Can These Bones Live? – a sermon for Lent 5A: John 11:1-45

can these bones liveI am indebted to John Dominic Crossan and Gretta Vosper for the content and the challenges of this sermon.

Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45

In churches all over the world, preachers are hauling Lazarus out of his well-worn tomb. Some preachers will go over the details of this story in an effort to persuade their congregations that Jesus was a miracle worker who could raise the dead. Some preachers will deconstruct the details of this story in an effort to relieve their listeners of the responsibility of believing that Jesus was a miracle worker who could raise the dead. Other preachers will dazzle their congregations with their knowledge of the biblical details, the history of the community that produced the text, the traditional doctrines and dogmas that the church has used to interpret this text and once dazzled by the preacher’s intellect congregations will be set up to prepare themselves for the forth-coming Holy Week. Other preachers will zero in on a particular detail in the text and relate it to something that is going on in the world. I must confess that over the years I have used all of these approaches. Earlier this week, I traveled back to Lazarus’ tomb to sniff around for a sermon that would make some sense of this text in light of what many of us have been studying in the Sunday Morning Adult Education Class and the Wednesday Morning Lenten Study. I had hoped that somewhere between “Painting the Stars’” evolutionary approach and “Atheism for Lent’s” intellectual critique, I would discover a way to dazzle you with a new way of understanding Lazarus, but all I really came up with was, “He stinketh!” So, I pulled out my best sermon on the raising of Lazarus and began to rework it using some of the details I have learned since I last preached on this text. I produced quite an entertaining scholarly sermon with just the right amount of humour to keep you smiling, as I dazzled you with fascinating details about the story and deconstructed what some believe is a miracle so that the story could be of some use to us as we journey through Lent in the 21st century. It’s a pretty good sermon, but I left it on my hard-drive and maybe I’ll preach it some day. But not today. You see, a few of us spent the last few days listening to John Dominic Crossan as he dazzled us with his brilliance which shed such a bright light on the history of the life and times of Jesus that left us all sighing so appreciatively as we realized that what we thought we knew is just peering through a class darkly and there is a totally clear way of approaching this story; a way that will not offend our 21st century intelligence.

Yesterday, a clever preacher took advantage of the Question and Answer portion of Dom’s presentation to pardon the pun: raise Lazarus. When Dom was asked what he thought about the story of Lazarus, every preacher in the room leaned forward in their pews so as not to miss a single word Dom said and when he was done, most of us sat back in our pews in various states of panic knowing that only two options were open to us, we could either ignore Dom’s brilliant insight or we could try to fit it into our carefully prepared text and dazzle our congregation with our newfound wisdom about Lazarus’ rotting corpse. I quickly jotted down a few notes with which to dazzle you all with and smiled adoringly up at the brilliant wee man. When Dom was done, I applauded vigorously knowing that my deconstruction of the Lazarus story would be made all the more complete just as soon as I got home to insert Dom’s brilliant insights. But before we left the event, there was a speaker scheduled to respond to Dom’s wisdom. I was particularly interested in how this particular speaker would respond. I knew that she was indeed a fan of Dom’s work. I knew that her career, like mine, had been greatly influenced by Dom’s scholarly expertise and his unique ability to make history come alive in ways that challenged our modern assumptions. So, I figured that I we were in for a treat and I settled in to enjoy her response, confident that when she was done, I could head home and that I’d only need to spend about an hour on my sermon to make it really impressive. I had absolutely no idea that before she was done Gretta Vosper would have exposed the stink of my rotten sermon in ways that would leave me wondering, “Can these bones live?”

Many of you know that Gretta Vosper is a United Church minister who has gained notoriety for being both a leader in a Christian church and an atheist. A few years ago, Gretta was part of our “ReThinking Christianity” speaker series when she lectured on her first book, “With or Without God.” Yesterday, Gretta began by describing the journey that her congregation has been on over the course of the past fifteen years or so.  In her story, I heard echoes of the journey we here at Holy Cross have been on since we began trying to make sense out of the things we have been learning together over the past ten years or so and what this new understanding means to be a church in the 21st century. Earlier in the morning, our own Catherine D asked Dom Crossan to explain his understanding of God. During one of the breaks Catherine asked me to help her to articulate the question she wanted to ask Dom. Like many of us, Catherine does not believe in the personification of God that lies on the surface of Christianity. Catherine insists that rather than seeing God as an old man in the sky, she sees good in the people she encounters and knows that God also dwells in her, but what she wanted to hear from Dom was did he believe God could be something more that just a in you or in me, could God also be transcendent out there and or up there??? So, Catherine prefaced her question with a complement when she asked, “As an historian who has very carefully studied the scriptures how do you understand God?” It was a question that was on the tip of all our tongues, and you could have heard a pin drop as Dom responded that when he is talking about God, he is not talking about a person, but that he is talking about a process; a mysterious evolutionary process, a process of transcendental justice. Dom said that, he had no problem if people felt the need to personify that process, because after all he lives in Florida and in Florida they personify the force of a hurricane. When you take away the personification the hurricane and all the results or effects of the hurricane remain. So, even though some of us have given up on the notion that personifies God as an old man in the sky who intervenes in human history, the act of giving up the personification does not eliminate the process. Personification was a necessary part of our evolution; part of growing up is putting away the need to personify.

