Fleming Rutledge is a preacher and teacher known throughout the mainline Protestant denominations of the US, Canada and parts of the UK. She is the author of seven books and has received a grant from the Louisville Foundation to complete a book about the meaning of the Crucifixion.
One of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, she served for fourteen years on the clergy staff at Grace Church on Lower Broadway at Tenth Street, New York City.
Fleming and her husband celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2009 and have two daughters and two grandchildren. She is a native of Franklin, Virginia.
“Unresting Death” Meets Its Master
Unresting Death Meets Its Master
Sermon by Fleming Rutledge March 9, 2008
Ezekiel 37, John 11
Preaching at the National Cathedral is always an honor and a privilege. At my stage of life, I dont know how many more sermons I have to preach at the National Cathedral or anywhere else. I feel a pressing need to come to the point. I wish to preach to you today as it was said of the great 19th century preacher George Whitefield: He preached as one never to preach again, a dying man to dying men.
Because I am a guest preacher, I dont have any way of knowing you, or what brought you here today, or what is in your hearts this morning. What I do know of you, and what you know of me, is reflected in the two majestic Scripture lessons that we have just heard. This is what we know about each other. Were all going to die.
The great poet Philip Larkin writes these lines:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blinks at the glare.
at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true. 
And so, as the funeral service tells us, In the midst of life we are in death. The season of Lent is a time to reflect on this, beginning with the ashes of Ash Wednesday.
Listen to these additional lines from the same Philip Larkin poem:
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die....
Is this worship today in this Cathedral a vast moth-eaten musical brocade, and are we here to pretend? Lets hold that question in our minds for a few minutes as we look at our two readings.
is rather unexpected to find two of the greatest of all Resurrection texts here
in the middle of Lent. The Old Testament book of the prophet Ezekiel has some
of the most glorious, most extravagant passages in all Scripture, and at the
same time some of the most perplexing and provoking. The dry bones vision, however,
presents no such complications. Lets pay attention to the context first. The
first part of the prophets book is an extended indictment of Gods people and
their leaders. Without going into lurid detail (and some of Ezekiel is indeed
lurid), the people whom God has chosen and nurtured and loved and protected
have given themselves up wholesale to idolatry and apostasy. The verdict of the
Lord is, You want idolatry, you will get idolatryraised to the nth power.
The people are dragged off as captives to an unthinkable placemighty
Into this lamentable situation the prophet of Ezekiel speaks to the exiles. But its not really Ezekiel speaking. The undergirding foundation of all the prophetic books is the speaking of God. The entire Scripture rests upon this one presupposition: The Lord said The Lord said to Ezekiel:
bones are the whole house of
us take away just one thing from this amazing text. The Israelites have done
less than nothing to restore Gods faith in them. He does not raise them from the
dust because they have repented. He raises them from the dust because he is
their God. This is the theme of Ezekiel. When I raise you from your graves, O
my people, you shall know that I am the Lord. The promise is unconditional. Gods
action in reconstituting the people
would be a very good thing if Jews and Christians could spend more time reading
this passage together. In its context in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is a promise
to the Hebrew people. Christians hearing it with a Jewish sensibility can perhaps
think of it as a promise made in the darkness of the Holocaust: our bones
are dried up; our hope is lost; we are clean cut off. The passage is
not about the resurrection of individual souls; it is about the remaking of
I wish that we could linger with Ezekiel this morning. But we must hasten on to the New Testament lesson, the equally towering story of the raising of Lazarus.
Lazarus and Martha and Mary of Bethany were like Jesus family. We have the impression that his visits to them in their home were the only times of peace in his adult life. It is therefore very strange that when the sisters send him a message that Lazarus is seriously ill, he postpones going to them. The evangelist implies that Jesus does this for two specific reasons: to show his glory, and because he loves the family. We could have a whole sermon on Gods timing. He delays, precisely in order to show his love. What he plans to do for Lazarus is infinitely greater than what Mary and Martha had prayed for. Two days later he says to his disciples, Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. Here the Lord restates his purpose. The raising of Lazarus is to be a sign, the last and greatest of all his signs, the one that will most definitively reveal him as the Son of God (hus to theo), the one that leads to his death.
