Opening Graves — Fifth Sunday of Advent 2008

Steve Hyde and Mark Braverman                                                                   Ezekiel 37:1-14

Ravensworth Baptist Church                                                                          John 11:1-45

March 9, 2008  Lent 5



Steve:  Mark, since the season of Lent is a time for penitence, I will begin with a confession.  When we speak of the Judeo-Christian tradition, we are saying that as Christians, we are the offspring of Judaism. My confession is that we who are Christians born of Jewish faith have broken the commandment to honor our parents.

That sounds like a bland confession, when you consider all the conflict, heartache and horror in our 2000 year history with each other. But it does acknowledge that something primarily important to God has been broken, and that is our right relationship with each other. Dishonoring our parent faith has allowed us to forget who our brothers and sisters are. The first truly haunting story in Genesis is Cain’s murder of his brother, Abel, and the agonized cry of the LORD: “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”

We cannot erase all the history, or pretend that it is not dark and twisted. We can, however, listen to God’s tears running like an underground river beneath all our history. We can picture God looking upon our divisions, our wars, our contempt for brothers and sisters who in God’s heart are from the same household, and we can hear God screaming over and over and over again: “What have you done?”

We can stand here as brothers among a congregation of brothers and sisters, and begin a journey. It is an honor to have you with us, and I want to honor every footstep of your remarkable journey that has led you here, as well as the footsteps and the faith of your ancestors.

Mark:  Steve, first of all thank you, all of you here at RBC, for once again opening your house to me, and I want to say that the honor is mine as well.  And, in the spirit of our relationship, which is deep friendship and a recognition that we have been brought together to teach one another, and to bring that teaching to others, in that spirit I want to reframe what you’ve just said. Yes, Lent is a time for penitence.  And, walking side by side with true penitence is a powerful thing — something you have just introduced by talking about parents and children:  the theme of Rebirth.   And if we look at the scripture readings for today, the theme that shouts out at us is:  something new is being born.

You talk about history, and how we are haunted by it – by the conflict, the cruelties, the turning of brother against brother, and the breaking of commandments such as honoring parents and Thou Shalt not Kill!   And when I contemplate history – and again, our scripture for today calls us to do that – I am with you on this, in my deepest heart.  Steve, you brought us back to the very earliest stories of the Bible, to the first parents, the first family.  And isn’t history, the kind of history the Bible gives us, those stories’ crises, decisions, turning points?  So if Christianity sprang from Judaism, and, of course, Jesus was a Jew, as were the apostles and the original group of his followers, then what was the story of our ancestors, our common family, the family that gave birth to your faith out of my people?  And what do we need to discover, to learn from studying this relationship

Because we are in desperate need of a new beginning, a Rebirth.  I will say this now, and you know this about me, and thanks to you so do many of the people of RBC gathered here with us today – that I too feel that there is much for me to confess, and much that my people must atone for, commandments of God that we have broken, are breaking.

We’ve got a treasure house of scripture here, Steve — the Prophets and Psalms, the Gospels and Paul’s letters – the parents and the children!  So let’s begin!

Steve:  Let’s begin with today’s Psalm. The 130th is a cry from the heart: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” What if we could hear this Psalm as a cry from the heart of God: “Out of the depths I cry to you! Hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” As I think of the father in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, I don’t think this way of listening to the 130th Psalm is far-fetched at all. Listen to the father going out to meet his older son, pleading with him to drop his grudge and animosity toward his brother: “Come on inside the house. The party won’t be the same without you. He’s your brother. He was lost, and now he’s home.

What if God is saying to those with ears to hear: “Out of the depths I cry to you! Hear my voice! Yes, you are your brother’s keeper. You always have been!” Mark, as we’ve talked about Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, and John’s story of Lazarus brought out of his tomb by Jesus, I’m struck by the fact that we have these two magnificent texts. Both speak of the wondrous work of a God who can open graves. Only images of radical transformation–such as rebirth and resurrection–can come even close to describing the ongoing, creative work of God who is still breathing the divine, life-giving breath into dry bones. Yet you are bothered by Ezekiel’s flawed, limited vision and for me, John’s Gospel is marred by a point of view that has at times become dangerously polarizing, putting forth an indictment of “the Jews” that sounds anti-Semitic and unworthy of a Gospel of Jesus.

