The Rev. Casey dunsworth

serves as Associate Campus Pastor to the Belfry, the Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis

and as Program Director for LEVN, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network.

You Shall Live—A Sermon about Stories

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

Welcome back! It’s the first week of spring quarter, it’s the first week of April. Time flies when you’re having fun. With all this happy, springy newness, though, comes our final week of Lent. Tonight’s readings were, umm, lengthy, as well as fairly...odd. Very bodily, right? In Ezekiel, we were in the valley of the dry bones, and there were a lot of words we don’t usually say—like sinew, and flesh, and skin, and bones.

It’s in readings like this—and our Gospel, the raising of Lazarus—that we can go back and forth about whether God really brought a pile of bones to life, or raised a man from the dead, right? And we can argue yes, definitely, and we can argue no, definitely not. But that’s not the point, and that’s not what we’re going to do tonight. Because whether or not these things literally happened, they’re part of God’s story.

The authors of these books wanted us to read these words and know something about the truth of who God is. The first story in the whole Bible is about the creation of our world, because God is a God of creation and of newness. The people who put the book together wanted us to know that, right off the bat. God is a God of life and breath and bodies. Same in this Ezekiel story. God and Ezekiel come upon these dry bones, and, so the story goes, God asks Ezekiel a fairly rhetorical question. “Mortal, can these bones live?” The answer, unbelievably, is yes.

God says to the bones, “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” God says to us, “you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

When God comes upon dry, dead things that were formerly alive, God does not shrug and turn away. God says no to death and yes to life. And not just this one time! Every time.

In the Gospel tonight, there is one such other time. Jesus has been told that his dear friend Lazarus has died, and has the audacity to go to Bethany and bring him to life again. As we read, this was a very controversial situation. And, again, we don’t know if Lazarus was a man who lived and died and lived again—and, presumably, died again. And if he really did live and die, we don’t know how Jesus made him alive again. But! Again! The people who wrote the book want us to know something about God because of this story. They want us to read of a God who weeps and a God who says no to death and yes to life. Again and again and again. Even when it doesn’t make sense. Even when it’s dangerous.

Since we know the rest of the story, we know that it was very dangerous for Jesus to do this. We know what happens next week. But an odd thing about this lectionary reading—though it was approximately 7000 verses long—cuts off at chapter 11 verse 45, before the story is truly over.

In John 11:48, the verse we never read in the Sunday lectionary: “If we let Jesus go on like this, everyone will believe him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”

I am curious about why we don’t get that last little bit. In this story, “the threat of Rome is real, and the author of John knows this, because by the time John is written, Rome has indeed come and destroyed the temple. And Jerusalem. And carried off the spoils to Rome. Jews were also carried off as slaves to the empire. The trauma of this destruction would still be present and felt in this community, and so is present and felt in John’s Gospel.”* It isn’t that the Jewish religious leaders are worried about Jesus being Jewish incorrectly—or making them out to look like they’re being Jewish incorrectly—it’s not a question of right belief or right practice, here. They are afraid for their lives. “The different groups we see in John’s Gospel (Jesus-followers, John-followers, pharisees, sadducees) these are all factions trying to figure out how to survive under Roman imperial occupation, and they don’t all agree on the best way to do that.”* They’re all worried, rightfully, about how much attention Jesus is drawing to himself, and to them by association.

It is easy, though slippery, to want to draw connections between this reality and our present. We in the progressive movement in the United States of America are all trying to figure out how to survive under a burgeoning fascist regime, and we don’t all agree on the best way to do that. “Should we vote? Close down freeways? March every weekend? Kneel during the national anthem? Call people in? Call people out? Make phone calls every day to our senators? Become sanctuary churches? Chain ourselves to pipeline drills?”* We have to be cautious, though. Because “as we read this story from John, we have to admit that as white Western Christians, we have no idea what it is like to live under imperial occupation in the way that Jesus and his community did.”* Our holy places are not under threat in the way that theirs were. We do not live with the trauma that they did.

But we’re still here, in Davis, California, reading the Gospel According to John on a Wednesday night.

Why are we talking about all of this political stuff? Because our society is where we live. The laws that govern us as residents and citizens of the United States are, in some cases, the difference between life and death. That is not to be ignored, because there will always be an empire to resist. The reason we’re talking about all of that here at the Belfry on this night when we have read of the raising of Lazarus is because “God’s power is far beyond what any empire can muster.”*

To Lazarus, and to Ezekiel, and to the dry bones, and to you, and to me, God says “you shall live.” God doesn’t need to remind us that death is real. We know that. We see that all too often. We need to be reminded, though, that death is not ultimate. Death does not have the final word. Our God, who is a God of life and breath and flesh and bones and creation and liberation, is the one who says no to death and yes to life.

Because God has breathed life into you, and put sinews and muscles and flesh onto your dry and weary bones, you shall live.

You shall live. Thanks be to God!

* I was deeply inspired and this sermon was deeply informed by The Rev. Anne Dunlap's episode of The Word is Resistance, the podcast from SURJ, entitled "3.12.17 Resisting Anti-Semitism in John" (which also featured heavily in this previous sermon) and so every quotation you read here that is not from Ezekiel or John is from that podcast. I've marked them with asterisks, because putting several footnotes to the same thing down here felt silly?

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