Boot Camp for the Soul: Dead Ends
Rev. Sandy Johnson
April 2, 2017
I begin our message this morning with what I call, the Tale of Two Mothers. Two and a half years ago, a friend of mine got the horrific call from detectives in New York that her son had been brutally murdered. This is a call no parent every wants to get and one, that in an instant, devastated a family. (Barbara Link knows exactly what I’m talking about)
The second mother, pregnant with twin boys was devastated to learn that one of her sons was to be born with a serious birth defect, one in which would cause him to live only six days. Neither woman could control the outcome, both were to experience the most excruciating pain of their lives, both had hit a dead end.
The first mother continues today, to grieve her loss and after two and a half years is still pushing others away and remaining stuck in her own self-imposed dead end. The second mother made a different choice. When faced with a dead end, when faced with the loss of her son Thomas, she and her husband looked for ways that his short life could make a lasting difference. Mom said, “There was nothing we could do to save Thomas’s life, and I think once we were able to accept that and think, this is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be unproductive. So maybe there is some good that can come” from this.
Our spiritual boot camp experience includes dead ends. In the same way that loss creates dramatic ends, our own lives can lead us into a dead end as well. “A position, situation or course of action that leads to nothing further. ” It sounds so final. Sometimes we spend years working on a project, in a career or in a relationship that ultimately leads to a dead end. Our work is done, completed.
I live on a cul-de-sec, just a fancy name for a dead end. The funny thing with cul-de-sacs or dead ends is they are only the end if you allow it to be. All of us are able to turn around and head in a new and different direction. But not all of us are willing. Sometimes we find ourselves in a dead-end job. It’s only a dead end if we choose it to be. There are always alternatives. There is always the chance for a new beginning.
Our scripture lessons this morning both highlight this exact point. Both stories begin with a dead end. Let’s look first at Ezekiel. The Prophet Ezekiel has a vision in which the Lord came to him and led him to a valley that was full of bones. These bones are described as very dry, they had been there a while. The last thing on Ezekiel’s mind was bringing these bones back to life, but that was God’s plan. God asks Ezekiel in fact if the bones could come to life. Although Ezekiel’s answer was “O Lord God, you know.” I imagine he really was thinking, you’re kidding, right?! These bones are dry, disintegrated and there is nothing living in them at all.
God instructed Ezekiel to speak over the bones, telling them to pay attention, get ready to hear the word of the Lord, prepare to be amazed! Then the rattling started. The mass of bones began to rejoin themselves together, sinews regrew, flesh and then skin covered them. (The leg bone connected to the thigh bone!) There, before Ezekiel, was this mass of bones, rejoined into bodies, but they were not yet alive.
Then God told Ezekiel to tell the bodies to receive the breath, the ruah, the Spirit of God that would come upon them and reignite them to life. It is absurd to even imagine this happening. I can only believe that Ezekiel did what God asked out of his obedience to God, although I imagine he was rolling his eyes in disbelief.
There before him, just as God had said, was a vast multitude of people, alive and now breathing. When all hope was lost, when the end was obvious, God made a U-turn. This situation was way beyond any hope. It was a fact staring Ezekiel in the face. But God had other plans. The dead end wasn’t an end at all, but in fact, a new beginning.
God shared a gift that day. It wasn’t in response to the bones requesting it, it wasn’t because Ezekiel begged for it. The resurrection of the bones came as a gift, wrapped up beautifully as only God can do. This type of “resurrection cannot be predicted, planned, or coerced, nor can its shape be imagined.” Resurrection is a surprise, a time of celebration and renewal.
That leads me to the resurrection of Lazarus as told in John 11. We know that Jesus was making his way toward Jerusalem but was still some ways off. Someone sent word that his dear friend Lazarus was ill and his sisters Mary and Martha asked him to come, and come right away. Jesus knew that his illness wasn’t critical and stayed where he was for two more days.
Finally, Jesus left where he was and headed back to Bethany. His disciples were worried, they knew that the last time he was that close to Jerusalem the Jews had tried to stone Jesus. Jesus assured him that this was his path, he must go to Lazarus to wake him up. Now, Jesus wasn’t talking about Lazarus taking a nap, he used the word sleep to indicate that in fact Lazarus was dead. When Jesus said to the disciples that he was glad he wasn’t there I imagine they were shocked at this cavalier attitude. But Jesus had a much greater agenda. He was allowing the plot to unfold in order that they might learn and believe.
Predictably Jesus approached Bethany and was met by Lazarus’ sister Martha who was grieving fiercely. She admonished Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus told her that her brother would rise again, but not in the way she thought. Martha went and got her sister Mary and brought her out to meet Jesus, telling her what Jesus had said. Mary also shared her grief and her belief that had Jesus been there he would have healed him. Then Jesus asks where they have laid Lazarus. They led him to the tomb and scripture says that Jesus wept. Oh, how Jesus loved Lazarus.
Then Jesus asks the impossible. He asks for the stone in front of the cave be moved aside. Now, Lazarus had been in the cave for four days. We can imagine that he had already begun to decompose and those witnessing were also concerned. Martha said, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.”
But this doesn’t stop Jesus. He sees the dead end and is nonplussed by it. He knows that God has a different plan. He doesn’t take defeat as final, it isn’t the end of the road, just an opportunity to make a U-turn. So, Jesus prayed and called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And he did. Grave clothes trailing behind him, there, in all his glory, was Lazarus. I imagine he had a big grin on his face! And as a result, many believed in Christ that day.
What dead end is God suggesting that you turn around into a new opportunity? What U-turn is required of us?
Remember the story of the second mother? She and her family decided to donate tiny Thomas’ liver, blood and eyes to researchers at three of the most prestigious universities because his organs were too tiny to transplant. Six years after his death, the mother decided to track down the donations and learn what good had come from it.
She went first to the Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The doctors were studying eye cancer in children. The donation was the only one if it’s kind and it was used to help other children through their research. She also visited Harvard and Duke and saw firsthand, the result of her gift. “Research using Thomas’ tissue has been published in nearly two dozen academic articles.” The mother realized that although she didn’t have any idea the impact he was to have at the time she made the donation, she learned what an important baby he truly was.
Mom felt like she was a valuable partner in research through the loss of her child. She said in an interview on NPR yesterday that there was a point after she had followed the path of her son’s donations, that she felt a paradigm shift. She envisioned herself originally as a boat being tossed around by the waves of the vast expanse of the ocean. She related that in fact she switched roles in the process of being unstuck from her own dead end. She said she felt that in fact that she was now the ocean, she was no longer the boat, without any direction, being acted upon by the massive waves around her. She became powerful as a result of the journey she had been on. Sarah Gray wrote a book about her experience, “A Life Everlasting: The Extraordinary Story of One Boy’s Gift to Medical Science.”
Each of us has a decision to make, don’t we? These next few weeks as we finish our own Bootcamp for the Soul, we must ask ourselves, are we going to wimp out and quit? Or are we going to finish strong? Our spiritual muscles may be hurting, we may think we can’t continue, but with God by our side there is nothing we can’t do. Turn your dead end into a U-turn and give God room to reignite your heart for Christ.
Let us pray: Gracious Lord God, we want so badly to be on fire with your love. Help us to identify our own dead ends and to seek the U-turn that you offer us every day. We are in the home stretch with only two weeks until the glorious resurrection of your son Jesus Christ, do not let us grow weary. Give us the strength we need to finish the task and turn directly toward you. Amen.
 John 11:21