Fifth Sunday of Lent–The Rev. Karen C. Barefield

Ezekiel 37:1-14
John 11:1-45

In the name of the one, holy and living God:
who was, and is, and is to come. Amen.

Jesus wept.

This past week I came across a picture of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Standing in front of the wall was Pope Francis.
The upper part of his body was bent forward;
his right hand was outstretched, touching the wall…perhaps placing a folded piece of paper with a prayer written on it in one of the cracks between the massive blocks of limestone.

The Western Wall is sometimes called “The Wailing Wall,” or the “Place of Weeping.”

Standing behind the Pope some 10 or 15 feet was a Jewish man, patiently waiting, watching… as the Pope prayed.

In the midst of some of the tight spaces between these blocks of stone emerged shrubby plants, reaching for sun and rain and life.

There was a stillness about this photo…
and a deep, deep pain…
a mourning for brokenness…
a simultaneous calling forth for weeping along with a ray of hope.

This wall has seen destruction, exile, bloodshed, fighting, bickering and exclusion as well as rebuilding, prayer and hope.

Piles of dead mens’ bones have lain heaped at the foot of this wall at various points during its history.

Jesus wept.

I wept.

It was thousands of years ago that the people of Judah wept in exile in Babylon after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple…of which this wall was a piece.

Ezekiel wrote of these times.

“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.

“He led me all around them;
there were very many lying in the valley,
and they were very dry.

“He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’” (Ezekiel 37:1-3a)

Can these bones live?

That was the question…the exiles were living with a sense of hopelessness that they would ever find their way home again.

Had God abandoned Jerusalem and the Temple?
Did all this suffering have any purpose?
How should this people understand their tragic history?
Is it possible for God to move on with God’s people in a transformed and renewed state?

“Then [the Lord] said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them:
O dry bones,
hear the word of the Lord…
I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.
I will lay sinews on you,
and will cause flesh to come upon you,
and cover you with skin,
and put breath in you,
and you shall live.” (Ezekiel 37:4-7)

You shall live…words that quench a thirst like a spring bubbling up in a desert…
or offer hope like shrubs popping out through massive blocks of limestone!

I will cause breath to enter you,

and you shall live!

The Episcopal liturgy for the Burial of the Dead begins this way, with words from today’s gospel:

“I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.
Whoever has faith in me shall have life,
even though he die.
And everyone who has life,
and has committed himself to me in faith,
shall not die for ever.”

If we have been born, it is a certainty that we will die.
There is no escaping that fact.

And between our birth and our death, we will face many sources of weeping in our lives.

Jesus wept.
Mary and Martha wept.
Many of the Jews came to them and joined them in their weeping.

I have always thought that Jesus wept over the death of his friend, Lazarus, and at seeing the sorrow of his friends, Mary and Martha.

And perhaps he did.

The story tells us that when he saw Mary and the Jews with her weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.

But, it was not until he asked where Lazarus had been laid and they issued to Jesus the invitation, “Come and see” that Jesus wept.

In the Gospel of John the phrase “come and see” was an invitation to faith.

Perhaps Jesus heard in this an invitation to his own suffering and death and the placement of his own body in a tomb.

Perhaps Jesus wept for his own suffering that was to come…an inevitable suffering.

It is difficult to see the possibility of new life when in the midst of suffering…

to see the possibility of joy when in the midst of darkness.

Henri Nouwen tells this story:

“A few years ago Bob, the husband of a friend of mine, died suddenly from a heart attack.

“My friend decided to keep her two young children away from the funeral. She thought: ‘It will be too hard for them to see their father put into the ground.’

“For years after Bob’s death, the cemetery remained a fearful and dangerous place for them.

“Then, one day, my friend asked me to visit the grave with her and invited the children to come along.

“The elder was too afraid to go, but the younger decided to come with us.

“When we came to the place where Bob was buried, the three of us sat down on the grass around the stone engraved with the words: ‘A kind and gentle man.’

“As we sat, we reminisced about Bob.

“I said: ‘Maybe one day we should have a picnic here….This is not only a place to think about death, but also a place to rejoice in our life. I think Bob will be most honored when we find new strength, here, to live.’

“At first it seemed a strange idea: having a meal on top of a tombstone. But isn’t that what Jesus told his disciples to do when he asked them to share bread and wine in his memory? …

“The tears of grief and the tears of joy shouldn’t be too far apart.

“As we befriend our pain – or, in the words of Jesus, ‘take up our cross’ – we discover that the resurrection is, indeed, close at hand.” (Nouwen, “A Meal on a Tombstone” in Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, pp. 39-40).

When Jesus came to the tomb and the stone had been rolled away, he called,
“Lazarus, come out!”

Lazarus emerged with his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth and his face wrapped in a cloth, and Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

The Jesus of the Gospel of John already knew his future…he knew that one day not far off he, too, would be placed in a tomb into which God would call, “Come out!” after experiencing his own time of suffering and pain.

Jesus wept,
but he knew the life that was to follow.

The difference was that God would unbind Jesus into resurrected life….
Here Jesus calls on the community to unbind Lazarus.

This past week as I looked upon that picture of the Western Wall, I saw Jesus…

…weeping for piles of bones masquerading as empty bottles, crack pipes and discarded needles.
…weeping for the scores of veterans’ bodies that fall daily to suicide
…weeping for myriads of people who cannot reveal their true selves for fear of derision, abuse or even death
…weeping for the hundreds of young black and Latino men who are killed by gunfire in Durham each year
…weeping for all those who are excluded or exiled because of their religion, skin color, sexual orientation, gender identity, economic status, disability or mental health.

It is in the midst of such tremendous suffering, a vision of new life remains obscure.

And yet God says, “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.”

At times we ourselves need to hear this prophecy,
and during these times in our lives we need to be tended to by others,
our own death cloths unwrapped.

At other times we are called to prophesy to others, unbinding them and walking with them into places of wholeness and strength.

As Veronice Miles, professor at Wake Forest University, so aptly said:

“Resurrected women, men, and children today also require caring communities that are willing to nurture and strengthen them until they are able to walk alone; to remove the graveclothes of self-doubt, social isolation, marginalization, and oppression; to tear away the wrappings of fear, anxiety, loss, and grief, so that unbound women, men, and children might walk in dignity and become creative agents in the world.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 2, p. 144)

As a community, we are called to do this for one another and for all those with whom we come into contact in the world.

Jesus wept,
but he also calls us forth from places of darkness into places of light and life.

As we go forth from here may the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.