2 April 2017 – Fifth Sunday of Lent

The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of the 5th Sunday of Lent
2 April 2017

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

“Out of the depths have I called to you, oh Lord.” Our readings this week take us into the coming darkness of Holy Week.

This fifth Sunday of Lent is the last Sunday before we gather to celebrate both Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his betrayal, trial, and crucifixion.

While we may have held off the gathering gloom over the past weeks, this week we are in it. We are in the tomb of Lazarus. We are in the valley of dry bones—of the shadow of death—with Ezekiel, which just last week’s Psalm referred to with the hope of accompaniment.

But today we are here. Today we join with our Psalmist in crying out from the depths of our own personal and collective experiences of darkness, of despair, of hopelessness.

With the whole house of Israel, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” With our Psalmist, our souls “wait for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning”—in hope for the light of day that brings relief to troubled hearts and souls, we watch and we wait. Encountering the darkness of loss and despair even more acutely in community with Mary, Martha, and the community of support from the Temple, we join with Christ to weep as we also join Lazarus in the tomb. And despite Paul’s exhortations to set our minds on the Spirit, we are, after all, only human and, quite honestly, sometimes life gets us so far down that we can’t even see a glimmer of hope anymore.

Unless we’re very young, very lucky, or both, most of us have been here. My first memory of loss is from when my great-grandmother died when I was four years old. It was the first time I had seen my father cry. As early as it was in my life, I still remember him standing in front of the fireplace in our small rental house in Belmont, CA, with a framed painting behind him of the Last Supper. Through his tears he apologized for not being able to be strong for us all.

By the time I arrived at my Clinical Pastoral Experience in the summer after my first year in seminary, I had watched my mom endure the darkness when we lost my step-dad, who was my hero from age twelve to twenty-five, I had watched friends fall into deep depression over losing friends in school, and I stood by Jane’s side as we watched her father pass away.

I chose Akron General Medical Center for my Chaplaincy internship because I wanted to give something back to the staff for the compassion and care they had shown my father-in-law as he battled small-cell lung cancer, underwent brain surgery, sat through months of chemotherapy, and lay dying in hospice. Jane went to care for him two months after our wedding. Dad had been in remission just long enough to come out for the wedding, join me at my bachelor party, play a round of golf with me, walk Jane down the aisle, and dance with her before returning to Ohio and discovering the return of the cancer that would take his life. Laying in hospice care, actively dying, he asked Jane if I could come out from Berkeley. When I arrived, he opened his eyes for the last time, squeezed my hand, and let go. When he passed that night, all I could do was sit with Jane and my in-laws in solidarity and compassion.

That following summer, as I consoled the sixteen families wrought with the grief and loss of both expected and unexpected deaths on my units, my most poignant memories are those of accompaniment, spent, like with Jane’s family, simply sitting with people in their tears, and listening to their rants at God.

Sitting in front of my field education congregation a year or two later, on Good Friday, Jane and I had just lost our first of eight pregnancies, and I found myself, for the first time, at the bottom of that same dark pit. Looking down at my part of Psalm 22 for the service, I found, with shock and horror, that it stated “you are he who took me out of the womb, and kept me safe upon my mother’s breast. I have been entrusted to you ever since I was born; you were my God when I was still in my mother’s womb. Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.” All I could do was whisper through my own silent sobs to the person next to me that I couldn’t read it.

This Sunday’s readings echo for many of us the dark night of the soul. Each is a story, a prayer, a lament, a pining for hope, light, and salvation in the depths of loss, despair, depression, and darkness. Each takes us deep inside ourselves, into the depths of our own experiences of isolated loss.

But… and here is perhaps the most blessed and important part for any and all of us as we call out from the depths… the darkness isn’t the end.

Dried up and bereft of hope, in the darkest valley of death’s shadow and despair, the dry bones are not alone. From the depths we wait, but we wait in hope for the dawn—for there is forgiveness with God, there is mercy with God, in God’s word there is hope, there is redemption… even redemption of our deepest darkness. Though we lose ourselves in despair, though we curl in on ourselves and cut ourselves off in our darkness, God’s ruach, God’s pneuma, God’s breath, life, love, Spirit seeks to refill us, seeks for our wholeness, our restoration, and our return to the light. And when we cannot see the light from the pit of our despair and the depths of our tombs, God is still there, to put our bones back together, re-clothe us, and breathe life back into us. We are assured that God accompanies us in our grief, in our despair, in our darkness. God is there to weep with us, to hold us, to sit with us, and, ultimately, to call us back from the darkness, to step out of our tombs, and to rejoin the living.

Whether from loss, guilt, hurt, injury, or any other cause, finding ourselves cut off in darkness is a natural part of every life’s journey. Recovery takes time, patience, acceptance, and nurture. Sometimes we are able to return to a pre-traumatic state of normalcy, but frequently part of our healing and return to wholeness comes accompanied by the realization that we are changed by these encounters. I may never again be able to celebrate friends’ and families’ new pregnancies without remembering also the fragility of life. But the blessing is that it keeps me prayerful, it keeps me engaged and aware of how the expectant parents are doing, and in these and many other ways my own experiences of grief deepen and enrich my appreciation and joy. As with the birth of my nephew, Atticus Edward Green this past Monday, the celebrations of new life and light resonate more deeply on the other side of loss.

Beyond the darknesses of our lives and hearts, there is light, there is hope, and there is renewal. As Ezekiel prophesied to the whole house of Israel, the darkness of despair is not the end. As Jesus comforted Mary and Martha and called to Lazarus, we are assured that, as Paul states a few verses beyond today’s reading in Romans, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

As we grapple with the oncoming darkness at the end of this wilderness journey of Lent, may we sit with one another in accompaniment, remembering that God is with us, and may we watch together for the coming dawn.