Shake Your Grave Clothes Off

This past Monday evening a group of us gathered for dinner and discussion about what it means to be a member of Prospect. One of the things I said to our prospective new members is that, if we’re asking whether these things actually happened the way we read about them in scripture, we’re asking something we can’t actually answer. It’s like trying to see what’s in the middle of that photo of a black hole: We know there’s a there there, but we can’t see it. What we can see is the impact it has had on everything around it.


So if I stand up here and talk about resurrection as something that happened once 2,000 years ago, it’s over and done. What we want to engage with instead is not whether the story happened this way or that way. Rather, we want to ask what about this story is so true on a profound level that 2,000 years later we are willing to devote our lives to following this risen Christ?


The women come to the tomb expecting to anoint Jesus’ body, expecting that his life and ministry and everything he has done is now over. They discover instead that the body is not there. The body is not there, and two angels share the good news that he has risen. The story is not over. God is still at work in the world. God’s truth is still a higher calling than the political truths of any era. God’s love is still more powerful than all the hate that we can hurl at each other. God’s life force cannot be stopped by assassinating the messenger.


So on this Easter morning, we get to celebrate that God is calling each of us to live into our own resurrection story, to explore what it is that calls us to live joyfully, lovingly, and abundantly in God’s love and to share that love—joyfully, lovingly, and abundantly—with everyone we meet.


Howard Thurman once said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”


By “come alive” I don’t mean the kind of life that gets you through the day. I mean the moment in The Wizard of Oz when the world goes from black and white into Technicolor. The camera comes behind Dorothy as she opens her front door and finds herself in a vibrant garden full of yellows, reds, blues, greens. Oh! I didn’t know it could be like that. “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.” God calls us to a life that is completely beyond our capacity even to imagine.


Many of us have grown up in a less-than-Technicolor life. We may have experienced dysfunction: a family member who was a tyrant and taught everyone else to cringe and cower. A family member struggling with addiction, and others all had to live in reference to that frame, either rebelling against it or becoming codependent with it or just running away from it as soon as possible. Plenty of other examples. We have all been shaped by trauma, and we’ve developed coping strategies to help us survive. But then we continue to apply those coping strategies repeatedly—if they worked once, maybe they’ll work every time. And we wonder why our lives keep repeating the same problems. Because this stuckness is the life we know, so we keep seeking it out—we stick with it.


What if we didn’t have to be stuck? What if we could be healed from the old dysfunctions, the old dead parts of ourselves? What if we could shake those grave clothes off and start living in Technicolor, a vibrant life that right now is beyond even our imagining?


Last fall I took a self-improvement forum where you work on such things. People were encouraged to look at their relationships, at what was stuck or broken in their lives, and then reach out to people important to them and have deep conversations. People who did this came back from breaks and said, “I just called my brother. We haven’t spoken in 17 years. I said I loved him and wanted him back in my life again. We were both weeping on the phone. We’re going to see each other on Thursday.” That’s a breakthrough. That’s life where something had been dead before. That’s shaking off the grave clothes and claiming a life in Technicolor.


Puerto Rico is a place experiencing some resurrection energy these days. Many of you know that in the first week of April Rick Russell and I and 23 others from the Pacific Northwest spent a week in Puerto Rico working on recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria devastated this US territory in September 2017. We’re going to focus a whole service on that trip on May 5. But let me just say now that Puerto Rico is working hard on healing, repairing, rebuilding, and resurrecting. And for one week our group got to be a part of that, which was pretty special.


Transformation can be gradual, one step, and then another, and then another. Maybe you decided to make one change for Lent. A small thing, perhaps. A way of making yourself more open to God. How does that change you? Could you keep that closeness to God a priority in your life? That small change is a step in a new direction.


The disciples, both the men and the women, have been following Jesus. They have heard him preach, seen him heal broken people, helped him feed thousands of people who had come to hear him and were hungry in body and soul. For the disciples and all the followers, Jesus has become the core of their lives. He has turned their lives upside down, taught them that God loves them even if the Roman government and the Jewish priests and scribes don’t.


