It seems like zombies are all the rage these days. You know: the undead, the walking dead the soulless corpses brought back to life, often to dine on human flesh. Ever since W. B. Seabrook introduced zombies to the American public in 1929 with his book “The Magic Island,” and Bela Lugosi starred in the movie “White Zombie” in 1932, zombies have become a booming business. There have been loads of books, TV shows, and movies about zombies. According to Google statistics, a zombie was the 16th most popular Halloween costume this year. (We saw a few at our Halloween marshmallow roast.) The Village sponsored a “Zombie Prom,” which 73 people attended. For the past couple years, the bars and restaurants near downtown Toledo where my husband’s office is located have hosted a “Zombie Crawl.” Last year 18,000 zombies attended. This year they were prepared to serve 20,000. That’s a lot of zombies.
I think it’ safe to say that most of those zombie fans with their gruesome costumes probably don’t have any idea of the truly gruesome origins of zombies. The idea of zombies grew out of the religion of West African slaves in what is now called Haiti. Slaves on the sugar plantations were treated so brutally, that they rarely survived more than two or three years. The slave’s only hope was that in death, they would return to lan guinée—which literally means Guinea, or West Africa. Today, the phrase still means “heaven” in the Creole language.
Unfortunately, there was a god who served as a gatekeeper to lan guinée, and if you had somehow offended him, you could be barred from returning. Then your fate would be to exist as a slave forever. Later, it was believed that the person who reanimated a dead body would be its master. You’d be dead, but your body would be eternally enslaved to some other lucky mortal. It was a slave’s worst nightmare.
If you weren’t a Christian, you might think that the story of Lazarus is a zombie story. A man dies. He’s buried. He’s in a tomb for four days, long enough for his body to start showing obvious signs of decomposition. But then another man comes along, a man who was known to have mysterious powers. The man prays, and then he shouts into the dark, smelly tomb, “Lazarus, come out!” And out comes Lazarus, hobbling on his bound feet, hands tightly bound by his side, unable to see through the cloth covering his face. Sounds like the start of a good zombie story to me!
But there is an enormous difference between what happened to Lazarus and what was believed to happen to zombies. Zombies faced eternal death and slavery. Lazarus was raised to the promise of an eternal life of freedom.
We hardly know anything about Lazarus. We meet him for the first time in this story. There’s another Lazarus story in Luke, but that’s a different Lazarus—a poor, sick man who lay outside a rich man’s gate. We do know that our Lazarus was Mary’s and Martha’s brother and Jesus’ friend. After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead—six days before that fateful Passover weekend when Jesus himself would die and be raised again—Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner party for Jesus. Lazarus had become something of a celebrity, and when the crowds heard that Jesus was at his house, they flocked there to get a look both him and Jesus. Many people were coming to believe in Jesus because of what he had done for Lazarus. In fact, many in the crowd would meet Jesus as he entered Jerusalem would do so because of that very miracle. This really ticked off the chief priests, so they decided to kill both Lazarus and Jesus.
That’s it. That’s all we know. Various traditions and stories about Lazarus exist, but they are not things we learn in Scripture. So, we don’t know much about what kind of life Lazarus lived, before or after his face-off with death. He and his sisters must have been close, given how Mary and Martha reacted when he became ill and how they grieved when he died. They must have had some level of economic security, because they owned their own home and could afford to host dinner parties there.
But we don’t know what else was going on in Lazarus’ life. There’s no mention of a wife or children. Had Lazarus been unlucky in love? Did he grieve over a great love that ended in tragedy? Or was he someone who just couldn’t seem to find the right person? Maybe he was a work-a-holic, working long hours that paid for the house and social gatherings. Did he suffer from an illness that he never complained of but endured every day? Did he worry about the next round of taxes to be imposed by the Romans? Was he anxious—about his property and finances, or about who would care of his sisters when he died?
