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March 7, 2008
Today's eMo is really two different meditations on texts that will be heard in many churches this Sunday. The first is the usual sermon preparation eMo. The second, intended for preachers who wish to focus their congregations' attention on the Church's work with the victims of natural disasters and war, considers some aspect of the worldwide ministry of Episcopal Relief and Development. As with all the eMos, preachers and teachers are welcome to borrow, with the usual attribution, No further permission is necessary.

If Christ Were Here

Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
John 11:21

But God is with all of us when we die. Death is the threshold at which we hesitate for a moment before entering the Kingdom of God -- where else would God be but right there? What has given us the idea, so intractable, that dying is the end of everything?

Well, it does end so many things. The life of the body, through which we experience each other on so many levels, has concluded its work. That life is obvious to us: it moves and talks, eats and drinks. The life into which we move in dying is more hidden, almost completely a secret from us. Our moments of contact with the beloved dead are few and fleeting, and we question each of them. And yet it was so real! we say to ourselves, after one of them. I smelled her perfume, I heard her say my name and yet there was no one there, I felt his presence, unmistakably him.

A scientist proceeds upon a hypothesis, and it demonstrates itself as she goes -- valid or invalid. It works or it doesn't. Our sensing of Christ's presence can be like that: we can proceed as if we knew Christ were with us, and see what happens. Our belief will not be compelled; we will remain free to decide, based upon our experience as we go. We know that death will come to all of us; evading it forever will not be part of the experiment. So our question is not if we will die, but how we will die. Again, the medical circumstances of our death vary widely, and we don't control many of them. So the "how" is a spiritual one, maybe more a "who" than a "how": who is it who will be doing the dying? What will be her state? How alone will she choose to be? Will she open her heart to hope, or will she confine her inquiry to her dwindling physical powers and see only despair? When she has nothing left to lose here, will she be willing to encounter the mystery of another place?

This we can choose. Yes, Lord, we can say, I am dying, and you are here!
Lent V Year A
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45
Psalm 130

Hope in the Dry Bones

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?"
Ezekiel 37:1-3

Ezekiel searches his imagination for an image of hopelessness, and comes up with the valley of dry bones: heaps of unmatched femurs, skulls, finger bones, none with a match, bleached by the hot sun so that any flesh which might have happened to cling to them is leather now. Now that's what dead is, he says to himself as he writes, satisfied with the image. There is no life to be found in this valley.

The bones are hope: dead hope, hope blasted to smithereens. The bones are despair. It's no use, they whisper. Don't even try to change things. It's just too immense a task. The only rational course is to give up on us. Nobody will blame you.

But we know something about hopeless cases: some of them have turned around. Remember polio? Remember smallpox? Remember the childhood diseases that kept almost every child in bed for weeks, throughout childhoods to whose hazards every old cemetery attests. Sometimes the dry bones of our hope come back to life.

Every three seconds a child under the age of five dies. A disproportionate number of these children live in developing countries, without access to clean water or basic medical care. A child in sub-Saharan Africa is 500 times more likely to die from diarrhea than an American child. The majority of these tragic deaths are easily preventable -- through a combination of clean water, sanitation, improved nutrition, and medical treatment.

Millennium Development Goal Four is to reduce the mortality rate by two thirds among children under five. Central to the Episcopal Church's embrace of all the MDGs, Episcopal Relief and Development assists local dioceses in implementing clean water strategies, malaria prevention programs, inoculation plans and providing food security in poor communities and communities in which disaster or war has struck.

The Resurrection is the embodiment of hope when all hope is gone. It teaches us to question our own hopelessness, to suspect it. Who says there's no hope? What gives hopelessness authority over me? Who has the right to counsel despair, and where is it written that we have to listen? Let me listen to the voice of despair and very soon I will subside into inactivity -- I won't even try to change things. And I will ignore history: there have been many moments that seemed hopeless and became something other than that. The impossible has become possible many times in human history.

We, of all people, should suspect the questionable authority of that voice. Every time.


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