March 25, 2023
Ezekiel 37.1-14. The prophet is sent in a vision to a valley of dry bones, symbolic of his people who are lifeless and despairing in exile. God tells him to speak hope to the bones, and then to speak hope to the wind (breath) that will give the bones life. In this image Ezekiel brings God’s promise of restoration to the people of Israel.
Psalm 130 is a cry from the depths of despair, especially the despair of our own sin and brokenness.
Romans 8.6-11 Paul speaks of the difference between life “in the flesh,” and “in the spirit.” The Spirit that raised Christ from death is in us and will raise us to new life, too. In
John 11.1-44 Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.
Today’s texts explore not only God’s gift of new life, but especially the death that must precede it.
The vision of dry bones is announced to people in exile: a vision of God bringing life and hope into a situation of death, loss, defeat and despair. It’s not a promise that things will be OK. It’s an acknowledgment that things already are awful—and that out of that God can make something new. Death will come first—then revival.
A woman was doing a “fill-in-the-blank” Bible study that asked “With what are we to come before the Lord?” The answer, I bet, was supposed to have been “with joy and thanksgiving” or something like that. But what I saw she had scrawled in the blank (and into the margin) was “With every human emotion imaginable, just like David did!!” Yep. The Psalms cover it all, including “the depths.” This psalm is an invitation to take our depths seriously, to befriend our “shadow” side: to be honest about our guilt, fears, wounds, rage, doubts, sorrows, evil fantasies—they’re all there in the depths. It’s out of this honest self-awareness that the Psalm can wait in hope for God, who loves us, the whole of us, including our shadows, including our depths. Redemption is nothing less than that.
Paul does not mean that the flesh is bad. (After all, God chose for the Word to become flesh.) What Paul means by “being in the flesh” is the illusion that we are contained and confined to our flesh, our physical bodies, as if each of us is a separate, discreet object. In fact, Paul, says, we’re not separate objects at all: we’re all members of one living Being, the Body of Christ, united in one Spirit. Like your fingers, which may look like separate things but they’re all part of one hand, guided by one mind. We’re like different parts of one body, (Paul develops this more in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12.) Living in the flesh we’re guided mostly (and mostly unconsciously) by our ego. Living in the Spirit we’re guided by the Spirit. Living in the Spirit is being mindful of our holy oneness in God, our belonging to God, with the Spirit of God uniting and guiding us.
“To set the mind on the flesh is death” because it’s like amputation: when we think of ourselves as separate from God we cut ourselves off from our true source, our true life. Living in the Spirit, we connect with the Life that flows through us from God. We are part of the risen Body of Christ, included in Christ’s resurrection. Hence “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through the Spirit that dwells in you”—because your mortal life belongs to Christ’s eternal body.
Why did Jesus wait to go to Bethany? Hm. Maybe he knew he couldn’t protect even his best friends from death and suffering.
When Jesus decides to go to Bethany, he’s getting pretty close to the people who want to kill him. Thomas gets it. “Then let us go die with him.” Maybe Thomas understands that death has to come before resurrection, which is why later when he’s told Jesus has risen, he wants to see Jesus’ wounds: not because he doubts his friend has risen, but because he wants to make sure it was the crucified Christ who has risen.
In John as we know it Lazarus has two sisters, Mary and Martha. This may not have been the case in John’s original story. Elizabeth Schrader is offering up scholarship that suggests that in John’s original story Lazarus had one sister, Mary Magdalene. Martha didn’t actually exist. (See a presentation here.) Mary was originally a prominent figure in the early church, the first to proclaim Jesus as Messiah, to witness his resurrection, and to be charged to preach the good news. In the second century or so, (male) church leaders began to dislike Mary’s prominence over Peter’s, so they diminished Mary’s importance by splitting her into two people—Mary and her sister Martha, borrowed from Luke—and distributed her actions to both sisters, notably Martha, so that Mary’s prominence was erased. Changes were made in the manuscripts of John 11 that effectively erased Mary Magdalene. What does this mean for our preaching? It doesn’t change the message of “Jesus as Messiah,” but it puts it on different lips. And it suggests that our traditions, our texts and maybe even our faith itself are subject to erasures, especially of women, that we need to be aware of.
