A few days ago, I saw a post in one of the clergy groups that has formed online in response to COVID-19. The post posed the question of preaching on something other than the RCL texts for this week. Since I am in the midst of a series on the Sermon on the Mount, I hadn’t looked at the texts yet. When I read them, I smiled. These familiar texts of dry bones coming to life and Lazarus walking out of his tomb are the texts we need for these challenging and frightening days. These texts are an excellent reminder that we worship a God of life and of promise.
I’ve never known quite what to do with Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones coming alive again. Yes, there is the prophetic leaning into resurrection. Now I hear more than that. I hear God’s promise that God’s people will live, no matter what. There are some among us who would say that that church universal has been in a valley of dry bones for quite a while. Now we have this virus that is forcing us into a new shape, one most of us are less than comfortable with. Imagine old dry bones with new sinew and breath. I’d say that’s a bit uncomfortable, no? This is us. This is the church coming to life in new ways to maintain community and live outside of our buildings. The promise that the people of God will experience the breath of God bringing new life is being lived out right now across the world. The bones are dry no more. They might be sore and uncomfortable with all the new virtual sinew and flesh and breath, but they are alive. This is good news in the midst of all the chaos and fear.
The message of Psalm 30 is consistent with the Ezekiel reading. From the psalmist we also have an affirmation of need; it is sometimes necessary to cry out to God “out of the depths.” We are certainly in the depths now. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that COVID-19 is a punishment for sin of any kind or that God’s forgiveness will heal us or prevent us from getting sick. However, asking God to forgive our lack of trust in God’s presence, our inability to experience God’s grace, or our reluctance to accept God’s steadfast love would all be appropriate. If we can move through these things and the fear and anxiety that holds the world captive, we could get to the watching and waiting part. Then morning will come and we can praise God for God’s steadfast love and God’s power to redeem all that is. The people of God will live. The church will continue in some, as yet, unknown way because God’s steadfast love endures.
Admittedly, the Romans passage is a tougher than either Ezekiel or Psalm 30. Whenever we split body and spirit, there’s a risk of someone misunderstanding. In these days when “the flesh” is at risk for coronavirus, it might be tempting to emphasize the spirit. Yet, we need to care for our bodies in ways most of us hadn’t thought about previously. We need to stay healthy and maintain physical (I know it’s “social distance,” and I think that gives the wrong message) distance from those who don’t share our household. We need to be vigilant in our disinfecting of hands and goods that touch potentially virus-containing materials. These are decidedly things of the body that we need to attend. And we would do well to remember what Paul so nicely points out that the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, abides in us. The Holy Spirit can keep us strong and united in spirit, if not “in the flesh.”
Now we come to the raising of Lazarus in John. Again, this is an excellent passage to preach a message of hope, promise, and new life. Though I strongly suspect that Jesus actually called Lazarus out of the tomb, using this passage metaphorically is probably more helpful. If we believe that Jesus is “the resurrection and the life,” can we trust him to call us out of this place where death lurks all around us? For all the churches concerned about finances and maintaining a building in the midst of this crisis, what new life is Jesus calling us to in this moment? Where are we hearing whispers of new things, of hope, of possibility? When the stone (the coronavirus) is rolled away from the world in general and the church in particular, what life will we walk into? We can focus on the fear and anxiety and try to preserve church as we have known it, or we can listen for the call of the Spirit and prepare ourselves for the new life that is to come. Remember that promise from Ezekiel – the people of God will live.
How different would our lives be in this moment if we took a deep breath and trusted God’s promise of new life? Could we let go of some of our immediate fear and anxiety to imagine a new way of being church in the world? If all else fails, focus on this moment. What brings you life, joy, grace? What affirms God’s steadfast love? Wherever you are, whatever COVID-19 has done, is doing, or will do to your life and the life of the church, know that you are not alone. We are in this together and we are surrounded by God’s steadfast love.
Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe is an author and the pastor of Living Table United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, MN. You can find links to her blog, video series, and books at Beachtheology.com.
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