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To Rise Again

  • March 29, 2020
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for 29 March 2020 (Lent 5 Year A)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Ezekiel 37.1-14, John 11.17-27 – MORNING PRAYER ONLY

Title:               To Rise Again

“And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37.13-14).

My friends, this is our last regular Sunday in the season of Lent – even if it does not feel quite like a regular Sunday!

But next Sunday is Palm Sunday. And you can tell that these readings, appointed in the Lectionary, are intended to prepare us for the quickly approaching feast of the Resurrection. It will be here before you know it.

Both of these lessons are words of hope brought to people who are in pain, who are struggling with the reality of loss. Ezekiel speaks to the people of Israel as they are in exile – their homes and livelihoods destroyed, many of their friends and relatives killed, their hopes and dreams shattered.

Even though all of this has happened, God has not abandoned them. There is hope.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus finally arrives at the home of his friends … but he is late. Lazarus has already been dead for four days. His sisters are at home in mourning, greeting those who arrive to offer condolences. But Jesus arrives with a different agenda. He comes to change their entire way of thinking about life and death.

“I am Resurrection and I am Life,” says the Lord (The Book of Common Prayer p.491).

In Christ, connected to this One who is Life Incarnate, there is no longer a reason to be afraid of death.

Have you ever heard of the quarantine of Eyam (pronounced Eeme) in England?

I came across this story a few months ago, and I knew right away that I needed to save it for future use. But I had no idea that quarantine would soon become part of our everyday vocabulary.

Eyam is a small village in Derbyshire that was severely affected by the Great Plague of 1665, even though the most serious impacts were in London where the population density was highest. Over 100,000 people in Great Britain died during this particular outbreak of the bubonic plague.

In 1665, the village had a population of about 350 people. The most influential person in the village was the parish rector – the Rev. William Mompesson.

In August of 1665, the village tailor received a parcel of cloth from his supplier in London to make clothes for an upcoming festival. But this parcel contained a few of the fleas that carried the deadly bacteria. Sadly, that tailor was dead from the plague within one week of receiving his parcel.

By the end of September, five more villagers had died. Twenty three died in October. Some of the villagers began to speak of fleeing to the nearby city of Sheffield.

But the parish rector understood the risk. He began an effort to persuade all of the villagers NOT to flee and NOT to travel, as he feared that they would spread the plague into the north of England which had more or less escaped the worst of it.

There was one major problem: the parishioners despised Mompesson. You see, the English Civil War finally came to an end in 1660 – just five years earlier. The villagers and the previous rector were supporters of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan government in Parliament. That rector, Thomas Stanley, refused to comply with the Act of Uniformity which required all parishes to use the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (which, by the way, remains even today as the official Prayer Book of the UK).

So the Crown exiled Rev. Stanley to a house on the edge of the village and a new monarchy-supporting rector was installed in his place. As you can imagine, the villagers deeply resented this and they did not trust the new rector, Rev. Mompesson.

After a lull in new infections during the winter months, Eyam was hard hit by the plague as spring returned in 1666. They had unusually hot weather which allowed the fleas to be active and to spread. By August, five or six people died every single day in the village – remember, a village of only 350 people when this began!

In the spring, as the plague spread quickly, Mompesson called a meeting to discuss his proposal to keep the plague from spreading to other communities by voluntarily quarantining the entire village to contain the infection.

Now, the only way to get the villagers to agree was to secure the clear support of the exiled previous rector, Rev. Stanley. Thankfully, Stanley agreed to participate in persuading the parishioners that sacrificing themselves was the correct and loving thing to do, that it was in fact what God was calling them to do.

Eventually, the villagers agreed. Voluntarily, without any external pressure, they cut themselves off completely from the outside would for several months. They agreed to this quarantine even though it meant certain death for many of them.

The rector Mompesson promised to do all in his power to alleviate their suffering, as he agreed to stay with them – no matter what.

Thankfully, the village was supplied with food by those who lived outside the quarantine. People from neighboring parishes brought supplies and left them at the stones that marked the edge of the parish of Eyam. In this way, at least the people of Eyam did not also suffer from hunger and malnutrition.

The rector held services outdoors to reduce the chances of spreading the disease, as a form of social distancing. Sadly, Mompesson had to bury his own wife and their daughter in the churchyard of Eyam. His wife Catherine died in August of that year at age 27. Through his resilience, compassion and courage, he earned the begrudging respect of his parishioners.

The quarantine around the parish was voluntary, but it was maintained, and it worked. By November of 1666, the plague wound down and came to an end. Sadly, 260 out of 350 people had died in the village – 75% of the population!

Painful and horrible, like a terrible hell of earth, was life in the village of Eyam over those 16 months. But the voluntary sacrifice of Eyam most certainly saved many thousands of lives throughout the north of England. Most of the large cities in the north of England were spared the worst of the plague – thanks to the loving sacrifice of these simple people.

Rev. Mompesson was one who survived. I wonder what he preached and taught his people during that time – but I have not been able to find any record of his sermons.

In November of 1666, at the end of his parish’s ordeal, he wrote these words:

“Now, blessed be God, all our fears are over, for none have died of the plague since the eleventh of October and the pest-houses have long been empty.”

Even after all of that pain and suffering, he continued to bless the Lord. Because God had never left them nor abandoned them.

Standing near the grave of Lazarus, Jesus said to Martha “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?”

The people of Eyam knew these words. They knew the voluntary sacrifice that Christ had made on their behalf.

They knew that they too were being called to walk in the way of the Cross, which is the way of sacrifice, the way of love for the sake of the other.

Laying down your own will for the well-being and wholeness of another, who may not ever even recognize or know or appreciate the sacrifice that you made. But it makes no difference! Because love does not need recognition or appreciation.

In Christ, WE are able to give and sacrifice in love, because we know that God has overcome death. We know that God raised Christ, and will raise us also, when we live and move and have our being in him.

One more thing: in just a minute, we will pray the Collect appointed for this Fifth Sunday in Lent. This is an ancient prayer, but one that was modified into its current form in that 1662 Book of Common Prayer after the English Civil War – the Prayer Book which Rev. Stanley in Eyam refused to use, and which Rev. Mompesson came to represent.

It is a remarkable old prayer.

“Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and [to] desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of [this] world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found” (The Book of Common Prayer p.219).

True joys are found when we learn to love in the same way that God loves, even when that means we must sacrifice for the good of others. If we can do that with trust in the goodness of God, then it is certain that we too will rise again – with Christ. Amen.

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