By The Rev. Roger Alling
[Presented at St. Boniface Church, Sarasota, FL; March 13, 2005.]
A few weeks ago a Roman Catholic nun, Dorothy Stang, was murdered in the forests of Brazil. This woman had worked for years on efforts to preserve the forests for the benefit of the local residents.
Here in America, we are celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the beginning of the civil rights movement designed to do away with discrimination on the basis of race. Many men and women risked injury, violence and death as they traveled through the south on behalf of persons of color and the integrity of the nation.
Volunteers from around the world have been working this year in the Darfur region of the Sudan, where terrible genocide is taking place. The work they do is dangerous and very frustrating. Some people are saved but the genocide goes on and on as hundreds die each week and countless children are orphaned.
What is it that makes it possible for some people to reach out to meet the needs of others in desperate situations, quite often at serious risk to themselves? Where do people get the strength and power for this? What possibilities do such people see in desperate situations while most of us are not able to imagine any good outcomes at all?
Perhaps the special something that such people have is hope. Perhaps it is hope that enables some to see beyond terrible circumstances and visualize a new and different vision of the future.
The biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, writing about hope, expressed the following: “Hope proclaims that the way things appear is precarious. So we dare not absolutize the present. We must not take it too seriously. Do not bank on today because it will not last. Thus hope is revolutionary.”
None of the heroes and heroines we have been thinking about took the appearances of their day as absolute. All were able to see an alternative future and they banked their lives upon it. As Walter Brueggemann says, “Hope is revolutionary.”
The people of Israel in the prophet Ezekiel’s time were desperate. Years of exile and servitude had beaten them down. The poetic image of Ezekiel’s vision could not have been more apt. There were the people, dead and gone in spirit, listless and without life, scattered in the dry dust of a dessert. On their behalf, Ezekiel prays to God and God directs him to prophesy and bring to bear the enlivening breath and spirit of God. He prophesies and prays. The breath comes. Life and vitality are restored to the dry and lifeless bones.
What must this dynamic vision have meant to the people in bondage? What would be its message for them and for their lives?
It may have meant this: The exile is not permanent. Restoration and a return home are possible. Life will go on.
People in desperate circumstance must not be hemmed in by the appearances of today; for today will not last. They must have hope and hope is revolutionary.
Toward the end of his extraordinary ministry, Jesus returns to Bethany and to the home of his three friends there. One of them, Lazarus has been dead for several days. Mary and Martha, his sisters, are understandably distraught. All seems dark and bleak. What can be done? Friends from the village come to share their condolences. It seems all that they can do.
Those of you who attended worship one week ago will probably recognize a similarity of theme in today’s story and the gospel from a week ago. In that story a man who had been born blind was healed and given sight. Now in today’s story a dead man is brought to life.
In St. John’s gospel, Jesus often proclaims a new truth first, through the enactment of a deed. In these cases, the restoration to sight of the man born blind and the raising of Lazarus who had been dead four days.
Then the grace of his action leads to enlightenment for those who can grasp the deeper meaning.
When the blind man had his sight restored, he became the one man in his village who understood the meaning of what had happened to him. He sought Jesus out and came to faith in Jesus as the Son of Man sent from God. The restoration of his sight led to his insight.
In the Bethany story, Lazarus has been dead for four days and lies in the tomb tied up in his funeral shroud. Suddenly he awakes as from sleep and a ray of light enters the dark space. We can only imagine his thoughts about a future when no future seemed possible.
Meanwhile, outside of the tomb, Jesus prays giving thanks that God has heard him and granted his prayer. He prays in a loud voice so that the crowds may hear his prayer and come to understand the deeper meaning of the miracle.
The raising of Lazarus accomplishes its purpose. Those who witness the miraculous event are brought to a deeper insight. We see that as our reading ends with these words, “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did and believed in him.”
None of us should have any trouble finding ourselves in these powerful stories.
We are the dry bones baking in the desert whenever our communities lose their purpose or integrity. When the inner cities of our nation descend into poverty, crime and violence, we can all but feel the dusty hot winds blowing over areas once full of life and possibilities.
We are the man born blind when truth, love and beauty seem somehow quite beyond our grasp. When all seems false and without value, we stumble through our days with no sense of our own worth or of the worth of others.
We are Lazarus when our lives are diminished through sickness or addiction. We are Lazarus when we feel closed in and tied up, and when the door to our future seems dark and locked.
The messages of these stories were not meant only for the man born blind, or Lazarus, or even the exiles of Ezekiel’s time.
They are meant for everyone who has lost hope. They are meant for everyone who is convinced that the horrors of today are permanent and incapable of change.
The two stories from John’s gospel, read today and last week are important and vital parts of the writer’s entire work.
The central message of this gospel is that God’s gift to the world is Eternal Life. This is John’s way of expressing what the other gospel writers call the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven.
Eternal Life for John means a quality and depth of life that the characters in our story enter while they are alive.
Once begun that Eternal Life grows in us as we become spiritually mature and grow in grace. We believe that this growth in our life with God is that which persists and goes on when this earthly life ends for us.
This is the insight that Ezekiel pointed to in his vision. This is the insight that came to the man born blind. This is the insight that came to Mary, Martha, Lazarus and the residents of Bethany.
I believe this is also the insight that came to Dorothy Stang who thought it worthwhile to labor and give her life for the forests and the people of Brazil.
This is the insight that made it possible for the civil rights workers to risk their lives for people of color and for the nation forty years ago.
This is the insight that makes it possible for workers in the Darfur region of the Sudan to stand in the way of the expanding genocide there.
The insight of God’s Eternal Life and divine Light opens up the future. It is the very fountain of hope.
This Eternal Life is here for us today. It is celebrated and made manifest each and every time we open ourselves to God. It is the power we are given and commissioned to take into our world every time we leave here. It is generative of hope for us and for our world.
Carry your portion of Eternal Life carefully and use it abundantly. It is the fountain of all hopes…and hope is revolutionary.