Anne Howard: A Word in Time: Unbind Him


We get a wasteland of bones in Ezekiel's eerie dreamscape this week, dry bones, picked clean, gleaming white in the hot sun. And another kind of wasteland in John's gospel: grieving women, Lazarus dead, four days dead, decaying in the tomb. Bleak scenes for this fifth Sunday in Lent. But our ancestors told these stories as stories of promise and of hope.

Ezekiel's story of dry bones was addressed to a people in exile--the Israelites captive in Babylon about 600 years before Jesus--a people without hope. Ezekiel speaks to tell them that just as God's Spirit had moved over the deep and created the universe, so too God's Spirit could move among them and create new vitality. But this time they must be the ones to breathe God's life-giving breath. "Mortal, speak, speak my word of life, breathe my breath, use your lungs, use your tongue, breathe my spirit on these bones."  They had to step up to the plate.

And John's story of Lazarus gave life to his community, living as they did at the end of the first century in a kind of exile, separated from the temple, at odds with the religion of their parents, struggling to keep their identity intact and their faith alive in the face of Roman persecution. They needed to hear again the story that had brought them together in the first place; they needed to remember the story that gave them their reason for being, the story of Easter that targeted the fear in their hearts and gave them freedom deep in their souls.

So, in the old tradition of Ezekiel and in keeping with the new Way of the Jesus movement, John gives the story of Lazarus. This community was alive with this new Way, this new Way that changed the way they saw each other, changed the way they regarded life and the way they knew death. They felt a new power, a new Spirit that moved within and among them with the same power, that same ruach that moved over the deep before time began. But sometimes, when the going got tough, when the Roman crosses filled their hilltops, they forgot about that power. Sometimes they got lost in their fear and their exclusivity. So John tells his story, and his community re-lives the spirit of the resurrection of Jesus.

Martha is the key to this story. In Jesus' exchange with Martha, John gives us the first clue that something new is afoot. Martha goes out to the road to meet Jesus. Unheard of audacity in that woman--more bold even than that Samaritan woman at the well. Jewish women did not speak to men on the road; they certainly did not speak first; they only spoke if spoken to.

Martha is audacious in her anger and grief: "If you had been here my brother would not have died." Jesus rises to the occasion with equal audacity: "Your brother will rise."

At first, she thinks he is talking about some kind of future resurrection, the kind of resurrection the Pharisees believed in. No news in that.

But then comes the clincher, the last of the famous "I am" statements that fill John's version of things. After a series of statements, I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the good shepherd, John has Jesus say to Martha: 

"I am the resurrection and the life," he says. "Do you believe me?"

And from Martha come the words that are at the heart of Christian faith: "Yes, Lord I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world." Martha proclaims him the Christ. It is this proclamation that identified the people of the Way.  In the midst of grief, when all hope is lost, Martha doesn't reach to the past for familiar comfort, she plunges ahead to the new life that is stronger than death. In this very act of proclamation, in the brave defiance of the way of death, Martha's words speak a new way. The community of John could hear this story and remember not only the past, the earlier times God's spirit had been present with the people, they remember the future.

And then: "Lazarus come out!"

Lazarus is alive. Just as Ezekiel promised that Israel was to be restored out of captivity to be a present light to all the nations, here is Lazarus restored.

What to do with this impossible new life? Get busy. "Unbind him and let him go!" Jesus calls on the community around Lazarus to carry on the task of new life.

John's gospel story could have had Jesus do the unbinding, completing himself the task of bringing Lazarus back, doing yet another amazing miracle, another sign of the presence of God.  John usually goes in for the big show. But the raising of Lazarus is about the power of the gathered community. Divinity is present, to be sure, but it takes the entire community to create new life. "Unbind him!"

The stories that gave life liberation to our ancestors are not stories about one pile of bones regaining skin or one corpse coming back; they are stories about a whole people enlivened again, called to be life-givers, to share the tasks of building and unbinding, the tasks of liberation.

The good news here is that new life is possible for us, even now, in face of our private doubts and our public woes, in a world enthralled with the way of death: from the latest shooting to the latest slashing of our social safety net.

So where are we called to breathe new life into deadness? What needs unbinding? In our nation? In our church? In me?


Echoes from the Edge

60 Second Sermon

By Neichelle Guidry Jones, Beatitudes Fellow - April 1st, 2014

Finally, the Poet

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

By Wendell Berry - April 1st, 2014

Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay. Want more of everything ready-made. Be afraid to know your neighbors and to die. And you will have a window in your head. Not even your future will be a mystery any more. Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer. When they want you to buy something they will call you. When they want you to die for profit they will let you know. So, friends, every day do something that won't compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it. Denounce the government and embrace the flag. Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands. Give your approval to all you cannot understand. Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed. Ask the questions that have no answers. Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias. Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest. Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold. Call that profit. Prophesy such returns. Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years. Listen to carrion -- put your ear close, and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come. Expect the end of the world. Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts. So long as women do not go cheap for power, please women more than men. Ask yourself: Will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child? Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth? Go with your love to the fields. Lie down in the shade. Rest your head in her lap. Swear allegiance to what is nighest your thoughts. As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn't go. Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.

From the Beatitudes Society blog.