A sermon preached at St.Andrew’s-by-the-lake (Turkey Point, ON)
Zombies; The Living Dead; The Walking Dead; rotting corpses partially returned to life. Existing somewhere between life and death and having no emotion, personality or individual identity, zombies limp and shuffle along, limbs bent out of join, mouths agape, emitting guttural groans as they hunt for their next meal of human flesh.
Not exactly a topic you expected to hear about in church, eh? Perhaps some of you are confused and maybe even offended. While zombies are a standard fixture in popular culture, what place do they have in the church? After all, zombies are the stuff of horror movies, not the gospel! However, if we are willing to immerse ourselves in our Scripture readings from today, we will see that there is a place for zombies in the Church.
The key to understanding the relationship between zombies and the gospel is in our reading from Isaiah. You see, chapters 49-55 of Isaiah were written during Israel’s Babylonian captivity. Once again, the Hebrew people find themselves living in the shadow of empire, this time under the power of the Babylonians. As you can imagine, the Israelites are completely disoriented in the midst of their exile. All of the primary markers of their identity are now gone: the land is seized, the Temple is destroyed, and the Ark of the Covenant disappears. This disorientation results in a profound experience of despair: where is God? Are we not God’s chosen people? Has God abandoned us? Who are we? What are we supposed to do now?
The Israelites identity as God’s people is supplanted by their identity as slaves. Once an independent nation, the Israelites are now a conquered people whose identity and worth is entirely based upon their economic value to the empire. Once they were a chosen people, a royal priesthood and a holy nation (cf. Ex. 19:6) called to be a blessing unto the nations, now they are nobodies – powerless and utterly disposable objects – who exist at the destructive whims of their conquerors, those who have the power of life and death.
Indeed, the existence of the Israelites is that of all people who are enslaved to an empire: they exist somewhere between life and death, not really alive and not quite dead.
The Israelites are the walking dead; they are zombies.
This morning, I want to suggest that like the ancient Israelites, we too are living in the shadow of an Empire. This Empire goes by many different names, but it is an empire that easily recognizable. While it is true that ours is captivity that is completely different from that of the ancient Israelites, it is captivity nevertheless. Our captivity is evident both in the language we use and in the practices that define our daily lives.
We are captive to an Empire where a person’s identity is determined by their possessions and their worth defined by their economic output; where ‘somebodies’ are those with the most stuff and ‘nobodies’ are those who are unable to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It is an Empire that is driven by the fear of scarcity, to which the solution is increased consumption; an Empire driven by the fear of becoming downwardly mobile to the point of becoming a ‘nobody’; an Empire where having ‘enough’ is never an option because ‘more’ is always available – but supplies are limited!
Like all Empires, this empire demands my total allegiance. It dictates that since my desires are most important, I must look out for ‘number one’ above everyone else, regardless of destruction this requires of creation or other human lives. My whole existence is defined by my desire to not only keep up with the Jones’, but to surpass the Jones’ because the one with the most toys wins, right? Therefore, I must ensure that I am properly educated so that I can competitively enter the rat race so that I am able to exit the rat race at a reasonable age with enough money and stuff to ensure a comfortable and, therefore, prolonged life until my eventual death. Such is the ‘good life’ defined by our Empire.
However, is this truly a ‘good life’ when I am expected to frantically and competitively rush through my life driven by the fear of scarcity, down-ward mobility, and the lingering reality of my death? Are we not zombies ourselves as we pursue this kind of life, devouring one another to satisfy our personal desires? The truth of the matter is that because ours is a comfortable captivity, it very difficult to see it as captivity, to see ourselves as zombies. Furthermore, the pursuit of a good and comfortable life makes it difficult, indeed nearly impossible, for us to hear the good news that both the prophet Isaiah and the stories of the loves and fish describe.
Our inability to hear God’s word to us is precisely why we need the prophets. The prophets address God’s people, both then and now, in language that refuses to pull punches because they are single-mindedly focused on describing the reality of God’s truth. Therefore, prophetic language is often uncomfortable and offensive to those to whom it is addressed. The prophets call us to challenge the myths of Empire, myths that insist the status-quo is simply the way things are. Furthermore, the prophets invite us to imagine the world through the lens of God’s Kingdom in defiance of the wisdom of Empire.
