I have been calling this time of pandemic an extraordinary time.
I know there are other words being well used:
unprecedented – which I wonder about given outbreaks and pandemics of the more recent and ancient past;
anxious – it is that, and people are managing their anxiety in different ways, but it limits us to one emotion and expression;
crisis – which it is, but again a very different crisis for people and nations in different circumstances of vulnerability and severity;
interesting – which can seem detached and less compassionate for those critically infected, who have died and their loved ones;
And more we could add: frightening, terrifying, numbing, overwhelming, paralyzing, or even positive words like liminal, transformative, freeing, challenging, opportune time. And words that are more Biblical/theological: Lenten, wilderness, kairos, eschatological – meaning end time.
We may have heard and used or identify with any of these words or others to describe this pandemic we’re in.
As I said, I lean toward extraordinary – acknowledging the exceptional, including unsettling uncertainty and fear, and the possibilities, like what we considered last Sunday, seeing with new God-given eyes, ourselves, our lives, our neighbours, the world, and being and acting differently.
Well, if I think we’re in extraordinary times, what do we do with the stories we hear this morning?
The vision: a valley of dry and lifeless bones, and at the word of prophesy, a rattling and bloody mess of flesh and sinew and skin on bones; but no breath, and again prophesy and the breath/Spirit of the four winds enters the flesh and bones and they live, and stand, a vast multitude! That’s extraordinary!
And Jesus, waiting until a friend dies, but saying it will all be for God’s glory, going to the sisters and grieving with them and their community, while claiming he is the resurrection and the life. And then, Jesus calls the stinking four-days-dead Lazarus out of his tomb, and he comes out! And they unbind him and he’s free! That’s extraordinary!
I have wondered this week if given the choice of all the stories and words in scripture, could we choose better. A pandemic that causes a respiratory illness, that when most severe, takes people’s breath/spirit away. And we read a story about dry bones, and flesh and blood returning to those bones, and breath/spirit being put in them and they live! Extraordinary.
And so also for bone-weary, dead tired front line health care workers, and support staff like cleaners and cooks; families and loved ones of the sick keeping vigil; emergency responders; government officials, service personal and leaders; researchers, coordinators, managers; and more, many with little breath left in them, asking, can these bones live? And the prophesy, they do. They live! A vast multitude standing together. Extraordinary!
And Jesus, weeping with Martha and Mary over Lazarus, and those who grieve with them, telling them, “I am the resurrection and the life.” For everyone who has died, and those who grieve for them now; for everyone who is sick now; for people and a world in fear of this virus and the threat of death that it holds, keeping us distant as we need to be, isolated as we need to be, more careful and diligent as we need to be, especially for the sake of the most vulnerable; in all the changes and challenges that this pandemic is causing for us, and so much more for so many who are not as well off as many of us, to have Jesus’ promise, I am the resurrection and the life, now, and the raising of Lazarus from a tomb as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death and resurrection for all humanity and all creation; That’s extraordinary! Extraordinary hope, peace and even joy, offered to all, and all creation, now!
To emphasize the word, now, is to trust in Jesus’ words, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Do you believe this? The promise that this resurrection life Jesus offers is not only or even primarily for life after death, but for living the resurrected life now, not dying now, or dying little by little, but abundant living as God intends, in the fullness of our humanity and all God has created us to be, in compassion and care and forgiveness and hope and justice and peace for this world. What is a pandemic in the face of, and faith in, this resurrection and life for the world in Jesus? This is extraordinary!
Are there signs of this extraordinary flesh and blood and breath-of-resurrection life happening around us, and others, and this world?
The Victoria Times Colonist, special Covid-19 emergency fund, first projected to raise 1 million dollars in four weeks has raised 2.4 million dollars in one week! Police officers circled the Royal Jubilee Hospital in their police vehicles as the evening shift began, turned on their flashing lights and stepped out of their vehicles and applauded in thanks to all the hospital staff; hearts of every shape and size in windows and signs elsewhere express the same thanks to health care workers and others on the front lines; a neighbour rang the doorbell one morning before we left for work, leaving a beautiful bouquet of flowers at the door, as I answered they stood out on the driveway and said, “we can’t do much to help, but we can thank you for what you and Lori are doing for others.” These kindnesses, acts of solidarity and support, giving so others have enough, are extraordinary. Maybe they are signs of flesh and blood breath-of-resurrection life, a vast multitude standing before us, Jesus calling out and life rises out of death, unbound and free.
On this week’s bulletin cover of the Canadian Bulletin series that we use, the photograph by Emily Garcia is of a group of LGBTQ2SIA+ people at a Proclaim gathering. The caption reads that in a worship reflection on the story of raising Lazarus, they wrapped one another in paper with words on it representing things that bound them, and at the command of Jesus, to “Come out” and “unbind them and let them go” they burst out and tore away the paper, being set free. That’s an extraordinary sign of flesh and blood breath-of-resurrection life for all of us to see and celebrate.
I led a funeral on Wednesday, all outdoors at Royal Oak Burial Park. The congregation of 20 or 25 family and friends, many not able to travel to be there; most everyone masked, standing more than the required two metres apart from one another, were like an honour guard dotting the grass around the graveside. Most were too far away to see their tears, but I could hear them weeping and sometimes crying out behind their masks. Letters of tribute about the deceased were read, about her generosity, her loving care like a mother they did not have, extraordinary acts to ensure their education, sponsorship to Canada, support for their wedding, help to furnish their first home, all on a hospitality worker’s wages. Her spouse and a close friend, when I spoke to them before and asked what they wanted remembered most about their loved one, both said without hesitation, her generosity. And there it was, her generosity, clearly witnessed in the letters, and the tears of grief shed by those gathered. I chose a reading from 2 Corinthians about generosity, God’s extraordinary generosity first in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the invitation to live generously in gracious response. And I read from John 6, about Jesus being the bread of life, not losing any of his own, but raising them up on the last day to eternal life; for a person who worked in hospitality, as a server in a dining room for 30 years, ensuring people were fed and nourished, as Jesus generously feeds and nourishes us of himself, even unto death, that we share in Jesus’ resurrection to life everlasting. I knelt at the grave with the casket lowered deep into the earth, to offer the prayer of committal, “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Saviour Jesus Christ, we commend to almighty God our sister and commit her body to the earth, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. God bless her and keep her, God’s face shine on her and be gracious to her, God look upon her with favour, and give her peace.” What an extraordinary act of facing death’s stark truth and prophesying God’s resurrection hope in Jesus this is. As I stood to offer the words of blessing for those gathered in their grief and sadness, I saw before me a multitude, flesh and blood and sinew on bones, standing, and God’s blessing, by grace, breathing back into them the Spirt/breath of life, to live, to live on in the face of death; Jesus calling out to them, “come out!” and life arises out of death, unbound, generous and free!
It’s all extraordinary! What is a pandemic, what are prejudice and fear, what ultimately is death, in the face of, and faith in, God’s generous, loving, extraordinary resurrection life for the world in Jesus? We have all that we need to face this, and anything and everything that afflicts, confines, isolates, distances, takes the breath out of, even kills in this life and world and planet, in the one who is the resurrection and the life.