Perhaps you have sensed a developing theme in our Gospel readings over these past three weeks. Call me an intellectual, but the theme that first sprung to my mind was "Holy Smoke! They’re all SO LONG!" Last week Helen made comment on the 41 verses of the gospel I read, so, not to be outdone, I asked Helen to read the 44-verse gospel story today.
Fortunately, my thoughts have developed a little further since that first startled reaction, and in fact so many ideas kept popping to mind in considering today's rich readings that it was more than usually challenging to corral them into an intelligible homily to offer you this morning.
Two weeks ago, we heard about Jesus stepping outside the bounds of tradition and asking the Samaritan woman for a drink at the well, before telling her about the living water that would quench her every thirst. Last week, it was Jesus opening the eyes of the blind man with mud and spit, followed by a good wash in the river. And this week, it is the death and re-animation of Lazarus that commands our attention.
Put together, these stories have reminded me that we are not spirit or body, we are spirit AND body. Our physical selves may well be merely impermanent vessels for our eternal souls, but in this world they are the things that get our eternal souls from place to place.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans that Ingrid read this morning, he writes "You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you." While we may agree with him theologically, seen through the lens of our recent gospel stories Paul’s black-and-white pronouncement that "the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God" seems to lack nuance and understanding - not to mention compassion.
Jesus doesn’t ask us to pretend that we are ethereal beings who do not suffer physical pain or injury. We are not asked to simply rise above or ignore the losses that come along with this mortal life. Quite the opposite. Jesus faces pain head on - his own, or others - and uses the stuff of this world and the next to bring healing and hope. If we believe that Jesus is God made flesh, we know him to be at that divine crossroads where spirit meets skin, helping us make the best of both.
Jesus acknowledges his own bodily thirst by asking a Samaritan woman for a drink from the well; he goes on to share with her the promise of living water that will fill her soul. He uses plain old dirt and his own spit to allow the blind man to see not just his surroundings, but the divine nature of Jesus. And moved by the shared grief of Lazarus’s death, he defies death itself. Jesus doesn’t try to leapfrog over the pains of this world simply by dangling the promise of a better world to come; his ministry tackles both, and so should ours.
These readings, and Ezekiel’s prophecy of dry bones being wrapped once again by flesh and sinew, remind us that even amidst life’s inevitable loss and decay we can say no to death. We can say sorry, death, that’s just not good enough. With God’s help, we’re not going to take this lying down. The literal translation of the word resurrection means to rise again, and there are many ways to do that - whether or not our physical self cooperates. We may or may not be able to patch up every material need, but as individuals or a community we can say no to death - the death of hope, the death of spirit, the death of faith. When we are filled with ruach - the breath of God, the spirit of God - we can turn the house of our body into a home for God’s works.
We are, of course, moving closer to the day of Jesus’ own bodily death on the cross. Again, Jesus does not pretend that the agony he knows is coming will be easy. He dreads it. He prays that another way may be found. He leans on his friends for comfort and company. On the cross, he will even feel abandoned by God - so if you’ve ever felt that way yourself, be assured that you are in good company.
The problem of the cross ultimately gives way to the promise of life beyond it. But in the meantime, Jesus had to face the cross. Our spirits, too, are housed in bodies that will suffer and die, with hearts that will sorrow and break. Regular meditation and prayer are essential tools in our kit, but I am also reminded of the old joke about the pastor who was so heavenly minded that she was no earthly good.
I started writing out these reflections on Thursday, a day I had tried to put aside and protect for quiet sermon writing. As I tried to compose my thoughts, though, I was distracted about 50,000 times with texts, emails, phone calls, conversations and other beckonings from the more tangible world. I admit I was getting a tad more panicky as the day fast progressed but my word count didn’t. I forgot all the mindful breathing exercises we talked about earlier and felt the knot in my chest getting bigger by the minute.
