This Illness Does Not Lead to Death
“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’”
Never in my life have I felt I understood Ezekiel’s experience more.
It has been another very scary week.
The coronavirus cases have climbed and climbed until the U.S. has more than any other nation in the world.
We have watched as frontline healthcare workers struggle to do their lifesaving jobs while being catastrophically underequipped.
Most of us are in one of three situations.
We are either sheltering in place and working from home, trying to keep kids active and learning or bearing the isolation of living alone.
Or we work in essential services so we are risking contagion every day as we continue to do our jobs.
Or we have been laid off and are suddenly facing complete unemployment and financial freefall.
We’re looking at the dry bones of how we used to live our lives. Comfort, security, normalcy, predictability, even safety are like so many scattered skeletons around us.
And the terrifying thing is these are only the first of the dry bones that will fill our valley.
People in our congregation will become ill during this pandemic.
There is every likelihood that someone we know, possibly someone dear to us, may be lost to the virus.
“Mortal, can these bones live?” “O Lord God, you know.”
So what is our response to this crisis? What do we do to positively affect our families and our community?
We are all wondering how we can be equal to this moment, your clergy team included.
What can we offer that is deeper than tired clichés or the false hope of all being back in church by Easter?
First, we are gathering together in this worship service. We are continuing to walk in the ancient rhythms of faith that were passed down to us by our ancestors in the communion of saints.
We have the enormous blessing of technology that allows us to see one another’s faces and hear each other’s voices, something that no one in the plagues of ages past had access to.
In a time like this, we are beset by a constant storm of conflicting feelings. Anxiety and despair war with hope and optimism.
Our hearts are touched and lifted by acts of generosity only to sink with fear and grief as the death toll mounts.
And the endless uncertainty of when this strange limbo will end wears on us.
It wears on our patience (anyone’s house feel smaller than it did a month ago?) and it can wear on our faith.
We know that the fast-acting catastrophe of the virus will only be followed by the slower-moving crash of the economy.
There seems very little refuge from bad news. And we are the people of the Good News.
But hear me on this: real Good News is not false hope ginned up to create political cover.
Real Good News is the bedrock truth of our faith that we do not fear death, we do not hide from death, we will not be controlled by death, because we know that on the other side of death lies resurrection.
The Good News of Jesus Christ helps us move through the bad news and face it courageously, not deny it and paper over it.
And here the raw honesty of scripture is, as always, our best and most faithful ally.
“Out of the depths have I called to you,” our psalmist says. “O Lord; Lord, hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.”
We name our grief and fear and uncertainty to God boldly and God receives it with unending tenderness and care.
And offering our pain to God is the very doorway to renewed faith and hope.
“I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope,” our psalmist continues.
But as resonant as Ezekiel and our Psalm are today, nothing captures our experience of this moment like our gospel, the story of Lazarus being raised.
It is one of the greatest stories of hope in the Bible, but the brilliant part that is easy to forget is the wrenching doubt that comes before the miracle.
The siblings of Bethany are among Jesus’ closest friends.
Peter and James and John are the inner circle of the twelve, but they spend most of their time making boneheaded decisions and missing Jesus’ point.
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are the people to whom Jesus goes when he needs rest, relaxation, and loving companionship. The house in Bethany is his haven.
“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,” John tells us.
But Jesus lets Lazarus die.
The disciples see it, the townspeople see it, and Mary and Martha for sure see it.
Both of them say the exact same thing the moment they see Jesus.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
How easy it would be for us to say the same thing!
As this ever encroaching tragedy creeps closer to our families and communities, it is natural to wonder how a good God could let it happen.
Although Jesus understands Mary’s and Martha’s loss of confidence in him and their accusing remark, it hurts him acutely.
“Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” at their pain, John says. “Jesus began to weep.”
Jesus’ greatest gift to us is his eternal solidarity with our suffering.
We see it here, and we see it in his gift of himself on the Cross.
As Jim Finley says, “God protects us from nothing, but sustains us in everything.”
God’s unending, loving, strengthening and comforting presence is the core of Love Crucified.
Jesus shows up. He shows up for Mary and Martha and Lazarus, and he shows up for us.
Of course, he doesn’t always show up in the way and at the time that we think he should, just like in our gospel.
We want an on-demand God who shows up according our schedule and our plans, but that’s not how it works.
The road to resurrection goes straight through the Cross, and beloved, we are only at the beginning of the walk to Calvary.
There is a long road ahead of us, and the only chance we have of walking it is to lean on one another and follow the one who forged the path ahead of us.
Holy Week is right around the corner.
The hallowed rhythms our communities have observed for two thousand years, joining together in person to walk with Christ through crucifixion to resurrection, have been ripped away from us.
In a time when we need the bedrock of common prayer and comforting tradition, we find ourselves adrift on a sea of rapid electronic adaptation, the hastily assembled efforts to be a fully digital church.
Heartbroken, we look across the vista of things we have taken for granted our entire lives.
Giggles of children running around the parish hall as palms are handed out and harried clergy try to wrangle the congregation into a palm procession on Palm Sunday.
Faithful altar guild members going over notes and receiving Easter lily orders to be kept in the sacristy until Sunday.
Warming up the water for Maundy Thursday footwashings and setting out the food for a common meal.
The eerie holiness of arriving at church at 2 a.m. for your hour to pray in the Watchnight in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The mingled grief and gratitude of Good Friday Stations of the Cross and Seven Last Words of Christ and hours of confession and prayer.
Ironing clothes and decorating naves during the expectant pause of Holy Saturday leading into the storytelling of Easter Vigil.
And the radiant joy of Easter Day. The overflowing crowds and the glorious music. The hugs and the handshakes. The communion and the joy.
Gone. It’s all gone. We can’t do it this year.
We can’t join together in person for this pilgrimage, and it hurts.
The pain of isolation and fear quickly turn to fatigue and a deeper, wearing anxiety as the virus cases climb every day and we struggle to respond.
And there are those among us for whom the reality of not being together for Holy Week and Easter has not even penetrated through the blaring panic of losing a job and not being able to pay bills.
This year the Cross may be more real to us in Holy Week than it has ever been.
And though the pain and grief of the Cross will cut deep, if we hold fast to one another and to our faith, so too will the resurrection of Easter Day, however we observe it, be more real than ever before.
There is a sentence in this gospel that I have been clinging to all week.
The disciples say to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
And that’s us. Some of us are ill literally, and many of us feel sick in our spirits, wounded, fearful, weak.
And Jesus says, then and now, “This illness does not lead to death.”
But of course it does lead to death—Lazarus dies.
The same is true for the illness confronting us now.
So what did Jesus mean?
He meant there was more to the story.
The illness would lead to death, but death’s power would be very short-lived.
“This illness does not lead to death,” it leads through death and into resurrection.
This is the witness of the disciples.
This is the witness of the church.
This is the witness of the generations of the faithful who suffered through war and famine, pestilence and plague, and kept the flame of faith alive.
And this is the call to us in this hour, to proclaim, “This illness does not lead to death,” because in Jesus Christ, death leads only and ever to resurrection and new life.
I see resurrection and new life every time I see your beautiful faces.
Be strong this week, and have faith. Love one another.
As our psalmist says, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
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