Text: Luke 24:1-12
The headline for today reads: God has raised Jesus from the dead. He is alive. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.
What does it mean to rise up from a dead place? This is the question that woke me from a deep sleep in the early morning hours on Wednesday of this past week. I knew immediately it was an Easter question, and so I decided to let it linger in my head and heart. As I talked with people on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I would ask them, “What does it mean to you to rise up from a dead place?” Several people looked at me as though I was crazy, but some responded thoughtfully. One person said, “I think it’s a shift in perspective – a new beginning.” Someone else reflected, “I think there has to be hope to rise up from a dead place.” Still another noted, “It’s a resurgence of life, that’s what resurrection means.”
My own answer to this question came yesterday morning. I opened my emails and read this:
Hey Nancy!!!! You cannot imagine my surprise when I googled you and I got your arrest record. I have thought about you so many times over the years, but didn’t know how to get in touch with you. After I saw your mug shot, I went on your church website – it sounds amazing. I would love to talk to you sometime. I’d love to hear about the last 32 years of your life and tell you about the last month of mine. I have two sons, 22 and 19. My youngest is gay. He is a freshman in college. We have suspected that he was gay, but decided not to say anything. We wanted him to tell us when he was ready. He told us last month. We have embraced him and let him know that we love him unconditionally. As he has been in church every time the doors have opened for most of his life, he is deeply spiritual, but having trouble understanding where he fits in. Our family feels uncomfortable worshiping at our conservative church and we’re confused about some things. Please call me if you have any free time next week. I’m praying for you and your ministry. I always knew God was going to use you in a mighty way! And by the way, where’s all that red hair?
Yes, before the gray, my hair was red!
I went to high school and college with Kelly. She was a good friend – one of those friends who you laugh with a lot and get into some trouble with on occasion. Back then she had a tender heart – and from her email to me, it appears that she has nurtured that part of her spirit and soul. She was also a loyal friend – one who didn’t run when the going got tough. She was a gracious and giving person. As I think back, we lived a lot of life together – not in terms of years but in experiences. About mid-way through college, our paths diverged and we stopped spending very much time together. I had not heard from her or reached out to her since college, that is, until her email came to my inbox yesterday morning.
When I left Shelby after graduating from Gardner-Webb College, and came out as a lesbian, I lost touch with most of my high school and college friends. My very best friend during those years has not spoken to me since I told her I was gay. And my efforts over the last 25 years to reconnect with her have been unwelcomed. I realized, as I read Kim’s email, that those years had become for me a dead place. Dead in the sense that I have longed grieved those years and the relationships that were so important to me. Dead in the sense that at some point, I simply gave up hope that my friends of long ago would ever accept me or reach out to me. Yes, those years – those relationships – had become a dead place.
This story of mine is not so unique. I imagine that each of you could tell a story of how you finally left behind dead expectations and aspirations, lost dreams and hopes that diminish and deny who we are, fears and obsessions, addictions and convictions, everything that we thought promised life but did not give it. I imagine we all have dead places that, even though it might be hard to admit, we still long to rise from and redeem – a relationship, a marriage, a career.
When I asked my friend Brian, “What does it mean to rise up from a dead place?” he reflected on the moment in his own life when he realized his dead place. He wrote:
Moments before walking to the podium, I had become completely divorced from my responsibilities as the guest speaker to the room awaiting my promised discourse on the challenges and possibilities of modern education. Riddled with anxiety, my ability to converse was usurped by my compulsion to slyly empty my fellow attendees’ wine glasses into mine. The overly-priced Japanese dinner jacket was supposed to signify my success, yet, it was simply vodka-stained, ripped from my drunkenness and lifeless on my pale frame. Wrought with fear, I grasped the lectern. Looking into the crowd with their outwardly pristine and jovial appearances was a harsh contradiction to my vast inner landscape, a laborious desert. In that moment, my realization was clear: I was dead.
The Easter story as [I read it] in The Gospel of Luke has a signiﬁcance never noticed in my life. The women, true followers of the Jesus movement, risk their lives to take spices to the tomb of a political martyr whose message was radical love, peace and acceptance in this life. Now, his body is gone, the tomb is empty and they are met with a powerful challenge, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
This is the radical invitation [of Easter], to participate with God in life. These days, with gratitude, my tomb is empty and God is as close as a breath; as gentle and wondrous as words slipping in and out of humanity; and as amazing as a hand shake, a smile, an embrace. My mind is signiﬁcantly more quiet and my self-seeking has slipped into a desire to help others as I have been helped. Each morning, I look into my empty tomb very thankful the stone has not sealed the door, a remembrance of this death and of where to seek life. Graciously, this invites me to reach out to others staring at such death and give them the words of life, “Let me tell you what happened to me and how I was brought back to life.”
Yes, Easter answers the question, “What does it mean to rise from our dead places?” It reminds us that sometimes death is where we have to go in order to return from it and fully live. And when we can own the Easter story as our own story, it offers us that place from which we can say to others, as Brian did, “Let me tell you what happened to me and how I was brought back to life.”
I know of no place in scripture where Jesus extols the beauty of death, no one with whom he rejoices in their dying. Rather, Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb. To the dying daughter of Jairus he says, “Tabitha cum,” meaning “little girl, arise.” In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus of Nazareth is obsessed with life and life abundant, challenging people to live fully in mercy and justice. He is not about rehearsing for the “real thing” that will follow in some afterlife but rather he is about awakening people now, announcing hope now, resurrecting life now. His question to people then and now is not about whether there is life after death but whether there is life now. We are Lazarus and Jesus is still saying, “come out of the tomb.” We are that son and daughter to whom Jesus is saying, “arise.”
Yes, the Easter story is about redeeming our personal dead places, but those stories of redemption are themselves in service to a greater act of redemption. Beyond our personal stories, Easter is about a corporate call to God’s people to say “no” to the dead places of our common life together as a society; and “yes” to a justice that pursues abundant life for all people. During this most holy of weeks, just four days before this Easter Sunday, our legislators introduced two bills that lead to dead places for many North Carolinians. House Bill 451 and Senate Bill 428 seek to cut a week from early voting, eliminate same day registration and ban Sunday voting. And whom would this legislation hurt? Mostly the poor, seniors, people of color, young voters and people with disabilities – those whom Jesus called the least of these and those of whom Jesus said, “When you do it unto them, you do it unto me.” The proposed legislation of House Bill 451 and Senate Bill 428 clearly creates more dead places in our common life, and as Easter people, it is our calling to redeem those dead places too. That is what Easter is all about. It is a call to kingdom living both spiritually and politically.
This coming week, I have a chance with my old friend to redeem a dead place. And the good news of this Easter story is that it isn’t a one-day event. Every day we have the opportunity to redeem the dead places in our lives and in the world – that forgotten dream or lost hope; that fractured relationship or abandoned career; or that unjust law that says some are better than others. The Easter headline reads: Long ago, God raised Jesus from a dead place and today in 2013 God is still raising God’s people from their dead places and bringing us back to life. Hallelujah. Hallelujah!
So go forth today, celebrate Easter. Celebrate the good news that the tomb is empty and yours can be too. Celebrate that He Is Alive and is inviting you to life. Spend time with your family. Eat with joy the feast you have loving prepared for this day. Hide eggs. Eat candy. Play. Rest. Live. And in the coming days, redeem and resurrect those dead places in your life so that you may live life abundantly. And also remember, as God’s citizens we are also being called to redeem the dead places of our world.