Sunday, March 29, 2020
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A

Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, your Son came into the world to free us all from sin and death. Breathe upon us the power of your Spirit, that we may be raised to new life in Christ and serve you in righteousness all our days, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Readings and Psalm
Ezekiel 37:1-14 The dry bones of Israel brought to life
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11 Life in the Spirit
John 11:1-45 Baptismal image: the raising of Lazarus

Sermon
Title:  We Need a Little Easter

Sustainability.  Its one of those “it” words.  Even before our current pandemic situation, we’ve been hearing it a lot.  In a variety of contexts.  In the world of the church, sustainability is often mentioned regarding new ministries.  Before we start something or invest in something, folks, especially funders, want to know if it is sustainable.  Will the ministry continue to serve even after those with all the energy to start it up have passed it on to others?  Will there be funding to keep it going so that we know we are not just throwing money away at a flash in the pan?  Environmentally, we have been talking for awhile about building sustainable energy resources so that we move beyond our finite resources that we are too quickly devouring with little regard for future generations.  Sustainable farming applies the same concerns to food resources and feeding a growing population without bleeding the earth dry.

Of course, conversations around sustainability have all new areas of concern in light of COVID-19 and our management of this health crisis.  How can we keep the infection rate curve low so that we can sustain an already overwhelmed healthcare system?  How can we sustain a flow of resources needed by the healthcare community so that they are safe, and they can do the work we need them to do?  How can we sustain people who are running low on the resources needed to feed self and family and maintain homes? Of course, there are those who are most worried about sustaining our consumption-driven economy.  (Certainly a concern, but perhaps not top of the list.)  How will we sustain our communities and our spirits in these times of shutdown and isolation?

I am certainly thankful for the technology that is available to us for the work of sustainability in the area that I am called to focus on and provide for.  It has been heartening and encouraging to see so many using our daily prayer resources for their own sustaining of faith and hope, of reassurance that God is present, sustaining a sense of peace.  Though separated and isolated, we are assured that we are joined together as the body of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit.  A sustaining power that we will celebrate when we come together in the communion of saints, a communion that is not hindered or diminished by distance or time.

This past week, thanks to doing the daily prayer offices, the feast of the Annunciation did not go unnoticed or unobserved.  Wednesday was March 25, (9 months to Christmas) and on that day we remembered the angel’s visit to young Mary of Nazareth.  And hearing the story in the starkness of our times.  Hearing of the promise of Emmanuel away from all the trappings and to-do lists of the Advent season.  We heard again for the first time of the love and mercy of God that had sustained for generations, breaking through, coming to be with us in a new and intimate way.  Promises of sustainability beyond anything on earth that we might put our hope in.  Mary, a peasant, young and unmarried. Joseph, a confused fiancé.   Galilee and Judea, under oppressive occupation by the Roman Empire.  So many obstacles.  Thanks be to God, for this mini-Christmas that brings to mind the sustaining peace that is ours in the fulfilled promise of Emmanuel, God with us.  It doesn’t just bring us joy for a day, or 12 days, or a brief season.  This good news of Emmanuel – that God is truly with us – is ours for the sustaining of every day.

And how we need it.  Perhaps this Lenten journey has been the most challenging of your life.  As one person posted, “I didn’t plan to give up quite this much for Lent.”  After two weeks of social distance and isolation, perhaps we are asking: how much longer is this going to go on?  Will this Lenten deprivation go beyond 40 days?  How will we even be able to celebrate its traditional end as it is looking like we will still be practicing our current hermit-like lifestyles for some weeks to come?

Well, today, in the name of (and for the sake of) sustainability, following our mini-Christmas of last week, we are blessed with a mini-Easter.  Like a rest stop on a long difficult trip.  Like an oasis in the midst of a desert journey.  We are telling and hearing stories to sustain us, stories of our God who is not only with us in Jesus and through the work of the Holy Spirit, but who brings life and victory where we see death and defeat.

From Ezekiel, we hear one of the stories that is traditional told at the Easter Vigil.  Told in the dark as we are awaiting the announcement of the good news of Christ’s resurrection.  Talk about a people in need of some sustaining power.  Let us remind ourselves that Ezekiel is with and speaking to an exiled people. These folks didn’t just loose their economy, they lost their country, their homes, their possessions, their freedom and their self-determination.  And to make matters worse, (as if it could get any worse) all of this deep, deep, profound loss, is in light of the understanding that they are the chosen people of God.  That they had been blessed by God with a homeland so that they can be a blessing to the world.  And now all those promises and dreams, those blessings and hopes; it is now not just challenged, not just in danger, it is gone. And I am guessing for many, their faith in God with it.  In defeat, they have been carted off to the land of the victors.  And, anyone with an ounce of sense in their heads, is certainly not wasting their time asking about sustainability as God’s people – that’s done, that’s over, that’s finished.  Now the smart ones are asking, how do they assimilate in this new land and carve out a life for themselves.  There is no national identity, no temple to represent God’s presence, no “chosen people identity” to sustain them.  A vision of dry bones could not have been more accurate for how they were feeling about themselves, their nation, and their life as God’s people.  And to that setting of “nothing left to sustain,” God’s sustaining spirit breathes new life.  The promise of restoration and return is made.  And it would be fulfilled.

The same promise of sustaining life beyond what our limited vision can imagine is at the heart of the rising of Lazarus as well.  Abundant life in the presence of God’s kingdom that emanated from Jesus. His power-filled life that healed, that welcomed, that broke through societal walls, that taught wisely, that showed such deep compassion and unconditional reconciliation, and yes, even defeated death.

Deliver us from evil.  That is what we pray in the Lord’s prayer.  And if evil is anything that seeks to separate us from the presence and love of God – be it through sin, hopelessness, despair, loss of faith, feelings of abandonment, or the ultimate one:  death – then, on this mini Easter, as we begin to anticipate an Easter that will feel like none that we have celebrated in our lifetimes, let us affirm boldly that God has indeed delivered us from evil, all evil, even death, and will continue to do so.  As Paul writes at the end of the eighth chapter of Romans, nothing will separate us from the love of God made known in Christ Jesus – our resurrected Savior.

Hear one more story of the sustainability of God.  In a moment, we will be singing that much-loved hymn, Abide with Me.  The words were written by Henry F. Lyte, a Scottish born priest in the Church of England.  Throughout his life he was known as one who was frail in body but strong in faith.  He was constantly dealing with asthma and tuberculosis.  Yet, he was also known as a tireless worker and writer.  Lyte is said to have coined the phrase, “It is better to wear out, than to rust out.”  After serving a poor parish in Devonshire, England for 23 years, at age 54 he was told to retire to Italy.  A better climate for his ailing frame.  On his last Sunday before leaving his people and his country, it is recorded that he nearly had to crawl to the pulpit to deliver his farewell sermon.  He never made it to Rome.  Dying in route while in Nice, France.  With all that Lyte faced in life, with all that sought to defeat him, to imprison him in despair and kill any hope he might muster, he penned this beautiful expression of faith shortly before he left his parish, knowing his death was nearing.

God does indeed deliver us from evil. This sustaining promise is ours through Jesus Christ, the risen one.  Know that the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit breathes new life into us this day and always, filling us with hope and peace and life, as the eternal one abides with us forever.

The Rev. Mark Erson,
Pastor

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