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Solidarity and the Soil of the New Creation
A reflection on the lessons for the Fifth Sunday of Lent
The following was written as a contribution to the Ekklesia Project’s weekly reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary readings, used in many churches. If you don’t already know the work of the Ekklesia Project, I encourage you to read more reflections and find out about their work here.
Reading our Gospel for this Sunday, with its raising of Lazarus, I could not help but be reminded of Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic: Interstellar. The plot begins with a crisis—earth is experiencing climatic upheaval, crops are failing, and dust storms are raging across the landscape. With food scarce and people starving, farming has become an all hands on deck reality. This includes Cooper, a former NASA pilot turned corn farmer. As a scientist he knows the grim truth—the prospects for human survival are slim, teetering on the edge.
Then, through a strange twist of events he follows a set of geographical coordinates to a secret NASA research facility. They are working on an escape plan for humanity, searching for a path to a habitable future. Cooper becomes part of the plan, agreeing to pilot a mission to discover which planets can host human life. NASA calls the mission, “The Lazarus Project.”
There is much to enjoy in the film, but every time I watch it I leave with a sense of uneasiness. It is a profound and beautiful movie with an unquestioned flaw at the center of its plot: The only hope for its world is an escape from earth. All of humanity’s efforts, all its best minds, are not turned toward the healing of what is here, but to an escape to elsewhere, a fresh start on some other planet in some other galaxy. The hope represented by the Lazarus in this film is not resurrection, but escape.
The plot of escape is not an uncommon one in science fiction. It is telling that our stories tend to place more hope in leaving our planet than in healing it. And the narrative of escape is no new fantasy, either. Throughout our history, even our religious imaginations have put our hopes in an elsewhere. We have imagined heaven as a place where we can get away from our earthly entanglements rather than a new reality that enters and renews our earthly life. “I’ll fly away some day by and by,” is not that different from planning a new home for humanity in another galaxy.
It would be easy to imagine Jesus as a figure like Cooper in the movie—a hero who has come to save us from our self-destructive life on this planet by loading us on a space ship and flying us away. But if we turn from the Lazarus project of Interstellar to the story of Lazarus in John’s Gospel we will find a very different message, a very different hope—resurrection rather than escape. It is a story of solidarity.
In the trivia of my childhood scriptural education, we learned that the shortest verse in the bible was John 11:35. As its put the King James, the verse reads: “Jesus wept.” It was an easy addition to our list of memorized verses and yet it wasn’t until I was older that I realized just how profound that line really is. In those two words we find the reality of the Incarnation—Jesus wept because Jesus is God-with-us, living in solidarity in the midst of our suffering, our loss, our heartache. God is not some aloof divinity who knows it will all turn out okay in the end. Instead, God in Jesus came right into our midst and felt all of the grief we feel, finally experiencing complete shame and alienation through the crucifixion.
That resurrection happens, that there is life beyond the powers of the anti-creational force we call Death, is a realty that comes about through the healing power of God’s solidarity with us. Jesus weeps because he has joined in the pain of the world. It is only after that pain, like the pain of the cross itself, that renewal comes. The raising of Lazarus is a sign of the healing that will come in fullness for all of us. It is a healing that breaks through in Jesus, making way for the restoration of the earth in his resurrection, the first fruits of the feast of the new creation.
It is a renewal that was long hoped for in the story of Israel. In Ezekiel 37, we have a story of resurrection that is tied to return. God’s promise is not only to bring restoration to lost human life, but to also to renew of the human vocation within creation. The return of Israel and Judah to the promised land is just a standin for the ultimate return of humanity to Eden. Here we don’t find a story of escape, but rather of the renewal of paradise itself.
In Ezekiel 37:14, just at the close of our reading for this Sunday, God promises the people: “I will place you on your own soil.” The word choice in Hebrew is important here, for it reflects God’s creation of Adam in Eden. The word yanach, translated here as “place,” is the very word used when the first human is placed in the garden of Eden. It is a word that the the biblical scholar Kristin Swenson says “bears the sense of rest, repose, quiet.” There is a kind of sabbath reality to this placement, in which Israel is returned to the original life of creation. This meaning is strengthened by the choice of the word translated as soil. Ezekiel is not told that Israel will be given back its “land,” eretz in Hebrew. Instead, the word used is adamah, the humus soil from which humanity was formed. There is a sense here that resurrection carries with it not only a renewal of humanity, but also the creation with which humanity is entangled. It is that soil that the first human was placed in the garden to “serve and preserve” (Genesis 2:15).
As we move toward Holy Week, and the remembrance of Christ’s cross and resurrection, the critical gestures in God’s renewal of all things, we should learn from our scriptures that God has not come to help us escape, but rather has entered into the pain of our world to begin renewal and resurrection here. Our path, in following Christ through the journey of the cross, is to join in solidarity with that pain—enduring the suffering that comes from the continued work of Sin and Death in our world. It is through that solidarity, a going close to the ground in humility, that God will take the humus from which we were made and form us again for life in a renewed creation.
 Swenson, “Care and Keeping East of Eden: Gen 4:1-16 in Light of Gen 2-3”, Interpretation, pg. 376 (October 2006)