Then I realized that my sermon was writing itself in all those insistent messages and reminders springing from my phone as more and more info was shared about the needs of the Afghan family we brought home from the airport on Wednesday, requests on other community issues, and caring for an elderly family member in hospital. Sorry, St. Paul, but clearly we can’t be called on to deny our flesh when our spirits come packaged in bodies that need our care and attention. So I scrolled through that day’s messages to see the words that leapt to the foreground: Soup, mess, share, cell phones, transit, clothes, jet-lagged, slippers, hospital, shopping, nurse, eyedrops, Red Cross, truck, help, wheelchair, change table, exhausted, ride, connect, money, walker, paperwork, appointment, support. Together they paint a picture of just some of the myriad needs our bodies have from cradle to grave.
Perhaps ironically, however, it is meeting the needs of the flesh that our spirits can shine through most brightly. Had I been given a so-called "spiritual" day free of worldly distractions, I don’t think that my thoughts would have taken me to any place more lofty than was gained by witnessing how community rallies to help and to heal the vulnerable amongst us. Jesus called on dirt, spit and tears to wreak miracles in our recent gospel readings; this past week in hospital and neighbourhoods, on doorsteps and in airports, I have seen countless people similarly use the everyday things around them to work the near-miraculous. Thanks to everything from a kind landlord, to housewares donated by strangers, to people dropping everything to transport tables and beds, to generous supporters, we were able to find, fund and furnish a lovely North Van garden suite for our newcomer family in less than a week - and if that isn’t a miracle in this tight rental market, I don’t know what is.
Every time we help a refugee family flee from the threat of violence and death, we put flesh around dry bones, Ezekiel style. When we companion our friends and elders through sickness and mortality, we ensure they have living water to sustain them, Jesus style. You all have examples of times in your life when you have said an emphatic 'no’ to the darkness and insisted on opening a window to let in some light.
This work of mutual ministry is impossible to do alone. We are called to, and created for, the life that comes from being part of a community. It is often commented that Jesus may have beckoned forth Lazarus from his grave, but it was the clustered friends and neighbours who were called on to unbind Lazarus from his grave clothes and fully restore him to life.
When I first looked at today’s readings, I was taken with the many references to ruach, translated in English as the breath or spirit of God. Our own breath obviously meets the immediate need of bringing oxygen into our cells and keeping our body alive. But its second purpose, as far as I can tell, is to build community. For what do we use breath for but to communicate, to speak and to sing?
Of course, despite its gifts, living in community isn’t always easy. One thing I learned back in high school was that when we make music together, be it in band or in choir, one of the most important things is to listen to each other. Even when you’re playing or singing in unison and hitting the same note, if you don’t listen to each other and blend your tones, one of you will sound horribly out of tune. Maybe in community that means checking in with the people we think we know best, who we assume are on the same page as us, and asking for an update on how they’re doing and if their needs or dreams have changed.
And sometimes in community we aren’t all on the same page. But music wouldn’t sound nearly as beautiful without interwoven harmonies - lines that don’t play the same notes but work together to create the song. So let’s ask ourselves: in our relationships, our workplaces, our church, are we disagreeing well? We might not be singing the same line as the guy next to us, but are we listening to each other in such a way that together we are adding to the beauty of the song? In a way that protects each other’s health, hearth and heart even across contrary opinions or beliefs? How can we best attend to each others’ needs despite potential divisions?
In the first reading Ezekiel prophesied that God will bring the Israelites from exile in Babylon back to their own soil. So, too, can each of us trust that we have been placed in own soil, on our own particular square foot of history, to do the work only we can do. We do it with the tangible tools we have at our disposal in tandem with the people placed on the soil all around us.
Breath and spirit. Dirt and tears. A homecooked meal, a donated baby crib, a lift to the doctor’s, a friendly telephone call. With willing hands and hearts, we can without a doubt make the ordinary extraordinary. So as we move closer to Holy Week and its face-to-face reminder of suffering and death, let us consider how we might we use what we have, while we have it, to be a light amidst loss. To rise up in the midst of all life throws at us, and say 'no' to the darkness. May it be so, today and always, Amen.