And now Jesus is dead. How do you move forward when the person at the center of your life has died or left? Maybe it’s your parent, your beloved, your child. Maybe you have been the primary caregiver for a loved one who has become unable to live on their own. You have given everything to this person, and now they’re gone. The very core of your life is gone with them. You get up in the morning and don’t even know what to do with your day.


Or you have centered your life around trauma, and now that trauma has gone, or you have been freed and healed from it. Your life is wide open before you. You can choose to remain in your grave clothes, and a certain period of grieving is appropriate. And then you can choose to put on your dancing shoes. You can choose black and white or Technicolor. You can choose a life where you just make it through each day, or one where you do work that makes your heart sing and gives your life meaning.


What do you choose? Grave clothes or resurrection?


Some say that God required Jesus to be crucified in order to atone for our sins. That God was so angry with humanity that the only way to make things right was to offer up God’s own child as a blood sacrifice. Hmm.


Or maybe it’s that God loves us so much that God sends Jesus to speak truth to power, to heal the broken, to preach to those hungry for the Word, to spread God’s love way out beyond the margins of society. And maybe it’s that sometimes we feel threatened by the prospect that God would love us—and everyone else—so abundantly. Doesn’t God have any standards? God loves the immigrant, the people of all skin colors, people of all education levels, young and old, the physically able and the disabled, the gay and straight and trans. And us. All of us are God’s beloved children, just as we are.


As I say, some people are threatened by this. They would rather nail Jesus to a cross than give up their power, rather than love all of God’s children, rather than admit mistakes, rather than broaden their thinking. They are terrified at the invitation to a life of wholeness for themselves and for everyone. It’s understandable. We have a tendency to want to think our people are better than other people, to think our ways or our music or our church or our skin color or our whatever is the only right way to be.


And here comes Jesus saying God loves everybody. What?! Hard to hear, for some of us. Hard to comprehend. So we stay stuck in dead-end ways of thinking, dead ways of living, deadly us-them dichotomies. We stay stuck in fear.


God invites us all to shake those grave clothes off. Slough off those old ways of hating, of dying, of staying stuck in what is not life-giving.


God didn’t require Jesus’s death as a sacrifice. People who felt threatened by his message of love and truth and justice required his death and made it happen. Read the gospels. It’s all right there.


This church is exploring a new vision. We are trying to figure out how this congregation and this church building can create new and deeper relationships with our broader community. How are we called to live in Technicolor, to find what is life-giving to us and to the community?


Living into what is life-giving is not a job for wimps. The women at Jesus’ tomb are terrified when they meet the angels in the tomb. They had no frame to interpret what was happening. When Jesus had warned the disciples about all these things that were going to happen, they couldn’t process the information because it didn’t make sense in the black-and-white lives they were living. But now, Oh! Technicolor! Who knew? And the women rush back to tell all the others.


Have you ever learned a new thing—maybe the name of some flower—and then you start seeing it everywhere? It was always there, but now you know to look for it. You have a frame through which to understand it. Jesus has been telling the disciples for a while what’s going to happen in Jerusalem, but they had no frame in which to understand what he was saying. Now the women do. Oh! Resurrection! The story is not over! And the disciples dismiss their talk as an idle tale, because the disciples are still sitting in their grave clothes. They have no frame for understanding the Technicolor tale that the women bring.


God’s work of truth, love, justice, hope, healing, and joy—God’s work continues. Jesus embodied such work. Jesus showed us what it was all about, and what the cost could be if you did it right.


The disciples continued to experience Jesus in their lives, but they were the ones who took up his work. Like the disciples, we are invited to take up that calling to truth, love, justice, hope, healing, and joy, and to spread that good news to everyone we meet. It’s not convenient. It’s not easy. It may rattle the powers that be. It shakes our grave clothes off. It is in Technicolor. It is about building the realm of God, about living in harmony with God’s creation.


Our past is our past, with all its stuck and dead places. God invites us to be healed of our wounds, to leave what is dead behind us and to be resurrected as whole beings, as the best selves God created us to be. The past is dead. The future is a blank slate, but it just might be in Technicolor. Shake those grave clothes off and let’s come fully alive. Amen.






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