Year A; 5 LentFB; 3.26.2023
Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45
Yesterday, right here in the nave, storyteller Antonio (Haw sha) Rocha transformed our lives by embodying the slave ship Malaga to tell her story. He began her story by giving voice to the Maine pine tree grandmother who prophesied to each pine grove their destiny. It was a prophesy that captured our imaginations partly because it was set in Brunswick, Maine and because she had a voice. “You will be school houses. You will be churches. You will be small, cozy homes.” And finally, the star of the story, “You will be ships, one named, Malaga.” Malaga would one day carry many slaves in many trips across the Middle Passage.
I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to imagine a speaking “grandmother pine tree.” After all, this morning, God and Ezekiel had a conversation which led to Ezekiel to speak to dry bones. I believe that inanimate objects do have some kind of life in them – they have atoms and molecular substances that give them an existence that could be characterized as life. And I also believe that God is the source of our dreams and imaginations and gives us the capacity to dream and hope through amazing stories.
So, when storyteller Antonio (Haw sha) Rocha embodied a slave ship that was built near Brunswick and was owned by a St. Paul’s vestry member whose name we know to be Joseph Badger, the drama felt powerful and real. About two thirds of the way into the story, Antonio stretched out his arms and portrayed the Malaga character as a deeply sorrowful slave ship. She had been carrying mostly African teens and delivering them into slavery.
Antonio’s Malaga voice described the blood and stench of the ship. He donned blood-red fabric across his out-stretched arms and he depicted Malaga at the dock by holding on to large cables. The voice of the ship was wrenching in sorrow as it realized the suffering of these young people, many of whom had died already. We watched, and members of St. Paul’s who attended saw the suffering of the Malaga ship super-imposed on this very altar where we re-enact the life-giving and sacrificial Sacrament of Jesus, “the Body of Christ, broken for you.”
Our imaginations were activated yesterday. The voice of the ship and of the grandmother pine tree were transformative for those of us sitting here. Similarly, the voice of God to the prophet Ezekiel is transformative. Those of us living in the 21st Century might say, “Those voices are not REAL. They are just a literary device.” Maybe. But it never fails to inspire me to hope against all hope when I hear God say, “Mortal, can these bones live?” And God says, “Prophesy to the bones…those dry, dead bones lying in the dust; prophesy and say to them ‘I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live.’” And they DO live!
The people of Israel had been murdered, plundered, deported and were living without hope or a home. And yet, their dry, dead bones come together. The people are restored and breath is breathed into them. Even more inspiring to me is that God gave them one more thing. God’s spirit. God promised to open their graves and give them spirit. “I will open your graves and I will place my Spirit within you and you shall live.” God said five different times in just two sentences, “I will open the graves and bring you up from the graves.” God promised breath, spirit, and resurrected life.
And then there is the opening up of Lazarus’s grave in John’s gospel reading. Jesus said, “take the stone away.” And oh! The stench after being dead four days! But Jesus prayed as he wept with the sisters. He called Lazarus out. Lazarus was dead and now he lives.
The readings this morning are full of good news. We are NOT completely cut off. Our hope is NOT lost. Lazarus IS raised. None of this good news is done without God’s action. The stories are full of life-giving good news of God’s desire to partner with US to give us hope and join in God’s life-giving action.
I tell the good news because there is also hard news for us right now. Last week, you may have read in the news of the status of climate change. I was alarmed to read in the “Washington Post” this headline, “World is on brink of catastrophic warming, U.N. Climate change report says.” The article went on to report on the Synthesis Climate Change report of the UN: “A dangerous climate threshold is near, but ‘it does not mean we are doomed if swift action is taken,’ scientists say.”
A week earlier, scientists reported that they have measured a record number of plastic particles in the ocean. I had to look up this number because I was not familiar with the abbreviation, “tn.” One-hundred-seventy tn plastic particles have been measured in the ocean. “tn” stands for trillion, 170 trillion. Many of us have seen photos of miles of plastic washing up on beaches. I think of George Bailey in the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” when he was in his hometown managing the family “building and loan” on a shoestring. His childhood friend, Sam Wainwright comes to visit with his fur-bedecked wife standing smiling next to him. He urged George to “get into plastics! Get in on the ground floor, George! There’s lots of money in plastics!” Now, we are drowning in plastics.
With this hard news, I am pulled to the very first book of the bible, Genesis. I want us to revisit the Creation story. “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures and let birds fly above the earth…And God saw that it was good.” God created this beautiful planet and all that is in it. And called it “good.” We are also what God called “good.”
These stories of scripture of God’s action are not mere idle tales that mean nothing. They represent to us a profound invitation to join God in the renewal and cleanup of this glorious and fragile earth.
Our hope is NOT lost. We are NOT paralyzed. The prophet Ezekiel reminds the people at the end of the passage that God is acting and we are invited to act with God. “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…” God is not a God of inaction. And, made in God’s image, we are not a people of inaction.
God calls us all to dream beyond the boundaries of the very hard news, beyond the paralysis that does nothing. God calls us to imagine life-giving creation that God so tenderly calls “good.” God knows and we know that right now, “our world is not as it should be,” and that we must recognize and face the many social, economic, political and even religious forces that block human beings from being good and faithful stewards of everything God has created.
God breathes a life-giving invitation to each of us to begin now to honor and co-create a renewed existence in the only place we have to live in; a most spectacular planet that we share with majestic Maine “grandmother pine trees” and the sea and the air and the creatures and the microbes and the atoms.
God says to us, “Prophesy to my good creation and say, ‘Let’s all clean it up for my sake, for your sake, for your neighbors’ sake and for the sake of its life-giving future. For it is good.”