The Very Rev. Alan Jones
transcribed by Gaile E. Zimmer
Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
On this fifth Sunday of Lent we hear great stories from the Hebrew Scriptures and from the New Testament: “The Raising of Lazarus” and the story of “The Valley of Dry Bones.” These stories speak to a deep longing and need in all of us for new life, the desire to get rid of the smell of death about us, and the need for the healing power of forgiveness. The story of “The Raising of Lazarus” in John’s Gospel is full of human details. Friends grieve, Jesus weeps, and this is a smell. Death is real.
But underneath the story lurks a very disturbing question: Who among us is really alive? What about the living dead among us? Listen to it one more time. Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus come out.” The dead man came out, his hands and his feet bound with strips of cloth, and he said to them, “Unbind him and let him go.” And the unwritten, unspoken question, what grave clothes have tied you up? You see, the name of the game is freedom, but we have a very skewed view of freedom. We think that freedom is going it alone, and that is the way of death. Notice, you see, that it was others who had to unbind Lazarus. He couldn’t do it himself.
You may remember that Gospel story of the friends bringing their sick friend to Jesus and finding the house full. They couldn’t get in, so they broke open the roof and lowered their friend down to Jesus’ feet. There’s a most stunning phrase in the New Testament, “And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man who was sick.” Not his faith, when Jesus saw their faith. Sometimes, you see, my faith is so weak that I’m carried by yours, and God willing visa versa. Of course that goes against all the grain of our culture, because we’re supposed to be self-sufficient and responsible. The mystery is that you can, as it were, stand in my place, and believe for me when I can no longer believe for myself.
This is not welcome news in a culture where our individualism has turned rancid. It’s gone sour. Yet this is how the Gospel works. Sometimes it is only your love that pulls me through when I have nothing going on inside me. It takes others and it takes you playing your part in the drama of the Gospel to take off the suffocating grave clothes robbing us of life. So, we become means of grace for each other. Sometimes you remove my grave clothes; sometimes I remove yours. That’s how the life of true freedom works.
Of course, it’s highly political. Not in a party sense, but it has to do with the battle about what human beings are. What is the nature of humanity? The battles in Congress are battles about the nature of freedom and how we work that out. How are we responsible for each other? How far should we make people be responsible for themselves? God made us for communion, so I beg you, I beg you to take yourselves seriously as means of grace. You can be the place where God happens for someone else. You can be the agent of resurrection by a glance, even by a touch, by a smile, by one word, because we can make or mar one another’s lives. That is why forgiveness is essential and central for the life of freedom. We need help from others to loosen the grave clothes binding us.
So, ask yourself: Where do I feel dead inside? Where do I need raising from my deadness and deadliness? What in me aches for resurrection? It just may be your privilege role to say to a friend caught in addiction or some other cycle of pain or deadness, “Come out. Unbind her and let her go.” And remember the great question at the heart of the story of “The Valley of Dry Bones”: Can these bones live? Yes! So think of those dead and neglected parts of yourself. Where is the spirit probing you bringing dead tissue to life? What wraps you in the shroud of death? What deadly poison makes you turn on yourself and others? These are Lenten questions preparing us for freedom, the great freedom of Easter. So what about freedom?
Well, first, freedom means facing the truth. A friend of mine told me recently that he finally faced up to some of the terrible mistakes he’d made in his life, things that can never be undone. He resolved, after more than 10 years of thinking about it, to tell his now grown-up daughters: Here are the messes I’ve made of my life and I’m sorry. There was relief, laughter, and forgiveness, but above all his honesty contributed to his sense of the dramatic shape of his life. It didn’t change the past, but his active truth-telling changed the way he and his family looked at the past. The truth-telling gave his mistakes and regrets a new and less dominant place in the whole drama. There is something more going on in the world than his little psycho-drama, thank God. There are more important things, like the love of his two daughters. So then he allowed them to unbind him and let him go. That was grace.
