The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fifth Sunday in Lent
April 2, 2017

When I was a freshman in college, my choir took a trip to France.  We toured and sang mostly in and around Paris, Normandy, and Brittany.  It was a great time away, a great time for music making, and a great time for seeing places I’d only read about and seen in books before.  I particularly remember one striking scene—and I wish I could remember where it is—but all I can remember is the snapshot visual, the image planted in my mind, of a chapel just outside a medieval parish church, a tiny place, maybe a chantry of sorts, with a few seats and a small altar—dark and closed in and still, with walls of thick plaster, once white, stained by centuries of candle soot and incense, dirt from the nearby fields, and the oily grime of human hands and bodies that had brushed along the wall.  What struck me about the place most, though, was that, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realized that the altar itself and the wall behind it was made entirely of human bones—skulls laid in a pattern interlaced with what must have been thigh bones or other quite large bones, all stacked and plastered together—hundreds upon hundreds of human remains stacked there in the little chapel turned ossuary, a visual history of the lives that had passed before, the souls that had inhabited that place—that had gone on but were yet gathered still around the altar, the place where the body of Christ gathered together in worship to remember the dead—and to be the living. 

My immediate thought as a young person encountering these stacks of dry bones was, “Wow, this is really creepy.”  I wasn’t used to seeing that much death around me.  But as my eyes grew acclimated to the darkness and I began to discern familiar shapes, like the altar, I realized that this chapel, this altar, this assembly of dry bones, was actually a place of great hope.  The mass would have been said for centuries in that place, with those thousands of bodies gathered round—the souls of the faithful departed gathered round with all the angels and saints, along with the living—infants and older folks, priests and people—all to celebrate the presence of Christ that transcends time and place, that conquers death and gives us life.  Those bones weren’t symbols of death. They were markers of hope. They pointed towards resurrection.

Sometimes I think of that altar when I remember the strange story we hear today in Ezekiel, the valley of the dry bones.  God shows Ezekiel a vision of a valley full of dry bones and asks, “Mortal, can these bones live?”  Ezekiel answers, “O Lord God, you know.”  The Lord says, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD” (Ezekiel 31:1-4). That line has been immortalized in the song by James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Rosamund Johnson even for folks who don’t know the Ezekiel passage.  Those dry bones that hear the word of the LORD are knit back together, the knee bone connected to the thigh bone, thigh bone connected to the hip bone and so on—and clothed with sinews and flesh and skin, and breath is breathed into them as at the first of creation, and they stand, living bodies, enfleshed and alive, there before God and the prophet.  This image of revivification, this re-enfleshment, is a vision of hope for the exiles in Babylon:  this is Ezekiel laying out his mandate from God to give hope to his exiled people.  “’Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD:  I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.”  (Ezekiel 37.12) [1] 

On this fifth Sunday in Lent, we acknowledge in the collect that only God can “bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners.”  Part of our Lenten practice is self-examination; an acknowledgement of our sinfulness—maybe even an accounting of our sins—and a pledge of amendment of life; of repentance; of change.  Some of us will make a Lenten confession.  Some of us will work to make changes in our lives.  And some of us may despair; we may look on the dry bones of our lives and think, What a mess. There’s no way my life can be different.  There’s no hope for change, for anything different.  I’m trapped here by this thing that’s wrong—this thing that I’ve done—this circumstance of my life.

Mary and Martha must have felt trapped, as though their lives had hit a dead end.  Their brother Lazarus was dead.  They didn’t see any hope for anything different.  We can sense the grief, the fear, perhaps even the anger in Martha’s voice as she goes out to meet Jesus—“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  (John 11.21)  In the verses that follow these, we learn of Mary’s grief, of her tears, her despair, as she kneels and weeps at the feet of Jesus.  Martha, ever the practical one, even points out to Jesus that the body has been dead for enough days that it should be decomposing.  “Lord, there is a stench…” our translation reads.  The Authorized version proclaims, “Lord … he stinketh.”  (11.39)

Martha, your brother will rise again, Jesus has told her.  I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day, Lord, Martha says.

