Service sheet: Fifth Sunday in Lent
Call to worship
Out of the depths, I cry to you,
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!
O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
Psalm 130: 1, 7
God of Life, lift us out of the valley of bones.
God of Life, brings to life in all your abundance.
God of Life, breathe on me now, here in this place to worship you.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PjSO5Ihl0M – Faithful One, so unchanging (Singing the Faith 628)
As you enter into a time of prayer, firstly focus on your breathing, on your inhale and exhale. Spent a few moments considering the breath of God within you. Consider the breath of life within you. Now spend some time thanking God for the gift of life, for the lives of those you love, for the life around you in the newness of spring. When you are ready, make this your confession:
We are in Your presence, Holy One, knowing that without you we can do nothing;
without the breath of God, we are dry bones;
without the word of God, we have stumbled and fallen;
without being part of God’s people, we have put ourselves above contradiction,
and lived as though we only had ourselves to answer to.
We see that the world is not as it could be,
and we confess the part we have played;
things we have done which have been hurtful;
things left undone, and choices which have been unwise or worse.
We have failed to see you in our neighbour;
we have misunderstood, and we have not recognised your signs,
your work in the world through so many surprising partners;
Forgive us God; and hear us now in the silence as we make our own private prayers of confession, speaking those things which can only be offered in quietness.
These words of Jesus are strong and true, so believe them: your sins are forgiven.
Amen. Thanks be to God.
Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Well that was weird, wasn’t it? Don’t you think that was a very odd reading from Ezekiel? Bones, scattered, being talked at, and sinews and flesh growing back – it’s not a nice image. A bit spooky if I’m honest. Not being a fan of horror films, I’m not sure I want those pictures in my head.
If you’re of a certain generation, when you hear this passage from Ezekiel, there might be a song which springs to mind? About the toe bone being connected to the foot bone, the foot bone connected to the heel bone – dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, now hear the word of the Lord… This was written by James Weldon Johnson, and African American who worked for Theodore Roosevelt and was a civil rights activist around the turn of the 20th century. He campaigned against racial segregation laws.
Ezekiel was writing at a time of civil unrest. He was used to seeing battle scenes and the backdrop to his narrative is one of war and his writing bears these scars. James Weldon Johnson lived in difficult times, in a divided land where violence against those of his skin colour was commonplace. And yet it is this passage he wants to sing about.
Ezekiel offers us hope in unexpected places. He shows us that through speaking God’s word even the most desperate situations can be improved. However deep those scars run, there are none so damaged that God’s love cannot reach them. James Weldon Johnson knew it, he kept hope that one day we would see an end to racism, that God can breathe new and transforming life into the most unlikely of places.
As we have entered into a period of lockdown, we can feel in a very ‘dry’ place, removed from some of the people we love the most, and possibly we might be feeling removed from God. Not being able to engage in collective worship means we are having to find new ways of being church. Of learning that church is definitely NOT the building, but the people. So one of the things I find in this passage is that even in this most desperate of times, God is seeking to breathe new life into us. God’s love reaches out to us wherever we are. Now that’s the word of the Lord I need to hear right now.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVoPG9HtYF8 – Dem Bones (well, it had to be this!)
Reading: John 11:1-45 – you can find Rev Phil Summers storytelling version of this reading: https://youtu.be/3eYiQgp6NAI
Perhaps the lectionary could have given us a break this week and not a reminder of the presence of death. Or maybe I should have chosen one of the other lectionary readings and ignored this one. Both of our readings today are visceral, messy, putting the realities of our corporeal beings at the centre and showing us bits of ourselves we normally cover us. If you happen to be reading this passage from the King James Version (not one I normally turn to), in verse 39 Mary says, ‘Lord, he stinketh.’ Did we really need to be told that?
Let’s do a quick recap: Mary, Martha & Lazarus (all of them siblings) were good pals of Jesus. He’d eaten and socialised with them. He loved them and they loved him back. Jesus finds out Lazarus is seriously ill, but chooses not to go and visit, and stays put for two whole days. He seems indifferent. Mary & Martha must have been going stir-crazy at this. Did they feel let down I wonder, when Jesus doesn’t come in their hour of need? Then someone tells Jesus and the disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep. The disciples say, ‘Phew!’ But only Jesus realises this is a euphemism. One we still use today, using words to cover up the messy reality, using words to put up a barrier between us and death because social niceties mean we can’t talk in plain language, as if the words we choose will lessen the hurt. Jesus heads to the tomb of Lazarus. He’s late. Four days too late. Martha sounds cross – if you’d been here, Lazarus wouldn’t have died, she cries. In other words, it’s your fault, Jesus. Jesus talks to her about death and resurrection and life and she says she understands, she says she believes, but she is grieving and all she can do is turn to God. Crucially she turns to the God with a human face. She turns to Jesus. Mary then appears on the scene and repeats Martha’s sentiment: where the hell were you? Everyone is crying. Including Jesus. Now why would Jesus be crying when he knows in just a moment Lazarus will appear alive again? Why is Jesus upset here? He asks for the tomb to be opened – Martha is horrified. After four days the body will have started to rot and that will stink. Please don’t, I can hear her say. Jesus prays and then calls to Lazarus, and like something out of a zombie movie, the walking dead appears. Except, of course, this isn’t the walking dead, this is the walking living.
