5 Lent, Year A
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale
St. David’s Pepperell
We talked last week about the progression of Gospel stories we’ve been hearing the last few weeks. Three weeks ago we had the story of Nicodemus, a successful man, a powerful man, a man of substance, who, one day came to Jesus to say, in essence, “There must be more. What must I do to find this God in whose name you clearly act?” And Jesus tells him that finding God, finding eternal life, is not just a matter of one more thing to accomplish or possess, it’s not the capstone to a resume. It requires a total reorienting of life. It requires being born again. And more, he tells him that this rebirth is his for the asking.
Two weeks ago, we get the story of the Samaritan woman, the woman at the well. This woman, through some combination of bad choices, bad luck, and bad treatment at the hands of those she should have been able to depend on, has been relegated to the margins of society. One suspects that there isn’t much to her life but survival. She has been cast out of the relationships, the society, that might have brought her joy. But Jesus says to her, “I can bring you water that will quench any thirst you have – forever. It will be for you a well-spring of eternal life bubbling up within you, always.” He promises to remake her life.
Last week it was the story of the blind beggar. Through no fault of his own, blind since birth, his options and possibilities were severely limited. He spent his time begging. One wonders where there could be joy, or the possibility of fulfillment for him. And for him Jesus ups the ante. Jesus reaches to the ground, and takes dust, and spits into it, and puts the mud on the man’s eyes and gives him something he has never known – sight. In taking up dust Jesus reminds us of the creation story. In Genesis God created humankind from the dust of the earth. In this story Jesus re-creates the blind man from the dust of the earth. Not merely re-born, this man is re-created.
And then today the stakes rise even higher. Lazarus is dead. And not just kind-of dead. Not that, standing on the verge deciding which way to go (come to the Light. No, come back to your body, to us!) kind of death. Lazarus is really, really dead. He’s been dead for four days. He’s beginning to decompose and to stink. He’s dead. And Jesus gives him his life again. It’s a powerful story, but even more powerful, for me, anyway, is the Ezekiel story with which it is paired this morning.
Ezekiel sees the whole people of Israel not merely as dead and decomposing. He sees them so far gone that there is nothing left of them but scattered bones. Dry bones. Bones almost ready to return to dust. Desolate. There is no hope to be found, nothing to hold onto. And yet God says, “I will take up these bones, and put them back together. I will hang flesh upon them and I will breathe life into them. I will remake you and I will restore you to life and will give you a land of your own. You will be my people and you will know life and joy and all the fullness of my promise.”
I suspect all of us can find ourselves, our story, in one of these stories. Many of us have been around long enough that we can probably find our stories in most, maybe all, of these stories. But, for those of you who are young yet, let me say a few words about how these stories are reflected, or will be reflected, in your lives.
You’re a bright, talented, and charming bunch. I have no doubt that the future holds many great things for you. But the story of Nicodemus reminds us that, no matter how many awards you may win, how much money you may earn, how much cool stuff you may accumulate, none of it will ever be enough, by itself to bring you true joy and peace. Without a connection to God and to other people whom you love, without people and principles in your life that matter to you more than life itself, without God, all the awards and possessions won’t be enough to make you truly happy. You will always be left wanting more. Nothing will satisfy. But, even if you make the mistake of trying to find happiness through power or possessions, no matter how far down that wrong road you may go, God will always be there, waiting to turn your life around for you, to let you be born again, to have another chance.
And, like the Samaritan woman, you may from time to time be treated badly by others. They may make fun of you, or shut you out, because of mistakes you’ve made or because of things completely beyond your control. But, as Jesus reminded the Samaritan woman, God loves us – no matter what. And God knows, and helps us to know, what things really matter. But, to tell the truth, while all of us get teased sometimes, and it’s never fun, we’re still not likely to be treated really badly or really unfairly – not as unfairly as people who are poor, or disabled, or who don’t speak English very well yet. And because we know that God loves those people just as much as God loves us, and because we’ve been Baptized and promised to help God make the world run, we have a responsibility to stand up for everyone who is treated badly. We’re not allowed to join in when others make fun of them, or are unfair to them – but, more than that, we’re required to stand up for them, to stand beside them.
Then there’s the story of the blind man. He was born with limitations. Maybe you haven’t discovered any limitations yet. Maybe everything you’ve really worked hard at you’ve been able to do. And that is wonderful. But it’s also true that everyone has limitations, and, sooner or later, we begin to discover them. For example, you may have your heart set on being a pro-basketball star, but if you only grow to be 5’3” it’s probably just not going to happen. And it you grow to be 6’6” and broad-shouldered you’re probably not going to be able to be a jockey – no matter how hard you try. And it’s a hard thing when you have your heart set on something and then discover that your limitations mean you’ll never have it. But here’s what God promises. God promises that, if our limitations keep us from doing what our heart is set on, God can re-set our heart. And will if we let Her. God can re-set our hearts on things that we really can do, things better than we could have thought up on our own, things that will bring us more joy than we ever could have dreamed of.
Finally there’s the Lazarus story, and its companion story of the dry bones. This is a hard, hard story about loss. I trust most of you have never experienced anything like this. I hope you never will. But, in the course of a long life, many people do. This is a story about losing everything and everyone that matters. It’s about looking at the world and seeing nothing that brings you joy and no hope of finding it. It’s about what it’s like when you can’t even figure out what to do to try to make things better because every direction you look you find nothing. Everything you do seems pointless. You can’t figure out any way to fix it and you can’t find even the tiniest shred of hope – not even one small seed left to plant and pray over. All is dust and ashes.
I hope you never, ever, experience that but I can tell you that some of the adults in this room right now have. And they’ve come out the other side. Because, even in the face of all that, God still promises to be with us and to put us and our lives back together again. If you ever face such a horrible time and you can’t remember anything else, remember that – God promises to be with us and to put our lives back together again.
Sisters and Brothers, these Lenten stories remind us that Lent is our story. And if Lent is our story, so, too is Easter. Whether we find ourselves at this moment, like Nicodemus, at the height of our success or, like the people of Israel in Ezekiel’s time, in our most abject despair, we are, in either case, lodged firmly in this unfolding Lenten/Easter story. Nothing, neither heights nor depths, can separate us from the love of God. The stories of God’s encounters with the people God loves are our stories.
We are not promised perfect lives or easy lives. But we are promised that we can know the fullness of life. We can be reborn with hearts centered on those things which bring joy and peace. We can be sustained, through good times and bad, with a sense of purpose, a sense of ourselves, that is not contingent on the circumstances of our lives.
And, in the times of our deepest despair, when we can find no blessings, no hope, no reason to go on, we still belong to the God who says,
“I can and I will take up the scattered, dry, desolate bones of your life and dreams and hang new flesh upon them,
and put a new heart within them,
and breathe new life into them.
I will give you new life.
And I will give you your new heart’s desire.
I will put you in your own land,
I will bring you home,
and I will be your God.
And when you see me do these things you will know that I am God
and that I love you more than words can tell.
I will never abandon you.”
This is the Easter promise given to all of us who find our stories in Lent. Once again, beloved in Christ, I invite you to a holy Lent. In these last, climactic weeks find your story or stories here. Enter into your own stories. Claim them. And then bring them to the Easter feast to claim, as well, the Easter promise.