Among the Undead

Fifth Sunday of Lent

There was a time I somewhat enjoyed watching horror movies, primarily for the pleasure of watching my friends jump back screaming or cowering in their seats. I suppose boisterous laughter on occasion is an effective way of deflecting attention from your own shock and revulsion, and diverting attention instead to someone else’s shock and revulsion. It’s been years since I’ve watched a horror movie, mainly because I live alone, and all my friends have outgrown their childhood fears and now worry about other horrors like terrorism, deficit spending and public radio. But that hasn’t stopped other grown-ups from exploiting our childhood fears and continue making movies of vampires and zombies, and all other forms of the undead. It seems they’re just a little more sophisticated now, even alluring and glamorous, at least the vampires.

When the best-selling author Ann Rice began in 1976 a series of novels about vampires in New Orleans, every A-list actor was hoping to star in the movie when it eventually got made. And now there are several other series of novels and movies aimed at the younger crowd, with some updating on the essentials. Vampires might seem genuinely interested in the living, but we all know they have ulterior motives. They have to feed on other people to stay alive, so they will show interest in their intended victims under false pretenses. And they might pretend to experience human emotions like love and affection, but we all know that’s not how new vampires come about. They might appear more glamorous and sophisticated than Bela Lugosi ever was, but they still are afraid of direct sunlight and have very messy dining habits.

Zombies came to the fore with George A. Romero and his “Night of the Living Dead.” Since then others have jumped on the money train and zombies have branched out into music and comedy and high literature. They have experienced some updating as well. In their earlier versions they often just lumbered along slowly with arms outstretched, and with only one thing in mind – what they need to survive. Since then, they have sang and danced with Michael Jackson in “Thriller,” entertained teenage audiences in “Shaun of the Dead,” and contributed to the revival of classical literature in “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” Although they have recently seen a modest increase in popularity, all that blood and gore prevents a wider mainstream appeal. Unfortunately, they don’t do very well with make-overs.

Other forms of the undead have not done as well. Mummies, although never as popular as vampires and zombies, have seen renewed interest when Brendan Frazier created his version of Indiana Jones. Like zombies, mummies have difficulty advancing any plotline with conversation. They aren’t very good conversationalists. And unlike vampires they are seldom interested in the trappings of modern life and culture. They just want to go back to ancient Egypt and carry on with other mummies, and live happily ever after.

Scripture today directs our attention to the ways of the undead. (I’m sure you’ve been wondering how I was going to bring all this around.) … Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead in the gospel, to the amazement of the crowds and the deep resentment of his opponents, they who should be knowledgeable of the ways of God, being familiar with the Law. But they continue to refuse his invitation to be drawn into the life of God by seeking forgiveness for their sins and extending compassion to their neighbor. They prefer what they have. They have no desire to change their ways. They are content to display external signs of their religious faith without also setting aside selfishness and arrogance and dishonesty and injustice … which is what religious faith should be about. What God desires, Jesus reminds us, is that we reject the ways of unbelievers who are bound to rely more on their earthly possessions, who may treat their neighbor without charity, who are eager to be forgiven but are not as willing to forgive others, who are not bothered by their own dishonesty and jealousy and idolatry, who are essentially dead to the life of God. What God desires is a willingness to be transformed each day into the likeness of his Son, to imitate Jesus’ own obedience to the Father, to trust in the Holy Spirit, and to carry on his mission of reconciliation and healing. Anything else is not what God desires, and far from the life God wishes to share with us.

For a time, while we were unbelievers, we, too, have been interested only in advancing our own goals, unmindful of God’s purpose, negligent of Jesus’ invitation to authentic discipleship. We have been one of the undead, lumbering about like zombies seeking only to satisfy the hunger of our bodies, like vampires fearful of God’s light that would shine on our deeds done in darkness, like mummies interested only in our former lives of sin and selfishness and carrying on with other sinners. And despite Jesus’ constant invitation to us this Lenten season to drink living water, to receive sight, and to rise to new life, we are sometimes content with our thirst, our blindness and our life among the undead.

“But you are not in the flesh,” we read from Paul’s letter to the Romans. “On the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Yet we refuse the Spirit of God when we reject God’s invitation to repent of our sins, when we reject God’s invitation to reconcile with our sisters and brothers, when we reject God’s invitation to leave behind our lives of selfishness and arrogance and dishonesty and idolatry, to reach out with compassion to those in need, to be examples to the world of what God’s new life is about, when we prefer our thirst, our blindness and our graves.

“O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, … I will put my spirit in you that you may live.” Jesus offers us life, and yet we would prefer the comfort of our graves, our warm, humid darkness … the perfect environment for growing mold and mushrooms. Instead, rise from your graves. Live in the light. And drink from the springs of everlasting life.