Amazingly, it was only two weeks ago that we were gathered in person in this space in what I suspected would be our last physical gathering for some time. It seems like a lot longer, doesn’t it?
Our Old Testament reading that day was from the Book of Exodus. The Israelites have been freed from slavery, but now the reality of life in the wilderness is taking hold. They are thirsty, hungry, seemingly lost and they have a question for Moses:
“Is the Lord among us or not?”
Is the Lord among us or not? That is the question for our time. And almost every scripture passage we have heard since then is either an echo of that question or a response to it.
Is the Lord among us or not? Last week we heard a response – the 23rd Psalm – “Lo, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me?”
Even with that powerful, unambiguous response the doubts and questions remain. We hear them in both our Old Testament and Gospel readings today.
We begin with the prophet Ezekiel, who witnessed the destruction of his country. When Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 587 BC, the Israelites who were not killed, including Ezekiel, were taken into exile and forced to work in the fields.
Being in exile was a crushing experience. Unlike their ancestors, who had also journeyed in the wilderness, they were moving away from – not toward – the Promised Land. Their entire identity and relationship with God had been based on that land of promise.
How could God still be with them if they were not in their land? Did God still care about them? Was it possible for them to still have a relationship with God? Was there any hope for them at all? Was the Lord among them or not?
It is out of that setting that Ezekiel is called to prophecy. In a vision, God sets him down in a valley filled with bones.
God says to Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
The answer to God’s question seems obvious. The bones are shattered in pieces, with the marrow dried out of them. It would be hard to imagine anything more hopeless or dead.
But Ezekiel does not want to cast aspersions on God’s power. And so instead of answering, “Are you crazy? Of course not!” he replies, “O Lord God, you know.”
God commands Ezekiel to speak to the bones, to tell them God’s breath will enter into them. And as the prophet speaks, he hears a noise, a rattling, and the bones begin to come together and to be covered with flesh.
And then comes a sound like the wind, and God’s breath enters the bones and they live.
These dry, dead bones are like the people of Israel, or any people whose hope is lost, God tells Ezekiel and us.
“Go tell the people I will bring them up from the grave,” God says. “I will put my spirit in them and they will live.”
The answer to the question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” is a resounding yes. Out of a situation that seems hopeless, God speaks and brings new life.
The same scenario occurs in today’s gospel story. Lazarus, the brother of Jesus’ good friends Mary and Martha, becomes very ill.
The sisters send word to Jesus to come quickly to heal him, but Jesus tarries. By the time he arrives, Lazarus has been dead for four days.
The sisters greet Jesus with an accusation. “Lord, if you had been here our brother would not have died.”
Jesus begins to weep.
Jesus weeping is one of the most poignant scenes in scripture. Jesus feels pain, sorrow and despair. He knows the agony of grief and loss.
And yet he does not let the grief keep him from hope.
He goes to the cave where Lazarus is entombed and orders the stone sealing it to be rolled away. Martha tries to stop him, saying that her brother’s body has already begun to decay.
But Jesus persists. He prays, then orders Lazarus to come out of the tomb. And the dead man, wrapped in cloths like a mummy, rises and comes out.
Coming as it does the week before Palm Sunday, the day we hear the story of Jesus’ death, the story of Lazarus is a dramatic example of God’s compassion and power even over death.
But to say that this story is only about Jesus’ power in this extraordinary situation limits its meaning. We all have been faced with the death of someone we love, and we know that no matter how hard we pray, Jesus is not going to bring them back to us in this life.
Yet the Lazarus story, like the story of Ezekiel and the dry bones, is a story about hope in the darkest times of our lives, an assurance that the Lord is, indeed, with us.
That is an assurance that we need repeatedly in this strange time when the whole world is gripped by fear and pandemic.
Pope Francis addressed that need in a sermon Friday evening given on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica, a place normally teeming with thousands of people, but now empty and quiet.
The pope’s remarks were based on a passage from Mark’s Gospel, the story of the disciples on a boat with Jesus one evening when suddenly a turbulent storm blows in. The seas become so rough the disciples fear the boat will capsize. Yet Jesus sleeps through it all.
In panic they awaken him, crying: “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
Is the Lord among us or not?
“For weeks now it has been evening,” the pope said. “Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets, and our cities; it has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void, that stops everything as it passes by.
“We find ourselves afraid and lost, like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realized that we are in the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other.
“This storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits, and priorities. It shows how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain, and strengthen our lives and communities.
“The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us.
“In this storm, the façade of those stereotypes with which we camouflaged our egos, always worrying about our image, has fallen away, uncovering once more that blessed common belonging of which we cannot be deprived: our belonging as brothers and sisters.”
The pope says God is calling us to “seize this time of trial as a time of choosing.”
“It is not the time of your judgment, but of our judgment: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, God, and to others.
“We can look to so many exemplary companions for the journey, who, even though fearful, have reacted by giving their lives. This is the force of the Spirit, poured out and fashioned in courageous and generous self-denial.
“It is the life in the Spirit that can redeem, value, and demonstrate how our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people – often forgotten people – who have understood that no one reaches salvation by themselves.”
“Faith begins when we realize we are in need of salvation,” the pope said. “We are not self-sufficient; by ourselves we flounder; we need God, like ancient navigators needed the stars. Let us invite Jesus into the boats of our lives. Let us hand over our fears to him so that he can conquer them. Because this is God’s strength: God brings serenity into our storms, because with God life never dies.
“Embracing the Lord in order to embrace hope: that is the strength of faith, which frees us from fear and gives us hope.
“May God’s blessing come down upon us as a consoling embrace. May God bless the world, give health to our bodies, and comfort our hearts.
“You ask us not to be afraid. Yet our faith is weak and we are fearful. But you, Lord, will not leave us at the mercy of the storm” or in the valley of dry bones.
“Tell us again, ‘Do not be afraid.’”
The Lord is with us.