Sunday, March 26, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (readings start around 15:54; sermon starts around 28:54)
I’d like to start off my sermon today by introducing you to a very old friend of mine. This is Miss Kitty. I have had Miss Kitty since I was about three months old. She was given to me by an aunt of my mom’s, I believe, and I immediately fell in love with her. She looked a little different than this when I first got her – for one thing, she still had fur back then – she was plush and soft and white and I used to drag her around with me absolutely everywhere I went.
She’s a little worse for the wear nowadays, of course. As a child, I quite literally loved her to pieces. So over the years, she’s had to undergo a number of “reconstructive surgeries.” At one point, my mom actually started sewing her these little jumpsuits – they were kind of like little footie pajamas – essentially, it was a Miss Kitty-shaped bag just designed to keep all her parts together in one place.
After my mom died, I took over the task of repairing Miss Kitty myself. If you look at her closely, you can still see some of my mom’s tidy stitches, and then basically a whole tapestry of me gradually learning to sew on my own. I love that Miss Kitty is kind of a collaborative project that my mom and I both worked on. I actually made her this little dress back in high school, when I was learning how to crochet. And even though I don’t drag her with me absolutely everywhere I go anymore, she has still come with me pretty much everywhere I’ve moved, from college to camp to Peace Corps to grad school – and now to Schuyler.
Now, to anyone else looking at her [*covers Miss Kitty’s ears* Don’t listen to this part]… To anyone else looking at her, there isn’t a whole lot of immediate appeal here. Miss Kitty is a raggedy old cat, held together mainly by a collection of clumsy stitches and prayer. She is so old and worn and threadbare that most of the time people don’t even recognize right away that she is a cat. No one would see a toy like this sitting on a store shelf – or even at a yard sale – and be like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m for sure buying that and taking it home.’ I can imagine that even another child who loved her from when she was new would probably have thrown her away by now, especially in the condition she’s in.
But not me. To me, she is precious, because she is mine. There is so much history here, so much love, that to me she is priceless. It makes absolutely no difference how raggedy she gets, how much she falls apart – I will always do what I can to patch her up and put her back together. Granted, that’s a bit easier to do now that I actually know my way around a needle and thread – but, regardless, I would never give up on her or throw her away.
In a small, weird way, this love that I have for Miss Kitty is a reflection of the kind of love that God has for us. God’s love for us is unearned, unfailing, and unending – the love of someone who never gives up on us. As the psalmist writes in Psalm 130, with the Lord there is steadfast love – and plenteous redemption. And that is exactly the kind of love and grace that we see in the two incredible stories that we read today.
God’s love is profoundly evident in our first reading. The Spirit of the Lord comes to the prophet Ezekiel and shows him this vision of a valley full of bones – bones that are very dry. Ezekiel at this time was living in exile; along with many of his people, he had been forcibly deported by the Babylonians when they brutally conquered the people of Israel. These are the bones of a vanquished people, who cry out that their bones are dried up and their hope is lost. These are also the bones of a people who, in life, regularly disrespected God by forgetting all that God had done for them and instead turning aside to other gods who could not help them.
To this exiled prophet of an ungrateful, unfaithful people, God sends this unbelievably tender message; God says: Tell your people, ‘I am going to open your graves. I am going to raise you up from where you are and put my Spirit in you, and you will live. I am going to bring you back to the land of Israel, and you will stand on your own soil once again.’ Regardless of how wayward these people have been, God loves them so much that God continues to keep the covenant God made with them, even though they themselves keep on breaking it.
In our gospel reading, Jesus shows up in Bethany a few days too late at the home of his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. The sisters had written to him that Lazarus was sick, but Jesus had delayed in coming – and now they ask him why he didn’t come sooner, why he didn’t come in time to heal Lazarus. Jesus knows what’s about to happen, and he confidently says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” But when Jesus gets to the house and he sees Mary and Martha and all the people with them weeping and mourning over Lazarus, it breaks Jesus’ heart. Even though Jesus knows that he is only minutes away from reuniting them with Lazarus, he is so pained to see the grief and suffering of these people he loves that he can’t help but weep with them too.
The people gathered there with Mary and Martha see the love that Jesus has for this family reflected in his tears. But some of them ask – and rightly so – if Jesus loved this guy so much, why didn’t he get here sooner? I mean, he just opened the eyes of a man born blind two chapters ago – surely he would have been able to heal Lazarus and spare him from dying if he’d gotten here in time.
It does seem a bit odd and out of character in this story that Jesus chooses to delay and takes his sweet time getting to Bethany. By the time Jesus shows up, Martha and Mary are already four days into mourning their brother. Lazarus has been dead long enough that the people there warn Jesus against opening his tomb because of the stench – specifically the stench of decomposition. No doubt they wondered what more Jesus thought he was going to do – because Lazarus was most definitely dead.
But I kind of suspect that that may have been exactly the point – Jesus wanted there to be absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Lazarus was dead. It had been four days – no one could dismiss this as some kind of trickery, or claim that Lazarus had been at death’s door, but never actually went all the way through it. No. Lazarus was dead and buried – he was dead, dead, dead.
To all who knew Lazarus, it was the end of his story. But to Jesus, the death of Lazarus isn’t the final word at all. He has the stone rolled away and he calls for Lazarus to get up and come out. And Lazarus does. This man who was definitely, definitely dead comes staggering out of this cave, still wrapped in his graveclothes, now very much alive.
It’s similar in our first reading, from Ezekiel. The bones Ezekiel sees in this valley aren’t just dry – he lets us know that they are very dry. These bones have absolutely nothing left. These bones are like a ratty old stuffed animal with hardly two scraps of fabric you could even try to sew together – let alone enough material to recreate the whole. There is absolutely no glimmer of life here – these bones are dead, dead, dead.
But God is undeterred. As Ezekiel watches, all these bones come clattering back together; muscles and sinews come in to knit them into place; and skin covers them once more. Once again, God breathes the breath of life into the dust of the earth, and these bones live.
In both these stories, we see that there is no length to which God cannot or will not go for God’s people. Not even death is an impediment to God’s saving and redeeming work. These are God’s own beloved people, and it doesn’t matter that they are dead, dead, dead. God made them a promise. And that promise will be kept.
There is nothing God would not do to redeem God’s people. There is no obstacle that can stand in the way of God’s love. And that love is for us. That love is for you.
It’s kind of hard to take the full scope of it in, all that love. It can be hard sometimes to fully accept that kind of love for ourselves, to trust and know in our bones that we are precious in God’s eyes, simply because we belong to God. But God’s love is a reflection of who God is. Like a child with a ratty, worn out plaything, God loves us not because we have some particularly lovable quality – not because we are perfect or always do the right thing – but rather because we are God’s own. Nothing we do or say can change that love. We are loved by God because God is love. And God’s love has the power to make us whole.
God doesn’t walk away from us or from this world even when it seems like maybe God should – when it seems like anyone in their right mind would have given up on us long before now. We ourselves feel hopeless sometimes, hopeless about this world so full of corruption and pollution and violence and indifference. But even as hopelessly broken and ragged and worn out as this world may seem, these stories remind us that, with God, nothing is ever beyond hope. God is only waiting to roll the stone away. God is only waiting to stitch up our broken parts so that we may live again.
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