[Rev. Dr. Shauna K. Hannan, Associate Professor of Homiletics, Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, preached this sermon at the the Goodsoil Worship Service held on August 17, 2011 during the 2011 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, August 15-19, 2011, in Orlando, Florida.]
Sisters and brothers in Christ, hear and believe this, our God has breathed into you and you live. Our God has brought you out of your grave and you live. Our God has brought us individual dry bones together, added sinews, flesh, skin, and life-giving breath that we might find wholeness together. Thanks be to God.
To be sure, we did not get to this day without a little noise. We did not get to this day without a little rattling of the dry bones working themselves together. But indeed the Lord God has brought us into new life and the Lord God will continue to invite us, demand us to come out of death and live.
This process, this movement from death to life, from dry bones to living flesh, is exemplified in Jesus’ journey to the cross, and then from the cross to the tomb; occupied, empty.
Our sisters, Martha and Mary did not have this full perspective when they sent for Jesus. And yet, when their brother was sick, they knew Jesus could and would do something. Imagine how they felt when Jesus did not show up. Their brother died. Bethany was a land of dry bones; for Martha and Mary, it was a land of lost hope. Where is that life-giving breath now? You may know what it feels like to experience such a loss and to ask such a question.
Jesus did arrive. Four days later. Upon seeing Jesus, neither sister had time or energy for gracious salutations. They had no emotional filter, by that point. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” What a strange mix of complaint and confidence.[i] You may know what that feels like. Perhaps you too remember all too clearly the lack of air, the desolate scene, saying the words, “Lord, if you had been here…” We remember those whose physical presence once graced our lives; but whose bones dried up by the cumulative effect of being bullied for being different, being oppressed by humiliation and isolation. We may even have our own experiences with being bullied, humiliated, isolated.
In moments of loss and death we Christians live this strange mix of complaint and confidence. On one hand we cry, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man keep this one from dying?” Jesus, do something! On the other hand, we affirm that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. This mix/this tension makes sense for the baptized who teeter daily . . .
between death and life;
between a valley of dry bones and living flesh;
between a stench and a feast.
We go back and forth between, “Lord, if you had been here…” and “Yes, Lord, I believe.”
But so that we might understand that life’s losses, the deaths of our loved ones and even our own inevitable deaths are intimately entangled in another story about death, a tomb, a stone rolled away, Jesus risks his life and invites, demands, “Lazarus, come out!” Tell them, Ezekiel, that the Lord God will open their graves, and bring them up from their graves.
“Lazarus, come out!” With those words, with Lazarus’ new life . . .
. . . Jesus’ own death became inevitable because
some could not accept someone undoing the imitations they had 1) come to expect, or 2) so meticulously put into place.
Some did not like it when another challenged the structures that they had created for their own survival, even their own advantage.
Some just could not embrace the limitless possibilities offered by Jesus.[ii]
Against all of these odds and so that we might believe, Jesus says to a four-days-dead man, “Lazarus, come out.”
Did you notice? Jesus is the only one who calls him by name . . . Lazarus. And when he does, the dead man comes out of the tomb. How’s that for challenging an existing structure? The world was beginning to turn.
Now Lazarus was not the only one who was bound. Both sisters were bound by their “if onlys.” Some gathered were bound by their need to stay in power and control. All were chained by their limited faith in God’s limitless possibilities. They were in bondage and could not free themselves.
Nowhere does it suggest that these bound ones had to free themselves. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, yes, this is primary. But he instructs the people around Lazarus, “Unbind him. Let him go.”
You were called by name and invited, demanded to come out of the tomb when you arose out of the baptismal waters into new life. Jesus said and says to you, Come out from your suffering, your insecurities.
Come out from your tombs of doubt.
Come out from your caves of fear.
Come out from your death and live.
And then Jesus turns to those around you and instructs them to remove the bonds which hold you hostage. Unbind her. Let him go.
Jesus raises. We unbind.
Jesus raises the people next to you as well, and instructs you to unwrap that which constricts them. Unbind him. Let her go.
This unbinding takes many forms. Everything from removing the rose-colored glasses from someone so that she can recognize injustice and begin unbinding others to literally disentangling a would-be-bomber from the explosives which are tethered to his body. Jesus raises. We unbind.
In our church’s liturgy for the affirmation of baptism we acknowledge that it is Jesus who raises us to new life in baptism. And in response to this we declare that we will, with God’s help, unbind those around us. We do this by feasting together, by praying together. We resist evil and repent, we seek out opportunities to love the neighbor, to strive for justice and peace for not only those who are like us or those we perceive to be needier than we are, or those who can pay us back generously, we strive for justice for ALL people.
That is what unbinding looks like. This is the work of the church . . . to unbind those whom Jesus has already given new life; everyone. The unbinding work of Lutherans Concerned is to remind the church of its work. To unbind is “to move the church to a position of advocacy to curb oppression and bullying in congregations and communities.”[iii] To unbind is to remind ourselves as the church of this call to radical welcome in response to Christ’s radical welcome of all. To unbind is to stand up for the “perceived outsiders,” for those most vulnerable, to act on behalf of those who face bullying and injustice. Unbind them, let them go.
We respect the dignity especially of those whose bones are dried up, whose hope is lost, who feel cut off completely. We call them by name. We pray, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these, that they may live.” We prophesy to them: the Lord God will breathe into you and you will live.
This is what it means to be raised. This is what it means to unbind.
While we acknowledge the “lingering incompleteness of the institutional church’s welcome,”[iv] we also acknowledge the unbinding work of the church and the raising work of Jesus Christ that has been accomplished thus far. Thanks be to God! Such raising and unbinding calls for a feast. A feast in which all the saints whom Jesus has called by name join us at the table. It is a feast which gives us a new perspective as we teeter between oppression and freedom, between death and life . . . A perspective which gives those who believe reason to rejoice that when the teetering stops . . . we will be on the side of life.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, the Lord God has brought you up from your graves. Join me in proclaiming this day, Lord, you have been here, you are here, so our brothers and sisters live. Because Jesus raises us, we are set free so that the unbinding and the feasting can begin.
[i] O’Day – Women’s Bible Commentary
[ii] O’Day – Women’s Bible Commentary
[iii]LC/NA Membership communication, August 15, 2011
[iv] LC/NA Membership communication, August 15, 2011