I hope today will bring us one step closer to learning from the questions you raise about our common family. As you said, we are in desperate need of a new beginning. Would you talk about Ezekiel’s vision, and John’s story if you’d like? I know you’re also intrigued by the newness of Paul’s vision, so…preach to us.

Mark: Yes Steve, these are magnificent, haunting texts.  And whoever it was who put together the lectionary, the genius – or maybe it was many – who assembled these scriptures to fit the theme of the season, they were inviting us to take a spiritual journey.  So what do we have here:  we have Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, we have the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in John, and we have Paul’s famous declaration from Romans 6:  “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  What does that mean – for with Paul we always have to ask that – the free gift of God is eternal life?   And why is this included with these other passages?  To begin to answer that I want to turn first to the famous chapter 37 of Ezekiel. It’s a powerful picture: a valley of dry bones, dead, dismembered, having the life breathed back into them. But what is the meaning of the vision, what is the Old Testament prophet telling us? To answer this we need to understand who Ezekiel was and the historical context of what he wrote. Ezekiel lived in the 6th century BCE. He was exiled along with the rest of the Kingdom of Judah in 586 when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and exiled the entire population to Babylonia. Ezekiel himself was a member of the priestly class, and he preached what has been called a Zion theology, which emphasized God’s choice of Jerusalem as his dwelling place and the central place of worship.  Ezekiel’s mission was to keep the exiled people attached to Jerusalem–the land.  The people were not to separate their attachment to place from their devotion to God and to the covenant they had entered into with God.  It is a prophecy, not so much of rebirth or renewal, but of restoration. In that sense, it is conservative, it looks back, and it emphasizes the tribal. Even though you have been cut off from your spiritual center-place, you must hold on to your identity, God will not forget you or his covenant with you, he’ll restore you to your prior condition. Look at the closing of the vision that we read earlier

“When I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people, 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.

So: in exile, away from the Temple and Jerusalem, you are as if dead.  I will restore you to the land, and to life. As a people. That’s what this is about – and more on that later.

I contrast this to the story of Lazarus in John. This too, is a parable – whether or not we believe literally that everything in the Bible is true, what is important here is that Jesus as depicted in the gospel is using this story as a parable, a teaching. Listen again to his words to Martha:

“Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’”

See him correcting her: this is not about some eschatological future time, this is now:  resurrection happens now, through belief.  And I further call attention to the word “everyone.”  This is not directed to the people Israel, Jesus is not talking to his own people or to any particular people or group.  Redemption is for everyone.  And this is the message of Paul’s statement in Romans: “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We know that this does not mean, not for Paul, and certainly not for Jesus, that this the free gift is available only for the members of our club, or our church, or our nationality. Further more, there is no place associated with it – wherever you are, and whoever you are, this gift is yours

So Steve, as a Jew, as a man raised on these Jewish scriptures and in the Jewish tradition, and as a Jew now struggling with the effects of this dominant element of my tradition in our own times, what leaps out at me is the contrast between the conservative framework of Ezekiel —  a member of the priestly class setting up exiled Israel for restoration of the Temple cult and political independence in Jerusalem — and the redemptive messages articulated by  Paul and by John. It’s totally opposite – restoration of old order vs. inauguration of a new world order. From tribal to universal. These are different world views. Jesus came to bring down the stones of the Temple, and to build a new one “from his body,” meaning on a totally new spiritual plane. My pain and my shame and my fear today is that we Jews have come to rebuild that Temple of Stone, reestablish that earthly Jerusalem, one that is totally and only ours, in effect to reestablish something that is no longer appropriate for our world. We Jews are, indeed, in need of a new life, new bones to our bones and flesh for our flesh, and we have called the State of Israel the “flowering of our redemption” — but are we on the right path?

Steve:  I want to pause for a commercial. We will have a Q&A session after the service ends. This sermon will be on our website, and we will have CDs available. I’m saying that because I’m not sure our American Christian ears can take in at one hearing what you have just said, and it’s so important whether everyone agrees or not that we listen carefully.

