Listening With Hope


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

March 29, 2020

Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45

       We are living in uncertain times, fearful of what the next news broadcast will say about the spread of this virus that we seem unable to contain. We watch the videos on the internet and brace ourselves. We seem to be entering into the depths of our fears, questioning not where is God as in a previous time when illness was not understood, but questioning whether our political leadership is in touch with scientific reality.

       Although the particular issues were different, Ezekiel was a prophet who can still speak to our times. Not as widely read as Jeremiah, my favorite prophet of doom and gloom, the book of Ezekiel is replete with much of the same except at the end there is a message of hope: Israel shall be restored as the people, that is the leaders, repent of their sin of injustice toward the poor.

       We don’t read much from the book called Ezekiel because it is full of strange visions and lamentations, references that are at times obscure, and metaphors that are lost except to scholars of biblical history. In fact, usually the only part of the book we know is the reading this morning, which is a message of hope, that God will enable such change and transformation that the dry bones will live again.

       We are fearful as were the people in Ezekiel’s time, those in power because they found themselves dragged off to Babylon and the vast majority because they felt abandoned by God and robbed of real leadership they so desperately needed in such times. Ezekiel’s call to the people is not to forget God’s promise to those who adhere to the worship of the one true God, that the land will be restored to them. 

      During this season of Lent, the lectionary pairs the passage of the dry bones of despair taking on the flesh of hope with the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Now called Al-Eizarlya, or the place of Lazarus in Arabic, Bethany was a small village located on the eastern side of Mount Olivet, about two miles from Jerusalem. In the book of Acts it is referred to as a Sabbath’s day journey. 

      Now it is the second largest city in the area designated as the Governorate of Jerusalem with more than 17,600 inhabitants. Although on the West Bank, it is under Israeli military occupation rather than being governed by the Palestinian Authority. The site known as the tomb of Lazarus has been a place of pilgrimage since at least the fourth century, known by the writings of Egeria, a pilgrim who visited and identified many places in the Holy Land to her “sisters” back home.

       Like many churches the Lazarium was reduced to rubble by an earthquake early in the sixth century but was replaced by a larger church by 518CE. It survived intact even after the conquest of Jerusalem by the Arab Caliph Umar in 636 at which point Jews were allowed back into the city. 

           Little is known about the site until the time of the Crusades. Following the Christian conquest of Jerusalem, various nobles were enthroned as kings of the city. In the twelfth century King Fulk and Queen Melisende basically bought the entire village for the building of a church and a convent dedicated to Martha and Mary. Following another fall of Jerusalem to invaders – this seems to be the history of the place, to be the constant target of war and conquest – the convent was deserted until several hundred years later with the construction of a mosque on the site. Islam holds Lazarus as a sort of saint.

       Now next to the mosque, there are churches with steps leading down from the street into what is traditionally considered the tomb. Almost every holy site in Israel actually exists on the same level as in the Middle Ages, with the lower areas dating from earlier times, usually the fourth or fifth century. This is also the case in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

        The text from John tells us that when Jesus heard of the illness of his friend Lazarus, he delayed two days returning to Bethany where Lazarus’ sisters hoped Jesus would heal him. In fact, when Jesus finally shows up, Martha angrily says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And then the story continues to the ending we know, the raising of Lazarus, which the author of John’s Gospel directly ties to the fact that the temple leadership realizes it needs to get rid of Jesus. But that’s going ahead of the story.

       If we consider this story today, we can think, if we knew how serious this pandemic was, we would have taken better precautions sooner. Maybe not two days sooner but certainly two months because, of course, we don’t have a Jesus here to raise these bodies from the dead. How do we have hope in the midst of this awful situation? How do we listen for the signs of hope?

        Unfortunately, it is difficult to hear the signs of hope other than in the legislation just passed by Congress after much wrangling. Even now, various political forces made sure their particular pork barrels got funding. For instance, a provision enabling the Food and Drug Administration to approve an innovative sunscreen made in Florence, Kentucky, was put into the bill by Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell. 

        And, believe it or not, although the bill does have language to block Trump himself and other government officials from receiving assistance from the $500 billion loan assistance fund, companies owned by the family of Jared Kushner might not be exempt. One lobbyist in Washington said, “We went to McConnell’s people, we went to Schumer’s people, and Pelosi’s and McCarthy’s people – we pinged them all.” 

        Boeing did okay as well as a business “critical to maintaining national security,” for as Trump said, “We’ll be helping Boeing. We’ll be helping the airlines, the cruise lines.” And changes in the tax code are worth $15 billion.

        Where does that leave us? We want to listen for hope but it is difficult as New Jersey seems to have jumped from 6800 positives to over 11,000 in only 48 hours. The speed with which this virus is moving is frightening, to be sure. We now have at least 140 dead as of Saturday night. New Jersey has one-fifth the number of California and has more than twice the number of infections and deaths. We are afraid and not without cause.

       We are afraid not just for ourselves, although we clearly are that. We are afraid for our families, the people we love, the people we care about. We are almost afraid to say their names as somehow the virus will seek them out. Our fears become quite primitive. As I said to a friend by email, “I think I’ll watch The Seventh Seal to cheer me up.”

        We listen for signs of hope, real hope, not the false hope that is promised by politicians worried more about the economy than about you or me. We should be looking for a new kind of leadership, perhaps the kind that comes from doctors and nurses, the people on the front lines.

       We listen for signs of hope. Those signs of hope can be found in caring for each other even from a distance. Picking up the phone, hearing a voice other than your own – or the latest number on the television – can be listening for hope. The New York Times called for a national lockdown, such as is now the case in India, a country with three times the population we have and seriously more social and economic problems. 

        We listen for signs of hope. Let us find that hope in each other and in our faith that no matter what, God is with us, not necessarily to sure us, but to give us the strength and courage for the living of these days. In the name of the One who offers us real hope, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.