It's hard getting God to obey us. After all we're the ones on the scene. We know what we need, or our parish needs, or what we need as individuals. God should listen to us and take our advice. If God would only be here when needed, there would be no tragedy in our lives.
A popular doctor is told that his best friend is dying. The doctor has a wonderful reputation for his healing skills. He delays going to see his friend, and the friend dies. When the doctor arrives to console the relatives, his friend's practical and blunt sister says, "Where on earth were you when we needed you? You could have saved his life but you had better things to do!"
The Gospel today gives us a glimpse into our Lord's private life. Jesus made friends with Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. Word came that Lazarus had died. For reasons we can only guess, Jesus delayed going to see Mary and Martha. When he finally arrived, Lazarus has been dead for some while. Martha, the practical sister, said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." Martha was on the scene. She knew what could have been done. That simple statement contained both faith and reproach. "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." The statement reminds us that Martha believed Jesus could and would have healed his friend Lazarus. Because she believed she could also complain about Jesus' tardiness.
Moments of grief may well produce the same partnership between faith and reproach in us. Someone we love dies. Surely our Lord would have done something to stop this tragedy? Where was he? It's not that we doubt. Either we don't understand, or we try to understand by grasping at unsatisfactory answers. "It was her time," we say, as if God sits around leisurely selecting at random those to die. If God is really like that, one wouldn't really like to have God as a friend!
It's always good to ask a simple question when we say that God does something or other: "If a human did that sort of thing could she or he be admired?"
Living in a parish or mission area where only the faithful few attend worship can also be a grief experience. When a parishioner dies, or leaves the area, we try to make sense of our dilemma. "Why doesn't God do something about this situation?" we pray as we attend the monthly vestry meeting at which we discuss the fact that fewer people have to manage all the jobs, and funds dwindle while prices rise.
In the first lesson today we hear the familiar story of "Them dry bones. O hear the word of the Lord," as the old folk song puts it. Just before the verses we heard read this morning, Ezekiel expresses confidence that Israel will come back into its own one day.
Faced with the dichotomy between belief in God and confusion about why God didn't seem to do much to help the people, Ezekiel still believes. He is given a vision. He finds himself in a valley of dry bones. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy and to bid the wind blow life into the bones. God says, "Mortal, these bones are the whole House of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off for ever.'" Then Ezekiel speaks for God and says: "O my people, I will open your graves and bring you up from them, and restore you to the land of Israel."
Now for the final thread to weave together what the lessons have to say to us on this fifth Sunday in Lent. St. Paul alludes to a dreadful institution: slavery. Slavery was widely practiced in the Roman Empire. We sometimes forget that it was practiced in this country not many years ago. While there are no slaves today, men and women of all ethnic backgrounds still find themselves tied to badly paying jobs, to hopeless relationships, to squalid living conditions because they lack the economic resources and the education, or "know-how," to break free. It is terrible to have no options.
Slaves belonged to their owners and were to be obedient. As many slaves became Christians in Apostolic times, and some of them became deacons, priests, and bishops, slavery was a familiar institution to the early Christians. St. Paul points out that a slave must be obedient to something or other. Christians, like slaves, can be obedient to the things that bring life, or to the things that kill. Those people today who struggle with the power of addiction know the truth of this. It's not enough, for most, to walk away from addiction. Loving and supporting friends, groups like AA, and above all God's healing grace are constantly and always needed. It's so much easier to be enslaved even if we know that we may well kill ourselves in the process.
We want to do something about those who are enslaved. We want to do something about churches and missions that seem to be dying. We want to stop our friends and loved ones from dying. We constantly say to God, "If you had been here on time, you could have stopped this happening." We want to give God the answers. We are full of wonderful suggestions and if we are lucky, we get another committee formed, another pressure group recognized, and even some more legislation adopted by General Convention!
The root problem is that we have not been let in on the whole story. Before Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb, he said, as an aside: "Father, I thank you for having heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." Out of the tragedy and sorrow of a friend's death comes good. It was not good that Lazarus died. Lazarus didn't die so that people might believe in Jesus. Death and life, evil and good, darkness and light are not each separate things. Good is merely evil put back on its feet again. Life is the positive end of death.
Before we rush in to situations blaming God for not turning up on time, we have to realize that we don't ever quite get the whole story. Instead of blaming God or suggesting that God has been absent, we need to believe that God and God's purpose are always at work. God does not will evil or tragedy. Yet God's love works good even at moments of personal or institutional despair. Asking for a vision may seem counter-cultural to us, but it is when we accept that God is at work and then seek to become part of God's solution, rather than part of our own problem, that miracles occur. Despite the destruction of Israel, Ezekiel hands things over to God and is given a vision of a restored, renewed, and living Israel. For all her grumbling, Martha handed over to Jesus and Lazarus came out of the tomb. When we are "enslaved to God," that is when we hand ourselves over to God's love and forgiveness, we find holiness and life.
So in our collect today we ask God to give us the gift of loving God's purposes and promises, that our wills may be fixed on the essential and eternal Good which is always there, even when the world around us seems to be coming unglued.