And that’s where the lectionary cuts off.
Keep reading – go on, have a look at where this story actually ends.
The powerful ones, the religious leaders and not happy with what has happened, and they panic. They are terrified their power will be taken away by this man and his followers, that people will stop listening to them and start listening to Jesus. He has to be stopped before the whole fabric of society starts to crumble. The high priest, Caiaphas (we’ll come across him again in a couple of weeks) is plotting already, and in his arrogance says (and for anyone who has watched Game of Thrones we can’t help but hear these words in a northern accent): ‘You know nothing.’ The arrest, trial and execution of Jesus is now a foregone conclusion.
This is a resurrection story. Of course it is. We’re not at Easter Sunday yet but already we’re talking about death and life and resurrection. Jesus was killed because he offered life. All the Romans could do was offer fear and punishment and death. But Jesus offers life. He is life. He was powerful in a way that couldn’t be understood because he didn’t threaten, he didn’t condemn, he didn’t have long lists of rules and consequences.
He calls to Lazarus, ‘Come out,’ and he’s doing the same to us. Perhaps even more right at this moment, when we are cocooned in our homes and questioning how we can be together as the church. Please don’t misunderstand me: stay at home, don’t come out…but for some of us, the isolation and separation will feel like we are living in a sort of tomb, and even here, even in the depths of our solitude, Jesus calls to us, he reaches into the graves we dig for ourselves and he pulls us out. Jesus gives us new life in the most unlikely of places.
We have been given a unique opportunity through this lockdown, of doing things differently. And that’s scary but also exciting. It shakes us up and takes us out of our comfort zones. Who now is ever going to worry about what seat they sit on in church on a Sunday morning? Who now will ever worry about stumbling over the words of a bible reading in a church service? Who now will get upset if the service overruns by 10 minutes? This experience is giving us each a fresh perspective on what is important: life. That’s it. Life is the most important thing. Jesus understood that and offers it freely, unencumbered by convention or tradition.
We may feel like Mary and Martha right now, pleading with Jesus to come and save us, upset when we think all hope has been lost because he didn’t step in in time. The raising of Lazarus shows us that there is always hope and there is always life. We might be in that waiting period known as Lent (how apt for the lockdown to be now), we might be in a dark place, we might feel despair but in that despair Jesus weeps too. Jesus is waiting with us in this time. He is alongside us right now, reaching into those ugly, messy, stinking places and transforming them, showing us that it is never too late for hope. Although we are not protected from the realities of pain and loss, Jesus shows up, reaches out, calls our name and speaks life into us. Amen.
it is no longer
an exegetical puzzle
to be solved in our study;
it is no longer a pericope
with which to wrestle;
it is no longer a (really)
long reading to get through;
it is no longer a story
we blow the dust off every 3 years.
it is our story;
it is about us;
it is us inside that
dank, dark tomb:
stinking of fear,
wrapped in the bands
blinded by the handkerchief
of weary worry.
for just a footstep,
just a tear dropping on the ground,
just a whisper of Jesus
pacing before the stone,
growling in his spirit
in anger and frustration,
before he cries out,
in hope and joy and life,
we are not casual bystanders;
we are Lazarus
waiting . . .
(c) 2020 Thom M. Shuman
(Please note: additional lectionary readings set for today: Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGoBJ6R18qg – Ain’t No Grave
You already know what we’re worried about, Holy One. ‘Worried’ seems a bit of an understatement, though.
Some of us have already been laid off.
Some of us were already working three jobs.
Some of us are already living payday-to-payday.
Yeah, worried doesn’t quite cover it. We are tired. We are scared. We are grieving.
So because we’re really not sure what’s next or when ‘next’ will even come, we’re going to take the advice Paul was said to have given Timothy, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone,” so here we go.
For the teachers and education staff who know exactly how much their students rely on school for routine, inspiration, relationship, and their next meal, we pray.
For students who worked so hard to get to the finish line, but now everything is cancelled, we pray.
For the parents who are trying to work from home, but who now have tiny co-workers who really do not care about deadlines or toilet breaks or conference calls, we pray.
For the truck drivers, food preparers, shelf stockers, care givers, farmers, produce pickers, and the overlooked and underpaid on whom we are discovering the world actually turns, we pray.
For first responders and medical personnel who keep showing up, keep gloving up, and keep masking up, we pray. For first responders and medical personnel who keep showing up, even when there are no more gloves or masks, we pray.
For the spirit of community effort that puts the whole before the one that we might all get through this, we pray.
Help us hold fast, Holy One, for we have a way to go. You’ll be hearing from us again. Amen.
(Prayers by Rev Lori Walke, Mayflower Congregational UCC, Oklahoma)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxpPIa-BskY – All I once held dear (Singing the Faith 489)
May the spirit be with you
The spirit takes brokenness, dust,
absence of life, and long time death.
The spirit gives life, renews, it revives,
it gives life, it causes hope, it causes joy.
May the spirit put breath in your lungs
and you will come to life.