Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
The week after Christmas my family headed out on a 3,800-mile trip to Montana and back. I was excited but also a little anxious. I had this recurring dread image of spending a winter’s night in the ditch. So, I did what dads do and kept my worries to myself. Trying not to be too conspicuous, I packed the van with stuff we might need in an emergency –a couple blankets, a flashlight, extra coats, gloves, and hats. I made sure the emergency battery was fully charged and that we had some food in the car. My silent anxiety about winter travel in open country was manageable for me provided I took steps to prepare for it. By the end, I needn’t have worried. I was the only one who needed an extra coat and hat after leaving mine behind at a relative’s house.
This week, I was reminded of that recurring dread image as a colleague told me about a conversation with a group of college students. They openly talked about how lonely they felt and spoke of their worries about the future. What will the world be like in 10 years, in 15, in 20?
Pick your poison. Social media, anti-democratic politics, a fragile economy addicted to perpetual growth, and the worsening climate crisis (to name but a few) make planning for the future very uncertain. A survey of machine learning researchers taken last summer (2022), found that 10% of them who agreed their work on A.I. could ultimately result in something really, really, really bad, like human extinction. But of course, they’re all feverishly working on it anyway. (The Ezra Klein Podcast, “Ezra Klein Interviews Kelsey Piper,” NYT, March 2023) Is it just me? How do we keep our dread fears from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy? How do we move forward now with grace and hope rather than fear and anxiety?
Our readings today are like a survival kit, packed and waiting for us born of the lived experience of our ancestors in faith, for whenever it is we find ourselves stuck in the ditch. Scholar and preacher, Walter Wink, has said the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel, whom we read today, may be the first in all of scripture to proclaim the promise and power of the resurrected life God offers through the always present power of grace.
It was a joyful discovery born of long suffering. The desolation of war and forced exile into slavery in a foreign land led the prophet Ezekiel to envision the nation of Israel as a wasteland of bones scattered across a desert valley (Ezekiel 37). I dare say those bones evoke an image of loss that exceeds our own. Bones that spoke of what once was but is no more. No more Promised Land. No more Chosen People. Their freedom was bound up in chains. Their lives swallowed up in death. The prophet Ezekiel testifies to the power of God to rekindle their hope after the people had become utterly hopeless.
Helpless and hopeless is exactly how Mary and Martha felt upon the death of their brother Lazarus (John 11). They are bewildered at Jesus’ absence. They are gripped by feelings of abandonment. Martha rushes to meet Jesus on the road. Her first words four full days after Lazarus’ death, is part question and part accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (v. 20). It’s the same sort of question/accusation an ancient Hebrew in Babylon might have asked Ezekiel. “Can these bones live again?” Today, we join all the people of faith who raised their voices to God as the psalmist sings, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” (Psalm 130: 1-2)
Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, out from bondage to death. “Unbind him,” Jesus said, “and let him go.” That is a ‘sign’ for what Jesus tries to do for all his followers. Jesus has been trying to unbind us from death’s hold, while, again and again, we insist on returning to the tomb. How else can we explain how we have created a way of life that is hell bent on death?
For centuries, human beings held themselves apart from nature because, they said, we alone possess intelligence. Now, slowly, science has begun to see intelligence operating all around us, and ironically, as A.I. begins to surpass human intellectual capacities in startling ways, now people are starting to say what makes them superior to machines is our profound connection to the natural world—and I think, finally, now we might be headed in the right direction.
We worship the God revealed in Christ Jesus, the logos, the divine Word, who “… was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:2-3). So, should it surprise us that every moment beneath our feet, in the air we breathe, and in the sky above, the operation of natural world is another source God’s wisdom? Can nature, God’s first bible, also offer a survival kit for what ails us now?
The answer is yes! Naturalist Janine Benyus champions the word, biomimicry. The conscious emulation of life’s genius paints the pathway that leads us out from the tomb. Benyus identifies 26 design principles she finds operating in nature humans could put into practice to restore hope in the future. I’ll name eight, “Nature runs on sunlight, uses only the energy it needs, fits form to function, recycles everything, rewards cooperation, banks on diversity, demands local expertise, curbs excesses from within, and taps the power of limits.” Nature relentlessly “creates conditions conducive to life.” (Janine Benyus, interviewed by Krista Tippet, On Being Podcast, 3/25/23).
By now you might have asked yourself, why does the lectionary begin talking about the resurrection while it is still Lent? I wonder if it’s because the good news will become more difficult to hear once we’re surrounded again by bright colors, the promise of warmer weather, the joy of singing alleluia, and the festival of Easter? Here in Lent, we know the promise of resurrection is not about going on in just the same way, living in a bigger and bigger house. No. our resurrection comes with our transformation. Here, in the midst of Lent, we may count the cost and know this transformation is worth everything we have. Hope is like a seed planted in us getting ready to crack open.
The poet Maya Spector puts it this way: “It’s time to break out —Jailbreak time. Time to punch our way out of the dark winter prison. Lilacs are doing it in sudden explosions of soft purple, And the jasmine vines, and ranunculus, too. There is no jailer powerful enough to hold Spring contained. Let that be a lesson. [A lesson about hope.] Stop holding back the blossoming! Quit shutting eyes and gritting teeth, curling fingers into fists, hunching shoulders. Lose your determination to remain unchanged. All the forces of nature want you to open, Their gentle nudge carries behind it the force of a flash flood. Why make a cell your home when the door is unlocked, and the garden is waiting for you?” (“Jailbreak” by Maya Spector) See, the garden is waiting for you.