“The walking dead”
I knew a homeless woman once. Let’s call her Anne. She was one of the “walking dead.” She might have been walking around, but she had long since died of the alcoholism and meth addiction that had put her on the street. To be crystal clear, Anne’s literally dead now, but back then she was only a part of the “walking dead.”
At the time I knew Anne, I was learning empathy, learning how to move the stone from the tomb of my heart, learning how to suspend judgment long enough to understand the sense of depression and hopelessness and anger that could lead someone into a mess like Anne’s, into becoming a walking dead person.
I tried putting myself in Anne’s shoes, and that’s when I realized she didn’t OWN shoes. What she had were dirty feet, smelly feet. And, some days, Anne wore socks that had long ago stopped being any color at all.
Anne would come each day to the food pantry at the church where I worked. She would trudge up the stairs to the pantry in her socks, wrapped in an equally dirty and tattered blanket, and demand soda. She was, she said, “allergic to water, don’t you know?”
One day, when I was especially self-congratulatory at my progress toward becoming empathetic, Anne appeared at my office door on the other side of the building and demanded a new blanket. She absolutely reeked—reeked of the streets, reeked of poverty, reeked of addiction—but she reeked most of human excrement, which was running down her legs, over her socks, and onto my floor. As if to emphasize her point, Anne opened her blanket to reveal that she had NO clothes, sending a fresh wave of stench around the room.
At the time, don’t ask me why, today’s gospel lesson leapt into my brain. I thought of Lazarus, four days dead in his tomb, smelling as only a rotting corpse could smell in the scorching heat of the Middle East. Except the smell of the walking dead, the smell of an urban meth addict in extremis, tops even the actual dead, I thought.
In either case, I realized, I was no Jesus. I knew that I simply wasn’t up to the task of loving THIS woman on THIS day.
Jesus, on the other hand, was undaunted by the smell of death on his friend Lazarus. HE was crying so hard for Lazarus, smell wouldn’t have mattered. Of course, Jesus himself didn’t roll away Lazarus’ tombstone. He told those who were present, those who also loved Lazarus, to have faith that he, Jesus could deal with even the foulest of situations.
There is no such thing as healing a death like this without exposing the rot of death to the fresh air of new life. Lazarus’ friends had to deal with his death-stench, just as Jesus had to restore Lazarus to new life (however THAT was done).
Jesus told the dead man to “come out” of his death state and then Jesus told the dead man’s friends to unbind Lazarus from his burial wrap, to “unbind him and let him go.”
I suppose this was what reminded me of Lazarus’ story when I failed my graduate-level empathy test with Anne that day. I realize that, had Lazarus’ friends not removed whatever had bound Lazarus to death, he would have been a walking dead man, he would have been like Anne. I thought of her, even then, as a walking dead person, bound by her death-dealing choices. But for her—or for Lazarus, for that matter—to be truly alive, we have to see them as living human beings, don’t we?
Luckily for Anne, I was surrounded by doctorate-level empathetic people. My administrative assistant took Anne to the restroom and helped her clean up. A parishioner got her a new blanket from his own truck, while another fetched clothes from the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network. The sexton (that saint) cleaned up my office floor. “New life,” I thought, “smells so sweet.” Anne had been unbound, in a way.
A few days later, when I saw Anne decked out in her new clothes (and shoes), “tricking” on the street, I stopped and gave her a soda. I’ll let you judge whether I passed or failed the empathy test THAT day. But, in the interest of full disclosure, I thought I smelled a stink THAT day not from Anne, but from the tomb of MY heart being opened. Maybe I, too, had been among the “walking dead,” in a way.
So much for Anne, may she dwell in peace with Jesus. So much for me and my empathy lessons. Becoming unbound may require a lifetime of learning.
What about Lazarus? We don’t hear more about him in scripture, other than the Jewish leaders wanted him dead again and began conspiring also to bring about the death of Jesus. And we know that this miracle of Jesus fulfilled one of the eight signs foretold by the prophet Ezekiel about the Messiah.
But we, WE need this miracle. We need the hope that Lazarus’ return to life brought to the world, the hope that Lazarus’ return to life brings to us. We need to know there is life after death, and Lazarus is our first living testimony that we live on after death. We need to know that there is life BEFORE death, that we are not part of the “walking dead,” and Lazarus shows us what we have to do to become fully alive in this life. Be unbound by the things that enthrall us.
Which brings me to you. What do YOU have tucked away in your tomb? What stinky mess are you hiding behind the rock of your heart? What about life have you allowed to bind YOU? Do you need those who love you to come move the rock, air out your abode, and set you free? This is a no-judgment zone, you understand; we can help. What awaits you is new life here on this side of death.
As for the other side of death, at the start of Lent, on Ash Wednesday, we were reminded that we are dust and that we are mortal. Today as we approach Palm Sunday, I want to remind you that we don’t become mere dust balls that lie in our tombs forever after we die. We live, and die, in the hope, the expectation, the certainty of everlasting life. Be unbound!