Revised Common Lectionary Reflection, Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A
March 29, 2020
Lessons: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45
Theme: God’s faithful and generous people long to be unbound and to let go but are able to wait and still be church in that liminal space between already and not yet. (Self-quarantine may be another matter, however!)
Key Scripture: The dead man [Lazarus] came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” -John 11:44
Dear colleagues and friends, how are you holding up in these strange and challenging days? I pray that you are making time to care for yourself, connect with others in safe ways, and realizing that you are enough and that you are doing the herculean work that has been foist upon you. Thank you! Thank you for keeping yourself and your congregants and staff safe. Thank you for the amazing ways you are finding to continue ministry, gather community digitally, and adapt quickly to a new way of being church together. Thank you for remaining steadfast. You are showing such excellent stewardship of the gospel in so many beautiful ways.
This may be the second or third week of digital worship for many of you. Anxiety and fear are likely rising as the result of having lives upturned and living with so many uncertainties. The power of non-anxious presence and the gift of living in the present moment are not to be underestimated right now. Fortunately, this week’s lessons and the Holy Spirit are primed to help you speak a word of comfort, hope, lament, longing, or reason—whatever is needed in your context. Here are a few starting points for each lesson. You can also check the archived reflections from past years at the end of this post. Blessings on your ministry and prayers for your wellbeing. God grant you strength and courage and wisdom in abundance.
P.S: If you’re in particular need of encouragement this week, here’s on of my favorite songs to keep me going. Check out Carrie Newcomer singing “You Can Do This Hard Thing” here.
Oh those dry bones! Can these bones live? With God all things are possible; so prophet, prophesy to the bones, to the breath, to new life.
This lesson certainly speaks to our time and to the anxieties and uncertainties that most people are sensing. It may seem to some that “life as we know it” is ceasing to exist, while others don’t get all the fuss and fear. Still other people may vacillate between these two poles. I’m sure you’re hearing questions like these, or perhaps even saying some of them yourself: How can this really be happening? How can we be afraid of something we can’t even see? Will this end before my paid time off does, or will I even have a job?
Preachers and teachers, oh how we need a prophetic word today straight from this story, a word that God is with us in the midst of this pandemic. Israel was utterly crushed, a valley of dry bones and broken dreams, yet God was with them. By the time Sunday rolls around more of your congregants may feel that their bones are more brittle and dry. Remind them that God is in the business of restoration, that even the most hopeless cases are not hopeless in the divine One’s eyes. Yes, let those March winds blow, reminding us of the Spirit’s breath within us, “that we may live.”
What a perfect psalm for this time! The psalmist gives us permission to cry out from the depths of our fear, grief, suffering, anxiety, and pain. God hears our impassioned cries and lament. From the psalmist we also get a glimpse of God’s grace-filled nature. God is forgiving and relational, steadfast and loving. God redeems us and makes of us something new. In these weeks of “practicing resurrection” and longing for an empty tomb and new life, the psalmist encourages us to wait and hope. Many of us are already waiting in quarantine; thanks be to God that in Christ we do have hope.
It’s possible you could open your sermon with an a cappella Lauren Daigle-styled version of “Turn your Eyes Upon Jesus,” but if singing on Facebook is not your thing then maybe focusing on mindset will do the job.
All you have to do is hang out on social media for a while to see how mindset matters. It’s a mix, to be sure, but the smell of fear, anger, grief, and anxiety is palpable. Paul reminds us “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on Spirit is life and peace” (8:6).
The news and social media outlets help stir the pot as we humans try to make sense of what’s happening around us and all that we hear. Christians have an antidote to this dismal dwelling, the very real presence of the Christ. Paul reminds us that, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (8:11).
Perhaps you can explore what it looks like to keep our minds, eyes, and hearts turned toward Jesus in this particular time in the history of God’s creation and humankind. What might it look like to find that place of calming breath, to practice centering prayer, to embrace the presence and guidance of the Spirit when the world wishes to capture our gaze?
As long as I’m mentioning Lauren Daigle, check out this version of her singing “Peace be Still” with The Belonging Company. There are definitely some good words of singalongable encouragement in the lyrics.
The story of the death and raising of Lazarus is both familiar and helpful for this time. Life as we have known and experienced it has been upturned. Perhaps some people feel like they’ve been quarantombed instead of quarantined. Notice in the gospel that as the great world spins on around Jesus and his friends and followers, he maintains his sense of mission and presence. How might this story speak to those who feel like life as they knew it is dead and gone?
Jesus is taking a real risk by going back to Bethany. After all, his opponents have just tried to stone him. But Jesus is ready to enter the suffering and risk so that God’s glory is revealed in the Son. The disciples seem none too sure about this move. Thomas even says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Was this a valiant response or a wry comment coated with a glaze of fear and a sprinkling of irony? How unsettling this turn of events must have been to the disciples.
