Sunday 2 April 2017 – 5th Sunday of Lent

Sermon: Fifth Sunday of Lent
Sunday 2 April 2017
The Revd Canon Rosy Fairhurst, Canon Chancellor

Ezekiel 37.1–14; Romans 8.1–11; John 11.1–45

It was the day of 9/11. We all probably remember where we were that day. I was on a clergy conference from London Diocese in Oxford. Having watched  the endless loops of breaking and repeating horror from the twin towers and gathered to read from Lamentations in the medieval church, and never found it so apt, I was reflecting on the day.

I’d just come out of New College Chapel and the porter at the gate told me the news. I remember picking up a postcard of Jacob Epstein’s wonderful sculpture of Lazarus. He was unlike any Lazarus I’ve seen elsewhere. It was as if he has just looked slowly, miraculously – for this is a dead man – behind him in response to Jesus call to ‘Come out.’ No signs of decay after four days in the grave are here – he’s all pent up strength, muscle and intent, about to burst through the graveclothes.

That image has always stayed with me, because for me God gave it as an image of hope in the face of that day of terror which changed our world. I begin with it because it demonstrates the power of seeing God in all things, which is the kind of prayer I want to talk about today.

Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuits give us one of the clearest ways of entering into this kind of prayer, this kind of mindset, this kind of way of seeing the world. Catriona touched upon prayer in the spirit in her sermon earlier in this series, and the Jesuits have given us a very practical way of developing our capacity to ‘pray in the spirit on all occasions’ and it is called the prayer of examen.

How do today’s readings help us with this theme? The place to start is Romans 8 contrasting life in the spirit with life in the flesh, because it points us to a change in mindset which the prayer of examen seeks to deepen.

When Paul talks about our mind, we have to understand a more integrated sense of mind, heart and will than our usual associations allow. The real contrast between spirit and flesh is not a dichotomy where our bodies are firmly in the realm of ‘flesh’ but rather between whether our hearts, minds, spirit and body are oriented towards God or stuck firmly in on ourselves and our surface realities. This is the core difference between life in the spirit and life in the flesh. The Romans passage concludes.

11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

The coming of Christ into the likeness of mortal flesh and his physical suffering and death and resurrection demonstrates that God gives us life in the spirit beginning now in our human bodies. It is not just something which awaits us ethereally in heaven. We are promised new bodies there too. ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body.’ We pray in our bodies. They help us interpret all our reactions to the world around us, our feelings and thoughts are embodied, connected to our neural pathways, our meaning making is based on the sense we pick up through our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and touch.

The story of Lazarus clues us in to the events of Jesus passion which are to follow. It shows us we can’t avoid the reactions of our bodies or avoid the corruption of our bodies. ‘He stinketh,’ the AV says unceremonially of Lazarus’s body four days in the tomb. Jesus is coming back into the land of Judea – where he knows his own life is in danger – that’s why he’d moved away. Immediately after this passage many of the Jews put their faith in him AND the chief priests and the Pharisees start plotting to take his life and the events of the Passion are set in train. So he demonstrates that he is the resurrection and the life with Lazarus in the face of his own impending suffering, death and resurrection.

I think we’re meant to understand that the kind of resurrection life we are promised, beginning now, is one that fully engages with the realities of our human embodied struggles. It is not on some other ethereal plane. So the point of the raising of Lazarus is both to show Jesus is ‘the resurrection AND THE LIFE.’ It is both to give us hope for what happens after death and to speak to us now about how our lives can be transformed now in the midst of our daily struggles.

It is in the light of that life now that I think we need to understand the kind of prayer that finds God in all things, and now I want to look practically at how we can find a habit of looking for God in all things day by day, through the wisdom of the prayer of examen.

It can be that we’re just too absorbed and caught up in our own lives on the surface to stop to pray. But what often keeps us from noticing where God is at work is our anxiety that we don’t have enough, that resources are scarce. We can’t afford to stop to pray because there is just too much that needs to be done, we don’t feel safe enough.

A very special version of the prayer of examen was practiced  with children in WWII – it’s called sleeping with bread.

During the bombing raids of WWII, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”

So first of all the prayer of examen reminds us to ask what we are grateful for in the day that is past. It could be anything from a beautiful sunset to that moment with Epstein’s statue of Lazarus which gave me an abiding image of hope in the face of 9/11. This is the bread we hold to give us strength to face the hard things.

Because then we turn to face the things we haven’t wanted to dwell on during the day. The things which have disturbed us, which have made us feel uneasy – or bored even. Things we need to say sorry for. And we turn them into prayer. We dare to ask what God might be wanting to do even through these experiences. So that’s a pair of questions

  • For what am I most grateful?
  • For what am I least grateful?

These questions can help us identify moments of consolation and desolation in our lives. In consolation we feel the presence of God, in desolation we experience it more as God’s absence. We can phrase the pair of questions in different ways:

  • When did I give and receive the most love? The least love?
  • When did I feel most alive? Most drained of life?
  • When did I have the greatest sense of belonging? Least sense of belonging?
  • When was I most free? Least free?
  • When was I most creative? Least creative?
  • When did I feel most connected? Least connected?
  • When did I feel most fully myself? Least myself?
  • When did I feel most whole? Most fragmented?
  • When did I feel God was most present? Most absent?

Not only will these simple question pairs, when regularly reflected upon, often at the end of the day, help us to work through draw out our inner motivations, values and true calling. They will also help us to choose life through the struggles with death we face day by day. They will help move us on a daily basis from having a mindset of life ‘in the flesh’ as Paul calls it, to one of life ‘in the spirit.’

So as we come to the end of our prayer series, will that be it for prayer this Lent? or will we allow ourselves to engage more fully and gather up our sense of what God has been doing in our hearts and lives and take it with us as we enter into the drama of Palm Sunday and on into the passion. And let’s not forget that the fact the Queen is coming on Maundy Thursday can either be one massive distraction or one of the most important places where we ask where God is at work in our midst, both in the gift and in the challenges of the detailed preparation – if we pray.