5 Lent Year A: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, April 2, 2017
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
“Unbind him, and let him go.”
Its been awhile since we’ve heard anything about the Westboro Baptist Church, the hate group that has picketed country music singers, pop artists, colleges, media personalities, other churches, and the funerals of fallen soldiers. They are still active and the Southern Poverty Law Center calls them “the most rabid and obnoxious hate group in America.” About ten years ago, at the height of their protests at funerals of soldiers, a group of bikers, all veterans from Indiana, organized their own counter-protests.
They would show up wherever Westboro had planned to protest, and form a barrier between the family and friends of the slain soldier and the protestors—blocking them visually and revving their motorcycles or singing patriotic tunes to drown out the hate. When the bikers first began their counter-protest practice, people weren’t sure what to expect and their was concern that the protests would become violent. But the bikers were committed to a noisily peaceful process that honored the fallen soldier and their family.
Several years after the establishment of the Patriot Guard Riders, as the group of bikers would become called, I got to know a group of them in Nashville. I was spending the summer doing a pastoral education internship at the Nashville VA hospital. I had requested and was allowed to meet with a group of Vietnam Veterans who met twice a week in outpatient therapy at the VA. My hope was that in meeting with this group, I might understand them a little more and how the war had affected Vietnam Vets. What I discovered was a story of resurrection.
The veterans I met with had not known each other “in-country”. They had not served together though most of them had served in the army and all could relate to one another’s experiences both during the war and upon their return home. Over the course of the summer, as we began to build trust with one another, they related stories of their wartime experiences. Most of them were horrific and it was easy to see how young, vital men with their whole lives ahead of them had become a generation of brokenness.
Often their stories would start, “I’ve never talked about this before, but…” and then they would go on to describe some violent battle they had been in, or the terror of walking through enemy land or climbing down into tunnels not sure if they would live or die. One man even described shooting a young woman carrying a baby because they thought it was a bomb—his grief seemed as fresh as the day it happened. Over and over again the men would tell stories—not of heroic deeds—but of broken men who believed they had failed their country, their families, and themselves. And unfortunately, their country believed that too.
The men recounted stories of their return home, changing into civvies before coming back into the states, letting their hair grow long and faces scruffy to hide the fact that they had been soldiers; but too often people knew and shamed them, looked down upon them, blamed them for a war they had not caused. The shame that society laid upon them became unbearable, many of them got divorced, turned to alcohol or drugs to cope, and distanced themselves from family and friends. Their lives became increasingly empty and their relationships suffered.
I didn’t understand why they had distanced themselves from those who loved them, from family and friends, wives and children. One day in the group session I asked why they thought this had happened. Their answer was shocking and disparaging.
To a man, each person in that group described his experience after the war as one of never having left Vietnam—they might have survived the war, but they died in-country leaving their souls over 8000 miles away as their physical bodies flew home. They had not fully lived since the war. They weren’t zombies, but they had walled their hearts and emotions to protect themselves and never returned to life as they had known it before the war. Hearing that their lives ended in that jungle forty plus years ago was heart-breaking but it gave me a new perspective into what it means to live and die.
We, like the disciples, become so focused on our mortality—our physical death—we are afraid to live. When Jesus tells the disciples he is going to Judea, they remind him that the Jews there just tried to stone him and question his decision to go there again. But Jesus reminds them what it means to walk in the light versus walking in darkness. When you understand that death is not something to fear, you can return to the places where they’ve tried to stone you.
Having spent the summer with these men, I knew their lives had meaning and purpose and I asked how they had begun to live again so many years after the war. They were quick to say that though they had never fully returned from Vietnam, they had found new ways of being but that had been a process—it started when they were finally able to come to the VA for the first time. They described their hurt and distrust of the government as having been factors that kept them from coming to the VA for years even though they needed the medical and psychiatric care that the VA provided. For most of them, it took multiple trips just to walk in the door that first time—they would drive up to the building and then drive away unable to face those who had tried to stone them in the past—but they didn’t give in to the fear, they came back and finally made it in.
Resurrection is never simply about the body. We might believe in a bodily resurrection, but as Ezekiel shows us—that is not enough. To be resurrected, to fully live is not simply to have our bones come together bone to bone with sinews and flesh and skin upon them, it is to have breath; and the word for breath that God gives to Ezekiel to prophesy with means more than air or oxygen, it is ruah. Ruah is the word for breath, but it is also the word for spirit. When God breathed life into Adam, he gave him ruah. This is what Ezekiel prophesies, “Come from the four winds, O ruah, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. . . and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” God could have done this by himself, but he has Ezekiel prophecy to be a part of it. And it is not a resurrection of individuals, but a resurrection of the nation of Israel—a corporate resurrection into the body.
Those veterans who finally made it into the VA, facing their fears, facing the shame and guilt they had known all their lives began to resurrect. They were given medical care and their bones came together bone to bone. They were given psychiatric care and their sinews knit together and flesh came upon them. Then they found one another and ruah was breathed into them. Three years before I met them, in Westboro Baptist Church’s heyday, a young soldier from Tennessee had fallen in a combat zone in Iraq. Westboro planned a protest. And this broken, rag tag band of out-patient therapy group veterans found out about it, contacted the Patriot Guard Riders to see what they could do and then organized a counter-protest that escorted the body of the young soldier from the airport to the funeral home and then to the cemetery.
At the graveside they formed a barrier between the protestors and those who mourned, revving their motorcycles throughout the service effectively drowning out the chants of hate. In their own way, they had not only comforted a family, offering their young hero honor and respect for his service to his country, but they too proudly served their country once again. And in that moment the ruah brought them into resurrected life.
Resurrection is not some evacuation plan, in a far off future, when we are all out of options. Resurrection is about how we live with the Spirit of God in us in the here and now. When Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, he tells the mourners and witnesses to the event to “[u]nbind him, and let him go.” We understand that to be about releasing Lazarus from the strips of cloth binding his hands and feet and wrapped around his face. Think about what that means—Lazarus may have been just raised from the dead, but he is still bound, he is not free; his face is wrapped, he cannot see. Jesus has the people free Lazarus and return his sight. Just as God uses Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, Jesus uses the Jews that have gathered at the tomb to unbind Lazarus from his trappings of death.
We are all part of the resurrected life and the resurrected life is now. Resurrection doesn’t happen in a vacuum and it is not some end game to angle for in a future context. Resurrection happens in unexpected places and at unexpected times. Yes, it happens at the tomb, but it also happens in a valley of dry bones; it happens after great battles and wars; it happens in places like the VA; and it happens to and because of you and me.
Resurrection happens when we are no longer bound by our fear of death—I don’t mean the not-breathing kind of death, I mean the not-living kind of death. When you begin to live unbound—when you rev your motorcycles and sing patriotic songs—you help others to lose their bonds as well. Live, not bound by the fear of grief or suffering or the changes in this world. Live. The earthly reality is that bad things happen. And yet, the divine reality is that when they do, we need not fear them.
“Unbind him, and let him go.”