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March 29, 2020

Life Death Cannot Touch

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

The second chapter of Genesis describes the beginning of human life like this: In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground—then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

On Ash Wednesday, an eternity and just over weeks ago, we heard again that we are dust, the same way that we remind each other every year that we inhabit temporary bodies. I wonder if it’s strange for you to hear it said that way: It’s strange for me to say it that way. It sounds almost rude, like asking someone something about money. It may be that this is why I love Ash Wednesday. Perhaps deep down I crave the chance to say out loud what everybody knows and most of us avoid: That we will return one day to the earth from which we came.

But in the meantime, what an incredible everyday glory is ours, that when we were taken from the earth God breathed into us and we lived, and each of us now breathes in and out with the breath of God.

It is almost too on-the-nose that the crisis throwing the hard light of a bare bulb on the cracks and fissures of the society of which we are often so proud, should be a respiratory illness. With such a proud, ignorant, blustering figurehead as our present one it is tempting, I think, to consider the severity of this an aberration. Yet our country’s having declined to take pandemic precautions in the wakes of either bird or swine flu, our operation of hospitals according to the dictates of profit, our keeping ward beds so full under ordinary circumstances because empty beds are expensive that we have little elasticity under extraordinary ones, our provision of care according to each person’s ability to pay for it, are realities whose spans are measured in decades. We have, as a nation, puffed out our chest over our wealth and the glittering power of our healthcare system. Having chosen a rotten pride over the truth, we have not valued life, and there was, despite our puffing, no breath in us.

We know before Ezekiel shows us the multitude of breathless bodies standing that there is more to living than having a body. We know that breath is a sign of life, that in old Hebrew ruach is both wind and spirit, that these bones will not live, as God puts it, without an action from God. God’s question to Ezekiel is rhetorical. It is God who knows whether dry bones will live again because it is only God who can make them live, just as it was God who made us alive to begin with and God alone who knows when that breath will finally leave us. And we know too that our own lives are more than our bodies. We know things we will sacrifice bodily ease for, the wellbeing of loved ones, pursuit of an art, the feeling of success, time to ourselves, the right thing, holiness. We accept physical change, diminishment of physical power, in exchange for more living, watching children and grandchildren grow up, gardens bloom, the sun rise and set. With our temporary bodies we live in a world shot through with what is not temporary: Love, beauty, faith, the glory of God, which is, as Irenaus says, present also in living human beings, and humans beings’ life in the presence of God. 

Our tradition recognizes the pervasiveness of death and yet insists on life. We are taught that there is death and there is death, as it were, and there is life and then there is life. There is living, and there is living in the spirit of God. There is death of the body and there is spiritual death. There is death to sin and life to Christ. And there is Lazarus, dead four days with two weeping sisters who know what they have been taught, that their brother will live again, and also that he is not alive for them anymore. Both of them greet Jesus with the same words: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha tempers the accusation—“yet I know God will give you whatever you ask; I know my brother will rise on the last day”—but Mary can’t, cannot even stand, but falls down at Jesus’ feet and says the truest thing she can say: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?

It’s an excellent question. Do we? Or consider another way of asking: What is it that makes us truly alive?

Jesus was, I think, trying to explain that Lazarus was not subject to death, that in Jesus was life that death could not touch, that these bodies are temporary but life is not. We try to this day to explain this, to our children, to bereaved friends, to ourselves—though we die, we will live—but our temporary bodies are the only way we can touch life at all, for now, and it is hard, maybe impossible, for us to take this in, just as it was impossible for Mary and Martha, though they too could recite that portion of catechism. And Jesus, faced with the loss of his beloved friend, with the enormity of death for those still living, though he knew the truth, was yet deeply disturbed, visibly upset—the Greek for this emotional movement also means snorting like a horse—disturbed in the depths of himself not because he didn’t know about the resurrection but because grief, and pain, and loss remain.

Jesus, his face still wet with tears, calls Lazarus out of the tomb. I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people, God says to the living people of Israel through Ezekiel, in the presence of an army of the newly alive. When preacher types say that what God calls us to is life, we do not mean mostly that God calls us to do a really good job living now before our clocks run out, as Lazarus’s would again, perhaps in an accident the following month and perhaps peacefully in his bed another sixty years down the line. We are trying to say, as Jesus was saying, as God tries to show us, that the life we live now cannot be separated from the life we will live then, that our living is all of a piece, that we walk through death not as into the belly of a whale but as through a door. Jesus is here, and though we die, we live, because living most truly is living in Christ, breathing God in and out, a living for which dying is passing from life into greater life, a loss and a gain.

I do not mean that because of resurrection this life does not matter: I mean that because of resurrection this life is unbearably precious, because in it we catch glimpses of both grave and glory. We will live then, but we are living now. The Great Litany includes in its prayers for deliverance one against dying “suddenly and unprepared,” against the danger of missing that unbreakable connection between now and then, the chance to turn our faces toward that light before it takes us in. The shadow of death is passing over the world now, more clearly now for many of us. We know that many have died and many more will, that the ripple effects from emergency triage and rationing of care mean that some will die who, under different circumstances, may not have. Listen: We live in a world, and in a society, that considers death acceptable collateral damage for the sake of certain efficiencies, but we follow a Lord who told us that God’s will is life, and life abundantly. Do not fear death, which menaces us only as a scorpion with no tail or a rattlesnake with no fangs; but do not bow to it, or accept a way of living that produces death where it might have been avoided. We, like Lazarus, like the Israelites, have been called out, made alive, unbound, let go, and we are to do the same, living in service to life in every sense until at last we sit at table with all who have gone before us and all who will come after us, alive, alive, in the glory of God. Amen.

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