Both Mary and Martha scold Jesus: “If you’d been here this wouldn’t have happened.” But maybe it would have. Everybody dies. Jesus can’t heal everybody. It’s a little dangerous to think that Jesus intentionally let Lazarus die just so he could perform a miracle. God doesn’t use us as disposable stage props. God doesn’t cause us suffering just to make a point. Nevertheless, God can bring blessing out of suffering, life out of death, and something real out of impossibility. Because of God, in your life and in our world, a hopeless cause is not without hope.
Many people focus on Martha’s (or Mary’s) proclamation: “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Generations of preachers have repeated this, as if telling congregations that Jesus is the Messiah would somehow change them. I think the point is not any special status Jesus may have, but that we are called to orient our lives around the source of life in the face of death, and the promise of resurrection in the face of injustice and suffering. The point is not Jesus’ status but our orientation. What it means to “believe” Jesus is “the One” is to live with his energy of healing, forgiveness (which is a kind of resurrection), and radical trust in God.
Jesus wept. Out of the depths. Part of the mystery of the cross is that God suffers our pain. Even if Jesus knows he’s going to raise Lazarus, the pain is still real. He weeps for his own loss, for Lazarus’ suffering, for Mary and Martha. Of course grown men cry, unafraid to feel their own pain and the pain of others. That’s true strength. The capacity to feel pain is the capacity to love; the courage to feel it is the courage to love.
“Lazarus, come out!” Jesus calls to life what has died in us. Nothing, not even death, is as powerful as God’s love. No shame or failure, no suffering or evildoing, no past or present can hold us from living in God. No power can stop God from setting us free. “Unbind him, and let him go.”
I wonder: what was Lazarus like after that? A changed man, I bet. When we’re raised from death it changes us. Whatever form our raising takes—surviving a crisis, receiving forgiveness, restoration of a relationship, revival of one’s spirit, release from addiction, recovery from trauma—we don’t just go back to life as it was. We’re raised to new life. We’re invited to let our old life die. And, yes, it can feel like death. The Lazarus story isn’t just about God’s miraculous rescue of a terrible situation. It’s about how God raises us up out of old, deadened, deadly ways of living, out of the illusion that we’re confined to the life of our mortal bodies, into new lives, new ways of living, living “in the Spirit,” living as members of the crucified and risen Body of Christ.
The rest of the story in John 11, beyond the lectionary selection, is that after this some powerful people wanted Jesus killed. God’s life-affirming grace is a threat to human hierarchies and systems of privilege and exclusion. The powers that be will always oppose resurrection. Of course Jesus carried on. To paraphrase, “Nevertheless, he persisted.”
Call to Worship
Leader: Spirit of life, light of life, breath of life,
All: breathe new life into us.
Christ of love, Christ of sorrow, Christ of hope,
breathe new life into us.
Wind of God, breath of God, spirit of God,
breathe new life into us.
We worship you, open to your grace.
Raise us to new life in your spirit. Amen.
Leader: I see a valley of dry bones.
All: All that is dead and ruined. All that is hopeless and despairing.
And yet, I hear a Word to the bones, a wind among the bones.
Where there was death, life!
Out of the depths comes a cry.
The song of sorrow, the voice of shame.
And yet, there is grace, forgiveness and redemption.
We wait for God, more than those who watch for the morning.
Out of old lives and the ways of death, the voice of grace calls us.
Out of the tomb of our hearts, we come,
made new, alive in Christ, and grateful.
With open hearts we worship. Amen.
3. [Ps. 130]
Leader: Out of the depths we cry to you, O God.
Holy One, hear our voice! Let your ears be attentive to our cry.
