Lenten reflections 3/21-23

To listen to the audio recordings of these reflections, please go to http://www.stjohnsnewhaven.org/lenten-resources/

John Hare Devotional: Dry Bones 23 March 2020

Hello. This is John Hare communicating with you, with a Lenten devotion from Ezekiel.
In chapter 37, Ezekiel describes a vision. He is brought out by the spirit of the Lord and set in the middle of a valley that is full of bones, bones that are very dry. And the Lord asks him, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And he answers, ’O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.’ And the Lord tells him to prophesy to the bones that the Lord will make breath enter them, and they will come to life, and he will make flesh come upon them and cover them with skin. And they will know that He is the Lord. And as Ezekiel is prophesying, there is a rattling sound, and the bones come together, bone to bone, and tendons and flesh appear on them and skin covers them. But there is not yet breath in them. Then the Lord tells him to prophesy to the breath, ‘Come from the four winds, O breath’. And breath enters the bones; they come to life and stand up on their feet – a vast army. And the Lord says, ‘These bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.” And the Lord tells them, ‘O my people, I will bring you back to the land of Israel. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it.’ We are at the moment in a valley of dry bones. Even if we are not sick, we are cut off, exiled from our ordinary lives. Some of us are locked out of our offices, some of us have lost their jobs. All of us are unable to sing our songs together in this strange land. All of us have
lost the familiar easy contiguity we took for granted. The life of the body is where the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone, and the thigh bone is connected to the hip bone, and the bones can move together in unity to accomplish the purposes for which we live. This life we have, at the moment, lost, because we are separated from each other. For me, a profound loss is the loss of the eucharist.

Ezekiel tells us two things. The first thing is that the Lord is in the business of bringing us
back. In the previous chapter, he has already given us this word of the Lord: ‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people and I will be your God.’ Our exile is not directly the result of our sin, but of the virus. But we can take this opportunity of distance to reflect on our lives individually and corporately, and see how much we have taken for granted and how much we have wasted. We have just rushed by, oblivious in our schedules to the privilege of being able to associate physically with each other. But God is in the business of bringing us back. That is God’s character; it is one of restoration and the bringing of shalom. We can pray to God in that assurance.

The second thing is that God is present even in our exile. Ezekiel tells us this in chapter

  1. The Lord rebukes the shepherds of Israel who have not looked after the flock, and then he says, ‘As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep.’ We have a good shepherd who cares for his sheep. Diana Weston put it this way in an email: God is near, no matter what comes. We see signs of this all around us. We are in fact communicating with each other, even though we are apart. The Spirit is working through us
    already to comfort each other and help each other in need. There is a pastoral care group at church ‘zooming’ their meetings about how we can care for each other. The prayer group on Tuesdays meets and grows. Ruth Lively sent us a link to the members of the Denver orchestra playing (not perfectly) The Ode to Joy together from their separate locations. I have received emails from people I have not communicated with for ages, who want to be in touch and be sure that Terry and I are all right. God is with us here in our isolation, and the Spirit is breathing life into us.

So two messages from Ezekiel: already and not yet. God is already with us, as a good
shepherd with the sheep. And God is in the business of bringing us back, I pray with a new heart, to our old land.

Let us pray: Dear God, thank you that you are already with us, and we cannot isolate
ourselves away from your love. And we pray that you will bring us back, as Jesus brought the lost sheep back to the good pasture. Amen.


Bill Rowley Devotional John 11 March 21, 2020

Hello, I’m Bill Rowley and this Lenten Reflection is based on this Sunday’s reading
from John 11.
John 11 is a gospel story filled with pain. It presents us with a world in which
everything is wrong.
It begins with the illness of Lazarus. When Jesus hears, instead of rushing to his
friends’ side or healing him at a distance (as he does in John 4), he delays. Lazarus is
dead before he arrives.
Lazarus’ sister, Martha, is reproachful. “Lord if you had been here!” Initially, their
sister, Mary, won’t even face Jesus, but when she finally does, she too says “Lord if
you had been here!” There is betrayal between the lines. In their eyes, Jesus the
healer has simply let his friend die.
Jesus weeps.
Lazarus has suffered and died. A community is bereaved. A friendship is broken.
And Jesus is weeping.
Why does Jesus weep? The locals say “see how he loved him.” And they are right –
and wrong because that’s not all that’s going on. When the RSV says that Jesus was
“greatly disturbed,” this is a little weak. The Greek actually is used elsewhere for the
sound of a horse snorting – in humans, it has a tinge of indignation about it.
What seems to me to fit this scene better is a mixture of indignation and sadness.
Surely sadness for the suffering of Lazarus, his death, and the pain of his family
would be appropriate (even knowing it will be turned to joy).
Jesus’s close friends ask, “how could you let this happen?” Note that they don’t
question his power. Instead, they question his love. Grief and indignation would
naturally follow from this break in their friendship.
And perhaps too, his indignation comes from the whole rotten package of sin and
disorder which death is part of – which he is about to go to Jerusalem to deal with.
Of course we know how this story ends. Lazarus is raised. The microcosm of a world
gone wrong is turned upside down and things are set right. The macrocosmic battle
looms right over the horizon – which we know Jesus wins
How are we to read this gospel story in the time of Coronavirus?
I see echoes of the problem of evil in this story. It is a little different from the
standard philosophical problem of evil. Maybe this falls into the category which
Alvin Plantinga called the existential problem of evil.
Our God allows really horrible evils in the world. God could snip Coronavirus from
existence and raise its dead. It’s not that he lacks the power or knowledge. Why
doesn’t he act?
The atheist says it’s because he just isn’t there. But for Christians, it has to be a
different answer.
Doesn’t he love us after all, we might ask with Mary and Martha?
Part of faith in Jesus is not just belief that he exists – but belief in him – part of which
is belief that he is for us – that he loves us back. And crises can challenge that part of
our faith.
So, in this other way, evil can undermine our faith.
What can we say in response to this version of the problem of evil? I don’t have a
good answer – I only have some reflections that come from Scripture and my own
darker moments.
I suspect that the answer must be in the following direction:

  1. God really does love us. Jesus is the demonstration of that love.
  2. God does have a plan to save the world. Love is at its core. We are assured
    that things are being set right and that the cross is at the center.
  3. Jesus, the God-Man, is no stranger to grief and outrage at the twisted state of
    the world. God knows we hurt and fear – in Jesus, he has done it too.
    Remember too, that the Spirit intercedes for us with “groans” too deep for
    words.
  4. It is ok to tell God you’re overwhelmed – that the pain is too much – that you
    can’t see his plan – look to the Psalms as a model in your prayers (remember
    that Jesus appealed to just such a Psalm on the cross when he said “My god,
    my god, why have you forsaken me?”) The Psalms are brutally honest – but
    they are suffused with faith in the love and goodness of God.
    This gospel reading highlights an essential part of faith – it is not just belief that God
    exists – but it also involves a belief that God actually loves us and that he is faithful
    to us. That in spite of appearances, and those appearances can be bleak indeed, he
    has not abandoned us or forgotten us.

Prayer
Our Father, I don’t understand why you allow so much suffering in this world. But I
believe that it isn’t out of inattention or a lack of love. Preserve us from infection and
illness, not only for ourselves, but to spare others who might be more vulnerable
than we are. Give us wisdom about when to go out and when to stay in. Protect
those who work with the sick and the needy. Help us to see what work you have for
each of us individually and for us as a church during this crisis – to be your kingdom
to each other and the world.
Thank you for sending your Son to live our life. Give us and sustain our faith in your
power and love.

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