Ezekiel 37.1-10

John 16.16-24

Good Grief

Third Sunday after Pentecost

          As many of you know, in late January I contracted Covid 19.  Fortunately, it was a relatively mild case, it felt like a head cold on steroids.  I lost my sense of smell, there was a lot of pressure in my sinuses, I had a bit of brain fog – foggier than usual, that is - and some random muscle aches.  It didn’t last too long, maybe ten days, though it took a few weeks longer for my sense of smell to return.  In the long run, no complaints.  But then about a month ago, I started smelling something strange and unfamiliar.  It’s hard to characterize it, it’s like a powerfully bitter, astringent aroma, and at first I thought it was some kind of blossom or flowering tree I had never noticed before.  But I began smelling it in the strangest of places, both indoors and outdoors, in my office, in the shower, at the Y pool, sitting in front of Simon’s, at the airport and along the streets of New Orleans.  And it came to me that this is probably a longer-term effect of Covid.  It’s not at the point where I would consider it a long haul, but it’s a reminder that the lingering impact of the disease can hang around in unexpected ways, and it is important to pay attention to it.  The lingering impact of the pandemic can hang around in unexpected ways, and it is important to pay attention to it.

          A couple of months ago my colleague in Old Saybrook, The Rev. Ed Cornell, made an observation that hadn’t occurred to me, but I think is critically important to remember as you and I and our church and our society begin to emerge from our Covid bubbles.  Last Saturday night I was at Water’s Edge to hear an old Connecticut band, Eight to the Bar, a great party music/rock and roll group who have been around since my college days.  It was a gorgeous night, the sunset over the sound was simply spectacular, it was warm but not hot, and there was an exuberant crowd of people dancing and laughing and having a wonderful, wonderful time.  It was a delight just to watch, seeing the smiles on a sea of faces and hearing great hearty laughter to the tune of old familiar music, and to me it captured in a single moment the feeling of celebration that is getting our lives back.  But as we find our way there, Ed Cornell’s words provide an important pause point.  He said that in our eagerness to return to life as we were living it before March 2020, it is also important to pause and remember what we’ve lost.  We need to leave room for grief, Ed said, before we leap back into life as it was and as we’d like it to be again.  600,000 deaths nationwide – and even if you are fortunate enough not to have lost anyone close to you, we still grieve these deaths.  Jobs lost.  Favorite restaurants and shops closed for good.  Nearly fifteen months of our own lives lost, in a way, as we kept close to home and saw few people outside our own families – and I know many who steered clear even of close family members so as to avoid infecting them.  I had a conversation with a local mom the other day who told me that time in quarantine constituted a full quarter of her young daughter’s life so far.  It is a sobering number.  Now I’m not trying to drag us down this morning as we are all enjoying a slow and careful return to the ways life is fully lived, but even if all we’ve lost is the time, it is still important to pause and to acknowledge it, to honor it, to name it, so that we don’t rush right by it and ignore it completely.  The lingering impact of the pandemic can hang around in unexpected ways, and it is important to pay attention to it.

          Some of you are familiar with Nadia Bolz-Weber.  Nadia is a prolific writer, public theologian and minister of a church called The House of All Sinners and Saints, an Evangelical Lutheran church in Denver.  Nadia is edgy, in a faithful and constructive way.  If you visit her website, be prepared for some rather salty language.  One of the things she says about herself – that is, one of the things she says about herself that I can repeat in church – is, “[Nadia] writes and speaks about personal failing, recovery, grace, faith, and really whatever the hell else she wants to.  She always sits in the corner with the other weirdoes.”  There are a lot of clergy out there trying to be progressive and cutting-edge, but to my mind, Nadia is one of the few who have the biblical, theological and pastoral chops to get it right.