If you, O God, kept account of our sins, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness; therefore we worship you.
We wait for the Holy One; in God’s word we hope.
Our soul waits for God more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the dawn.
O people, hope in God! For with God there is steadfast love;
with God there is great power to redeem.
It is you, God, who redeems us! We thank you, and we worship.
Leader: God is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
All: God does not deal with us according to our sins,
but forgives us and receives us as God’s beloved.
Come, let us walk in the light of God,
that God may teach us God’s ways,
and lead us in God’s paths.
Create a new heart in us, O God,
and put within us a new and right spirit.
Come, Holy Spirit, and transform us by your grace.
Collect / Prayer of the Day
God of grace, into the dry bones of our hearts breathe your Word. Into the deep place of our sorrow speak your hope. Into what that is dead in us breathe your life. Into our trembling, fearful hands place your new life, pulsing with grace. Speak, Lord, for we are listening. Amen.
Gracious God, like Lazarus in the tomb, our hearts are still and waiting for your call. Speak to us now. May your Word call us out of our death, out of old lives, into the light of your grace and your presence, and the loving companionship of Christ. Amen.
Gracious God, Christ is the light of the World, and so we come to walk in his light. Christ is the resurrection and the life, and so we come to enter into his life. Christ raises us to new life, and so we come to surrender our lives to you, and be raised anew. Speak to us now, that we may hear the words of life. Amen.
Prayer of Confession
Pastor: The grace of God be with you.
Congregation: And also with you.
Trusting in God’s tender mercy, let us confess our sin to God with one another.
God of love, we confess all that is in us that is not of life.
Receive our death, forgive our sin, and breathe new life into us,
that we may perfectly embody your love. Amen
[…Silent prayer … The word of grace]
Life-giving God, we confess that we have separated ourselves from you,
and so from life: we have died in our sin.
We confess the death that is in us.
Forgive us, and call us back to life.
In your grace, we listen for your life-giving word.
(suitable as a Collect, preparation for hearing scriptures, or invitation to prayer)
Dry bones of my heart,
Breath of God,
Jesus, at the tomb,
call my name.
Response / Creed / Affirmation
We love you and trust you, God, creator of the universe, who brings light out off darkness, who creates anew every day.
We love you and trust you, Jesus, the Christ of God, crucified and risen, who healed the sick and fed the hungry, who gave hope to the despairing and raised the dead. You save and redeem us, and raise us to new life.
We love you and trust you, Holy Spirit, in whom we live not as separate beings but members of one Body; in whom our mortal lives are given infinite life. By your grace we die and rise daily, released from old ways and called out into new lives, in love and service for the world, in the name and the Spirit of Christ. Amen.
For Lazarus to Rise
When Lazarus heard his name
he took a sudden breath.
With visceral trembling blood resurged.
But then, as when awakening some days,
he lay a moment, mired,
reluctant to rise from the familiar
swaddling of his death.
Rising, even more than dying,
there could be no return:
for if he chose to stand,
all he knew would then be lost
And still now every morning,
each momentary wish for healing
is a risk, a wakening call
to change, to choose,
to leave so much behind,
and be again made new.
This cry crawls up from somewhere deep,
from deep beneath all words or feelings,
deep where only you can hear, O God.
Hear with your deepest heart
the unheard voice of my trembling soul.
If you let our sins keep us from you
you’d be alone in this universe.
But you do not.
I praise this miracle:
I wait for you. My soul hangs on you.
To the lungs of my soul your word is air.
I wait for you,
more than those who ache for the dawn,
more than those who ache for the dawn.
O people, hope in God!
God is pure, steadfast love,
and the power to re-create.
From our ruined ways
it is God who will save us.
Out of my sea depths
a cry, a wordless noise.
You hear, like a sound through the earth,
Like my spine hears me.
If you measured, I would disappear.
All of us would be too small.
But you allow us to fill you.
So we fill you.