Freedom also means stripping off the grave clothes of religion. Some time ago, I was the guest at our local NPR station and I tried to explain something of my journey of faith. It was a bit romantic I admit, the life of faith is a love affair with all the ups and downs of a love affair. You have to work at trying to be and stay in love. But some people found this sort of openness of faith too much to bear, so there were two kinds of comments on the radio show, first from those who want to make religion certain, safe, and unchanging, and then the second from those who want to make religion vicious, hypocritical, and dependably wrong. Do I have to choose? So whatever side we want, we want a story where we come out on top and where someone else is to blame. We can’t help wanting to turn our lives into a story, or a play, in which we always come out looking morally superior. “At least I’m not one of those idiot Christians.” Richard Dawkins has recently said, very articulately, “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.” Then, on the other side, “At least I’m going to heaven while the world is going to hell.”
The grave clothes binding us take many forms, you see. Some of them are religious, and some of them are anti-religious. The grave clothes, for example, of having to be right all the time. Kathryn Schulz new book, Being Wrong, is a case in point. Raymond Tallis begins his marvelous review with these words: “From 1987 until 2006, when I retired, I was professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Manchester. Since about 1948, or thereabouts, when I was a tot in a cot, I have occupied another post. I have been professor of data-lean generalizations at the University of Me.” One more time, all of us are professors of data-lean generalizations at the University of Me. We are wrong a lot of the time, and we don’t know it.
Two psychologists, for example, set up an experiment in a department store in Michigan. They asked people to compare four different varieties of panty hose. But, in fact, they were all the same. Nevertheless, shoppers declared preferences and gave solid, really solid reasons for their choices.
Of course, some errors are not as trivial as that. Some are dangerous. For example, Alan Greenspan’s opposition to financial regulation or Thabo Mbecki’s confidence that he knew the cause of AIDS. Or our medical errors, which result in an annual death rate in the United States equivalent to a full Boeing 747 crashing every three days, killing everybody on board. There’s no shortage of grave clothes to bind us up. Katherine Schultz’s thesis is that our propensity for error goes right through the psyche. “Love is never having to say you’re sorry.” That is so stupid! Love is always having to say you’re sorry, over and over.
We peer into the world through a succession of distorting lenses, and we are most likely to be in error when we are most confident. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Convictions are sometimes greater enemies of truth than lies,” because each of us is a professor of data-lean generalizations at the University of Me, which, by the way, is a tenured position and is a required qualification to enter politics.
Not knowing that we go through life often being wrong is a form of death, a way of being bound up in the grave clothes. The story we tell here in word and sacrament has, at its center, the broken heart of God who brings healing and forgiveness to us, relieving us of the burden of self-justification, of having to fabricate and maintain a story in which we always come out on top and someone else is to blame. We discover that there are more important things than being in the right all the time. In the drama played out here on the altar, you are no longer my potential rival, or even an enemy. You, all of you, without exception, are my neighbors, means of grace, the place where God happens. Love and inclusion, then, are the keys to freedom.
Yet, so many of us endure a living death in a world without grace. The drama of the so-called “real world” is summed up in such phrases as the “early bird catches the worm,” “no pain, no gain,” “there is no such thing as a free lunch,” “demand your rights,” and “you get what you pay for.” I want people to get what they deserve, nothing more, and nothing less. It’s such a dismal way of living in the world, a kind of calculus all the time. This war in Washington, in Congress, I was told, is between those who believe in entitlement and those who believe in opportunity. You can work out the two parts as if you ever think about it. If only it were that simple. The war is more like this, expressed powerfully by John Steinbeck: “It always seemed strange to me that the things we admire in people—kindness, generosity, openness, honesty, understanding, and feeling—are the concomitants of failure in our system. And all those traits we detest—sharpness, greed, inquisitiveness, meanness, egotism, and self-interest—are the traits of success. And while we admire the quality of the first, we love, oh we love, the produce of the second. And therein we’re stuck, longing for the former, enslaved by the latter.” And Jesus weeps, “Lazarus, Peter, Alice, Fred, Pat, come out! Unbind them and set them free.”
