Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent
Ezekial 37:12-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45
26 March 2023
In today’s gospel from John, we hear the story of the raising of Lazarus. The master story teller John is wanting us to draw comparisons with the ultimate resurrection of Jesus. Lazarus lay sick and dying. His sisters Martha and Mary were waiting for Jesus to come. There was a lot of anxious waiting. Jesus did not appear. Lazarus died and was buried. He had been lying in the tomb for four days. There was a dreadful odour. Then, and only then, Jesus decided to come. Jesus wept. That’s the shortest verse in the gospels: ‘Jesus wept.’
Jesus comes to the tomb and says to those around him: ‘Take away the stone.’ So they took away the stone. Jesus then ‘cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”’
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Compare this with the scene at Jesus’ own tomb. When Mary of Magdala comes to the tomb, she sees that the stone has already been moved, suspecting that strangers have removed the body. The moved stone is an ambiguous sign. She is upset, disturbed. She runs to Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved. So, they then run back to the tomb. The other disciple gets there first, looks in, sees the cloths on the ground but does not go in. The cloths on the ground are not themselves a sure sign of anything. Mary of Magdala has been given a glimmer of Easter possibility on the first sighting; the other disciple has been given an Easter clue on this second sighting. Then Simon Peter goes right into the tomb. At this third sighting, he sees the Easter sign – the cloth which had been over Jesus’ head. This cloth is not with the other cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. A thief wouldn’t do that. The body has not been stolen. It’s unlikely that a thief had rolled back the stone. Unlike Lazarus who was raised having to be unbound by others, Jesus is raised with no human assistance, having rolled back the stone and having placed the face cloth to the side.
Jesus, the one who is to rise to new life, is the one who calls Lazarus to life in today’s gospel. He tells others to unwrap the body cloths and it is noted that Lazarus’ face was wrapped in a body cloth. It’s the wrapped body cloth which will provide us with the sign of Jesus’ resurrection.
Jesus, the one who is our ultimate hope, calls us out of the darkness of the tomb: ‘Come out!’ And he commissions us to set each other free. ‘Untie them and let them go free.’
On Thursday, we witnessed the press conference of the prime minister, his ministers and a group of Aboriginal leaders announcing the proposed words for insertion into the Australian Constitution. There were many tears. There had been a lot of waiting. There had been centuries of suffering. So many of us were hoping this might be a day of celebration, a day of unity, a day of certainty: ‘Come out, Australia! Untie the bonds of history. Let us walk free.’
Mr Albanese announced: ‘After many months of careful consideration on the draft form of words that I presented at Garma last July, the Referendum Working Group and the Government have agreed on the provisions that all Australians will vote on in this year’s Referendum.’ He told us what the amendment will be.
He told us that the government will establish ‘a Joint Parliamentary Committee which will have time to consider any submissions which are made, and then we will put that to a vote in June’. When asked if he was ‘open to any alterations through the parliamentary process in terms of the debate that occurs’, he answered: ‘Of course it can be altered. We have a Parliamentary process. Of course, it can be altered, people can have the numbers to alter it. I’ve said though, very clearly and unequivocally that this is the Government’s position, we’ve arrived at it on the basis of the consultation process with the Referendum Working Group.’
As a nation, we have not yet reached the stage where such an announcement can bring universal acclaim that we have all been set free, that we have been unbound from the cloths of a troubled history. To get to constitutional change, process matters, and words matter. To date the process has not been inclusive of all Australians. There has not been the usual constitutional convention or parliamentary committee process. There has not been the usual exchanges between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. And the words are still contested. The blame for this lies on both sides, and it is not the preacher’s role to apportion the blame.
We are still at the stage of Lazarus lying in the tomb. We are still at the stage of Martha and Mary waiting, waiting and waiting. We are still at the stage of Jesus weeping.
Minister Linda Burney said: ‘Constitutional recognition should be above politics.’ At this point we can only hope and pray that she is right when she says: ‘Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution will be a simple, but powerful act. It will move Australia forward for everyone. It will give all Australians the chance to come together to recognise and celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and story. It will give our people a say in the matters that affect us so we can make better policies.’
Senator Patrick Dodson, the Father of Reconciliation and the Special Envoy for Reconciliation and the Implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, said: ‘The words that ring in my head from the Uluru Statement is the tyranny of our dispossession. And today is a clear example where the Government and the Aboriginal leadership here have laid the foundation to actually give hope. To give hope to the reversing of that tyranny.’
Some of the tears on the platform were being shed because everyone was aware that the respected Yolgnu leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu was in palliative care back on his country after all medical interventions had failed. Marcia Langton said that Galarrwuy ‘taught me many years ago that you know when you’re being told the truth, because the truth burns.’
Over the next couple of months, we all have the very limited opportunity to put forward our views to the parliamentary committee seeing if the proposed words can be improved. We all need to be respectful of each other, remembering that there are three groups of voters when it comes to this referendum. There are those who will vote ‘Yes’ regardless of the final form of words put forward for approval and regardless of how much detail has been provided as to how the Voice will actually make a difference to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. There are those who will vote ‘No’ regardless of what anyone says and regardless of whatever guarantees are proffered. There are those who are undecided. Some of them are very considered voters, anxious about the need for an inclusive political process, wary about legal ambiguity, and wanting the best for the First Australians and for the nation. It’s only the third group whose vote is in the balance. They are probably the group who will decide the fate of the referendum. Let’s pray especially for them and for those providing advice and counsel. Let’s pray that by year’s end we can be unbound from the ties of a traumatic past and that we can walk free.
With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD;
LORD, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to my voice in supplication.
R. With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.
If you, O LORD, mark iniquities,
LORD, who can stand?
But with you is forgiveness,
that you may be revered.
R. With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.
 ‘Referendum to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice’, Transcript of Media Conference, 23 March 2023, Canberra, with Prime Minister, Minister for Indigenous Australians, Attorney-General, Special Envoy for Reconciliation and the Implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, available at https://www.pm.gov.au/media/press-conference-parliament-house