I hold open a space for you,
emptiness in me that widens
like sky waiting for dawn,
like the whole sky waiting,
and the dawn, rising,
filling the whole sky.
We, your people, of your making,
even, even in our clutter,
we are your open space
where your light appears.
In your spaciousness
we become new.
Lazarus, come out!
There is no birth without pain.
There is no life without suffering.
There is no love without surrender.
There is no struggle without hope.
Though we would cry out to God
to save us from all hurt—
“Lord, if you had been here
this wouldn’t have happened”—
God won’t shield us
from the blessed demands of our own lives,
from the living that is given to us
enfolded in what is required of us,
the birth pangs wrapped in pain.
Each new gift or challenge invites us
to become new, to be born again.
The Beloved walks our boundaries;
when we meet, it opens something new,
a spring in us gushing up with life itself.
People may ask, “Is this the same person?”
and we will insist, “I am the one!”
But we will be changed, and leave behind
what once we had clung to.
Our grave wrappings are swaddling cloths,
in our travails the voice of the Beloved,
crying out to us in our tombs,
“Lazarus, come out!”
Under the roaring silence of your death,
Tunneling under the the world yelling at you,
a bird song that pierces iron walls,
a strong hand, unflinching, a voice
reaches into the dark mountain,
reaches through the cages and sewers,
the vast abandoned valleys,
into the shark’s mouth of fear,
into the cave of your death, and its own,
and finds the skeleton,
finds the bones made of stone and despair,
gathers your bones from trash piles,
and speaks to your fragments,
wraps its flesh around your bones,
gives them its blood, its breath, its life.
Only the voice of a love that fierce
can call your name
and you come out,
out of your old death
into the quiet morning,
a squinting newborn,
stunned, beloved, swaddled,
ready to be set free,
but the sound of that voice.
Come out, you who have been entombed
in silence, in fear, in condemnation,
Come out to the one who loves you.
You who are afraid for your life,
who are afraid of your life,
you who are ashamed,
you who have been bound,
come out into your own life!
You who have been told you’re unworthy,
you who are afraid of failing,
come out into your whole life.
You who are wounded and grieving,
who are hopeless or depressed,
you who wonder if you’ll ever live deeply,
come out into life’s fullness.
You who are well defended in your fortresses,
in armor, in costumes, come out.
Gays and abuse victims, transgender and shy,
gifted and doubtful, queer and other,
you can come out.
Come out of your closets, out of hiding,
out of exile, out of the wilderness.
Ou who dwell in darkness and shadow,
you who are in prison, come out!
You have a place, and the tomb is not it.
The One Who Weeps for You
calls to you.
You are wanted. You are mourned.
And keep coming; every day, coming out
into this bewildering, wonderful world.
And you who are hiding in lies and deception,
come out, come out in to the light.
And you who have rolled the great stones
over other people’s lives,
roll them back. Stand aside.
Never mind the stench.
Call to them. Open your arms.
Let them go.
[After the introduction, the body of the prayer may be read responsively with the presiding leader(s) and congregation, or by the leader(s) alone.]
God is with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your heart.
We lift them up to God.
Let us give thanks to the Holy One, our God.
It is good and beautiful to give God our praise.
We thank you God, for you create all things,
bringing light out of darkness.
Out of despair, hope!
Out of shame, forgiveness!
Out of death, life!
In your Spirit we are one, given life beyond our lives.
We thank you, and with all Creation we sing your praise.
[Sanctus, spoken or sung:]
Holy, holy, holy One, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God.
Hosanna in the highest.
[or alternate version]
Blessed are all who come in your name,
and blessed is Jesus, your Christ,
who healed the broken, fed the hungry, and raised the dead.
He wept with our sorrow; he shared in our death.
Crucified for love, he was raised in love,
and calls us into new lives
as members of his Body and partakers of his Covenant.
(The Blessing and Covenant)
As long as we break this bread and share this cup
we remember his death and resurrection, until he comes again.