          Two weeks ago Nadia preached about Pentecost and talked about the grief we share as we emerge together from the shadow of Covid.  The story of Pentecost begins by describing people of different languages and nationalities and ethnicities being gathered together in one place.  Being gathered together in one place.  This is what was taken from us, she says; we had no idea we were even going to lose it and we did not know how to treasure it when we had it, when we were all gathered together in one place.  “I am thrilled to be [gathered] here with you [again],” she said, and then went on to observe,

“but I am also overwhelmed by the enormity of grief we are carrying with us.  And I feel like I should confess that… I don’t know how to do this part.  The part where we just survived without being able to be together in one place; the part where we survived when so many died; the part where we look around and see the rubble of an angry, divided country; the part where we emerge from our isolation not knowing who we are now, not knowing how to have faith now, how to have hope now, not knowing how to ever go back or how to possibly move forward – we who have survived the pandemic.”

 Nadia finds comfort, though, in the story Claudia read for us today, the story of the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel.  The people of Israel had been held captive in exile in Babylon for an entire generation, from 597 to 538 BCE, and were only just beginning to return to their homeland, wondering how they would ever begin to resume life as they had once known it.  “Our bones are dried up,” they lamented, “our hope is lost, and we are cut off completely.”  So the Lord God brought the prophet Ezekiel to a valley filled with dry bones, and said to him, “Mortal, can these bones live?”  And Ezekiel replied, “O Lord God, you know.”  So Ezekiel prophesied to the dry bones, and slowly they took shape:  “the bones came together, bone to bone.  Then came the sinews which held the bones together, then came the flesh to cover bone and sinew, and finally, Ezekiel breathed into them the breath of life gathered from the four winds, and the vast multitude stood on their feet and lived.”

          It kind of feels like we too are slowly emerging from exile, doesn’t it?  There is still a surreal feeling going back to our old familiar haunts, into shops and restaurants, to work and to school and yes, to church as well, there is a tentative uncertainty to how it all feels.  Do I mask?  Do I not mask?  I feel safe, but does the person standing next to me feel the same way?  Is this what life is going to look like going forward?  But in the midst of that uncertainty and self-doubt, there is good news in the story of Ezekiel:  in the valley of the dry bones, it was not up to the bones themselves to set things to right.  It was the power of God, whose prophet called out to the desiccated bones and joined them back together, who knit them with sinew and covered them with flesh, and who harvested the four winds and breathed life back into them.  It is that same breath, that same Spirit of God that breathed life into the church at Pentecost, who breathes new life into you and me, and into our church, and recreates in us the living multitude who emerged from that valley, who came home from exile, who pokes a head out the front door, looks around, and wonders what kind of world we are going to find as we venture back into it.

          And so it is a good thing that we pause and remember what we’ve lost.  It is a good thing to allow whatever grief and loss we’re carrying within us to be acknowledged, and then released.  It is a good thing to know we do not have to do this for ourselves, but rather it is the spirit of God that animates us and equips us for whatever our new life together is going to look like.

          As Nadia Bolz-Weber reminds us, we are a resurrection people.  Whatever dies is us is made alive again by the loving Spirit of the living God.  It isn’t something we do for ourselves; indeed it is not even something we can do for ourselves.  Not even Jesus could rise on his own.  Jesus was raised – Jesus was resurrected, and so will we be.  Death and resurrection are the pivot point of our entire faith experience, so it stands to reason that along the way there are going to be deaths both large and small, but in each one is the seed of a greater rising into resurrection.

          So if you need the time to grieve, take it.  Nobody ever said that the moment the masks can come off we have to throw them away.  Just because we can go back out into the crowds does not mean we must.  Some of us need to still sit with our caution and our care.  You will know when is the right time for you – you will know when you are resurrected.  I love what Jesus says to the disciples in John 16, because he says the same thing to us:  “You may have sorrow now.  You may have grief now.  You may be missing the old pre-pandemic life of few constraints and the remarkably unremarkable freedom of being able to go where you want and visit whom you want.  It is OK to sit where you are right now.  But I will see you again, and then your hearts will rejoice, and no one will ever be able to take your joy away from you again.”  All right, so I may have added a few words to it, but you get the point.  We don’t have to do it all ourselves – God in Jesus Christ has already done it for us by the power of the Spirit who continues to breathe new life into us, in order that our joy may be complete.  Thanks be to God for this inexpressible gift.

          Amen.

         

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