could capture the thoughts and emotions I have been through these last few weeks, we would get a very lively timelapse. Like many other introverts in this room, most of the activity takes place within my own mind. I may stay home, but I take all kinds of journeys in my brain. Thankfully for me, transformation most often begins within. And I am at home within.
But as Lent comes to a close, I am wondering where transformation will take me? What has been sprouting under the surface that will blossom? And will it thrive as I move through the rest of the year? Or will it simply wither when my Lenten fast is over and I begin drinking again and neglecting my inner life? Only time will tell for sure. But for tonight, like most Sundays here at COTA, I allow my own story to join in with the stories of God’s people, as told through Scripture. I consider, where am I in these stories? Where are you all, my community, in the story?
Tonight, in order to dive into these stories, we need to use our imaginations, which lets say is a rich spiritual practice.
As a sidenote: Why do we encourage our children’s imaginations, yet downplay our own imaginative expectations. I know it’s complicated, particularly with science being called into question the way it is. But I would argue that scientists have the best imaginations: how else would they come up with such bizarre hypotheses to test out? Turns out, whales are actually mammals and breathe air, just like we do. Oh and they also sleep underwater because they can shut off one part of their brain and keep the other part awake. WHAT? Also, flu shots. Some scientist decided, “Hey, we’re gonna stick some of this virus in you so that you don’t get the virus.” That right there is using the imagination. Dry bones developing flesh and Lazarus being raised from the dead? These stories are easier to imagine, for me. Of course we can’t prove them. But why do we need to? That’s probably best left to another reverb.
At any rate, I was thrilled to find myself in the midst of today’s stories, because of what they bring me to recall within the greater story told through the church calendar. The Valley of Dry Bones is one of my favorites of the Easter Vigil stories. Like the other Easter Vigil stories, it is a prelude to Christ’s own resurrection; a reminder that all things, even the driest, most lifeless of bones, come back to life. The death of Lazarus, however, is appointed for All Saints’ – the day we remember those who have died, and with a bitter kind of joy, we celebrate that we are knitted together, all of us saints – the living and the dead – basking in the love of God.
While these stories both offer hope – pointing to resurrection and new life – they are also soaked in despair.
The Ezekiel passage was written while God’s people were in exile. It is considered by biblical scholars to be “a communal lament,” in which the people pour out their pain and cry for deliverance. The voice of the community is actually revealed through the dry bones, which feels significant to me, for so many reasons. We use bones to describe the core of what our bodies go through physically. We literally use the expression “I can feel it in my bones” – our bones representing the deepest, most foundational aspect of our physical bodies. So the community lament, in this valley of bones, in this graveyard reminiscent of death, they cry out – “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.“
Like I said, this passage was written in exile. God’s people were separated from everything they knew and loved. Make no mistake, separation, and especially isolation, is a sure route to losing hope.
“We are cut off completely,” they say. Cutting ourselves off, or being cut off, forces us to live into a false reality. Our perception of life and the world we live in narrows and closes in on whatever it is we already made up in our minds about the quality of life. We become closed off to hope. We draw the curtain on any light and beauty that otherwise might expose itself to us.
I also want to point out that in this passage it is God who is asking the human, “can these bones live?,” and not the other way around. It is as if God needs us to answer that question for ourselves. If the answer is no, we’re done. We’re stuck in the pit. There is no hope. But if the answer is yes, then where do we go from there? I don’t know exactly, but at least there is possibility. And there is life in that.
In our Gospel story, in which Lazarus is dramatically raised from the dead, Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother (Lazarus) would not have died.” Jesus himself, weeps. Not just for Lazarus, necessarily, but for all of it. The Voice re-interpretation, which we have been hearing from this Lent, reads “When Jesus saw Mary’s profound grief and the moaning and weeping of her companions, he was deeply moved by their pain in his spirit and was intensely troubled.”
I, also, am intensely troubled when I consider what those I love are going through, the heartbreak they face – always due to loss, usually death – it’s too much to take and while it is not my loss, I weep. Because I love them and it hurts me to know their hurt. I think this is the kind of weeping Jesus is doing. I think Jesus was okay with the death of Lazarus. Lazarus had been dead four days, after all. But because Christ encountered his loved ones hurting and broken – in such a way that they felt cut off and without hope – he did what he could to address their need, in the same way we just do what we can for each other, even when we know it’s not enough. Jesus, of course, being God incarnate and all, does more than enough. Not in a Chris Tomlin, “all of you is more than enough” way, although I don’t disagree. I mean “more than enough” in that by accomplishing this act of raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus went too far. In raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus sentenced his own self to death.
In the verses immediately following today’s Gospel, we learn that the religious authorities are told what Jesus did and – quote – “from that day on they planned to put him to death.” Yes, Jesus died for our sins and all that. I suppose. But in a deeply moving and human way, he died because he brought comfort to those he loved. Because he wanted to help them understand the hope God brings to our lives. It’s tragic really.
Our question for today was, “Mortal, can these bones live?” The answer, I would say, is yes – but only if we breathe life into them, like Jesus does. And we need to be prepared for the fact that if/when we do, new life and resurrection won’t always be flowers and themed cocktails and parties. For Jesus raising Lazarus, resurrection was his destruction.
This is the part of the story, if we view it as a timelapse, that everything just gets dark. And all we have left to do is wait. And it’s hard. But like Annie Dillard says, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.”