First Presbyterian of Lafayette, LouisianaEzekiel 37:1-14
April 10, 2011 – Lent 5 (A)
April 10, 2011 – Lent 5 (A)
The valley of the dry bones is a favorite story of mine. I can't tell you how or when I first heard the story, but I have always thought of it as an incredible image – these bones becoming people. Modern special effects in film and media have really made it interesting, perhaps even grotesque, to imagine. Unfortunately, those same special effects have combined with an over active imagination to produce a vision of a village of undead people, or as some would call them – Zombies!
Although I'll take the blame for telling you that I have these thoughts, I don't think it is because I am simply sick and twisted. Zombies have been around for centuries, and they are found in the literature of almost every culture. Western civilization, particularly in the last ten years or so, has produced an entire genre of film and literature related to the idea of the living dead.
In fact there is a tremendous amount of internet trash devoted to making parodies between Christians and Zombies, based on the idea that a Zombie is a mindless, lifelike creature driven with a singular intention – feeding on the life force of others. Even worse, they infect those they attack. Of course it is easy to hear that and say that the Christian Zombie critique is meant for fundamentalists who expect others to think, feel, and believe exactly as they do. That is probably true, but I think there is something more to the Christian Zombie critique that all of us may benefit from.
Zombies in popular culture have represented anything from consumerism to class struggles and from civil war to the failure to confront injustice. They are the demonized other that we cannot control. They are the presence of death and the perceived absence of God. They are even the darker side of our conscience and a reflection of the sin that abides even in forgiven Christians. The simplest form of the Christian Zombie critique is found in Paul's letter to the church in Rome, as we received it today. "To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace."
We are made of flesh – housed in earthly bodies. It takes a great amount of effort not to be concerned with food, clothing, and shelter. It takes even more effort not to be consumed by the things we consume – and that is what turns us into Zombies. The more we do things the same way we always have done them without stopping to ask why, the more we are becoming like the living dead – moving through life but not really living.
Of course it is not just our choices that lull us into a singularly focused stupor. The real terror of the Zombie myth is the idea that it is contagious. There are things that are done to us that put us in a position of defense and back us into a corner. Sometimes it is a big thing – a job loss, the death of a spouse, a fender bender that totals your car. Sometimes it is the some total of little things. Either way, they leave us feeling like Mary and Martha – saying, "If only you had been here, Lord. Surely you would have done something."
There are a few things that I find particularly interesting about this part of our story. First is that Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazerus. Over and over the text tells us he loved them. Jesus even weeps for them. Yet at the same time he tells the disciples the illness is for God's glory. They knew the road back was dangerous. They had seen him heal long distance through his command. Surely his decision was to do the same here. That made the most sense. It was also the most comfortable decision for them. Of course that is what he meant – the powers of the earth could never touch them! It is funny how overly confident Zombies, I mean disciples, can be some times.
Yet after two days Jesus tells them it is time to go. Notice that it is Thomas – the one remembered only for his doubts – who accepted the command to go, even with the distinct possibility that it was a death sentence (this is very un-zombie like). Then Jesus went to be with those he loved during their time of need, even waiting until their need was at its greatest! And they say, "Where were you?" And he says, "Don't you get it? I am the life, and the resurrection." And he weeps for them. Jesus weeps for their tears. Jesus weeps for their lack of understanding. Jesus weeps because they have been reduced to a flesh born sense of hope, and they are disappointed. Then he demonstrates the hope that is born from above by calling, "Lazarus, come out!" and Lazarus emerges in the form of walking death that myth and legend hold dear – a mummified body wrapped in strips of cloth to hide the decay within. And Jesus says, "Unbind him, let him go."
Now, I have to say – as I have said before and will again – healing narratives trouble me, and resurrection narratives are the extreme version of these stories. As an adult, the valley of the dry bones has become as much of a puzzle as it has been a comfort. For some reason it never occurred to me as a child that the valley of the dry bones is not a real valley. It is a vision – a metaphor.
As an adult, it troubles me to have a prophecy of restoration when the restoration did not really happen. But then again, maybe I am expecting too much of the text. It is funny how we tend to expect the scriptures to function literally when our needs are not getting met – a very Zombie-like quality. Maybe the prophecy was not fulfilled with graves cracking open and dead people crawling out – but who can deny that Israel was restored? Some may challenge their right to exist as a nation, but the ethnic and social reality of the people of Israel has never truly depended on land as much as it has on their identity as God's chosen people. We, too, are God's chosen ones, holy and beloved. Restoration, new life, a sense of hope and peace – that is the hope that is offered to us today, even in the midst of pain, suffering, and loss.
I know this because Martha told me so. Not Martha from the Bible, but Martha who is my sister in Christ and a pastor of a small church. I'm talking about Martha, whom I love and respect. When talking with some other friends about a recent tragedy in another small church she said, "If I may be so bold as to offer my input as a pastor who has officiated four funerals in the past four weeks and just heard this morning that another is imminent - don't allow the sadness and darkness to consume you or the congregation. Times like these allow us to feel the full effect of the power of hope in the resurrection. I have told my congregation that the fact that they sing and praise and feast in the face of death is a bold proclamation of the sure and certain hope we have been given. I love the liturgy used across denominations that says, "Even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia! Amen."
So here we are – poised like a runner to come from the side of the grave and sprint toward the palms, the passion, and the cross of Christ. Let us be sure then that we are not running like children after eggs. Let us be sure then that we are not unwilling to look at the ugliness of the cross and the grave. Let us be sure then that we are placing our hope, our trust, and our faith in the Spirit of God - for only then can we be transformed. Only then can the world around us be transformed. Only then can we live as citizens in the Kingdom of God that is both here among us and yet to be realized!
You know, I caught a glimpse of it yesterday. There were faithful members here working all day. They were taking care of the property, handing out Easter baskets, and providing hospitality to strangers and old friends. They worked with members of other congregations and people with no church home at all. There were children, youth, college students, young adults, middle-aged adults, and older adults gathering in fellowship together. There were people with differing lifestyles and political views that joined together to experience the peace of Christ's presence. I don't think there was a Zombie within miles, and if there were they would have either been cured or repelled by the forcefulness of the love that pulsed through God's house all day yesterday.
In fact, I think if these walls could talk they would be saying, "Thank you! Oh, thank you. Thanks be to God! This – this is what I was made for." Now here's the tricky part. A building can't talk, but you can. The church building cannot be the only place that the Kingdom is demonstrated, or else the Kingdom is limited to our designs and architecture. God's Kingdom, if we are to live in it, has to be demonstrated outside of this building. Otherwise, we might as well be Zombies that are focused on matters of the flesh.
Certainly, we must come here and be drawn together in the Spirit's tether. Certainly, we will find strength, meaning, and purpose through our common union in this place. Certainly, God has called us, formed us, and made us so that we may explore, experience, and proclaim the goodness of God throughout all the land. And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen!