Sunday, March 29, 2020

Preaching in a Pandemic, When the Valley is Full of Bones

Well. This is not what I expected. Standing on Ash Wednesday or - better yet - dancing at the raucous and delicious party that was Fat Tuesday’s Pancake Supper, pretending as I seemingly do every year that I had any reason at all to be surprised that Lent was just around the corner, just beginning to imagine the shape of the Lent that would be, hopes, dreams, and intentions, what it would hold, I could not have imagined standing here now, on the last Sunday before Palm Sunday, the last Sunday before Holy Week, from the combination home school, workplace, sound studio my home has become, I could not have imagined a moment quite like this, just you and me and these scriptures and a dustbin full of all the things we had planned for ourselves and our lives and the circles of community of which each of us is a part. While I count myself blessed by the support of this congregation, my family, and many other generous circumstances, I do not think it is either ungrateful or a stretch to say that nothing about today is what I would have chosen or imagined.

Tens of thousands of people today have not been given the luxury of discerning spiritual meaning from pandemics. The sick and the dying, the frontline folks in makeshift hospitals. So even grateful for good lessons of God learned in the midst of calamity, gifts of clarity, priorities, and vision, I do not want to pretend that this is what I would have chosen for myself or for you, for the world, left to my own devices. And I do not suspect I am at all alone in this.

If Lent is the season in which we learn to separate ourselves from every identity which threatens to unseat or displace our trust in God’s love for us as the most important thing about us, from the perch that is today, we realize that the goal of the season utterly escapes even our best abilities to produce it on our own. This has always been the case, but this Lent makes it clear.

In other words, Lent must finally take us through the doorway of death.

Enter Ezekiel. Enter Lazarus. Enter Jesus.

Like the first disciples, we might have thought or hoped that Lent would be about something else - losing ten pounds in the name of godliness or bulking up for the Body of Christ, maybe learning that second language, or putting ourselves in position to think better of ourselves and our frequently lackluster prayer lives. A boost of spiritual self-confidence.

But Lent is not for any of these things. Lent is for what happens when we lack any confidence. When our mortal bodies fail, along with our ability to control them. When there may be a hope, but it is not in us. When you find yourself in a valley, and that valley is full of bones.

This Lent maybe uniquely reminds us that Jesus doesn’t mean to save us, prevent us, from reaching the end of our ropes. Jesus comes to show us that the end of our ropes does not mark the end of his love. In other words, Jesus doesn’t come to help the mostly helpful. Jesus comes to raise the dead.

So the canvas, in the scriptures, for the glory of God consistently is not the resplendent countryside or the meadow full of flowers, but the belly of the whale, the cell of the falsely imprisoned, the pathway of the people who walk in darkness, the Hebrews born into bondage, the young men thrown into the furnace, the tomb that’s almost certainly already begun to stink.

Because Jesus doesn’t come to help the mostly already helpful. Jesus comes to raise the dead. To meet us in the place of our total surrender. Just now it seems so obvious, but how could a Lent of our own designing have ever helped us learn to die? How vain is even our humility that we cannot, on our own, imagine a place of helplessness as surrendered as Ezekiel’s. When the Lord asks Ezekiel the question, “Mortal, can these bones live?,” he shrugs his shoulders and feebly, but surely, answers, “O Lord God, you know.” This Lent has surely stripped of us of our pretensions of knowing what we cannot know. This can be the beginning of grace, and this must be our prayer.

Of course, not knowing is scary. What we cannot know, we cannot pretend to control. Which is one reason we rightly regularly remind ourselves of the mystery of God, whom we know and yet, for God’s depth and breadth, do not know. So we can be relieved of the false hope and heavy burden, the lie, that, if we do our lives right, we might control God, or - barring that - at least get out of life alive (Hauerwas).

But on faithful days we find ourselves praying prayers like those from the book of Ephesians, which the prayer book puts on our lips at the end of daily prayer each day; there we give glory to God who, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

But that is a strange thought. I can wrap my head around God doing more than I can ask or imagine. And I can wrap my head around God working in us. But both at the same time? If God’s ways are beyond our ways and certainly beyond our abilities, how can we be the location of the glory and mystery of God? Even in our frailty? The glory of God, working in us? How can incomprehensibility be so personal?

Our situation brings to mind a young Herbie Hancock, tickling the ivories for the incomparably great jazz virtuoso, Miles Davis. He tells the story of the time he was playing with Miles early on in his career and made what they call in the business a big mistake. He played a wrong chord. More than a wrong note. A few wrong notes at once. Notes that didn’t fit. He was mortified.

Hancock tell his own story:

Right in the middle of Miles’ solo, when he was playing one of his amazing solos, I played the wrong chord. A chord that just sounded completely wrong, it just sounded like a big mistake. I put my hands around my ears. Miles paused for a second. And then he played some notes that made my chord right, made it correct…which astounded me. I couldn’t believe what I heard. Miles was able to make something that was wrong into something that was right.

God is like Miles Davis, I told my brother this week. Careful, he said, some people think that literally. But look here, God is not about merely excusing you. Overlooking you. Or cruelly berating you. Or, should you hit a wrong note, coldly replacing you. God in Christ is about redeeming you. And the notes that redeem are God’s to play. Oh, no doubt, for sure, once played, the divine song may become apparent to you. You may find your eyes opened, the priorities of your soul rearranged, your ears retuned, reoriented to a different way of being in this world. This is God’s gift. But redemption belongs to God, and it is God’s will to redeem all things with the song that belongs to God. And the notes of God’s song turn even the tomb - even death - into God’s passing notes in a song that never stops belonging to God. Take heart. Don’t be afraid. You belong to the song God is playing.

Just look at the gospel - clumsy, broken exchanges between Jesus and people who are angry and grieving. Some are close friends of Jesus. Others are voyeuristically watching the tense exchanges of close friends and offering unsolicited commentary. News gets delivered anxiously and nothing runs on time. Jesus is late. A man dies. Plenty of blame to go around, but Jesus shows no interest in it. Instead, he maintains that all of these things, imperfect as they feel, clunky as they are, will be made to serve the glory of God; all things are becoming notes in the song of God’s glory. Open the tomb. Unbind him, let him go.

To meaningfully contribute to work we can neither ask for or imagine is to trust God above all. Above limitations, reputations, imperfections, and pride. Above our ability to understand. Above our greatest doubts about ourselves. Above our meanest certainties of others. As people of God, we trust in the Lord.

Trust in the Lord. Put all the rest down. Put something that scares you to be without down. And then lift up your hearts. And then do both again. But make sure to do both. Both the putting down but also the lifting up. The more of our hearts we can lift for the things we put down. The lifting up transforming our days as we rejoice in the Lord always, even in the pit. Put down and lift up. And over again. Because someday death will do this for us, and so we will discover a day on which we rely on and know the mercy of God all the way. A living trust that tastes the abundance of love we’ve been given to share without fear. But, if we are open, God working in us, God's Spirit on us, that day can be today.

1 comment:

Following Jesus on a Path that Turns

The earliest Christians were called followers of the Way. It’s the name Paul uses in the 22nd chapter of Acts to refer to the people he had ...