Sunday, November 1, 2009

Dry Bones Sittin' in the Canyon, Some of Them Bones Are Mine

Sermon (preached March 9, 2008)
by Katie Mulligan

Friends, forgive me for recycling a sermon. The little ones are under the weather, which reduces my brain to mush.  But also, as I read through it, I realized that it is the perfect sermon for today, All Saint's Day.  This day when we reflect on death and life and resurrection, and on the cloud of witnesses from all times and places who worship with us whenever we gather.  This sermon was preached for Larry King, an openly gay young man murdered by a classmate on February 12, 2008.  For people who do not conform to society's sexual and gender norms, this world is an extra dangerous place.  It's time to breathe new life into our communities and our churches; it's time to educate ourselves and practice what we preach: love.

November 20 is set aside as "Transgender Day of Remembrance."  Clicking on the link will take you to a website with more information and a memorial for those who have been killed around the world.  Take a minute and say some prayers. Reach out to anyone you know who doesn't have safe space. If it makes you angry that I'm bringing this up, send me an e-mail and let's have coffee.  Somehow, we've got to do better.

First Scripture Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Second Scripture Reading: John 11:32-37

We come this week to the eleventh chapter of John, and like a pastor friend of mine once said, “These stories are long!” The story of the raising of Lazarus is 45 verses long, and it’s almost impossible to pull out part of the story because it builds upon itself and there are a multitude of layers and meanings. That being said, I’m going to pull out part of the story because I am not talented enough to preach on 45 verses! Let me catch you up to verse 32.

Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha, and all three were friends with Jesus. The women had hosted Jesus in their home in Bethany; Martha prepared him food and Mary sat at his feet listening and learning. Some scholars claim Mary as a disciple, although that is a topic for another sermon.

When Lazarus became ill, the sisters sent for Jesus, trusting that he could heal Lazarus, but Jesus did not come right away. He delayed his departure two extra days and by the time he reached Bethany Lazarus had been dead four days. The Jewish community had gathered to mourn, and when Jesus came near to the house, Martha came out to meet him, but Mary stayed in the house until he called for her. Then she got up and went to him quickly and this is what happened next:
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
There is more to the story. I have stopped short of the dramatic finale in which Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, making instant believers out of many of those who watched. I don’t mean to make light of this hopeful finale because it’s important. The raising of Lazarus is a foreshadowing of the raising of Jesus that would take place little more than a week later, and for all it’s familiarity, this story is one of the great miracles of Jesus’ ministry. But when I read this story my heart stops at verse 32 and I cry out with Mary “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And with the doubtful crowd I ask, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Without denying the grand and beautiful meaning of this story (that God triumphs over death), I am left with many questions when I read this story. Perhaps you have them too? Why did Jesus wait two extra days before coming to Lazarus’ aid? Why did Lazarus have to die to show the glory of God? Why was Jesus weeping and what did it mean that he was disturbed and deeply moved? Why did Jesus raise Lazarus, but so many others are apparently left to suffer and die in this world?

I want to tell you about a boy who was killed February 12, 2008 in California. His name was Lawrence King and he was 15 years old. He had trouble with his family and had been living in a shelter for youth. He was openly gay and wore make-up and nail polish to school. His classmates teased him mercilessly. Larry King responded with humor by teasing and flirting back. His classmate, Brandon McInerney, didn’t think it was funny and shot him in the computer lab. Brandon is 14 years old, but is being tried as an adult. This all happened on the campus of a jr. high school.

There are a lot of teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, family members, friends, and police officers pointing fingers and asking, “Where were you? Why didn’t you do something? What’s wrong with this world that this could happen? Why didn’t I do something when I saw the warning signs?”  One Los Angeles Times article was full of quotes from 20 or so different people asking those questions. And I guarantee you that Larry’s and Brandon’s friends and family are asking their pastors, “Where was God? How could God let this happen?

Lord, if you had been there, my brother would not have died. Lord, if you had been there, Larry would not have died.

Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb. Larry is still dead at the hands of a 14 year old classmate. How do we reconcile what we know of suffering and death with the miracle of Lazarus? What is it that Jesus was trying to tell us when he raised Lazarus? By itself it seems a parable to teach us that God has the power to triumph over death. Placed next to Larry’s story, it seems a travesty of justice that God could triumph over death, but didn’t. In the larger scheme of things everything and everybody dies. In Psalm 90 the psalmist declares to God “For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” Even Lazarus--who was raised from the dead by Jesus in a very public manner--even Lazarus died. Besides showing the crowd the power of God (which I think was part of what Jesus was doing) what did Jesus mean for us to know about God and the world when he called Lazarus out of the tomb?

Let me set this story aside for just a moment and go back to the Ezekiel passage that Anita read earlier. Ezekiel was a priest who became a prophet in 593 BC during the time of the Babylonian exile. Israel had been defeated in mighty battles and the remaining Israelites were scattered and broken. Ezekiel’s job as a prophet was to declare the end of Israel’s cherished religious institutions of temple worship and kingship. The world as they knew it had been swept away and the people of Israel despaired. But Ezekiel was also called to tell of visions of hope and restoration. The people of Israel were cut down, scattered, and withered in a wasteland. The Lord asked Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel answered without conviction, “O Lord God, you know.” But the Lord did not give up and so Ezekiel did not give up. Ezekiel prophesied to the devastated nation that the spirit of the Lord would breathe new life into their bones and the people groaned in response, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” And thus said the Lord God, “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people...I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”

The commentary in my study Bible has this to say about the Ezekiel passage: “The question is not about afterlife or resurrection as much as it concerns whether it is possible to return to the world of the living. Even more, it is not about resurrection of the individual but about whether a dead people can come alive again.” Whether a dead people can come alive again. Whether the community of Lazarus could come alive again. Ultimately, perhaps, the raising of Lazarus was about whether the community of Jesus Christ could come alive again.

