It is a great pleasure to be with you at St. Alban’s this morning. I have known Susan for probably thirty years, and I’ve tried never to hold it against her that she did so much a better job at St. Aidan’s in Malibu than I did as her predecessor there. She is a great priest and a good friend and colleague and I’m grateful for her invitation to help out here from time to time.
I’m also grateful to St. Alban’s parish for the hospitality it showed me when I was in graduate school across the street in the 1980s. In perhaps one of the greatest acts of ecclesiastical generosity ever known, Norm Ishizaki let me park in your lot for free during the summers when I didn’t have a parking pass. As I later learned when studying church growth with no less than the late Robert Schuller, there is nothing in the church more important than parking. There’s certainly nothing at UCLA more important than parking. So I owe both Susan and you all a debt of thanks.
Today’s scripture readings present two of the most startling visual images in all literature, certainly in all scripture. The prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 37: 1-14) describes Israel as a valley of dry bones being reassembled and breathed back into life. John’s gospel (John 11: 1-45) portrays the risen Lazarus as one who “came out [of the tomb], his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.” Each of these images serves to tell us something about the experience of being brought back from death to life. And the death here not just literary death. Israel’s bones and Lazarus are not figuratively dead. They are literally dead. And yet with God and Jesus they live.
I have been a priest for over 40 years now, and I have spent about half of that time in parishes and half of it teaching. Whenever I encounter such startling images of death and renewal as those in today’s scriptures, I always recall another equally compelling moment, this one not in the Bible but in Shakespeare. It’s in the fifth act of Shakespeare’s late play The Winter’s Tale—a play I taught in a seminary class for several years on the theology of Shakespeare’s late plays--and it depicts the statue of a dead woman coming, on stage in front of us, to life.
If you’re not familiar with The Winter’s Tale, let’s just say that it is neither a comedy (though it plays like one) nor a tragedy (though it feels like one) but a romance—a genre somewhere in between the two. It concerns a king named Leontes who becomes so insanely jealous of his wife Hermione that his violent and erratic behavior leads to the death of their son, the loss of their daughter, and the death of Hermione herself. This is a play in which people do unspeakably bad things to each other, and those actions have tragic—or near tragic—consequences.
The great final scene in The Winter’s Tale reads on the page like it would never work yet never fails to move me when I see in on the stage. The artist Paulina brings Leontes to see a statue of his dead wife and, miraculously, the statue gradually comes to life. In the climactic moment, the artist tells Hermione,
Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him Dear life redeems you.
And over the course of several minutes the dead statue becomes a living woman. But the miracle of this new life, surprisingly, has less to do with resurrection than with what happens next: the formerly dead Hermione and her husband Leontes become reconciled. He repents and she forgives. The end of the play brings not only life; it brings repentance and forgiveness—real forgiveness for real wrongs enacted—and with it the possibility of a new community built now, in W.H. Auden’s words, “on trust instead of threats.”
It is, as I say, one of the most powerful moments I have ever seen on a stage. You wouldn’t think it would work but in fact it does. Like Israel’s bones or Lazarus’s body, Hermione’s resurrection both startles and satisfies. In her new life Hermione brings forgiveness to a man who desperately needs it and then, as it can only in Shakespeare, healing spreads around all over the place.
It doesn't erase the pain or guilt for the wrongs done, but it does make possible moving forward together into a new future.
A family, a community, and a nation are given back to themselves. For Shakespeare, as for us, new life involves more than revivification. New life brings restoration to a set of relationships, to a community, based now on forgiveness and renewal. A set of relationships now based on trust instead of threats.
The experience of reading this play in my seminary class was transformative. As in any intense community, the seminary I served was rife with rivalries and resentments. Our shared engagement with The Winter’s Tale gave us a frame of reference in which we could together think about how we can live together in a real world where real wounds do actual damage to flesh and blood people.
Working in churches and schools can be intensely interpersonal. I was once in an extremely tense faculty conversation where I was trying to help resolve a dispute between two colleagues that had become totally unmanageable. One of them believed that she had been offended and disrespected by the other, and though the other had apologized several times, the one offended would not let go. In the middle of this back and forth rehearsal of grudges, the second turned to the first and said, “You know, I believe you have made a shrine of your wound.” It was such a startling remark that it opened the logjam of our conversation and allowed us to move forward to a new way of being with each other. I have never forgotten it.
“You have made a shrine of your wound.” I can’t speak for you, but I know that there are many times in my life where I have made not only a shrine of my wounds. I’ve built a temple for them and regularly worshipped at them and then checked and re-checked to make sure that my grievances were maintained in top working order. But the invitation to new life—be it breathing life into dry bones or unwrapping the bandages and freeing a corpse—this invitation comes with another one: the possibility of letting go of rivalries and resentments, of taking down the shrines we have made of our wounds.
To say that new life entails the willingness to repent, forgive, and be reconciled is not to diminish the real pain we can feel in our personal, corporate, even national lives. As in Shakespeare and the Bible, so in life: we human beings can do real damage to ourselves and each other. We want so much to be healed of our grievances and our wounds. We want what Israel and Lazarus’s sisters wanted: we want new life, a second chance, a new beginning. These things are all given us in our scriptures this morning. And yet it seems to be true that we can only be open to this life as we are willing and ready both to repent and forgive.
Just as all people can make a shrine of our wounds, so we Christians can make a shrine of Lent. We can become so enamored of the self-denial we’ve chosen that we can forget that we give up or take on these things not in the service of Lent but in the service of Easter. Lent is not about Lent. It is about Easter. It is a season that helps us clear the decks not only of our distractions but also of our grudges and our resentments and so opens us up to take in the power and beauty of the new life on offer at Easter.
As with Israel’s bones and Lazarus, so with you and me: the new life we hope for and crave is available to us now. And as Shakespeare reminds us, our ability to grasp this life is mysteriously tied to our ability to come together in repentance and forgiveness and let our wounds and resentments go.
When Jesus first heard of Lazarus’s illness, he announced that it was for God’s glory, and he prayed that God might be glorified through Lazarus’s return to life. And so with us. As you and I continue to walk together through Lent toward Easter, may we all come to see our struggles as vehicles for God’s glory--so that through our mutual sorrow and forgiveness, we and the world may dismantle the shrines we have built to our wounds and so feel our dry bones live, our bandages unbound, and our relationships one with another blossom into new and risen life. Amen.