For John, this is the sign of no return; the wheels are now in motion for Jesus’s ultimate triumph over the powers of death and empire. Raising Lazarus elevates Jesus to a dangerous social status, one that might lead to social and political unrest, that might alert the Roman army to potential trouble, and that might upset the “good order” of current-day religious practice and expectations.
We know that Lazarus is REALLY dead and stinky. He’d been in the grave for four days, and tradition at that time held that the soul did not fully depart the body until three days after death. There was no disputing that Lazarus is dead.
John’s gospel also indicates that Jesus is emotionally invested. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha are dear friends. Commentary from the professional mourners moves him to agitation and tears. The suffering and grief are real, just as they are right now for so many of our congregants and church leaders. Sadly, it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.
That’s why we need the good news of this story. We so desperately need to hear the same wisdom spoken to Lazarus in verses 43-44: “Come out! Unbind and let go.” Friends, we cannot go back to business as usual. May this crisis be a wake up call that brings us to and through Easter to real life. Pondering this question may be helpful: What needs to change so that all people, indeed all of creation, may be unbound and let go, set free to be the people God created them to be?
Providing an opportunity to connect is critical. Whether you are already a pro at live streaming or still trying to figure it out, the important thing is to connect and keep everyone safe. How might you create a greater sense of community in this time of social/physical distancing? Invite congregants to share photos on your church’s Facebook page or Instagram account of them preparing to join for digital worship. Invite them to share creative ideas, songs, art, etc.
How about making a slide show or digital tour of your building. I’ve seen pastors do both of these things as ways to keep people connected to good effect. If you have lots of photos from ministry events and worship, string them together in a slide show set to music. Just seeing faces and familiar events may be comforting.
Do you have any grief counselors, therapists, or funeral directors in your congregation? Invite them to address coping with grief in a digital temple talk. You might offer a digital grief or prayer group or an evening prayer of lament as a way to process complicated or disassociated grief.
If you’re really feeling ambitious, try a digital choir or musical group.
Feeling a need to bring folks together safely? You might try what this Kentucky church and others have done.
Finally, remember that you are enough. You have finite energy and resources. We’re not after perfection or an Emmy, we’re just stretching ourselves into the change that’s been thrust upon us. Whatever you do for worship, two or more will gather digitally, God will be praised, and the church continues outside the walls. Don’t feel as if you have to up your game exponentially. Keep it real. Keep it sane. Let the light and love shine through. Bless you!
Chances are you won’t be meeting with your youth group in person, but perhaps you have access to Zoom and can schedule a digital meeting. Spend some time talking about your group member’s concerns and fears. Invite everyone to share their favorite music, memes, photos, poetry, games—whatever is bringing them comfort, hope, and peace.
This week’s focus verse is Ezekiel 37:14 – “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act,” says the LORD.
Why not teach the children the “Dry Bones” song as a way to remember this story. Invite them to let the Spirit blow their bones into a standing and dancing position. Adult congregants can join in, too! Here’s a version of the song with lyrics.
Finish with a simple echo prayer and blessing.
Dear God (Dear God),
Thank you for loving us (thank you for loving us). Please keep us safe (Please keep us safe) and take care of all the helpers (and take care of all the helpers). Thank you for the gifts of laughter and movement (Thank you for the gifts of laughter and movement.). Help us to be patient (Help us to be patient.) Help us to be kind. (Help us to be kind.). Amen. (Amen.)
Weekly Stewardship Bulletin Insert
These are unsettling times that beget anxiety and fear. While we practice physical distancing, ministry moves onward, perhaps in some new and exciting ways. If you have been laid off or are not receiving pay, supporting the church’s ministries and other causes near to your heart may not seem possible. For others, it may be easy to continue your regular giving. You and God know the situation. Please continue to give if you are able. One thing that all of us can do is pray; another is to practice gratitude for what we do have. Thank you for caring for our congregation’s ministries and for one another. Together we are stronger.
Stewardship at Home
Experiencing any cabin fever? Has your world begun to feel really small? Look outward and change your mindset! Practice stewardship of time, relationships, and gratitude. In addition to the many options for free classes, tours, music performances, exercise classes, and digital gatherings, here are three simple activities to try:
- Put an empty jar on the table along with a few pens and some small slips of blank paper. Whenever you feel anxious, scared, bored, angry, or hopeless, think about something for which you are grateful. Write it on the slip and put it in the jar. At the end of the week look at all the gratitude slips and give thanks. You may be amazed at all your blessings.
- Go for a neighborhood prayer walk (keeping proper social/physical distancing, of course). Give thanks for small things you notice—budding trees, flowers pushing through the soil, bird song, sunshine, raindrops, stars. Offer to pray for others as you walk. Post on FB or Instagram that you’re walking and praying and take requests.
- Check in with family, friends, and neighbors via email, phone, social media, Zoom, or handwritten notes and letters.
2014 Reflection: https://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2014/04/mindset/
2008 Reflection: https://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2008/03/can-these-bones-live/
Images: panache2620 and Kalyan Chakravarthy, Creative Commons usage license. © Sergiy Serdyuk – Fotolia.com Thanks!
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