I did not know Larry King and I do not know Brandon McInerney. The murder took place less than an hour from my hometown. I am sure that I know a pastor or a teacher who knows a student who knew either Larry or Brandon. That makes me a third cousin, and all of you who know me are now fourth cousins. We are not so scattered and separated as we would like sometimes to believe. Three thousand miles separates us from these two boys, but we are part of their community, if only third or fourth hand.

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a play called “No Exit.” Three people who have died find themselves in hell. They are locked in a room together for all eternity, unable to sleep, eternally stuck with each other’s company. They don’t even have toothbrushes. At first it doesn’t seem so bad, but after a little while they begin to drive each other crazy. In an effort to make the situation more bearable one of the characters suggests, “Let’s all sit down again quite quietly; we’ll look at the floor and each must try to forget the others are there.” For a while they try it until suddenly one of them cries out, “To forget about the others? How utterly absurd! I feel you there, in every pore. Your silence clamors in my ears. You can nail up your mouth, cut your tongue out—but you can’t prevent your being there.” Sartre’s depiction of hell is a parable that leads us to understand life in community. We try for a little while to stay separate, to distance ourselves from death and suffering. But I know someone who knows a kid whose friend was murdered on February 12. And I feel it, in every pore. Don’t you?

Lord, if you had been there, my brother would not have died. Lord, if you had been there, Larry would not have died. It is an accusation. A question, “Why weren’t you there, God?” Our world is broken, scattered, dried up in so many ways. The bones of our children cry out “we are cut off completely.”

When placed next to death and suffering, the resurrection of Lazarus almost seems a small thing. A drop in the bucket. One person brought back to life when so many others are not. This miracle is not a promise to bring back our loved ones after they pass on. It is a promise to breathe life into our community. It is the promise that we will not always be scattered and broken. It is the promise that the death of this boy, Larry, will not be empty and forgotten. It is the promise that somehow, some way, the Lord will breathe life into this world through the bones of this child and through the suffering and sorrow of all of us. There will be life again; we will draw together as one people some day. It is the reminder that God is calling us out of our individual tombs to live with one another and to prophesy to one another “you shall live.”

The raising of Lazarus is God’s answer saying “I was there. I am there. I never left. I can and will breathe new life into the dry bones of this world.” It is what Jesus was trying to say to Martha before Mary came to him, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”

We live seventy years or maybe eighty, if we are strong. Larry King lived 15 years. My grandfather lived 96. During that time suffering and sorrow comes to all of us. But listen to this citation from Miroslav Volf, my favorite theologian:
Christians believe...that neither what we do nor what we suffer defines us at the deepest opening ourselves to God’s love through faith, our bodies and souls become sanctified spaces, God’s “temples”...the flame of God’s presence, which gives us new identity, then burns in us inextinguishably. Though like buildings devastated by wind and flood, our bodies and souls may become ravaged, yet we continue to be God’s temple—at times a temple in ruins, but sacred space nonetheless. Absolutely nothing defines a Christian more than the abiding flame of God’s presence, and that flame bathes in a warm glow everything we do or suffer.
Rest in peace, Lawrence King. You will not be forgotten. May we each find a way to help the Spirit breathe life into your bones. May we as a people somehow find a way to help breathe life into the bones of Brandon McInerney. In response to God’s call, may we come out of our individual tombs to gather around the Larrys and Brandons closer to home.



  1. If you preach this again, or something like it again, I'd add readings from Isaiah 56:3-5 and Matthew 19:12.

    The thought on eunuchs is that for many in the ancient world, castration was the only form of genital reconstruction surgery avialable. If nothing else, castration shows that changing the shape of one's genitalia may be done for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake, and at the very least one isn't a "dry tree," but instead of a living tree.

  2. Autumn--thank you! I more meant that the church community as a whole is dry and needing life in terms of our response to the violence against transgender folks, but I can see how easily the words shift. Thank you--this is helpful.

  3. What an amazing minister you are. I am not religious after many years of trying to find a home at a church. Never could relate much, but I think I would enjoy your church very much. You have an amazing heart. Bless you.

  4. You are always welcome, either in person or through our various internet connections. We are a quirky bunch struggling to find our place, and all are welcome!

  5. Thank you again for the excellent and touching sermon!

    {rant}While placing blame is off-topic (especially here), when I look over the whole Lawrence King and Brandon McInerney tragedy I keep seeing adults who failed as guardians and guides.{/rant}

    And I wish I didn't see it that way. So, I keep reminding myself to have compassion for the dead and imprisoned boys.

  6. simply, thank you

  7. You are welcome. Please come by again, friend.

  8. The Ezekiel "dry bones" passage is the favorite of the EP of my presbytery. I have heard her preach on it, use it in her reports to the presbytery, and in her weekly missive. I'm pretty sick of this passage. You have breathed new life into it, however, using sermon illustrations and topics that she would dream of touching--things that the world needs to know about and hear.

    As always, thanks.