Sermon: You’re Killing Me, Smalls

Sunday, March 29, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (gospel reading and sermon start around 16:53)

Even though our texts for this week are serious and heavy – dealing with life and death kinds of stories – weirdly enough, the one thing that kept coming to my mind all week was one of my favorite movies to watch when I was growing up: the 1993 cult classic The Sandlot.  

In the movie, a nerdy kid named Scotty Smalls moves to a new city with his parents.  He ends up making friends with a group of neighborhood boys who are all completely obsessed with baseball.  They all gather down at the sandlot to play baseball nearly every day.  The sandlot, as its name suggests, is a vacant, sandy lot that the boys have turned into their very own baseball diamond.  

One of the important features of the sandlot is a fence.  Beyond their outfield, there is a tall, ragged fence – maybe 7 or 8 feet tall; it’s an impenetrable barrier cobbled together from rusted old junk and corrugated metal sheeting and lengths of chain link and it’s all grown over with vines and brambles.  It’s a gnarly-looking old fence, and all you can see beyond it is some overgrown trees and the top of an old, dusty house.

One day, one of the boys hits a baseball clean over the fence.  And to Scotty’s surpise, the other boys treat this hit like an automatic home run.  They don’t even try to go over the fence and get the ball back.  Scotty is already out in the outfield, so he yells to the other boys, “Wait a sec, I’ll get it!” and he starts to climb the fence.  In response, the other boys all scream, “NOOO!” and they all immediately run across the field to Scotty and physically drag him back down onto the ground.  Scotty is annoyed and confused by this, but the boys all hold him back, shouting in chorus, “What are you doing??  You could have been killed!”  

As Scotty learns, the boys all live in fear of a huge, mean, baseball-hoarding dog who lives on the other side of the fence, a dog whom they have nicknamed “the Beast.”  And so, anytime they hit a baseball over the fence, it’s considered gone for good.  To these boys, that outfield fence has become the point of no return.  Once you cross over that barrier, there’s no coming back.

This is the image that kept coming to my mind as I read through our texts for this week, especially our first reading and our gospel reading: the image of that tall, raggedy old fence and the fear of what lies behind it – the fear of stepping over a barrier that you can’t cross back over again.  For Ezekiel, for Mary and Martha and their friends, death is that point of no return; death is the raggedy outfield fence that can’t be crossed back over again.  

In our gospel reading, Lazarus has slipped across that fence, and his sisters and their community are utterly devastated by this loss.  Jesus and his disciples arrive many days too late, and they find Lazarus already laid to rest and Mary and Martha deep in grief.  Even Jesus weeps, moved by the scene he sees before him.  And when he tells the people gathered to take away the stone, they are incredulous, and Martha says to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  Martha is saying, Lord, he is long gone past that barrier, and he’s not coming back again.

In our first reading, the Spirit of the Lord brings Ezekiel to a valley that is filled with bones, very many bones.  Ezekiel tells us that these bones are very dry; life has long since left these bones, and they are dead.  And even God tells Ezekiel, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’”  In other words, we have crossed the fence and there’s no coming back.

Yet what we see in both of these readings is that, with God, the game is far from over, even when that ball has gone flying over the fence. 

In the gospel, Jesus commands that the stone be rolled away from the cave where Lazarus is buried, and then he calls in a loud voice for Lazarus to come out.  And Lazarus does!  The man who had crossed the boundary of death four whole days earlier comes walking out of the cave, still wrapped in his grave clothes, fully alive.

And in our first reading, we see in Ezekiel’s vision that even the valley of bones comes to life.  Bones come together, then sinews, then flesh, and then skin – a whole multitude of people, the house of Israel, now stands before Ezekiel in the valley.  From those dry bones, God raises them up and says to them, “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel…  I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”  Even in the valley of death, there is hope with God.

As humans, it can often be hard for us to hold onto that hope.  It’s a slippery thing, because we do not see the world as God sees it.  Our perspective of life tends to stop at that fence, whatever that fence may be – whether it is death itself, as in our readings, or it’s some other barrier that we have built for ourselves and have come to believe that we cannot cross.  Right now, for many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic is a tall fence that we cannot see beyond – there are so many unknowns both socially and economically that whatever the future may hold beyond this pandemic is hard for us to imagine.  The intense political partisanship that divides our nation is a tall fence that we cannot see beyond; it’s hard to imagine people coming together to solve the problems we face when we have become so deeply polarized.  And each one of us in our own lives faces a variety of challenges and barriers, tall fences that we cannot imagine crossing, that limit our field of view.  There’s no shortage of boundaries that keep us in check, that rein in our hope.

Yet what we read today in these stories holds true for us as well.  God finds a way even where humans believe that there can be no way.  The end is never the end with God.  With God, even death is not the end of the story.  There is no outfield fence tall enough, no Beast scary enough, to keep God out.  God’s love is stronger than death, and God knows that life will have the last word.

This is the truly good news that we hear today.  Like that valley of dry bones, we have a future and a hope.  

And even as God’s eyes are on the future, we also know that God is with us in the meanwhile, caring for us even as we wait on this side of the fence.  It’s striking in the gospel reading that when Jesus is called to Bethany, he already knows exactly what is about to happen.  He already knows that he can – and will – raise Lazarus from the dead.  But Mary and Martha don’t know that yet, and Jesus is moved to tears when he sees them and all the others weeping with them.  Even though Jesus knows how things are about to go down, he still enters into their sadness and weeps with them.

And likewise now, the future is in God’s hands.  Jesus already knows that he can – and will – raise each and every one of us to new life; he knows that this pandemic is not the end, that even death itself is not the end.  And he still treats us with compassion, knowing that we can’t yet see that future; he still sits with us in love in the midst of our doubt, our fear, and our grief.  Christ is with us, comforting us, and continually reassuring us that there is a life and a future waiting for us, even beyond the outfield fence.

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