Fifth Sunday of Lent

2 apr 2017

9am & Choral Eucharist

Preacher: Canon Mandy Ford, Chancellor


Readings: Ezekiel 37. 1–14; Romans 8. 6–11; John 11. 1–45

Isaiah 49.1-7
Psalm 40.1-12
1 Corinthians 1.1-9
John 1.29-42

Isaiah 49.1-7
Psalm 40.1-12
1 Corinthians 1.1-9
John 1.29-42

A tour of bones

When Denise Inge and her husband John moved into the Bishop’s House in Worcester in 2007, they discovered that their cellar was full of bones. The pleasant 19th century house had been built on the site of an old chapel, and under the chapel lay a charnel house. A charnel house is a bone store, where in the middle ages skeletons were gathered up, and kept, after the bodies of the dead had decomposed to dust.

Mrs Inge was deeply unsettled by the discovery. She was afraid of death and half afraid of fear itself. The skeletons in the cellar seemed to mock her and challenge her at the same time.

The bones are all about death. The dry bones are all about death.

Some thirty years ago I visited the Negeb desert which lies between Israel and Egypt. It is an extraordinarily hostile environment. The sand is gritty and unpleasant to walk upon, and stretches for miles as far as the eye can see. Mountains rising from the desert floor are strewn with rocks and boulders. The temperature here reaches 40 degrees centigrade all through the summer months.

In such a setting it is common to come upon the bones of animals which had strayed away from the herd and starved to death, or become victim to a lean mountain lion. Bones lie scattered on the ground for years, until eventually they powder into dust.

This is the kind of valley the prophet Ezekiel sees. A valley of dry bones. This is his image of the people of God in exile. They have become dry bones. They have become so spiritually dead that they are like dust. Individuals no longer have an identity, they are silenced and without hope.

This is the death that the world believes in. Death which reduces us to the material from which we are made: dust to dust and ashes to ashes. This is the death of hope. When you are gone you are gone.

This is the death that says that life is short, so you better seize the day, enjoy it while you can.

This is the death that says that life is yours for living, life is yours to use while you can and end when you chose.

This is the life that St Paul contrasts with life in Christ. Paul says that life like this, life in the flesh, is life reduced to survival: food, sex and death. Life in Christ is more than this. It is life in all its flourishing.

So that people could begin to imagine this kind of life, Jesus showed them a sign. He snatched Lazarus from physical death, to show us what a new life in the Spirit might be like.

This is not resurrection, but it shows us what resurrection life might be like.

A friend of mine has been very seriously ill over the past four months and is finally getting better. He told me something of the decisions that he and his partner have made as the result of this illness, writing:

“There is nothing like a serious brush with mortality to make you re-examine your priorities and we are determined to live life to the full for however much we have left.”

For my friend, life has become a gift. Just as, when Lazarus is returned to his family,  his life is a gift.

You can imagine Lazarus and his sisters looking at every day in a new light. Imagine too, their gratitude towards Jesus for giving them this extra time, these days of life, which were so unexpected and so welcome.

What Jesus does for Lazarus, and does for all of us, is to remind us that life is gift. It is a gift freely given, but the nature of gift encourages us to make friends with the one who gives, and in this relationship we may find new life and new hope.

The gift of life is closely tied to the gift of the Spirit of God. Ezekiel’s dry bones can live once the spirit has been breathed into them – the Hebrew word for breath and spirit is the same word, Ruach.

The spirit of God not only brings life to the bones, it brings hope and freedom to God’s people. It raises their eyes to life beyond the desert of exile.

Such life is more than survival: more than food and sex. It is life which is turned towards God in future hope, it is life lived in all its fullness not just for ourselves but for others now.

This sounds easy, but it is not easy to live life rather than to try to evade death. To live with joy and not in fear.

Denise Inge, having discovered that cellar full of bones, sought to manage her fears by finding out more about charnel houses.she made a pilgrimage across Europe to visit some of the most elaborate examples still in existence.

Her reflections on these journeys and her encounters with other cellars and caves full of bones were later described in a book, A Tour of Bones.

About a year before she completed her book,
Denise Inge discovered that she had cancer and was dying. The thing that she had most feared became not only unavoidable but very present.

As she finishes the book, she tries to describe how her encounters with bones have strengthened her faith, and her faith in the resurrection. Not, as she is quick to say, in a pious, pie in the sky when you die, resurrection.
Not a passive aggressive, put up with life now because there is something nicer round the corner, resurrection.

But a resurrection that spills out into life today.
What captures her imagination is the kind of resurrection, the kind of new life in Christ that starts happening now in the ordinary present.
It is the kind of new life that overflows as it changes people, spreading light and colour into the lives of others.

We have two weeks to go before that light dawns on the horizon on Easter Sunday morning.

Through these weeks we will enter into the valley of dry bones.

In the valley we may face our own mortality,
Or just the little deaths that afflict us every day,
All the things we do to evade death,
As we do so,
may we be strengthened in faith and hope,
Seeing each day as gift
And stretching, longing, reaching forward,
to catch the breath of the Spirit,
to live resurrection life even in the face of death