Last June, as I was walking out the door, heading to Loretta’s funeral, I was thinking through what I had planned to say, and that’s when it hit me: Days earlier, Loretta’s children specifically mentioned her shining sense of humor. Well, here I am all ready to go with not a single joke.
On the drive to Esterdahl’s I tried out a few dad jokes, and by the grace of God, I realized nobody’s day would be improved by a desperate pun. So no jokes! Instead, I remembered what my husband Chris says before every funeral: “People will laugh. People will cry. The Spirit will show up. The funeral will be what it needs to be.” Every time, he says this and every time, he’s right.
Loretta’s family chose to include the part of the service where people come up to the microphone and share their own stories. Now this is always a wild card; you never know what’s going to happen!
As it turned out, the first person who spoke told the story of a time when she had been recruited to spend the day accompanying Loretta so the others could get ready for her surprise party. When the time came, it was this friend’s job to lead Loretta into the venue, but something got messed up, and she wound up bringing Loretta through the back door. When they walked in, they saw the backs of everyone crouched down, ready to yell Surprise. Here these two surprised the surprisers!
Many of the people at the funeral remembered that party, so hearing this story evoked the laughter that we needed. I don’t know if this was funny on the day of the party, but I’m so glad it happened because we needed to laugh about it all these years later.
Now the second person who stood up to speak began by saying, “I need to make a confession.” And you gotta know, this is the kind of thing that happens at funerals. People will laugh. People will cry. The Spirit will show up. Here I could sense that things were about to get real. “I need to make a confession,” she said. Then she looked right at the woman who had spoken before her. “So I’m the one who told you and Loretta to go in the wrong door.” And that did it.
This whole room of people broke into laughter, and there was no missing the grace of the Holy Spirit. Surely the LORD was in this place, and who knew we could lighten up? Who knew God was this funny? Surprise and Hallelujah!
Today our scripture is an episode of resurrection, and it could be, this is exactly the story we’re needing today. As Christians, we are a people of resurrection. We throw our arms around the idea that death really does turn into life. We know this! And as much as we have given our hearts to this promise, there’s also right now. Right now we’re still waiting.
As a church, it is nourishing to be back together in person. And. Anybody can see, it’s also the case that we have not bounced back. We have not arrived on the other side of the pandemic —nobody has.
You might be feeling this in your own life. Just about everybody I’ve talked to is carrying some kind of weight we never would have expected a few years ago. The pandemic is taking a toll on our congregation; it’s taking a toll on each one of us in different ways. This is the wilderness. This is the meantime between heaven and earth.
When this is where we find ourselves, how can you tell the difference— how do you know whether we’re dying or whether really we’re coming back to life and it’s just taking forever…
And maybe there’s a better question. When the day of resurrection comes, when sorrow loses its grip and begins to melt, when we’re entirely alive again, how will we know? Will we recognize the Lord in the breaking of the bread?
How will we know, this is what it is to live…
What happened was the hand of the LORD grabbed the prophet by the shoulders, and the breath of the LORD whisked Ezekiel into a valley in the middle of the wilderness, in the middle of the meantime between heaven and earth. Like a junkyard filled with rusting car parts, Ezekiel finds himself in the middle of piles of bones. When he steps on one by mistake, a plume of dust shudders in the air.
So the LORD asks him, “Human. Can these bones live?” The correct answer is No, but that’s not what Ezekiel says… So God tells him, Go ahead and prophesy to the bones.
Ezekiel looks around at the bones which used to be skeletons, which used to be corpses, which used to be people. He clears his throat: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. God is about to bring you back to life, then you will know it is God who did this. Then you will know the LORD.
There was the sound of a loud rattling as the bones started to find each other. Finger bones found their hands. Leg bones found their hips. Vertebrae began cascading into spines. The bones were turning into skeletons, the muscles began growing over the bones, the flesh began pouring over the muscles, the hair began growing out of the flesh. You could smell the blood! Here stood Ezekiel amid piles and piles of bodies, and that’s when everything stopped.
The Holy Spirit promised that she would bring the people back to life, but that’s not what happened. O human people tell me, can these bodies live? Are they dead? Or are they coming back to life, it’s just taking forever?
Okay, let’s try this again, says the LORD. This time, prophesy to the Holy Spirit. So Ezekiel called on the Spirit to come and fill the bodies with life. And that’s what she did. The bones became skeletons, the skeletons became corpses, now the corpses became people, and the people got up and stood on their feet — a vast army surrounding Ezekiel.
They heard the promise that God spoke to the people who thought they were scattered and rejected. The people thought they were dead! God tells them: I will find you and bring you back. I will put my spirit within you, and you will live. Then you will know! You will know that I am the LORD.
It could be this is exactly the story we need to hear today. It could be our question is this: When we come back to life, how will we know?
The first thing the story teaches is that resurrection can take so much longer than we’re expecting. Once it’s gotten started, it can get stuck in the middle. We might have to stop and try again, and summon the Holy Spirit… That’s the first thing. The second teaching is that as much as we proclaim the resplendent beauty and glory of new life, it’s also —undeniably weird. Really.
You remember when Jesus came back from the dead? His closest friends did not recognize him— until they did. But talk about awkward! Poor Thomas, I mean, bless his heart. Imagine him questioning the others, he sounds entirely reasonable: So you’re saying Jesus came back from the dead but this guy doesn’t look anything like him? Right so tell me again why you’re sure this is not an imposter? I’m going to have to see the nail marks on his hand..
And can’t you just imagine Thomas and Jesus, years later, having a beer in heaven. Jesus would say: Remember that time you didn’t believe it was me until you touched the nail marks on my hand? And Thomas is like: Yeah, but come on, dude. Don’t you realize what getting up from the dead did to your face?
I really believe. If we’re going to be a people who take seriously the promise of resurrection, we’ve got to see, it’s pretty funny —in all the best ways.
All Sarah wanted, all her life, was to have a baby, but she can’t get pregnant. Now that she’s in her nineties, God turns up with Surprise and Hallelujah! When Sarah hears that she’s going to give birth, she bursts out laughing.
Mary was not expecting to get hunted down by an angel, but Surprise and Hallelujah! When God tells her that she’s going to give birth to the Messiah, she says All right. Then Mary goes and visits her cousin, and once Elizabeth hears her hello, the baby inside her leaps for joy, and Elizabeth bursts out laughing: Blessed are you! You know, Mary had to laugh too. Then she broke into singing.
In case nobody has warned you, somebody should. When we open ourselves to the possibility of God’s grace, that’s going to let humor come in the door as well, there’s no way around it. The Holy Spirit is hilarious, and when she looks at us and laughs, you might find yourself cracking up —even at a funeral.
It’s possible that it goes the other way too. When we find ourselves sharing the laughter that rises up out of love, well you know what. We’ve just gotten the grace of God into our bones.
In these days, we are waiting for the Holy Spirit to come breathe life into our being, but how will we know? When we come back to life, how will we know? For one thing, we’ll find ourselves in a room that erupts into laughter! Then we will know the LORD. And who knew we could lighten up like this? Who knew God was so funny… Surprise and Hallelujah!