I’m told there is an organization in Los Angeles that operates the apology sound-off line. It’s a telephone service that gives callers an opportunity to confess their wrongs for the price of a phone call. People who no longer believe in priests now trust their sins to an answering machine. Two hundred anonymous callers contact the service each day, leaving 60-second messages, and they’re very serious. They are very tender. A recovering alcoholic left the message, “I would like to apologize to all the people I hurt in my 18 years as an addict.” “I just want to say I’m sorry,” sobs a young woman. She says she’s just caused an automobile accident in which five people died. “I wish I could bring them back.” There are all those grave clothes, all that pain, all that endless repetition of a script that’s killing us, and this struggle to forgive ourselves to forgive each other. The poet George Herbert said, “He who cannot forgive another, breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself.” And we seem to be expert at breaking and burning bridges.
Ernest Hemingway told a story about the popularity of the Spanish name Paco. Evidently a father went to Madrid and put an ad in the local paper, “Paco meet me at the Hotel Montana at noon Wednesday, all is forgiven—Papa.” Eight hundred young men showed up, and they had to call in the police to disperse the mob.
Hemingway’s own story was sadly different. His so-called devout parents detested his libertine way of life and wove a shroud of damnation for him. After a time his mother refused to allow him in her presence, and one year, for his birthday, she mailed him a cake along with the gun his father had used to kill himself. Another year she wrote him a letter explaining that a mother’s life was like a bank. Every child that is born to her enters the world with a large and prosperous bank account, seemingly inexhaustible. But the child, she continued, makes withdrawals, but no deposits during all those early years. Later, when the child grows up, it is his responsibility to replenish the supply he has drawn down. Hemingway’s mother than proceeded to spell out all the specific ways in which Ernest should be making deposits to keep the account in good standing: flowers, fruit or candy, a surreptitious paying of mother’s bills, and above all a determination to stop neglecting your duties to God and your Savior Jesus Christ.
Hemingway never got over his hatred for his mother, or for her Savior. Is it any wonder? Those terrible grave clothes. Forgiveness is achingly difficult and a seemingly unnatural act; it seems unfair. But listen to W.H. Auden’s four little lines: “I, and the public, know what all school children learn. Those to whom evil is done do evil in return.” But think of the stories we tell here, the one about a love-sick father who runs to meet his prodigal son, a landlord who cancels a debt too large for any servant to reimburse, an employer who pays 11th hour workers the same as the 1st hour crew, and a banquet giver who goes out in the highways and byways in search of undeserving guests. God shatters the inexorable law of sin and retribution. God says, “Unbind them and let them go.”
So finally, a story: In 1993, the Klu Klux Klan member Henry Alexander made a confession to his wife. In 1957, he and seven other Klansman had pulled a black truck driver from his cab, marched him to a deserted bridge high above a swift river, and made him jump, screaming to his death. It took nearly 20 years to bring Alexander to trial, and he was charged with the crime in 1976. He pleaded innocent, and was acquitted by a white jury. For 36 years, he insisted on his innocence until that day in 1993 when he confessed the truth to his wife. A few days later he died, and his wife wrote a letter of apology to the black man’s widow. I don’t know whether it did any good, but she said, “Henry lived a lie all his life and he made me live it, too.”
That’s the damnable thing. We make others live in the world of our lies. It’s a living death. And we have cultural lies and political lies that undermine our being in communion with each other. So, why all these weeks of Lent? Well, to familiarize us once again with the script of the love story outlined in the Gospel: the drama of healing and forgiveness, of death and resurrection, is acted out in the world by those who follow Jesus. Some of us, many of us, all of us, some of the time make a real hash of it, and God forgives. So, what’s our job? Well, Elizabeth O’Connor puts it well. She tells us our job is “to bless the people who have oppressed our spirits, emotionally deprived us, or in other ways handicapped us.”
This is the most extraordinary work any of us will ever do. And this is your extraordinary work, too. You can be the means of grace for others, agents of resurrection. You can call people out of the tomb, and listen. Others are calling you, too. Unbind her and let her go. Unbind him and let him go.
Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.