Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
March 26, 2023
I read an article in the Times this week about a restaurant owner named Sal in Phoenix. He has been in business for decades, running a successful sandwich shop – a fixture in the neighborhood, with a daily customer base. The story tells about how he and his business are stressed because all around him, an encampment of people experiencing homelessness has grown, up and down Madison street. There are more than 1,000 people sleeping outdoors there, some in tents, some just on the street. Speaking with his wife one morning after opening up the shop, she asks how things are that day. “The usual chaos and suffering,” he says. He’s hemmed in by a man-made disaster wrought by the lack of affordable housing, inadequate mental health care, and the opioid crisis. The article raises many questions – what is a business owner to do when the social fabric unravels around them? What obligation do we have to care for one another? What more could or should a city do to address human need on its streets? Meanwhile, Sal is trapped by the encampment at his doorstep. His shop is a narrow space of solace in the midst of suffering, and he feels as if he’s stuck in a valley of dry bones.
Ezekiel’s description of exile, of feeling shut off and cut off from God and homeland, resonates with me. I think we can find those valleys in every city, desolate places where hope is hard to come by in every life. I’ve found myself in a valley like that before, maybe you have, too. There was a valley like that in Bethany; Mary and Martha were there following the death of their brother Lazarus.
This story of Lazarus is powerful. It’s a story that turns our attention toward Holy Week, toward the crowds of people who will sing Christ into Jerusalem; sing him all the way to the sham of a trial and execution. It’s a story that turns our heads and our hearts towards Easter, toward the miracle of resurrection.
But it’s also a story about death. Because you can’t have resurrection without there first being a death, and death is all around us. It is in us. Each moment we’re closer to it. (Come to church, they said, it’ll be hopeful!) I know. It’s a story about death. And not just some figurative, imagined death. Death is real in these stories, visceral, with the dry bones rattling and the stench of the body decomposing in the tomb. Death is as real in these stories as it is in our lives, as real as the names and the memories we carry with us, the losses big and small that have chipped away at our hearts, breaking them over and over again.
Lazarus’s story is not told from a place of triumph. It’s laden with grief and disappointment. If we listen closely, we can hear the cries of Mary and Martha, their tears, their anger. Can’t you hear the wails of the mourners tearing the air around the tomb? The sharp intake of breath as Jesus himself weeps at the grave of his friend?
No, Lazarus’s story is not told from a place of triumph, it is told from the narrow place. The place of constriction. From the depths. There’s a Hebrew term I learned recently, it’s meitzar. Meitzar literally means the constricted space, a narrow blind spot. A rabbi describes it as “our own personal Mitzrayim (the Hebrew word for Egypt). Mitzrayim is enslavement, darkness, hopelessness.” The place where we find ourselves crying out to God.
Mary and Martha are in the narrow place. They are in a narrow gap between the life that was, and the life that will, eventually, go on. Meeting Jesus in the road, they are shrouded in grief, empty of hope, angry with him for taking so long to arrive. Falling to the ground, they cry out from the depths. Mary and Martha are in the valley of dry bones.
How often have we found ourselves in that narrow place? Alone, afraid, aggrieved. Bad news ringing in our ears. No answers, no clarity about why something terrible has happened, just the knowledge that it has. What do you do in the valley of dry bones? What do you do when you find yourself trapped in the meitzar?
I learned that term from an essay written by a mother whose oldest daughter is enduring the indignity of liver cancer. She writes that through this illness, her family… “[has] been in what rabbis call the meitzar, the biblical narrow place — a place of compression. The meitzar is an expression of all the things that can make life impossibly hard. It appears in Psalm 118: From the narrow place I called to God, the psalm says; I was answered, it continues, from expansiveness. We are constantly seeking moments of that expansiveness, to take a deeper breath.”
If the cry of hopelessness comes from the place of constriction, then God answers from expansiveness. Hope comes with space to breathe.
It is maddening to Mary and Martha that Jesus doesn’t show up until four days after their brother has died. Four days, Lazarus is dead in the tomb. Maddening to me, too. But I wonder if you have found what Mary and Martha found to be true: it is in the emptiness, in the long and lonesome valley, in the dark sliver of the narrow space – that Christ shows up. He does.
The more I live, the more I appreciate, I think, that Christ didn’t come before. He doesn’t stop the bad thing from happening, we all know God doesn’t often intervene that way. Death still comes, relentlessly, for all of us, as it did for Lazarus, as it will for Jesus, too.
He doesn’t come before. He comes in the empty, hopeless, terrifying after. He shows up when we fall to our knees in grief and anger to cry out from the depths, from the narrow space – when we ask why? Why us? Why this? Why now?
He doesn’t come with answers; he only offers truth: I am the resurrection and the life, he tells Martha. God’s work in the world is to move us toward life, to call us to life abundant with dogged persistence, again and again and again. Yes, Lazarus is dead. Terrible things will happen. We will find ourselves awake in the night, with desperation lurking in the shadows. Apathy and cowardice, greed and lust, and hatred and violence and illness and addiction will continue to stalk human hearts, threatening our lives and our livelihoods. But still, when we are trapped in the narrow place, hemmed in and hopeless, Christ shows up. The wind of the spirit will blow the stench of death from the tomb, and we will be able to breathe again. God will speak a liberating word and our bones will begin to rattle. With just a word, sinews will form and hearts will swell with something like hope, love, and possibility. We are remade, stronger even, than before.
Come out, Lazarus, says Jesus, and he emerges.
I wonder… where do you find yourself in this powerful story? Are you with Mary and Martha, grief stricken, in the narrow place? Are you with Lazarus, trapped in the darkness of a tomb, bound by the deathdealing powers of the world? Maybe you are with the crowd, doubtful but curious, wanting to helpful to the grieving family, there to offer a helping hand but not sure what to do? If that’s where you are, remember what Jesus says when Lazarus comes out. Lazarus is still bound up in his graveclothes, wrapped and trapped by the bindings of death. “unbind him,” Jesus says, “and let him go.”
Friends, this is the work to which we are called, this work of unbinding. Liberating ourselves and those around us from the trappings of death, helping us make our way out of the narrow space, into a place of expansiveness. So that we all can breathe deeply. Live freely. Love lavishly. And continuing to help guide one another from death to new life over and over again.
Sal, the restaurant owner in Phoenix, has a friend down the street. The friend owns a gallery, and lives above it. Like Sal, he’s struggled with their new neighbors, the influx of need and increased violence on his doorstep. But it sounds as if he’s responded as graciously as he could. Offering care, responding to the people around him with compassion. The two friends support one another and each day gives them a chance to try again to loosen the bindings they encounter. Person by person, offering a little more space to breathe. This unbinding is the ministry to which we are called. What might happen in this place, in us, if we offer our hands to do the work of unbinding, to set each other free?
 Upbin, Danielle, “Ha-meitzar: Calling to God from the Depths” from Prayer Musings on My Jewish Learning, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/min-ha-meitzar-calling-to-god-from-the-depths/
 Wildman, Sarah, “My Child is in an Impossible Place, and I am There With Her,” Opinion Guest Essay, The New York Times, 2/17/23, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/17/opinion/childhood-cancer-family-conversations.html