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Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130:1-8, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

Maybe I should write about zombies this week.  Zombies seem to be sort of “in” these days.  Some definitions of a zombie:  (1) “a person who moves very slowly and is not aware of what is happening especially because of being very tired”; (2) “a dead person who is able to move because of magic according to some religions and in stories, movies, etc.”  A supernatural power is sometimes involved.  Zombies are associated by some with voodoo from the West Indies, a zombie being defined as “a will-less and speechless human . . . capable only of automatic movement who is held to have died and been supernaturally reanimated.”

Ezekiel takes us to “the middle of a valley . . . full of bones.”  (Ezekiel 37:1)  The people of Israel were in exile, feeling dead as a pile of bones.  God’s challenge is “ . . . can these bones live?” (vs. 3)  The interesting thing is that even after the bones are connected by sinew and covered with skin, “there was no breath in them.”  (vss. 6-8)  Were they zombies of sorts?

There’s more to the story, but for the moment, let’s consider this state of being alive but not living.  It’s there in the Psalms as the Psalmist cries out, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.”  (Psalm 130:1)  He is immobilized as he struggles for a sense of meaning in life.  He knows that God offers forgiveness (vs. 4), but, in the meantime, he waits.  “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning.”  (vss. 5-6)  Does he feel like he’s sort of in a state of suspended animation, zombie-like?

Much of scripture seems to depict a situation in which people can be alive but not living.  In this week’s passage from Romans, Paul contrasts death and being animated by the “Spirit.”  It’s almost a description of the soulless existence of a zombie.  “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace . . . you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you . . . if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”  (Romans 8:6, 9-10)  Although the final verse of the reading may be seen as pointing beyond this “mortal” life (vs. 11), Paul, in general, seems to be talking about a quality of life in this realm.  This is not just a call to live in anticipation of physical resurrection.  It is a call to live a life guided and infused by an empowering and meaning-giving Spirit.  In scripture, to be alive is more than to just walk around going through the motions.   

The power of God at work is the essence of life, whether it be called “Spirit,” or defines Jesus, who in our reading from the Gospel According to John says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  (John 11:25)  Notice the recurrence of the word “life” in several others of Jesus’ “I Am” statements in John’s Gospel.  “I am the bread of life.”  (John 6:35)  “I am the light of the world; he who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”  (John 8:12)  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through me.” (John 14:6)  We might also note that, in John 4:7-45, Jesus talks with the Samaritan woman at the well about “living water.”

We could talk at length about the structure of the Gospel According to John and its use of metaphors to communicate the significance of Jesus; it is sufficient for now that we be reminded that there is something more to life than physical existence.  The story itself is about Jesus calling Lazarus out from the grave, so that “the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth,” and people are told, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  (John 11:43-44)  Or is it really about the physical resurrection of Lazarus or more about Jesus as one who inspires and empowers life that is more than going through the motions?

Whatever final significance we give the story, it is true that there have been human beings, in every generation, who have known the empty feeling of just going through the motions.  T.S. Eliot wrote eloquently of it in “The Hollow Men.”  We talked at breakfast this morning about some of the things that get us down.  Such conversation can put us on the edge of depression, and, before the breakfast was over, we were ready to talk about hope.  If you want to really get depressed, read the T.S. Eliot poem, which ends with a whimper: “This is the way the world ends.  This is the way the world ends.  This is the way the world ends.  Not with a bang but with a whimper.”  At the beginning of the poem we find the lines that struck me deeply, when in college, in its description of the way many go through life, in sort of a zombie-like state.  “We are the hollow me.  We are the stuffed men leaning together headpiece filled with straw.  Alas!  Our dried voices, when we whisper together are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass or rats’ feet over broken glass in our dry cellar.”  It’s interesting that, just before the whimpering end, he interweaves contrasting states with a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer (“For Thine is the Kingdom”) and the short sentence, “Life is very long.”  “Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, falls the shadow.  Between the conception and the creation, between the emotion and the response falls the shadow, between the desire and the spasm, between the potency and the existence, between the essence and the descent, falls the shadow.”  The last words before the end are “for thine is the life, life is, for thine is.

What do we make of life in the midst of such a dismal description?  I wonder if the popularity of zombies these days is not somehow related to a feeling by many that we are just going through the motions seemingly unable to make much of a difference.  That seemed to be what got us all down the most this morning---the feeling that the world seems to be spinning out of our control, whether we’re considering politics or the environment, tribal conflict, etc., and we feel almost helpless in our efforts to bring about constructive solutions.

I don’t have any easy answers.  The discussion often came back to how frustrating it can be to have to live with some of our questions unanswered, how to live in mystery and hope.  Even Mary and Martha were unhappy that Jesus didn’t respond sooner.  (John 11:21 & 32)  Surely if Jesus would just come to our rescue everything would be all right. 

There’s much discussion in the lengthy gospel reading about illness and being asleep and dying, about resurrection in the future---and now, not to mention the fact that Bethany was a dangerous place for Jesus and his disciples to go. (vss. 3-4, 7-8, 11-14, 23-26) There’s much human emotion, including the observation that “Jesus began to weep.”  (vs. 35)  Neither this story nor any of our texts this week seem to leave us with much but mystery, but they hold the promise that there is more to life than going through the motions.

“I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live . . .”  (Ezekiel 37:14)  “But there is forgiveness with you . . .”  (Psalm 130:4)  “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”  (Romans 8:11)

Again and again we catch a glimpse of those who demonstrate that the powers of death are unable to overcome.  We talked about people like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela.  We, on occasion, feel those powers stirring within us.  We see more than, at first glance, seems to be there.  At the end of all the talk may we be among those at the end of the story of Lazarus who believe in and act in concert with the powerful mystery that, from time to time, lifts us to the point that we transcend going through the motions. tal 


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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