“But are we on the right path?” Mark, this question of yours opens up everything. Every major decision has a moment that is pregnant with new possibilities…if we catch ourselves in that moment, and especially if we incline our ears to God, and ask with open-hearted honesty—“Are we on the right path?” That can be the difference between going to war and working for peace. I hope we can follow you and say: “We Christians are in need of new life, new bones to our bones and flesh for our flesh, but are we on the right path?” We can be even more specific and say “We American Christians…we Baptist Christians…are we on the right path?”

Being in Israel and Palestine, and seeing the Occupation on the ground, how its daily, grinding oppression affects Palestinian families and children–Christian and Muslim–and entire villages and towns…affected me more than I can begin to describe. Meeting Israeli Jews of great conscience, such as Rami who spoke from the depths of his grief over the loss of his murdered daughter and Gilead who with deep compassion showed us the ugliness of Occupation and what it does to families and children…was like being in your company, Mark. Your voice carries great moral authority, and I would like to be as profoundly Christian as you are profoundly Jewish. You have described your experience as one of conversion, as two years ago for the first time or at least in a new and powerful way, you began to see Palestinians as your brothers and sisters. When I dropped you off at your car the other day, I saw your bumper sticker: “Free the Palestinians.” It must be interesting when you pull into the parking lot of your synagogue! I don’t know how entombed you were before by old or rigid beliefs, but you are certainly walking free now. I don’t see a single burial cloth on you. I don’t know if I am as free or converted, but I do know that I can no longer breathe inside the bubble Rami spoke of, the bubble that makes it possible to live as if God is not crying out to us, as if children are not suffering, as if injustice is not a sledge hammer beating daughters and sons of God.

Mark:  I’m profoundly struck by your image of the burial cloth, of Lazarus emerging from the grave still wearing his shroud – we don’t know what happened to him, do we, the story leaves him there.  I’m tempted to take your metaphor forward, imagining what Lazarus does next, what does he do with his new life. Because although I do feel freed, profoundly so, from the entombment of the tribal ghetto in which I was raised, I carry my identity, my Jewish heart, as my grandmother would call it, within me. And I treasure this, much as I imagine you treasure the memories, the sights, smells, music, imagery, poetry and lessons of the traditional faith in which you were raised, regardless of what you have cast off during your own journey. I’m beginning to realize that it’s a lifelong  journey, a process of stripping off and re-clothing, a resurrection that is constant, daily.  I think that is what Jesus meant when he said to Martha:  no, you don’t wait for the day of Judgment, that day is now, resurrection is today, and tomorrow, and as long as we live.

For me, the shroud, the cave I emerged from, is what I called just now the ghetto – the prison of the tribe.   To go back to what you said when we started about Christianity springing from Judaism, I think this was the core of the separation of Christianity from its Jewish source. The early followers of Jesus – still identifying as Jews – said:  Jesus has shown us something new, something outside of the tribal, cultic framework. In order to make that entirely clear, and that this is now available to all of humankind, we throw off the dietary laws, and the Sabbath, and, most significantly, circumcision. The point was made — but the Jews said:  no.

Something enormous happened in the early days of our Judeo-Christian family in the First Century. Gary Wills called it a family squabble, and it set up a rift that had horrible consequences throughout history. The early followers of Jesus split from the Jewish establishment, eventually threw in with Rome, set up Jews as the politically expendable outcasts, and ultimately rode that wave to dominance. The Jews retreated into their insularity and paranoia.  And so it went.  Until it reached its unimaginable, horrible climax in the 20th century.  Yes, you as a Christian feel the pain of that sin, and you strive to take appropriate responsibility for it and take the lessons from it.  And I as a Jew today mourn all the suffering and loss and horror that came from that.  But I need to know how to mourn that Holocaust, and, like you, to look critically at the choices my people has made.

