A Sermon preached by the Chancellor of Wells Cathedral at Sung Eucharist in the Cathedral on Passion Sunday, 30 March 2014
Ezekiel 37 vv 1-14 John 11 vv 1-45
Clatter of bones and stench of death.
Death and hope.
The challenge for us this morning is to wonder what the stories of dry bones and Lazarus have to do with us, now.
Studying scripture is a complex business. This is how the late thirteenth, early fourteenth century Dominican Meister Eckhart put it:
My lord St Gregory says: ‘Where the lamb touches bottom, the ox or the cow swims and where the cow swims the elephant forges ahead, and the water goes over his head’. …
My lord St Augustine says scripture is like the deep sea. The little lamb denotes a simple humble person who is able to fathom scripture. The ox that swims denotes coarse-grained people: each of these takes out what suits him. But by the elephant that forges ahead we are given to understand clever people who search the scriptures and plunge into them….
The first went up to the ankles, the second to the knees, the third to the waist, and it went over the head of the fourth and he sank altogether.
This is what Gregory the Great actually wrote: scripture is like a kind of river that is both shallow and deep, in which a lamb may wade and an elephant swim.
And this is a recent interpretation of what Eckhart said: scripture is a deep sea in which paradoxically lambs may walk, cows swim and elephants sink.
All of which is itself something of an allegory about what we do with scripture: take a text at face value, look more deeply, and come up with a variety of connected and sometimes contradictory understandings.
The lambs variously touch the bottom, paddle, and wade in the water.
The cows swim.
The elephants forge ahead, are submerged, swim and sink.
We could happily waste a few minutes identifying the cows among us as well as the little lambs and the big elephants. But instead we are going to take a lamb-cow-and-elephant approach to today’s readings.
Ezekiel is addressing the people of Israel in exile: forcibly removed from Jerusalem and from the land of Israel. Relocated as slaves in Babylon. They are in the long shock of bereavement: Jerusalem and Israel are dead, destroyed by Babylon. The people themselves might as well be dead too. Unable to pull out of their mourning, unable to connect with the living, just going through the motions.
Ezekiel is given a vision: he is taken up and put down in a valley full of bones. It is a vision, which may or may not be of an actual place. Maybe, and this is according to the imagination in a Jewish midrash, maybe this is a valley just outside Egypt, filled with the corpses of the tribe of Ephraim who attempted to escape too early and were all killed. Maybe, maybe not. This is a vision. In which leg bone connects to thigh bone. Sinews are stretched over. Skin covers. And God breathes, life, back into them.
Reminding us of the story of creation, when God breathed life into Adam.
Except here there is a difference: the life they had before death is now breathed back into them. This subtlety is lost in the translation we have, but in the Jewish Study Bible translation, God asks, shall these bones live again? In other words this is a story of restoration – this is about the life they had being put back in them. This is about having their life returned to them.
So this vision is about hope, the hope of returning home. About restitution. Restoration. About taking their exile experience with them. It’s about building that experience onto the old foundations of their homes and culture – in Jerusalem and Israel.
No wonder the slaves in the deep south sang dem bones, dem bones….
And we might think of the two and a half million exiles from Syria, camped in Lebanon and the other surrounding countries – in a state of bereavement-shock, waiting, daring and not daring to hope of a return to their home and all that is familiar.
Or we might think of the million and more who have been forced to flee their homes in South Sudan and their fears and hardships and hopes.
Now to the gospel reading.
The story of Lazarus may simply be the telling of a historical event. If so, it is a bit surprising that none of the other three gospel writers or Paul in all his letters thinks this remarkable event worthy of a mention. There are other stories of people being brought back to life, but there is no Lazarus mentioned – except in a non-historical story, the parable of Dives and Lazarus in Luke. With the punchline: even if someone were to rise from the dead they would not be convinced. Which is what was the case in this Lazarus story: Lazarus back from the dead was the specific event that led the chief priests and Pharisees to plot Jesus’s death. Even though this Lazarus had indeed returned from the dead, still they would not believe.
As with the valley of the dry bones, the story of Lazarus is not about resurrection in the sense of new life. These are stories of people being brought back to the life they had, a miraculous continuation of the one life, after a deadly interlude.
In Ezekiel’s vision it is a reassembling of the bare bones of the old life.
In the gospel story of Lazarus, he came out of the grave in his grave clothes: his hands and his feet bound with strips of cloth, his face wrapped in a cloth.
In the gospel story of the resurrection, Jesus’s grave clothes are left in the tomb. Jesus has stepped out into a new life.
Giving us continuity in the Lazarus story and a discontinuity in Jesus’s resurrection. Or, if that sounds too strong, a holding on to the past and a letting go of the past.
The Lazarus story ends in a limbo, there’s somehow no and-then-what. Whereas the resurrection story gives us Jesus striding through the forever brand new present, leading us on.
To hope, said George Steiner, is to remember the future.
Those who sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept were stuck in a limbo of exile. They were no-hopers. And then along comes Ezekiel with his vision, opening their eyes to Hope Street and the way back to picking up the pieces and carrying on.
Quite what the story of Lazarus tells us is much less clear. It describes the power of the Son of God over death. It is a standing at the crossroads from which the road to Calvary is taken. Hope is not obvious.
Lazarus came out of the tomb. Jesus said to them: unbind him and let him go. ‘Many of the Jews believed in Jesus.’ And that’s it: no comment from the crowd, no thanks from either Lazarus or his sisters, no shout of praise to God. An empty silence. Followed by the plot to kill Jesus.
Leaving us with that empty silence. After Ezekiel’s vision, of renewed life, of homeward-bound-hope, there is nothing. Nothing actually happens that day. Or the next. It is a vision of sometime in the future. It’s another empty silence to face.
There is in these stories something dark and mysterious and impenetrable. That we are invited into. To inhabit the bones, to take on Lazarus’s body coming out of the tomb. To somehow let ourselves be configured, by God, let ourselves be unbound. To put on dead hope, the whole armour of God.