Morning Worship: Jones: Don’t sell yourself short as an agent of new life

We are the means of grace for each other and I beg you to take yourself seriously as a means of grace,” said the Very Rev. Alan Jones during his sermon, “Can These Bones Live?” at the 9:15 a.m. morning worship service Wednesday.  “You could be the agent of resurrection for someone else. That is why forgiveness is built into life — we need help to loosen the grave clothes.”

His selected Scripture texts were Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:1-45.

Jones called these excerpts two good stories — the raising of Lazarus and the Valley of the Dry Bones, because they are a reminder that we need new life, we need to get rid of the smell of death around us. 

“Lazarus’ death was real enough. And who among us is really alive?” he said. “What about the living dead among us? Jesus called Lazarus out and told those around to unbind him. It is my great comfort that others had to unbind him. 

“My favorite miracle is the story of the man whose friends lower him through the roof. Jesus saw the friends’ faith and told the man his sins were forgiven. Only your love pulls me through when I am as good as dead.”

In the Valley of the Dry Bones, the bones of the army of the dead are knit together miraculously, but they have no life until the Spirit is breathed into them. 

“There are dead and neglected parts of ourselves that the Spirit is bringing to life,” Jones said. “What deadly poison makes you turn on yourself? At the center of this new life is God’s passion for us and our passion for God, a double drama. At the center of this new life is the wild freedom of forgiveness. Everyone has a place [in the drama]. Don’t sell yourself short as an agent of new life.”

Jones said that, if people had reached his age and did not have things to regret, then they had lived a very dull life.  

He told a story of a father, burdened by his mistakes, who asked forgiveness from his daughters. “He said, ‘I’m sorry.’ It did not change the past but it changed the way he looked at the past. His life had a resurrection and the pain was in a more useful place.”

Jones appeared on a local public radio station to share his faith journey. 

“Radical openness was too much for some to bear,” he said. “I could not please those who want religion to be a safe, comfortable place and I could not please those who are anti-religion. We want a story where we come out on top and someone else is to blame.”

He said that at the center of the Christian story is “the broken heart of God, which relieves us of our self-justification and the need to come out on top. God helps us remove the grave clothes. We carry so much deadly stuff that needs to die. When that happens, you are no longer my enemy or rival but you are a neighbor, a means of grace.

“So many people endure living in a world without grace,” Jones continued. “Yet the heart of our story is the power of the Spirit in the dry bones. Grace means that nothing can make God love us any more or any less. We need forgiveness but forgiving others is part of the deal.”

Jones quoted the poet George Herbert who said that “he who can’t forgive the other breaks the bridge over which he must pass.”

“Not only do we carry our own brokenness, there are ‘cruel scripts’ that others assign to us,” he said.

Jones then spoke of Ernest Hemingway’s rejection by his parents. According to urban legend, Hemingway’s mother once sent him a birthday cake and the gun his father used to kill himself. Jones said that Hemingway never recovered from this rejection. 

“Forgiveness is the only way out of this cycle of retribution,” he said. “Forgiveness is a frail rope bridge, it is the Spirit breathing life into the dry bones, it is the healing of the wound of betrayal that does not easily fade away. The Gospel is the drama of God who takes the initiative and shatters the laws of retribution.

To conclude his sermon, Jones talked about removing the grave clothes of guilt. In the 1950s, Ku Klux Klan member Henry Alexander took a black man out of his truck and, with others, forced the man to jump off a bridge to his death. Alexander was tried for the crime in 1976, where claimed to be innocent and was ultimately found not guilty by an all-white jury. 

In 1993, he confessed to his wife that he had killed the man. 

“I don’t know how to pray,” he said. Alexander died a few weeks later. 

His wife then wrote an open letter to the black man’s widow, in which she said,  “He lived a lie and made me live it, too.”

Jones also told the story of George Wilson, whose daughter was killed by an IRA bomb in Northern Ireland in 1987. 

“Her last words to her father were ‘Daddy, I love you very much.’ Wilson bore no grudge and said that bitter words would not bring her back,” he said, and then cited that Wilson worked for peace until he died in 1995.

“What is our job? Elizabeth O’Connor said it is to bless those who handicap us,” Jones said. “Jesus is calling us out, saying to those around us ‘unbind him, unbind her, let them go, they have a life to live and work to do.’ We find the means of grace where the Spirit meets the bone. Allow the love and grace of God to raise you from the dead.”

The Rev. James Hubbard presided. 

The Rev. Paul Kudrav, who serves as a deacon at Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, read the Scripture. He is part of the new clergy program this week.

“Dry Bones,” a traditional spiritual, was the anthem by the Motet Choir with the congregation joining in the chorus. Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship coordinator, directed the choir. 

The Robert D. Campbell Chaplaincy support’s this week’s services.