April 6, 2014
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Ezekiel 37: 1-14, John 11: 1-3, 17-45
For just a moment, I invite you to consider your relationship with time…
Maybe you feel like there is never enough. Think of all the things we could do if we just had more time! We could finally visit our family in Michigan, or get to the things at the bottom of the to do list, or sleep in… For many of us, our lives are made of years. But there are never enough hours in the day. Unless… Unless there are too many. Unless the afternoons drag on forever and you start to suspect that you’re missing out on your own life. We have all been in situations when minutes feel like hours.
And so it is, our sense of time changes depending on what we’re living through. A week while you’re waiting for the doctor to call with test results goes by much more slowly than a week with your son before he goes back to college. A few minutes stuck in traffic is an eternity; a few minutes with a dying person is a flash and a breath. Time changes, and this isn’t crazy, it’s holy.
But oh it can make us feel crazy. We twenty-first century people in the U.S., we try so hard to manage our time. We measure it with clocks and calendars and carve it into blocks, and fill up the blocks on our schedule. You know they say, time is money. Don’t waste a minute of your life because you won’t get it back…
You have to wonder whether we might be putting too much faith in our ability to manage our time. Nobody knows how much of it we’ll have. We don’t know when we’ll die. Or when we’ll live.
Now something else we put our faith in is the idea that events will happen in a certain, reliable order. When I was in second grade, I had this game which featured a story told only in pictures, no words, and you had to put the pictures in the right order. One picture showed a tree losing its leaves which went before the picture of kids raking leaves. We have faith that morning will come before night. Winter will come before spring. As though time always moves in a line from beginning to end! As though the end is ever really the end.
Sometimes when we get tangled up with our own hopes for when things should happen, when we get tired of waiting, people will tell you that God’s time is not our own. And this is not a lie. But I think it might lead us to imagine God as the keeper of a master calendar for all creation. No wonder God can direct each of our schedules. She sees the whole picture and conducts the tempo of the cosmos.
I can imagine this possibility all right. But you know, it is more than this too. It is not that God’s timetable is greater than ours. It’s not just that God’s timing doesn’t match our timing. Time itself is different. This is why it’s true to say: God’s time is not our own. Like when a thoughtful five year old asks you, What is the difference between a minute and a moment? Whatever you say, you can pretty much bet the follow up question is, Well then, how long is a moment? Exactly.
Today we hear two miracle stories, and in both, the timing is all wrong. Things happen in all the wrong order and our God shows up too late. So it might seem.
In the first story, the hand of the LORD comes upon Ezekiel and he gets set down in the valley of the dry bones. God tells Ezekiel to start talking to this pile of bones —finger bones and ribs and skulls. Say to the bones, “Hear the word of the LORD. I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live…” Okay. These dried out bones begin rattling.
Ezekiel goes on to promise that the bones will be covered with flesh, and come to life, and know the LORD. But as he is talking, the rattling bones begin to come together. Flesh comes over the bones, and you’d think the people would come to life, but there’s a problem. There’s no breath in these bones.
The very first thing God promised isn’t here. Ezekiel is left standing among this army of the undead until the LORD tells him what to do. “Prophesy to the breath! Come from the four winds, O breath. Breathe upon these slain that they may live.” Ezekiel announces this promise and calls upon the breath, and the Spirit comes to the people. They live and stand on their feet, a vast multitude. Notice the sequence of this miracle. It goes: first the prophesy, then the bodies, finally the breath —you think it would happen the other way around.
When it comes to mixed up timing, we see this again in our story from the Gospel of John. To begin with, Jesus arrives late. And not a little late, like he was rushing to get there and just didn’t make it in time. Jesus knew Lazarus was ill. He finally saunters into town four days after Lazarus had been in the tomb.
Even at this point, Jesus takes his time walking into Bethany; he does not share the urgency of Martha and Mary each who rush out to meet him all while he is slowly making his way. Martha greets him with, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Jesus promises resurrection and she says, well yes some day. And technically, I suppose today is some day.
This is when Martha rushes back and Mary goes out to find Jesus. She echoes the familiar greeting: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Her weeping gets mixed up with his weeping, and the next thing you know Jesus is on his way to see where they laid him.
Jesus orders the stone to be rolled away. He calls Lazarus to come out of the tomb even though he is still wrapped up in grave clothes. And nobody goes in to help him get up. Lazarus has to hop to edge of the tomb all bound up, through the unbearable stench of death and the undeniable glory of God.
God’s time is not our time. These are stories of unscheduled resurrection.
Notice they are not stories of resuscitation which we time-driven people really like. We love the stories where the rescue comes at the last possible second. The bomb is defused with four seconds left on the clock. Or at the last possible second, the car swerves off the road just missing the derailed train barreling toward it. We love stories that teach us to hold onto that last little bit of hope; don’t let it go whatever you do. But this is not what happens in our miracle stories today.
The people in the valley aren’t dying; they are all the way dead. They’re a jumble of bones and the bones are dry as dust. You can hear them rattling as you make your way through. And so it is with Lazarus —four days dead. Now your spirit might linger for three days, but this is day four. There is a stench in the tomb.
In these stories, hope is not dwindling. It is all the way gone. Dead and buried, dry as dust. And maybe there has been a time when this happened to you… Maybe you held onto your hope while it died in your hands. Now it’s too late. God never did come to the rescue, and your hope turned into dust. After the rattle and the stench, all that’s left is dust.
Sometimes I think we put too much faith in the sequential order of things, too much faith that what dies stays dead. What if God’s time is not our own. What if eternal life is not just one day after we die, but already here. “I am the resurrection and the life” is what Jesus tells Martha while her brother is dead, while her hands are dusty from her hope all gone.
Look, we all know what it is to be going on about our lives and then have them get interrupted by death. I have seen death come way too soon and way too late, you probably have too. And here we go on living our lives in this reality. But it isn’t just death that does this to us.
Life does this too. Even when your hope is long gone and it is too late, life will come along and interrupt your day. It gets on your dusty hands.
Maybe it comes as an old friend who found you on Facebook after all these years, or maybe it’s an apology you never thought you would hear.
Maybe you get handed a baby to hold for a few minutes and he looks right at you and yawns.
Or maybe you get handed a guitar and you find you still remember how to play.
You didn’t mean for this to happen, nobody does, but now you know the answer to the question, Mortal can these bones live?
Friends, our God comes into the world and calls us to live not in years made of months, made of minutes. God calls us to live in this moment. Get up and hop to the edge of the tomb all through the stench and glory. Every moment holds the potential for resurrection to break through, the promise of eternal life at 3:42 on a Tuesday afternoon. It is not in the schedule I know, it is too late and too early, and resurrection is here. Amen
Sisters and brothers, we worship God through our giving. In this moment, we are called to live. In our living, we are called to share our good gifts. Come, let us gather our offering in generosity and gratitude.