But Jesus continues, in those words we heard at the beginning of the liturgy, and again in the gospel reading:  “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (11.25-26)  And we learn that this is not some future promise, but an assurance of how the world can be, here and now.  Not hopelessness, but life, here and now.

And Jesus, the resurrection and the life, stands at the grave of his friend Lazarus and calls, “Lazarus, come out!”  (11.43)  Lazarus comes forth in his wrappings from the tomb, and Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  (11.44)  Unbind him.  Let him go.  The Greek text is Lusate aphete upageinlusate from luo, to release or unbind—aphete from aphiemi—to send away, to allow, to permit—and finally, upagein from upago, to depart.  Release, unbind, go on your way.  This middle word—aphete—is really quite striking.  Here with Lazarus it describes a freeing from graveclothes—a sending away from death and into life, a loosening of all that binds him and a return to freedom, to relationship, to life itself. 

When Jesus’s disciples ask him how to pray, he teaches them, using the prayer that we have come to call the Lord’s prayer.  In the Eucharist we will say together those words, praying together  that God would“forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  (Matt 6.12)  Forgive. It’s the same word as the word in our passage from John—aphiemi.    Allow, permit, send forth from, free from, forgive.  Lazarus is unbound from his graveclothes, unbound from death.  Jesus teaches us to ask to be forgiven—unbound from the things that hold us back from relationship with God—from loving relationship with one another.  Jesus frees us.  Jesus forgives us.  Jesus invites us into wholeness and reconciliation. 

Aphete.  We, too, are forgiven, freed.  We are sent away from the graveclothes, the the brokenness that binds us, the things that separate us from God and one another—the fear, the anger, the anxiety, the greed —all washed away in the waters of baptism, all unbound in Christ’s call to us.  We are freed, forgiven, and sent forth—re-made, renewed, restored in Christ—shown how to love by God’s own self-revealing love, Jesus, the messiah, the Christ—and sent out of the grave of sin into the fullness of life in Christ.

 “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Do you believe this, Martha?  Jesus asks.  Do you believe this, brothers and sisters?

For when we believe, we are loosed from the graveclothes of sin and brokenness; and we can hold fast to that promise of release, of sending, of forgiveness.  We can hold fast to the promise of the resurrection, because Jesus who revealed God God’s own self to us, who died on the cross, who was buried in the tomb, has also risen, and abides with us through the gift of his Holy Spirit. 

Because of God’s love, because of Christ’s death and resurrection, we are changed—we are loosed and sent forth—we are forgiven, healed, and reconciled with God.

Those bones are dry and dead, scattered about on the dusty earth, and they are knit back together by the Word of the Lord, enfleshed, restored, full of life.  Lazarus is wrapped  in the graveclothes of death, but  Jesus calls out, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  Lazarus is unbound and sent forth into life, a loosening of all that binds him and a return to freedom, to relationship, to life itself.

We, brothers and sisters, are unbound and let go—released from our sins, forgiven, restored, renewed.  Our graveclothes are stripped away so that we can see honestly the brokenness of the world, of ourselves, the painful separation within the heart of God—and, then, by God’s grace, new life is breathed into our bones and sinews and flesh—remade, reoriented, towards God’s purposes, God’s truth, God’s love.

This week of Lent and the Holy Week that follows, I invite you to look for the bones around us: stacked up like that ossuary, the bodies of Christ—the body of Christ around the altar—or even like the valley of the dry bones, just waiting for God’s healing breath.  And rather than finding despair in that valley, I invite you to call out to God.  To allow his healing breath to strip away any illusion or falseness—and to unbind you and set you free, send you out, renewed, remade, and restored, into the light of Easter wholeness—into the light of his Love.

[1] Portions of this homily were adapted from a sermon preached at Grace Church in New York on April 6, 2014.