Isaiah 55 begins with a short word that is easy to disregard. Listen again to verse 1: “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price”. You see, ‘Ho!’ is a word that was used to get the attention of the dead in funerary laments. God prophetically addresses his captive people as the living dead, as zombies, for that is exactly what they are within in the shadow of empire; in one small word, the prophet describes the entire situation.
However, God’s address does not end there. In Isaiah 55, God’s people in exile are given a divine word that addresses their fears and offered a new hope rooted in God’s promise of provision and forgiveness if the people return to him. New life is possible for God’s people because God refuses to leave his people enslaved, to leave them living death in the shadow of empire. God refuses to do this because God is the one who liberates captives and resurrects the dead. God is the God of exodus and resurrection.
However, in the midst of captivity, God’s promises sound too good to be true – how can those who have no money buy food? How can they buy wine and milk without money and without price? Is it another way of life really possible where we no longer need to work to buy things that can never satisfy? Cynicism and distrust are the default settings of those living in captivity.
Nevertheless, Isaiah 55 gives God’s people a glimpse of the freedom and new life that God offers to his people if they would but return to him, living within the promise and provision of his kingdom.
The glimpse of the freedom and life God offers his people in Isaiah 55 finds its fullest expression in the person and actions of Jesus Christ. Standing in the middle of the wilderness, with no markets nearby, Jesus tells the disciples to give food to the thousands who followed them into the wilderness, to feed them with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. The disciples respond with cynical distrust rooted in the myth of scarcity, the myth that tells us what we have is never enough. And yet out of this meager supply, Jesus feeds the multitude not only to the point that they were filled, to the point where there are leftovers.
To our modern ears it sounds like a fairytale, utter foolishness believed by the weak-minded, an embellished story that is too fantastic to be true.
But what if it is too fantastic not to be true? What if it is so fantastic it must be true?
The abundance of the freedom and life God extends can be overwhelming to the point where it seems absurd, sheer fantasy. It is easier to live in the comfort of captivity than to follow Jesus into the wilderness. Following Jesus into the wilderness is an act of radical trust where we place our lives in his hands and where we learn “to want the limitless things God gives us in Jesus…[and] to take the right things for granted” (Wells, 5, 11).
The economy of God’s kingdom is completely different from that of Empire because it is defined by generosity, not scarcity, by the restoration of life, not its destruction, by relationship in community, not autonomous self-expression. In God’s kingdom, people are identified as God’s beloved children through the gift and promise of baptism.
Because their appetite can never be satisfied, zombies continually feed on the living, and in so doing they produce nothing but death. However, in feasting on Christ, the living bread, our appetites are satisfied as we receive the life that comes from the one who died and rose again. In feasting on Christ, we learn a new way of life outside of the shadow of empire where scarcity abounds and inside the light of God’s Kingdom where overflowing abundance is the norm; a new way of life where God gives us everything that we need to worship him: bread and wine without cost, ordinary items through which God offers spiritual nourishment and abundant life.
The good news is that no longer must we be zombies, enslaved to empire; in Christ, we are offered a new life where freedom and provision are abundant, and we are invited into a community that is learning what it means to trust, receive, and embody Christ’s generous and self-giving love. The community of those who follow Christ into the wilderness, a community called the Church, learns how to trust, receive, and embody Christ’s love through the practices God gives the Church: baptism, Eucharist, prayer, reading Scripture, preaching, teaching, hospitality, confession, sharing peace, washing feet, and giving praise (cf. Wells, 6). These are ordinary things, but through them God does extraordinary things. By faithfully performing these practices, we are shaped into a people who, empowered by the Holy Spirit, strive to make the entire world into a Eucharist where the living dead may receive resurrection life and become transformed into the likeness of Christ.
Dare we trust that the super-abundance of Jesus Christ is too good not be true? Dare we trust that in him we will truly be satisfied?
Come, let us feast on Christ.
(The book quoted is Samuel Wells God’s Companions – a remarkable ‘must read’)