April 6, 2014: We Have a Choice to Make by Rev. Beth Hayward – Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45

Here we are two weeks away from Easter and we have before us two Biblical resurrection stories.  It’s as if the church in her wisdom knew that by the fifth Sunday of Lent we would be at the breaking point, in desperate need of a reprieve: truly done with lessons of the wilderness and valleys and tombs, longing for stories that promise to bring us from death back to life.  Just when we don’t expect it when we are hunkered down for Lent’s last hurrah, bracing  ourselves for Palm Sunday to plummet us into the depths of Holy Week we are gifted with supernatural stories of resurrection:  of life from places where death had literally settled in.

Ezekiel in his valley of dry bones and Lazarus rising from his tomb are Biblical stories of mythic proportions.  Most of us would agree: these stories just couldn’t have happened.  But like every good story they hold a truth that is larger than the facts, beckoning us to pay attention and to witness to the truth they hold.

Who can’t relate to being in a valley of dry bones or in a dark, rank, isolated tomb? This is the stuff of real life:  entrapped in patterns and behaviours and circumstances that leave us bound and unable to move forward.  We know what it is to wander numbly through valleys of dry bones:  bones of grief and anxiety, financial or vocational gridlock, faith that seems shattered and void.  In a very real sense we can relate to these metaphors.

With death as the jumping off point these stories lead us purposefully to resurrection.  When Jesus finally arrives in Bethany before evening getting to the task at hand he engages in conversation with Martha quickly taking us to the point of this story: resurrection.  Martha has the doctrine of her day down pat:  she, like most Jewish people of her time knew that resurrection was an anticipated reality that would occur on the Last Day.  Jesus’ response both affirms this commonly held belief and turns it on its head: insisting that he is the resurrection, right here and now.  This is radical stuff: and core to his message.  Resurrection is a current and ever emerging possibility, not some far off goal.

Bruce Epperly suggests that every new beginning every resurrection whether it’s personal or communal, begins with the question:  How big is your God? “Is God big enough to guide the fifteen billion year cosmic adventure, encompassing billions of galaxies like our own Milky Way?  Is God big enough to embrace the complexities of your life?  Is God big enough to embrace the stranger and the enemy?”[1]

Every resurrection begins with the protagonists saying: yes my God is big enough….though I might not be able to feel, taste or touch that truth from my current vantage point, I remember in the very cells of my being that God is big enough… big enough to hold the complexity of my life and the reality of our world.  If God was big enough then, God remains ever big enough.

We know that a resurrection experience is more than making the conscious choice to believe God is big enough.  To simply tell ourselves that God is big enough, to risk walking out of the tomb towards an unknown new reality: that would be too easy or perhaps too difficult.

No matter how hard we try we can’t think ourselves into resurrection.  Philosophical Process Theologian Monica Coleman suggests that:  “It might seem as if we make ourselves trust, as if the trust were a pure act of will, individual or collective.   But (for process thinkers) the trust is a response to something still deeper that comes to us as a gift that we cannot simply will into existence.  She continues:  “God helps us make a way out of no way.” [2] God is not the presence in the tomb that takes our pain away any more than God is the presence outside the tomb that we credit for the new beginning.  God is instead ever with us, in each moment with us, the impulse of life, not judging or testing, not taking the pain away but present, no matter what.

After telling Martha that he is the resurrection and the life, after weeping for the death of one he loved Jesus stands outside the tomb and bellows:  “Lazarus, come out!”  And Lazarus has a choice to make: will he trust that God is big enough?  Will he trust the truth within that death never has the final word?   What Jesus calls forth in Lazarus, what he awakens, is the evolutionary impulse for life, life abundant: that impulse for life that brought forth a universe and still pulses through the core of every living thing today:  it is that impulse for life abundant that is being tapped, awakened resurrected in Lazarus and then in his community gathered outside the tomb…

When Lazarus emerges from the tomb the story really begins: having trusted the truth of the presence of the divine within Lazarus emerges into the glaring light of day at the edge of the tomb.  And there he stands still wrapped in his grave clothes. Jesus turns to all who will hear and commands:  “Unbind him!  Unbind him and set him free.”

When I hear this instructive I go immediately to knitting, yes to knitting.  Binding off in knitting is a crucial part of finishing a project.   And so if you were to unbind your knitting it would unravel in short order:  leaving you with one of two things depending on your perspective:  a knotted mess of yarn or an opportunity to knit together something new.

I’ve been a knitter my whole life, before I could read I could knit.  Like any knitter or quilter or handy person I have a collection of unfinished projects tucked away throughout my home:  sweaters mostly, taking up space on needles, dangling there reminding me by their colour and texture of a particular time in my life.  To see and touch an unfinished project brings one back to a particular time in your life: much like a scent can bring you vividly back to a childhood memory.  Each unfinished project was perfect for some other time in my life.  More often than not when I return to those needles with the dangling yarn some months or years on it is no longer right.  The styles have changed or the baby has grown up or the boyfriend has long since been dumped (I’ve had some projects sitting around for a seriously long time).

There is little choice with one of these unfinished projects than to unbind it and set it free.  To pull the needle out and unravel the work of a different time, that you might begin the work of recasting a garment for such a time as this.

Unbind him Jesus instructs: elsewhere in scripture we hear that God will bind up the broken hearted but here Jesus instructs us to unbind.  Unbind the one in our midst who has just chosen to step over that line from death back toward life, unbind those who are bound by the remnants of a garment, a life that no longer serves them well, help in pulling away those bits that persistently cling to those in our community, in our families who long to feel breath in their lungs again, who remember the truth that even bones as dry as these can live.  Unbind those who have taken a tentative step out of the tomb: who have declared, even for the briefest moment:  God is big enough, who stand in our midst with their grave clothes firmly bound clinging still to the stories and sweaters that no longer serve to bring life abundant.

It is in the coming undone that we begin to rebuild, to knit together a new life for this moment, and this is all about community

So, when Jesus instructs the community to unbind this man returned from death this man brought to life you begin to realise that the work has just begun:  unbind him that he might start a fresh, tear away the clothes that no longer serve, expose his bare self that he might walk into life again with the yarn he needs to begin again.  This is the work of community.

The unbinding action of resurrection is captured in a story told by commentator Robert Hoch:  it’s a story some of you will relate to:

During my stay with the Cherith Brook Catholic Worker in Kansas City, I helped as the community hosted showers and opened a clothes closet for people living on the street. Many entered the shower room waiting area looking beaten, tired, and as neglected as the urban cityscape itself. People avoided eye contact. Conversation was limited. But as each emerged out of the showers, clean and wearing a fresh set of clothes, a new life seemed to come into their eyes. They shone with the warmth of their humanity restored, shining with the luster of care and dignity.

What I witnessed, I suppose, was a little resurrection, a resurrection of a person in community and a community in a person.[3]

God is not merely out there at the finish line cheering us on that we might rise on the last day.  God longs to radiate through your hands and feet, to pour from your heart, to bring forth resurrection in each and every one of us and all of creation.  And this might be just what we need to remember as we walk through these final days of Lenten wilderness.

From these unbelievable stories of mythic proportions, these stories that our post-modern selves know could not be “true,” we are ultimately pointed toward the very tangible, simple, ordinary life of resurrection.  From the mystical we are brought back to the material, the yarn of our lives and the life of our communities.  Whether you find yourself deep in the valley of dry bones or standing outside the tomb with remnants of a life that no longer fits, whether this moment finds you bound or called to unbind: God is big enough, this much is true.  May it be so for us.  Amen


[1] Bruce Epperly, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Upper Room Books, Nashville, 2008. P 31