Sermon: Sunday 6 April 2014
The Revd Alison Adams, Diocese and Cathedral Social Responsibility Enabler
Think Hunger: Emptiness and Fullness
All the Lenten readings take us on a journey towards Easter. In some ways today’s are the most obvious of all, because, crudely speaking all our three readings are about raising from the dead. Prefiguring – speaking from before the Resurrection yet in some way anticipating it.
The valley of dry bones – our Cathedral churchyard? We’ve had a lot to do with bones here of late, all of them dry! But I don’t think we’re expecting Pete who manages such things, good preacher though he is, to go out there and prophesy to the long dead of this parish! Ezekiel’s vision seems to have been of a battlefield. That much is made explicit in the reading about God bringing God’s people, Israel, back from exile. But behind that very practical hope lie two metaphors: homeland not just as physical space but as a spiritual dwelling, and the concept of resurrection on the last day. I’m not going to spend time on the latter; but I’d invite you to hang onto the former for a moment.
Our psalm is very tightly tied in with all of this, too. ‘Out of the depths have I called unto Thee’. It is usually seen as penitential – the individual crying out from his sin – but it also articulates the hope of the people of God for restoration. The New Testament reading operates at different levels too, and links between Ezekiel and our Gospel story. God giving life to mortal bodies through his Spirit. The resurrection life in the Spirit of the Church on earth, but also with a hint of anticipation of the last day.
Now the Gospel can be taken firstly as a story of resuscitation, like Jairus’ daughter and the widow’s son, but to do so would be utterly to miss the depth. And even that throws up some interesting questions. Dramatically the climax is Lazarus coming forth – no question – but theologically the high point is Jesus’ statement, ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life’ and Martha’s affirmation of that before Lazarus emerges alive.
Resurrection is not the restoration to physical life of a corpse but far more – it’s about transformation of life. Lazarus will have died again in due course. The early Church got very perplexed about dying and resurrection – ‘Lord, if you’d been here my brother wouldn’t have died’ – thinking that Jesus promising eternal life meant no more physical dying. Hence Martha’s need to explore what happens on the last day and Jesus’ seminal response.
When mortality is staring you in the face, what is the meaning of the Lazarus story and what is Jesus’ promise of eternal life? I always wonder two things about the Lazarus story – what were his feelings as he emerged from the tomb, and what happened when he finally died? If his sisters were present, what did they expect then? Could they even perhaps have thought ‘why did Jesus bother to raise him in the first place?’ People who’ve been given a death sentence or a reprieve can be, rightly, very concentrated on what to do with the time allotted (to coin Gandalf’s phrase). Even without a life-threatening illness age can raise those issues. Lazarus’ family clearly felt his death was untimely but, in a sense, all deaths are untimely. I can hear my mother at the age of nearly 92 saying, ‘but I’ve got so much I want to do!’ All deaths lead to a pile of ash or dry bones. Who were these people whose remains we’ve found in our churchyard? What were their hopes, fears and passions?
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen an image of the Rembrandt painting of the raising of Lazarus? I’ve not seen the original, and reproductions can vary. But, as ever with Rembrandt, there is an amazing play of and with light. Limited light, bringing into sharp relief the figures and the contrasts. Jesus stands with his back to the door of the cave, facing Lazarus. The outside light, therefore, comes from behind Jesus, illuminating Lazarus. Jesus dominates, with his hand held up high in the act of saying ‘Lazarus come out’. And Lazarus is just beginning to sit up. All well and good. But what is really interesting is that his sister’s face is illuminated with light – she who is facing into the cave, staring at Lazarus, with the daylight behind her. Where’s that light coming from? Now one could say there would be lots of torches (but it’s a bit brighter than mere torchlight), one could say Rembrandt’s lost the plot or is just being quirky – or one could say, ‘Hey, there’s something going on here!’ Light from Lazarus is illuminating the faces of the onlookers.
Now this is only a painter’s interpretation of the story. But let’s just travel with that for a moment. What if Lazarus, brighter in the painting than Jesus, in the moment of embracing new life illuminates the faces of his friends and family? There is a fusion of theology here, which harks right back to the earlier readings. We don’t quite use the words Spirit and light interchangeably, and neither should we, but in our thinking, living in Christ means living in the Spirit and shining with the light of Christ. Lazarus, clearly dead and decaying, now shining with light is brother to Ezekiel’s bones, into whom God has breathed his Spirit. That Lazarus will eventually die again is of no meaning: he has embraced life in the Spirit – he is fully and utterly alive with, by and in Christ. Living the Resurrection life in the here and now. Where does that take us? And where our theme for today ‘Think Hunger: Emptiness and Fullness’?
The Church Urban Fund has just produced a report entitled ‘Web of Poverty’. They write of three kinds of poverty: the obvious one which we recognise – poverty of resources (money, food etc); but two others also – poverty of relationships (not having supportive networks) and poverty of identity (lack of self-worth). We might think these latter two are lesser poverties, for if you have no cash for food or shelter, surely that’s pretty extreme and aren’t those the first things which matter? But the received wisdom on poverty is actually more diffuse, and that while lack of income or resources lie at the core of what we generally understand as poverty, a whole number of other factors come into play at the same time, which also prevent people from taking their place in society – the lack of choices, powerlessness, isolation, to name just a few. An example: I was helping a couple recently, who have acute financial problems, but when I asked them where they’d like to start our explorations both of them immediately said ‘relationships’, recognising that addressing the issues around their material poverty actually required sorting out relationships first. The two were totally intertwined.
And with poverty goes hunger. Emptiness but a strong desire for something more. An ache for a fullness of living with not only enough to feed on, but having the ability to make choices, believing in oneself, good relationships and belonging. And there’s another poverty too – that which prompts the spiritual hunger which we see manifested today in the search for meaning and identity through symbols, rituals and activities, often pseudo-Christian, slightly mystical and experiential – paganism in its different forms, meditation, religionless retreats, song lyrics, films – the yearning for belonging and spiritual homeland is out there, if not necessarily focussed.
Jesus was well aware of peoples’ deepest hungers. We have only to consider his responses when healing people. The call to wholeness was constantly on his lips – an invitation to live life to the full and in relationship with God. Life in the Spirit, although that terminology was not his. Where there is financial deprivation there are likely to be other deep hungers, and where there is hunger, which extends way beyond financial deprivation, there is dryness and an alienation from self and from God, acknowledged or not. Ezekiel’s dry bones could easily be those people who, for whatever reason, lack the capacity, material or otherwise, to live life to the full. We disciples are Ezekiel and Lazarus, Martha and all the others who, experiencing the life-giving energy of God, rise up to his calling. and radiate his light. Or are we? Which? Vessels of God’s indwelling Spirit or dry bones?
© The Revd Alison Adams