A sermon based on Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:1-45 preached April 6th, 2014.
In the movie Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman’s character, “Red” Redding, tells the tale of what it’s like to be a prisoner. When you’re in prison, you see life only when you look up to the sky if ever they let you outside. In almost every other moment, you’re locked up behind bars. The cold steel of your cell is like a sort of death. Whenever you’re confined, whenever the air you breathe is stale and leaves your lungs needing something better, your heart still beats and your mind still moves along, but are you alive?
After years bound up behind bars, Red learns a lot about life mostly because he’s spent so much time experiencing death. Prison will compromise you if you let it. It can destroy you. In fact, prison is meant to destroy you.
They send you here for life, Red says, that’s exactly what they take. The part that counts anyways.
Each and every morning waking up in prison presents Red with a choice “to get busy living or to get busy dying”, he says.
Life is more than just heartbeat and brainwave, it’s also about meaning and purpose, and a lack of meaning and purpose feels a whole lot like death.
In a place like prison, where your body is bound up by thick concrete walls, how do you keep those walls from binding up your mind and heart, too? That’s one of the questions Red asks himself.
How do you find life when everything around you tells you you’re dead? And how do you, how can you, is it even possible to come back to life?
How are we all less than alive? How does our world need to be delivered from death, and what parts of ourselves need to be brought back to life?
Death in our culture occurs everyday and in many different ways. And it doesn’t matter if we live behind iron bars and concrete walls or if life is taken from us in much more subtle ways.
We live in a world that deals death to us every single day. There are so many ways our lives can be taken away from us. There is job loss, hunger, disease. People take from us far more than they give. There is economic disparity, mounting evidence of climate change, and wars that never come to an end.
People are out there, and we are among them, who mourn the loss of meaning and hope. It’s easy to stare out into our country’s future and see nothing but more decay. More suffering. More despondency. Life seems to slip away from us bit by bit.
We live in a culture that deals death to us every day.
Monster movies were popular in the late 20’s after the Great Depression. They emerged in popularity again in the 50’s during the Cold War, and since 9/11, the production of zombie movies has exploded in the U.S.
The TV series The Walking Dead is just the latest chapter of a historical phenomena. As it turns out, the regularity of zombie movies is somewhat a barometer of our own social and economic distress. And since the economic downturn in 2007, zombie-related business is one of the few areas of our economy that is doing well. Just in 2011 alone, all things “zombie” grew to be worth an estimated $5.7 billion.
Rather than just a metaphor for our economic woes, “the walking dead” is also a metaphor for our growing social fears.
Zombies are brain-dead beings. They are people who are really no-people. They are beings whose agency and faculties have been taken from them. All zombies do is wander meaninglessly and mindlessly. They’re the un-savable and disillusioned monsters who roam the landscapes of our towns.
Many say that their popularity is a sign of our collective disillusionment and our growing sense that our world has forgotten about us and has left us behind. I think it’s safe to say that, as a nation, our collective disillusionment is on the rise. And when an entire people feel left behind and forgotten about—when we all get the sense of our increasing lack of meaning and purpose in the world—when we feel like our agency is taken away from us by others, it feels a whole lot like death.
Brian Blount is the President of the Union Presbyterian Seminary, the school I attended, and he recently wrote a book called Invasion of the Dead. He talks about the rise in Zombie popularity too.
In a world like ours, he writes, death is always believable.
He says that we are all the walking dead. We all need to have life breathed back into us. We all need to be shown that there is something stronger than the power of death. This sort of death that has brought about the popularity of zombie culture in our nation is really a loss of meaningfulness and purpose that many in our culture are mourning.
This is a deep kind of loss. We live in a world that ceases to live because it no longer knows how to. It’s a world that has lost its breath and it doesn’t know how or where to regain it—a world that doesn’t know about new life. Our culture has forgotten about the power of resurrection, so instead of dealing in life, it revels in its own dying.
We are a people who have forgotten that coming back to life is possible—that we have a God who calls us out of our tombs, who raises us from our graves not only in the next life but raises us from the many different sorts of graves we find ourselves confined in during this life. We have a God who calls us out of death to live new and reclaimed lives right now.
Jesus calls Lazarus out from the tomb by name. Lazarus hears Jesus speak to him and he follows Jesus’ voice and emerges from death. Through the power and grace of God through Jesus, Lazarus is given life again.
Jesus calls us out of our tombs, out of the dark, confining spaces of our lives—out of our despondency. Jesus rolls away stones and has harsh words to speak to any force that seeks to imprison us, to anything that locks us in and keeps us from experiencing life in its fullest sense.
We are a people who need to hear the same Good News Jesus shared with Martha:
I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never die.
We desperately need to hear the same words Lazarus heard from Jesus,
Emerge from everything that confines you, from everything that locks you in. Death has no power. Death will never claim our lives because we follow the voice of the One who brings us back to life, who revives us and breathes his Spirit into our lungs, and into our hearts. And the kind of life that Jesus resuscitates us with is the kind that never dies—even after our lives are through.
O God, take these dry bones and our worn-out and disillusioned hearts and bring us to life everlasting!
Red gets out of jail after a 60-year sentence, he finds his way back into life on the outside by taking a job bagging groceries at the Foodway. The freedom he has being able to walk down the street, into shops, to take the bus to work. This is all new life.
Tim Robbins’ character, Andy Dufresne, told Red long ago that if ever Red got out of jail, he should make his way out to a field in a nearby town. There’s a tree, there, Andy said. Andy tells Red that there he’ll find a rock—a black volcanic one that has no business being there. After that, Andy tells Red,
Make your way West to the Mexican Pacific and find me there.
Red buys a compass and finds his way to this field. Underneath the tree, he gets on his hands and knees and after a few minutes, he finds the rock and throws it aside. Red finds a tin box buried beneath dirt. Andy had left it for him years back. Red opens the box and finds a letter.
Remember, Red, he reads, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. I will be hoping that this letter finds you, and finds you well. Your friend, Andy.
At the close of the movie Red says,
I find I’m so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it is the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend, and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. But most of all, I hope.
Let us put our hope in God’s ability to bring all of God’s people to new life—to call us out of all the dark places we feel buried in.
May we, like Lazarus, hear Jesus telling us to emerge from those spaces that claim our lives. May we put our hope in the God who raises us up, the God who revives our dry bones, our disillusioned hearts, breathes life into the parts us that know death too well, and sets us free.
May God bring us back to life.
All praises to the One who made it and finds it beautiful. Alleluia! Amen.