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Bleached Bones? Look Again
a sermon by Rev. Thomas N. Hall
based on Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:1-45

I would like to draw your attention to the two pictures on the front of your bulletin. Two pictures-one reflects our Old Testament lesson in Ezekiel 37 and the other the Gospel lesson in John 11. Take a close look at the top picture: three persons seem to be standing in quicksand, two with arms upraised and the other wrapped in grave clothes. The words at the bottom are helpful: “O my people,” says God, “I will open your graves.” In the second picture we see a mummy resting inside a tomb. The deceased looks like a cocoon all wound up and hidden except for his face. Outside is another person with hands opened. Could be bidding farewell. But again the caption cuts to the chase: “Lazarus come out!” Jesus yells. The corpse though bound in grave clothes, has opened his eyes; we’re seeing a resurrection in progress.

These two pictures are hardly the stuff that wins the academy awards for best bulletin art. Ghoulish corpses and cemeteries on the front of a bulletin? Don’t you like the old bulletin covers better? The picture of our church is at least not repulsive. Old yes. But not scary. It’s familiar and safe. We get a little tired with our building looking at us each week, but still, it's more comfortable than having four corpses staring at us.

I sort of took the familiar, safe route to worship growing up. I clutched my familiar churchly bulletin tightly in hand. Never bothered with lean, gaunt Lent and completely avoided Good Friday. Easter was my kind of worship. Familiar. Safe. Uplifting. Forgiving. Nothing negative about Easter. But today's gospel lessons remind us that the road to Easter must first travel the Lenten road, a road that leads through hopelessness and death.

Our first stop this morning carries us to the edge of a cliff. We peer down into a deep imaginary filled with bleached bones. We’re not talking skeletons here but disconnected and weathered bones strewn on the floor of a forgotten valley. It’s quiet. Dead quiet. Imagine no birds singing or butterflies soaring; just a few buzzards taking a lazy look at the banquet they've enjoyed.

Ezekiel's vision allows us to see hopelessness. The text attempts to evoke at least a modicum of such hopelessness. What a contrast to last week! In our lesson last week, God selects David as Israel's greatest king. This week we see miles of skulls and bones. Between these two lessons the Exile has happened-the most devastating event in Jewish history until the holocaust. The Assyrians defeated the Northern Kingdom and the population was dispersed throughout the empire (722 bce). Then a century later Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king captured Judah, destroyed Jerusalem, sacked the Temple, and carried off the population to Babylon in two waves (597 & 587 bce).

National disaster. A crisis of faith. God had broken God’s promise. God had promised that the ruling family would always have a king. But now the last of their kings is doing serious jail time. And the Temple-once considered God's personal apartment-has been trashed; it lies smoldering in a heap of dust. Like Lazarus, these exiles are dead. They breathe, but they're dead. That recording spins round and round in their minds as they try to reinvent life a thousand miles away: It’s no use. Just give up. Go ahead and die out here. Who cares?”

They’re right. They aren’t home. And they have-most of them-loss their property and land. What hope could anyone have when the things you’ve loved most deeply have been ripped away from you? No, there’s no hope around these bones. No faith in the future. No aspirations. And besides, if they ever do get back to their old neighborhood things won’t be the same. They never are. Life is such a graveyard; hopelessness can rob anyone of faith and turn dreams into a bag of bones-bleached and cracked.

Mariam Mohammed Jawar no longer wears her wedding ring. Sold it years ago to buy food for her family. But she still carries two tiny photos-one of her husband, Abdullah, a stone mason and the other, a picture of her son. They are no longer home. Both men were seized by soldiers in the Kurdish town of Harir. Now their bones are scattered in a six foot wide, twelve foot deep trench with 400 other bodies. So Mariam Mohammed doesn't wear her wedding ring anymore. Bleached bones leave little hope.

That’s the feeling that I got as I drove around the city yesterday. Lot of bleached bones lying heaped up. Graffiti scrawled on the sides of abandoned buildings. Expletives misspelled on the side of a corner market. I noticed several empty churches-congregations no doubt that decided to take the Gospel to safer neighborhoods. Steel bars guarded flats from intruders. A “No Parking” sign in the church parking lot, written in shaky letters warned drivers that cars parked in their lot were for God-business; all others would be towed at the owner's expense. I saw a door chained and padlocked. An old man in a tee shirt and baggy pants sat on its steps. Around the corner were several urine-stained mattresses beside a building. Someone's grave. On the faces of the persons and neighborhoods I encountered there wasn't an ounce of hope left. Bleached bones leave little hope.

“Lazarus is dead.”

We may not have to drive to the outer fringes of the city to find hopelessness. We might just drive into our own inner city. Inside maybe your faith this morning resembles this shriveled plant. [ED-for this homily I brought a dead plant with me and set in on the altar rail.] Maybe you see yourself buried in the heap of hopelessness. Maybe for you, Lazarus is still dead; maybe he’s been dead for a very long time. Maybe years.

Now look to the last chapter of the story in Ezekiel 37 and John 11. What do you see? Bones? Look again! What do you hear? The silence of a funeral home? Listen again! What do you smell? Death? Take another whiff! See the unexpected spectacle! See someone speaking God's Word and even while speaking, as the Negro spiritual goes, the leg bone's getting connected to the hip bone, the hip bone connected to the back bone.

“Roll the stone away!”

Hear the unexpected sounds of transformation! Thousands of rattling bones re-forming into skeletons; bones and joints coming together. Hear the rush of God’s Ruach sweeping down in gale force upon those bones. The sound is deafening-they clatter and clack, clang and clink, and jiggle and jar, rattle and roll.

“I AM the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me shall never die!”

Smell the unexpected scent of life! Brown grass, bent and bruised is blown by the Spirit; green grass again carpets the valley floor; nature again sings and soars and pollinates and dies and resurrects in the endless, life-cycle of creation. Smell life.

“Lazarus, come forth!”

The Good News is that the unexpected happens! Charley Chaplin finally waddles down the sidewalk without tripping over his big feet. Laurel and Hardy finally heave-ho the player piano up the ten flights of stairs. Arabs and Jews and Christians lay down their suspicions and mean-spiritedness. A church in the city suddenly starts to get a vision of life for the seedy neighborhood where they once saw only bleached bones and death.

The Good News is that God promises us not just life after death, but life before death. Abundant life. Empowered life. Life that is buoyant with hope. That is what resurrection is-life in the midst of graveyards and dead ends. Hope in the midst of hopelessness.

I almost forgot to finish the story about my trip to the city. So there we are lost in a dangerous section in Kensington. And there, finally, we beheld a sign from heaven. Actually it was in English, not Hebrew, but God’s fingerprints were all over it. The sign. Bolding standing in a deteriorated neighborhood amidst all the graffiti and adult porno shops. The sign said, “Hope Lutheran Church.” Apparently, the congregation had decided to stay put in the neighborhood even though Mr. Rogers had followed Big Bird to the suburbs. And what a great location for hope-right around the corner from the mattresses and the man with the baggy pants! Hope Lutheran. I was proud to be a Lutheran, even though I’m a Methodist. That day I was Lutheran. Of the Hope Lutheran persuasion. I don't know how this congregation does it, but just their presence in that neighborhood carries the witness that because Jesus is the resurrection and the life, there is Hope. Hope Lutheran. Hope UMC Methodist. Hope city. Hope.

“And the dead man came out.” Amen.