When Martha, the active, assertive sister, heard that Jesus was coming, she ran out to meet him and reproached him: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But then she adds this hint of trust in him: Even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you. And Jesus says to her, Your brother will rise again.
We come now the center of the narrative. Its important to get the inflection right in the next verse. Martha says to Jesus, I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day. Shes rebuking him, as though he were not taking her seriously. Most pious Jews of the day believed that there would be a general Resurrection on the Day of Judgment. Martha is saying, in effect, I know Lazarus will rise at the last day, but that s no use to us now! And the Lord says:
I am (eg eimi) the Resurrection and the Life; he who believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.
In two majestic verses, Christ tells Martha three things. He declares that he himself is Resurrection and Life, already, even in the present, and death can have no dominion over him. He pronounces that even in the midst of death he is able to give life. And he promises that he freely gives this life to anyone who trusts in him.
Are we here today to pretend that this vast moth-eaten brocade is true because we want it to be true? I ask myself that question every day in the face of unresting deathnothing more terrible, nothing more true.
Here is the story of someone who knew that he was to die.
James von Moltke is not as well known as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but he should be.
He was a young German aristocrat, a member of the ancient Prussian nobility, tall,
strikingly handsome, a brilliant lawyer.
Unlike most people, very early in the 1930s he saw that the rise of Nazi power
would be a catastrophe. He was appalled by the Nazi-controlled Olympic Games
and horrified by the enthusiasm of the general population. He worked tirelessly
during those years to save the lives of prisoners of war held by the Germans
and to help Jews to get out of
Moltke considered himself a very average person. He called himself, using Biblical language, a humble earthen vessel. Kennan described him as lonely and struggling. He did not make a big decision to be a moral hero. He made small decisions and took limited actions, day after day for more than ten years. He traveled, he met people and talked to them, trying to get them to understand. At any time, he wrote, one word from Freya would have called a halt to his activities. She was as much a resister as he; she saw him through to the end. Moltkes letters to his wife were published in English in 1990 in a volume called Letters to Freya. On the morning he was sentenced to death by the Nazis, Moltke wrote his farewell letter to Freya and his two little boys. Here is a very small part of that letter:
Your husband stands before [the judge] not asa big landowner, not as a Prussian, not as a Germanbut as a Christian and nothing else. ..For what a mighty task your husband was chosen; all the trouble the Lord took with him, the infinite detoursall suddenly find their explanation in one hourEverything which was hidden acquires its meaning in retrospectthe refusal to put out [Nazi] flags or to belong to the Partyit has all at last become comprehensible in a single hour. For this one hour the Lord took all that trouble. And now, my love, I come to youAnd we were allowed finally to symbolize this fact by our shared Holy Communion, which will have been my lastThe task for which God made me is doneThere is a hymn which says, For he to die is ready/ Who, living, clings to Thee.
This husband, this wife, were not pretending. In the midst of life they were in death; in the midst of death they were in life. Death had no dominion over them.
Adolf Hitler tried to cut off the hope of the Jews and nearly succeeded. But the God of Israel is the One who reconstitutes a slain community. All the powers, religious and secular, joined together to crucify Jesus of Nazareth. But the God and Father of the incarnate Word is the one who raises the dead. There is One who is more true than death.
And the Lord said:
I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?
Here is the reason for the sermon, and the worship, and the communion today, that you who are in this congregation will hear the question addressed to you by the living Jesus Christ in the power of the same Spirit that breathed upon the dry bones:
Do you believe this?
May the Spirit move in our hearts today to join Martha in her confession:
Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who comes into the world.
 From Aubade.
 Negro spirituals.com: De foot bone connected wid de ankle bone See also Zekeil saw de wheel, way up in de middle of de air (Ezekiel 1). Wonderful!
 John links vss. 5 and 6: Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So (hos oun) when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Helmuth James von Moltke inherited the title of Count. His father was the
The complex, detailed, harrowing, morally uplifting history of the Kreisauer
group (many of whom lost their lives) and of Moltkes leadership is only hinted
at here. His principal project was to rally the humane institutions of
 George F. Kennan, Memoirs 1925-1950 (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown, & Co. 1967)
 Letters to Freya,
Letters to Freya, trans. and ed.
Beata Ruhm von Oppen.
 This letter is a hundred times more extraordinary than this tiny excerpt can suggest. I have made some very slight alterations in the word order.