Therefore, remembering these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ,
we offer ourselves as a living and holy sacrifice,
in union with Christ’s offering for us,
as we proclaim the mystery of our faith:
[Memorial Acclamation, spoken or sung:]
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
Dying, Christ destroyed our death. Rising, Christ restores our life.
Christ will come again in glory.
Pour out your Holy Spirit on these gifts of bread and cup,
that they may be for us the body and blood of Christ.
Pour out your Spirit on us, that we may be for the world the Body of Christ,
dead to old lives and raised to new life,
in the name and the love of Christ,
for the sake of the healing of the world.
[Spoken or sung]
* The Blessing and Covenant
[I usually don’t print the words. I want people to be looking at the bread, not their bulletins.]
On the night in which he gave himself for us
Jesus took bread, blessed it,. broke it, and gave it to his disciples,saying,
“Take and eat; this is my body.”
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup,
blessed it with thanks and gave it to them, saying,
“Drink of this, all of you. This is my blood,
poured out for you and for many, in a new Covenant,
which is the forgiveness of sin.”
As long as we break this bread and share this cup
we remember his death and resurrection, until he comes again.
Prayer of Dedication / Sending / after Communion
[Adapt as needed.]
Gracious God, we thank you for (the mystery that you give yourself to us / this mystery in which you have given yourself to us.) You have entered our death, and fed us with the food of eternal life. Send us into the world as new people, alive in your Spirit, in the name of Christ. Amen.
Gracious God, we thank you for (the mystery that you give yourself to us / this mystery in which you have given yourself to us.) You have called us out of old lives, out of the death of our souls, into new life, life in your Spirit, in your love. Send us into the world in the name and the love of Christ. Amen.
[Rom. 8.6-17][Rom. 8.6-17]3.
Gracious God, we thank you for (the mystery that you give yourself to us / this mystery in which you have given yourself to us.) You are our light, and our life. By your grace at work in Christ, and by your Spirit alive in us, you raise us to new life. Send us into the world to live in the spirit of prayer, to walk in your light, and to proclaim your word, in the name and the Spirit of Christ. Amen.
(Click on titles to view, and hear an audio clip, on the Music page)
Live by the Spirit [Rom. 8.6-17] (Tune: Be Thou My Vision)
God has now done what the law could not do:
God set you free and God reconciled you.
Live by the Spirit that God freely gives,
Spirit of Christ, by which each of us lives
Setting your mind on the Spirit is peace:
rooted in grace, from our sin we’re released.
Live, then, by the Spirit that raised Christ from death,
Spirit that raises us in every new breath
Go in God’s peace. Go in Christ’s gentle light.
Go in the Spirit that leads us aright.
Children of God, go in love as you do,
Dying with Christ and arising anew.
Out of the Deepest Depths (Psalm 130; Original song)
Out of the deepest depths I cry to you, O God.
O listen with your heart, and hear my pleading voice.
If you counted sins, then no one could stand with you;
but Love, you forgive.
I wait for you, my God, for in your word I hope.
I wait for you, Love, more than those who wait for dawn,
yes, more than those who watch for the morning light
I wait for you.
O Hope, O Israel, hope in the Holy One.
For with our God is love, God’s steadfast, faithful love,
and power to redeem; for God is the one
who will redeem us from sin.
Wake Us From Our Sleep (Original song)
God of mercy, wake us with your light.
Rouse our sleeping hearts and give us sight.
Raise us up from death; fill us with your breath.
Wake us from our sleep to live new lives in you.
Life comes only from the Word you give.
You alone have power to make us live.
Seeking what is True, Love, we turn to you:
springs of living water flow, and so we live.
Christ, you touch our hearts and heal our fear.
Even in our pain your grace is near.
Spirit, you who save, raise us from our grave.
Born again, dry bones who rise, we live in you.
Christ, light of the world, your radiance bright
wakens us to day out of our night:
shining in, it heals; shining out, reveals.
Help us all to live as children of the light.