There’s no way of knowing any of that. But, since he was a human being just like all of us, I think it’s reasonable to assume that in life he was bound up by the same kinds of things that bind us. And, of course, he was bound up by sin, just like every other human being—bound just as tightly by his sinful nature as the grave clothes would bind his body in the tomb. Maybe there were days when he felt like a zombie—feeling like his life wasn’t his own, enslaved by worry and expectations, enslaved by obligation, enslaved by sin, tightly bound long before he ever ended up in a rocky tomb.
Do you ever have those days when you feel a little zombie-like yourself? You feel like you’re at the mercy of “the system,” whatever part of the system you’re dealing with. You spend hours and days trying to arrange necessary medical procedures, doing whatever this doctor or that office tells you. The court system keeps you running in circles. You sit endlessly on hold with customer service or technical support or help lines that aren’t very helpful or supportive or service-minded.
Maybe you’re bound by more personal concerns—worry over difficult family situations, frustration with a job that is unsatisfying but provides health insurance, the burdens of illness or addiction—your own or that of a loved one. Maybe grief binds you—binds you so tightly that some days you feel like you can’t breathe. Maybe the state of our country and world constrict your heart and mind.
There’s good reason that we say we feel “tied up in knots.” Anxiety, discouragement, sadness, fear—all these can immobilize us. We can’t stretch ourselves in new directions. We have a hard time seeing beyond the next footstep. We can’t imagine how the future can possibly hold any relief. We feel dead inside and that causes us to drag through our days without joy, without peace.
But as much as Lazarus’ story starts out sounding like a zombie story, it’s not. We know what Lazarus didn’t know as he stumbled and blinked his way out of the tomb: that when we give our lives to Jesus, the new life he offers us is one of freedom. We are released from slavery to our sinful nature and have the freedom to live more fully. Jesus doesn’t control us but gives us his Spirit to empower us to be all that God has created us to be. We are freed from the fear of death, especially that greatest fear that in death we’ll be eternally separated from God.
Jesus offers us new life, not just after our bodies die but right now, when we are dead in our sin, deadened by our worries and cares, deadened even to God’s presence in our lives. Jesus offers us the chance to live free of all that. But, to live in that freedom, we need some help.
After Jesus called Lazarus to come out of the tomb, he also had some instructions for the people around him. Jesus told them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Often we accept that Jesus has a new life to offer us, but the expectations or perceptions of others still bind us. Sometimes, we are the ones who are binding others with our own ideas of who they are or can be. Jesus frees us, but other people need to unbind the trappings of death and let us go. We need to do the same for others who have responded to Jesus’ call to come out of their tombs and take on a new life in Christ. We need to unbind them from our expectations, our memories of who they used to be, our doubts about who they can be different.
We need to be given support and encouragement as we step into the light of Jesus, whether it is the first time or after one of those times when our sinful natures have gotten the better of us. We can’t unbind ourselves. First, we need Jesus to call us out of the tomb, and we need to respond by coming out to him. Then we need the community of Christ to help us unwind all that has bound us.
Today is All Saints Sunday, a day when we remember the saints who now live as members of the cloud of witnesses around us. But, we also honor the saints who walk among us today. We as United Methodists believe that saints are faithful people who have devoted their lives to God’s service. They have allowed their lives to be transformed by the redeeming love of Christ. In response to God’s gift of salvation, they try to live lives worthy of the Gospel, in spite of their human limitations. They know the truth of Paul’s words to the Colossians: that “when you were buried with Christ in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God. . . and when you were dead in trespasses . . . God made you alive together with him.” The saints live unbound lives.
Zombie movies and TV shows and proms may be popular entertainment, but at heart they are stories of death and enslavement. We have a better story. We have a story of a Savior who brings us freedom and life. We have a Savior who frees us from a life of sin for a life that is aligned with God. We have a Savior who doesn’t seek to control us but gives us his own Spirit to guide us. We have a Savior who offers us eternal life, full of joy and peace, in the arms of God, not only after we die but here and now. The door of our tomb is open. The Savior calls us to come out. A community stands ready to remove our grave clothes, and an unbound life awaits each of us. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young