Dom described God as a transcendental process in which we are involved, we can resist that process, without fear of being punished by that process, but rather by the consequences of our actions. Dom names the process transcendental justice and suggests a rephrasing of Martin Luther Kings’ statement that the “Moral arch of the universe is long and it bends toward justice” by insisting that the evolutionary part of the universe is long and bends toward justice.” Dom went on to describe sin as violence and prayer as participation in the evolutionary process of justice.

The next question was this preacher’s attempt to get some sermon material for today and Dom launched forth on a description of the Lazarus story as a the author of the Gospel According to John’s attempt to lampoon literal resurrection stories. Lazarus stinketh, he’s been lying in his tomb for four days, he is really dead. The stink is the authors clue that this isn’t really about literal resurrection because it is not about literal death, we all know what happens to a body after four days in the heat, the smell would be unbearable, but when Lazarus comes out from the tomb after four hot days, nobody in the story mentions the stink, because death isn’t about the smelly thing anymore.

Eternal life is not after life. Eternal life is about life in Christ. In the Jewish tradition, there was no afterlife. Eternal life is about a quality of life. Life in Christ. Life in the process if you will. Life free from being bound up in fear, life free from violence. Life in the evolutionary process of justice. Nothing, not even death can separate us from life that is bound up in God, or process or Christ. Express it however you want, as long as you remember that it is about life here and now; and not in some other place after life is done. Shake off the stuff that has you all bound up in fear and violence and live.

But what if the stuff that has us all bound up in fear and violence and is getting in the way of us living here and now as we participate in justice, what if the stuff that is holding us back and keeping us dead in the world, what if the stuff that has us bound up are the bands of cloth that we have created like personification of the divine, the doctrines, the dogmas, the liturgies, the scriptures and the stories? Can these bones live?

That is the challenge that Gretta so passionately brought to us. If unbinding ourselves from the restrictions of these stories, doctrines and liturgies is the only way for us to walk out of the tombs in which the churches have died and lie rotting, do we have the courage to unbind one-another and come out into the world and participate in the evolutionary process of justice. Is the reign of God our focus or have our notions of the after-life and the personified God got us so tied up in knots that we are no earthly good? Can these bones live?

We are about to head into Holy Week, next Sunday is Palm Sunday and I propose that rather than allow ourselves to be tied up in an ancient demonstration by the rebel Jesus we unbind ourselves from our biblical preoccupations and ask ourselves what the process is up to here and now in our time. What revolutionary parades, demonstrations, protests, or actions do we need to participate in in order to be a part of the process? What does it mean for us to participate in Christ today?

On Maundy Thursday, what does it mean for us to participate in the process of evolutionary justice, who are we mandated to love here and now, what strangers are we call out to break bread with to share wine with, to participate in the process justice making with?

On Good Friday to we have the courage to let our personification of God die? What does it mean to proclaim that God is dead? How might God’s death free us to live? How might the death of our God unbind us from our own fear of death? Are we prepared to follow Jesus all the way to the cross or are we afraid to die?

And on the Saturday, are we prepared to wait and wonder what on earth is happening? Do we have the courage to trust the evolutionary process even though everything looks hopeless?

And on Easter morning, will we rush to the tomb hoping against hope that Jesus is alive and well so that we don’t have to face our worst fears? Are we prepared to gave upon the empty tomb not knowing what the future holds?

I could go on and on, but what I’m really hoping is that today, the question that you will walk out of here tormented by is, “Can these bones live?” Forget about all that is holding you back. Unbind yourselves, unbind one another. Come out into the world and live. Participate in the process; the evolutionary process of peace through justice. Eternal life in and of the world. Come out!!! Let the process unfold in, with and through you!!!


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