Monday, March 10, 2008

Sermon for Year A Lent 5

God is not done

The people of Israel have lost hope.
They just don’t know what to think of God
Or their relationship with God.

So God comes to the prophet Ezekiel,
in a dream, in a vision, we’re not really sure.
And Ezekiel stands with God in a valley of dry bones.
God tells Ezekiel to preach to these dry bones and tell them to listen to God.
Tell them that God will restore them.
God will resurrect them and give them new life.

And God calls the four winds to bring life and breath back into those dry bones
And they are alive again.
Can these dry bones live?

God wants Ezekiel to tell this story so the Israelites will not feel hopeless.
With God there is always hope.
Always the possibility of new life.
No matter how bleak or difficult or harsh or frightening life might feel
at the moment,
God is not done.

Most of us have known hopelessness
at some point in our lives.

Most of us have known the heartbreak
that Martha and Mary feel after their brother has died.

How could such a terrible thing have happened?
Why did Jesus not come in time
so that their brother Lazarus would not have died?

Many of us have been there.
We have been right there on our knees
Praying to God, to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit, to anyone who would listen:
Please, heal this person,
this person I love with all my heart and all my soul.

But sometimes, that healing,
the healing that we pray for, that we imagine,
sometimes that healing does not happen.

I have often found this scripture about Lazarus very difficult.
If Jesus shows up and raises Lazarus from the dead
why does Jesus not come
and raise my father from the dead? My mother?
The baby son of my friend Carrie?

Where is Jesus when those we love die?

I want to tell you two stories.
One is a story about my own mother.
The other is a story about a man named Reuben Carter,
also known as “The Hurricane.”

My mother was a delightful woman.
She had more hope than I will ever know.
If ever I was discouraged or pessimistic,
My mother would say, “You just need to change your attitude.
It’s all going to work our just fine.”

My mother led a full and joyful life until she was in her eighties
And she began to lose her memory.

She always recognized those in our family,
but she could not remember how to work the stove or how you got dressed
or where the bathroom was in her own home.

Eventually after prayer and deliberation,
after she had set the stove on fire twice,
after she wandered off from her house, crossing very busy city streets,
my sister, brother and I decided to move her to an assisted living residence
designed for those with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
It was absolute misery to make this decision.

My mother did not really understand where it was she was going to live
but she maintained her ever positive attitude
And told my brother the day he moved her in,
“I’m going to try really hard to get better.”

A few months after she had moved to Morningside,
I traveled to Raleigh to visit her,
as I did many weeks.
I did not find my mother in the day room with the other residents
so I walked down the hall to see if she was in her room.
As I turned the corner down a long hallway,
I saw my mother sitting in a large upholstered wing chair by a window,
at the end of the hall

I walked down the hall and watched her.
She did not see me coming
She just sat gazing out the window.
I thought she might be watching the birds
as she loved birds almost as much as she loved flowers.

When I got there, I said hello and we hugged,
and I sat down in the chair across from her
“What are you watching out the window.”
“Nothing really, “ my mother replied.
I was just sitting here thinking.

Then my mother said in a low and sad voice,
“I don’t think I am going to get any better.
I am trying. I try so hard.
But I don’t think I am going to get any better.
I don’t think this place is going to make me well.”

It was a very hard thing to hear my mother say
because, of course, my brother and my sister and I knew
that she was not going to get better.
Her doctor had made that very clear.

But I didn’t want my mother to say that or feel that.
My mother was the icon of hope to me.

There are some things in our lives that are simple—
problems perhaps but really rather easy problems.
And then there are problems that are not easy at all.
Aging, illness, abuse, divorce, death.
We fall into hopelessness
because we really don’t know if things will get better.
We really don’t know how these dry bones can live.

We are still here in Lent.
This dry bone time.
But Easter is just over the horizon.
We cannot skip Lent or holy week
or any of those hopeless dry bone times in our lives.
We can’t always just rush into the arms of Easter.

We can spring forward into daylight savings time
but we sometimes cannot just spring forward into hope and joy.

The reality for me
is that my mother died a few months after that conversation in the hall.
When she was in the process of dying,
I said to her,
“Mother, it is okay to let go.”

She opened her eyes, looked right at me and said, “I will never let go.”
It was one of the most lucid things my mother had said in weeks.

At the time,
I thought it was just an example of my mother’s tenacious will to live.
I thought she was refusing to let go of life.
Yet she died just two days later.

After her death I came to hear those words differently.

My mother was saying to me,
I will never let go of you.
I will never let go of how much I love you.
And your brother and your sister and my grandchildren and my friends..
I will never let go of love.

I tell you this story because I truly believe that is what God says to each of us.
I will never let go.

No matter how hopeless, how horrid we may feel,
No matter how dry the bones,
God will never let go.
God is never done.

Rubin "Hurricane" Carter was a champion middleweight boxer.
If you want to know his story your can read about him
or watch the movie with Denzel Washington.

Rubin Carter was the opposite of my mother.
He was an icon of hopelessness.

Rubin Carter was imprisoned for life for murders he did not commit.
After exhausting every possibility for appeal,
he tells his wife that he wants her to divorce him
and to move on with her life,
saying, "I'm dead. Forget about me."

The Hurricane uses his prison time to read, study,
and eventually write a book about his life –
a book that is published and becomes a best seller,
but which is then soon forgotten.

Years later, a Black teen from the ghetto finds a copy
of the Hurricane's life story at a used book sale,
and buys it for a quarter.

Moved by what he reads,
the young man, Lesera Martin,
writes a letter to the prisoner,
and begins a relationship and a process
that eventually leads to the overturning of the conviction.

At a pivotal moment, the Rubin Carter notes
that it was "no accident" that Lesera had come across that book.

He quotes Genesis 49 about himself,
"Reuben, my firstborn . . . pre-eminent in pride . . .
Unstable as water, you shall not prevail."

He then contrasts his name to that of Lesera,
a form of the name Lazarus, the one raised from death.
The Hurricane tells Lesera
that hate had killed Reuben and buried him, forgotten, in the prison walls,
but Lesera's love had raised him and given him life once again.

God does not care if we are filled with hope or filled with hopelessness.
Love is offered to us all.

God calls us to come out, to rise up, to feel the breath of life in our dry bones.
God calls us to unbind ourselves and to unbind those around us.

God will never let go.
God is not done.

God brings up those we love from the grave
in our memories of them,
in the multitude of ways they have touched us and formed us and transformed us.

God brings us up from the grave
by giving us a second chance and a third and a fourth.
Love is the great unbinder.

God will not let go.
Love will set us free.

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For some reason I don't seem to be able to use footnotes or even endnotes in this blog so I need to add it here at the end. I need to thank and credit the blog Text Week and the comments by Mark D. Johns, Instructor of Communication/Linguistics, Luther College, Decorah, Iowa who pointed out the relevance of the story of Rubin Carter to the gospel reading this week.

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