Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent + Sunday, March 29, 2020
Prepared for Television/Online Broadcast of Trinity Church, Worcester
Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; John 11:1-45

Watch Here (Minute 24:55)

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

And the people waited …

Waited for test results … for face masks …for ventilators …
Waited for a return to health … for the virus to pass … for quarantines to end …
Waited for paychecks to resume … for a hug from grandchildren or grandparents … for family dinners …

And the people waited.

But the people don’t wait alone.
All through history people have waited.
In today’s scriptures, on this Fifth Sunday in Lent, people waited …

A people scattered and living in exile in our First Reading from Ezekiel, waited for a return to Jerusalem, a return to the temple, a return to national prominence.

A psalmist, whose song is recorded as Psalm 130, waited for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.

A pair of sisters, Mary and Martha in the Gospel reading, worried and tending to their sick and dying brother, waited for Jesus himself to show up and heal Lazarus, Jesus himself waited two full days after receiving the message that Lazarus was dying, before he responded to the sisters’ request.

And the people waited …

How do we make sense of this waiting? What is God doing while we wait?

Years ago, after I had announced I was leaving my other church to go back to school, one of my parishioners gave me a book to read. The book was called: “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes.” The author is William Bridges and the book was a national bestseller.

Bridges suggests there is a difference between a change and a transition. He suggests a change – is when outward circumstances are different than what they were. A transition, on the other hand, is when a change in outward circumstances IS MATCHED WITH an inner change of attitude, self-understanding, and perspective.

He said this difference is important to realize because sometimes there are drastic changes in outward circumstance, that if they are not met with an inner change of heart and attitude, lead to frustration and pain.

In the book he gave the example of divorce, one of the most painful changes in life. He said he once worked with a man, who even though he was remarried after a divorce, continued in his heart to see himself as the husband to his first wife.

His outer experiences had changed, but his inner self-identity had not. Even though he had changed wives, his heart and self-understanding was still with his first wife. And because he continued so see himself as the husband to his first wife, that led to a failure to be open to his second wife.

Bridges suggests that to make a transition, instead of change, one must pass through three important phases.  The three phases are these: Endings, Neutral Zones, and Beginnings. Endings and Beginnings are fairly obvious – what’s much more intriguing, and important to the process to making a change, and relevant for us today – is the Neutral Zone.

Key to making a transition – is recognizing and honoring a Neutral Zone. A Neutral Zone is a place between what once was (that’s over and gone) and what will be (which remains hidden and beyond the horizon). Neutral Zones are places for prayer and reflection; for silence and listening, for conversation and study, and most importantly for Bridges: waiting.

Because humans like stability and order, Neutral Zones are often uncomfortable and painful. The natural tendency is to rush from an ending to a new beginning, to race through Neutral Zone times to get back to normal or establish a new normal. But Bridges points out, the heart doesn’t move that fast, self-understanding doesn’t change on a dime.

A quick departure from the neutral zone is to take matters into our own hands,when instead, we are invited to place matters into God’s hands through prayer and faith.

A Neutral Zone is a chance to set aside our instinct to claim a timeline that suits our needs, and fits nicely into our predetermined schedules, and instead, to remember that all time is a gift of God granted to us.

In today’s psalm, the psalmist sings: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.

John Endres and Julia Prinz, writing in the Paulist Biblical Commentary, suggest that: “Passionate waiting and hoping is an aspect of personal and social redemption.” 

Could it be, that the Lord brings redemption to the psalmist, brings redemption to us, less in any future work of God, and more in the waiting itself – the present presence of God in our lives? Could the waiting be the redemption … the deliverance … the goodness of God?

Now, that doesn’t make waiting any less uncomfortable or less painful, or even less deadly. I can’t imagine our brave doctors, nurses, and medical staff who wait for face masks, ventilators, and all the other equipment to do their jobs safely. In their wait I see Mary and Mary, who waited painfully, and probably angrily, for a Jesus who did not show up in time, but showed up four days after Lazarus died.

But for the vast majority of us, healthy, and perhaps bored, with cabin fever, might there be a way in faith, that we can see this waiting, as the way God is breathing life into the dry bones and rotting corpses of our communal life together? Might we see this “Neutral Zone” period of waiting,  as a matter of communal life and death, the way God is working life for the most vulnerable among us?

Christine Roy Yoder, commenting on the first reading, the valley of dry bones, writes that the prophecy of Ezekiel: “heralds national revival and restoration for a people in exile.” In Ezekiel’s vision she finds hope, in the process of dry bones being covered with sinews and then flesh and then finally breath. In this she sees the hope of the recreation of the people from the inside out.”

Could that be our hope in this Neutral Zone of communal waiting? That in faith, as we wait, God might recreate us from the inside out?  That as we wait, God will breathe life into our valley of dry bones, that Christ will speak life precisely into places where the stench of death has driven out all hope?

That the spirit would recreate our communities, recreate our church, recreate our nation from the inside out?  That God would raise us, as a people, out of this valley and into new life?

Perhaps you might say, “No, pastor.  That’s a nice thought but that will not happen.  Our divisions are too great.  We are too polarized.”

But if we question God’s ability to recreate us in this Neutral Zone time of waiting, then today’s scriptures speak.

“Mortal, can these bones live?” the Lord asked Ezekiel.  Bones bleached in the sun because they had been there so long. “Roll away the stone,” Jesus told the crowds at Lazarus’s grave – to which Martha responded:  “Lord, there is a stench, he’s been dead four days.”  This was significant because Jewish thought at  the time was that the soul lingered with the body for three days – death was final on the fourth.  These were impossible situations, situations beyond death, when death was no longer a feared possibility, but instead a lived reality for the people.

But it was there the Lord spoke life and resurrection!

The Good News today is that we wait on the Lord who speaks life into impossible situations!

We wait on our Lord who breaths the breath of life into places of despair and hopelessness. We wait on the Lord who speaks life and joy into places of our doom and dread.

As we wait with the people in exile, as we wait with the psalmist, as we wait with Mary and Martha, the promise of faith, is that we are not separated from God’s work while we wait, but that God works in our waiting.

In fasting from our normal patterns of congregational and public life … in our prayer for one another and for the world at this time … in our giving alms of physical  distancing and in our giving alms of money and supplies for those most affected by the virus and physical distancing …

God breathes new life among us and among the people right now!

Though we in Massachusetts, and across the country, are advised to stay at home and non-essential businesses are closed … God is alive, God doesn’t stay home, but God remains in the business of forgiveness, of healing, and community.

God in the Holy Spirit continues to breathes new life into dead and scattered bones; God in Christ, continues to speak life and resurrection to those bound in the grave cloths of sin and death.

And the people waited.

In a Neutral Zone of uncertainty and fear, the people waited in hope for the Lord.

As you wait, may you wait in hope with the psalmist, in the sure and certain hope that “with the Lord there is steadfast love; with the Lord there is plenteous redemption.”

Indeed may it be so.