Fr. Bill Carroll – The Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 26, 2023
I will put my breath in you and you shall live. And you shall know that I am the LORD.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As some of you know, my wife is a native New Yorker. Tracey is from Brooklyn. And although she has lost her accent, she has kept the attitude. After nearly thirty years of marriage, I’ve learned many words and phrases that I might not otherwise know. (Some of them I wish I didn’t know.)
Tracey came from a working-class neighborhood of Jews and Puerto Ricans. And so, some of these words and phrases are Yiddish. Others are Spanglish—or, more precisely, Newyorican. Tracey’s grandmother spoke very little English, but she did pepper her Spanish with English words–not all of them fit for polite company.
Other phrases my wife has taught me are in plain English but with a “New York state of mind.” And so, when someone in front of you is moving too slowly, you can say “I’m agin’ here.” Or, if I ask Tracey to do something that I am perfectly capable of doing myself, she’ll look at me and say: “Whatsa matter? Your legs broke?” But the phrase that Tracey taught me that comes to mind this morning is the following: “I’ve got one nerve left and you’re standing on it!”
Ever feel like you have nothing left? Ever feel like you’re about ready to snap? “I’ve got one nerve left and you’re standing on it.” Our Lenten disciplines can bring us to this place. Sometimes, spiritually speaking, we are running on empty. As we deny ourselves the little things we use to fill our emptiness, we confront our need for God–and the limits of our love for other people. We learn to rely on Jesus, who sustains us in our dry and dusty places.
We come to God empty-handed—in need of forgiveness and healing. Jesus challenges us to embrace new life as God’s children. But change is hard, and we come to it with doubts and resistance. If we can’t do without coffee or television for a season, how can we even start to work on the bigger things? How can we conquer our selfishness, our greed, our anger? How can we face our self-destructive habits–and the various obstacles that we face to following Jesus more closely?
It’s always been that way. Like Israel before us, we are a stiff-necked people. We should know better. We have the Gospels. And we know that God has given us all the help we need to grow in God’s love. But, even though his Spirit is alive and at work among us, so too is the enemy of our human nature. Again and again, we choose the ways of sin and death. We forsake the living God to obey other masters.
In the Book of Ezekiel, the People of Israel have come to know defeat and exile. They’ve been carried off to Babylon. This comes as a direct result of their idolatry and injustice. They have worshiped other gods. They have abused widows, orphans, strangers, and poor people. (This is the constant refrain of the biblical prophets.) And so, they are spiritually dead and in need of renewal. They are bereft of God, and their own strength has failed them.
But God never gives up on us. “Though my People have become a valley of dry bones (says the LORD), yet still I shall speak my Word to them and command these bones to live.” For “thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel…I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live.”
This is among the first places in the Bible, where God promises to raise the dead. And, it is important to see that it comes in the context of prophetic exhortation to righteousness. The resurrection is about God’s victory over sin and death in our lives.
Even when all seems lost and there seems to be no hope (says the LORD), I will cause these bones to live. I will put my Spirit in you, and you shall live.
So it is also with Lazarus. He has spent four days in the tomb. His body has started to stink. And yet, the Son of God (his friend, Jesus) has come to call him to life. The Lord will speak a sovereign Word to Lazarus. He will breathe his Spirit into Lazarus, and Lazarus will come to life. Lazarus is each one of us—dead to God, dead to our neighbor. He is each one of us, bound by the ways of sin and death.
When he hears the voice of his Lord, Lazarus comes out of the tomb. But he is still wearing the clothes of the grave. He still reeks of death and its fearful hold on our lives. He is not yet fully alive in the Spirit of God.
And so, Jesus commands his disciples to set Lazarus free. He commands us to remove every obstacle to God’s new and better way of love. He commands us to put off the ways of Adam and to put on the Lord Jesus Christ—to live in the Spirit, instead of continuing to be bound by the ways of the flesh. “Lazarus, come out! (he says). Unbind him, and let him go.”
Again, Lazarus is each one of us, when we are self-centered and turned away from God. And, what Jesus says to him, he says to all of us. “Come out!” he says. “Come out from the tomb!”
“Let my People go!”