A Sermon by the Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 13, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Hello everyone. How are you travelling in these strange and anxious times? So much has happened in the last few days and weeks hasn’t it? As you can see I have made the decision to speak to you in your home from my home today.

A whole new vocabulary has sprung up. We are all having to learn very quickly what living with this coronavirus means – and it’s scary. And there are some dark moments. For me last Monday was one such – as I posted a notice on the Cathedral door, and closed it.

But then I discovered one of those wonderful inventions life in an internet world offers, and we were able to zoom in and have our ‘normal’ Cathedral staff meeting on Tuesday morning. Even though I was the only one physically in the Cathedral Office, with everyone else at home, there was a sense of togetherness. I bring greetings to you from us all – Jenny, Lynn and Peter; Kate and Rachel; Anthony and Kevin.

And from the Deanery, greetings too from Christine and Viva. He, at least, seems to be thriving with extra attention.

But there is no denying the sadness around. In telling you about some of my struggles I am not looking for sympathy but inviting you to name your sadness, your loss, your grief at this time. Like many in nursing homes, my mother is now in complete lockdown. Because of her frailty she cannot use a phone and we have no way of contacting her at present. Of course, like many in our communities, we are missing our little granddaughter terribly. And yes, I too struggle not to get caught up in worry as to whether there will be toilet paper, flour, eggs and pasta when I need it. It’s not easy to stay calm and rational – but we need to. And we have a gift many others don’t have – the gift of faith in a God who continues to love.

I hope that you have read today’s readings – if not you may like to pause this video and read them off the service sheet and then rejoin me.

Each of today’s readings, chosen especially for Passion Sunday, offers a sort of Holy Saturday experience. What do I mean? Holy Saturday is that in-between time – the time of unknowing, not-knowing, wondering, and fearing – the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. And each of them offers us some strong and powerful imagery to work with.

Ezekiel is taken to a desolate valley strewn with the bones of his ancestors. This, quite literally, is the valley of the shadow of death. It represents the confusion, the lack of direction and leadership, the sense of abandonment that followed the destruction of Jerusalem – and the loss of their places of worship – in 587 BC. Those who survived found themselves in two camps – some in Exile in Babylon, others in the ruins of their once beautiful city. All had lost everything – home, jobs, family, hope.

Psalm 130 is a cry from the very depths of despair. It is perhaps worth noting that ‘the deep’ in Old Testament thought likely referred to the sea and the forces of primeval chaos. You’ll remember that description found in Genesis 1 ‘the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep’. (Genesis 1:2) The writer of today’s psalm imagines he is back in that awful and terrifying nothingness.

Using somewhat different imagery St Paul, writing to the Romans, contrasts the life of the ‘flesh’ and that of the ‘spirit’. We don’t much use that sort of language today but the picture is clear: there is life without God and there is life with God.

Today’s reading from John’s Gospel needs plenty of time to read and digest. The story itself is well known. Close friends of Jesus – Mary and Martha – send a message to him that their brother Lazarus is sick. By the time Jesus gets there Lazarus has died. Jesus and Martha have a long conversation with Jesus – pretty accusatory on Martha’s part.

There are the four scenarios laid out for us – a valley of dry bones, the terrifying deep waters of chaos, life without God, and a man dead and in his tomb. But in each case there is something that brings about change, and some of the most encouraging and uplifting passages of scripture come out of today’s readings.

In Ezekiel the spirit of God moves through the bones bringing new life and a promise is given to the people of God.

  • Ezekiel 37:14 God says, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live…”
  • Psalm 130 includes a ringing cry to Israel: “O Israel, trust in the Lord…”
  • St Paul assures his readers, a little later in the chapter, that he is “convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38)
  • And from John 11, the story of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, we get Jesus saying, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ (John 11:250

These words of hope, encouragement and life represent what comes after the Holy Saturday experience. We can’t skip that step; we have to go through it. And it may be helpful to think of the world, and ourselves, in that Holy Saturday experience now.

Yes – some, perhaps many, of us will get the coronavirus. Yes – some, pray God not many, of us may die. But none of us, not a single one, need be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That is our hope, our faith, our joy – underlined every Easter, every Sunday, every time we make the sign of the cross.

Which reminds me – I want to show you this cross. It was made for me by my father nearly forty two years ago, when I was ordained deacon. It comes apart – intentionally. The upright represents the love of God reaching out to me, to you, as an individual. God loves me – God loves you. Our prayers keep us in touch with God. So does making the sign of the cross. The cross piece represents the arms of Christ reaching out to the world, encircling the world today, even this frightened, anxious, locked-down world. But Christ chooses not to do this loving and encircling on his own. He invites you and me to be part of the loving, the caring, the reaching out. And the whole cross is embedded and upheld in the love of God.

Which takes me to words of St Teresa of Avila.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.

And that prayer in turn reminds me of the hymn known as the Servant Song. It was written by Richard Gillard, a young man worshipping at St Paul’s Church in Auckland in 1976. He was inspired by the incident at the Last Supper recorded in John’s Gospel (John 13: 1-11) where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. ‘Brother, Sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you.’ I won’t read it all now – the words are printed in the text of this sermon and there is a link on the service sheet to a beautiful duet sung by two young people.

We’ve traveled a long way since last week. No doubt there will be many more days and weeks and changes and griefs to come. But there is also joy. I love the humour that is popping up all over the place.

We are living in in-between times. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring or what life will be like on the ‘other’ side. We do know we are not alone in this. It’s sad we have needed a coronavirus to bring the world together. We who are Christians, who have some knowledge of the love of God in Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives – are called now, more than ever before – to be the body, the hands, the feet, the eyes of Christ – to bless and encourage our neighbours. So do the right thing – think before you share the latest (questionable) advice on Facebook, wash your hands, pick up the phone, send a text, reach out to someone today.

Join me now as we pray together:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and for ever. Amen.

Christ our Saviour draw you to himself, that you may find in him crucified a sure ground for faith, a firm support for hope, and the assurance of sin forgiven; and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen.

The Servant Song

1. Brother, sister, let me serve you;
let me be as Christ to you;
pray that I may have the grace to
let you be my servant too.

2. We are pilgrims on a journey,
and companions on the road;
we are here to help each other
walk the mile and bear the load.

3. I will hold the Christ-light for you
in the nighttime of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you,
speak the peace you long to hear.

4. I will weep when you are weeping;
when you laugh I’ll laugh with you;
I will share your joy and sorrow,
till we’ve seen this journey through.

5. When we sing to God in heaven,
we shall find such harmony,
born of all we’ve known together
of Christ’s love and agony.

6. Brother, sister, let me serve you;
let me be as Christ to you;
pray that l may have the grace to
let you be my servant too.
– Richard Gillard