Here is the kernel of my lesson. At the entrance to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, built on land stolen from Palestinian villagers and overlooking the ruins of the village of Deir Yassin, one of the worst massacres of Palestinians of the 1948 war that gave birth to the State of Israel, at the entrance to Yad Vashem, inscribed on a great archway are the very words we read this morning:

“When I raise you from your graves, O my people, I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil.”  This is the meaning of the Nazi Holocaust that we Jews want to teach our own children, the justification of our actions in establishing Israel on the ruins of Palestine.  I saw that, I walked through that archway, and I finally came to terms with the painful, heartbreaking truth of our reality as Jews today:  We have taken our own victimhood and used it to justify our oppression of another people, the shoah—to use the recent words of Israel’s deputy Defense Minister in speaking about what Israel will bring on the people of Gaza.  We have raised up our own suffering and closed our eyes to the suffering — the disaster, the Holocaust —  that we have brought on another people. We have fully embraced our tribal core, and this is our peril. We must emerge from it before it becomes our permanent tomb. This is my pain, my confession.

As a Jew, I reject the message of restoring the Temple as of Old, a return to King and Priest, to tribute and conquest.  I reject the notion of a people chosen by God as his special family — separate, privileged, superior — having to defend our true faith from the heresy of the other nations who seek to destroy us. If we are not able to see this, and to take steps, now, to correct this, we will bring the world down around our ears.  It’s war in Iraq, it’s war on Gaza, it’s the slow killing of the children of the disadvantaged and poor among us in our cities right here.

Steve, in your words just now, you have brought us together, virtually, in the Holy Land, confronting the evil that strikes both of us in the heart and brings us together in this Lenten Sunday when Spring lies in wait in the ground under our feet and in the rising sap of the trees and the changing path of the sun. Together, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Americans, Israelis, Palestinians, must rise up from the dry bone valley of despair, the depths the psalmist writes about, and open up to that spirit of rebirth and redemption that John and Paul and the Psalmist write about, that they called humankind to – but all together, grappling, as we are, with the crisis of feeling dead, spent, bankrupt, dried up, and looking for the spiritual guidance to lead us to Rebirth.

Steve:  All together…seeking spiritual guidance and reconciliation. It seems important for me to say what I reject. As a Christian, I reject the notion that our faith has replaced yours, that Judaism in dark and sinister ways is the shadow side of Christianity. The archway at Yad Vashem, as you have pointed out to us with such honesty and sensitivity, places a claim on the land that excludes others. We have put up an invisible archway above our churches with its own exclusive claim: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Ezekiel is asserting Israel’s entitlement to the land–that it is her soil–and John is making a case for the superiority of Christian faith, that belief in Jesus is the only way, that all who do not believe as John and his community believe are doomed.  I no longer believe that. It seems that we are being led to perhaps where God wanted us to be all along…to a place in which we hold our relationships with such love and regard that we’d rather go to hell together than be right at each other’s expense and rise triumphantly to heaven…without the other.

There are so many wonderful stories out of Judaism, and you can tell me all of them you’d like, Mark. I’ll never get tired of them. I don’t know where this story comes from, but it holds that kind of Jewish wisdom, passion and spirit.

An angel was seen walking down the road with a burning torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. Someone walked up and said, “Where are you going with the fire and water? The angel replied, “First, I’m going to hell and with this water, I’m going to put out all the fires. Then I’m going to heaven, and with this torch I’m going to burn down all the mansions. Then we’ll see who loves God.

Mark, suppose Ezekiel’s reward of the land and John’s reward of resurrection were taken away from all of us, and all we had left was our love for God. Suppose there was no more reason to be Jewish, no more reason to be Christian…other than our love for God…and we’re left standing there beside each other as brothers, stripped of all our entitlements.

That’s all, just sisters and brothers who share a love for God.

But there’s a place down the road we travel where we will hear at a crossroads, coming toward us, the sounds of laughter. We will hear their voices before we recognize the faces of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar…Rebecca, Leah and Rachel…Jesus, Joseph and Mary, Paul, Priscilla, and Phoebe…and with their arms around each other come the brothers…Isaac and Ishmael, Peter and Andrew, James and John, Jacob and Esau, Cain and Abel…and they will say to us: “Come on. We’re headed for the house, and our God is waiting for all of us.”

Maybe soon…the earlier the better…maybe even now…we will know that we are walking together toward the One who is our God, the God who loves us all, and whose broken heart will find shalom only when all of God’s sons and daughters are back in the household as brothers and sisters.