It might seem crazy, what I’m about to say.
But I’ve seen things left for dead come back to life.
I’m not talking about the Walking Dead, I’m not spouting Sci Fi. I’m talking about real, live people and places left for dead that came back to life. In fact, you’re sitting in one of them right now.
It might seem crazy, but ten years ago this church had been left for dead. Had been told there was no life left in its dry bones. Was down to a handful of people knocking around in this cavernous sanctuary like guards standing watch at a tomb.
But look at us now. Look around this room. See how God is bringing new life to people and places left for dead. My God, it makes me so happy!
It’s a story that just keeps repeating, day after day, year after year, place after place, life after life.
It’s the story of my life. It might seem crazy, what I’m about to say, but ten years ago I thought my story was over. A failed relationship. A career over before it had even started. I was living in a friend’s basement surrounded by boxes of books I’d bought in pursuit of a degree that qualified me for the one job it seemed I’d never have. To call it a garden level apartment was an insult to gardens. Its one window gave me a wide open view of the crawl space under the front porch, where a nest of rats had made their home. They would come to the window to watch me, as if I was the one stuck in a cage, because I was. The ceiling was about eight inches above my head, high enough for me to stand up but not enough to stretch.
Life that wasn’t life went on like that a lot longer than three days, a lot longer than forty days. It went on like that for a couple of years. It went on like that until a small church on the north side of Chicago called me out of my tomb and unbound me. The day I knelt in this room as hands were laid upon me and I was ordained to serve God’s people through God’s church, I was so happy. I felt like a room without a roof.
Like I said, it might seem crazy, but that’s just how God works. Over and over. Bringing new life to people and places left for dead. It’s the story of your life. I know, because you’ve told me.
It might have seemed crazy, staying put as all your neighbors sold their houses and left the block. People said Logan Square was too dangerous, that all the good families were getting out while their homes were still worth something. But you stayed. Longer than three days. Longer than forty days. Hell, longer than forty years! You stayed. You lived through decades of feeling like you had to apologize for living in Logan Square, when the only news was bad news, talking this and that. You heard it all, no holding back. And you sold flowers each spring for people to plant in their gardens and in their window boxes so that they might remember, in the middle of gangs fighting for turf and drugs on the corner, that there was still beauty here, still life in these homes.
I’ll tell you what. If you stayed through those hard years, could I ask you to do something? Could I ask you to raise your hands? Raise them high, yes both of them, just like this. And now, bear with me, could you just clap your hands, just once, if you stayed through the hard years. That’s right. That’s the truth.
But it’s not the only truth. There are other stories in this room, other resurrections taking place. I know because I’ve seen it with my own two eyes, and I can testify that it’s true.
I’ve seen people caught tight in the grip of an addiction hellbent on killing them find the strength to live one day at a time, people certain that their lives were going to end in the bottom of a bottle of pills, or booze, who are alive today by the grace of a higher power that came to them in community and restored them to life.
I’ve seen people trapped in marriages and relationships that felt like tombs, that left scars on their hands and feet, bruises on their face and abdomen, break free from cycles of violence that were entirely unredemptive and take back their lives.
I’ve seen people who fled from the lands of their birth, because of a lack of opportunity, because they were of a minority religion, because they were of a minority sexual or gender identity, people who’d been locked away in prison for a decade, people who’d been blackmailed and harassed by the police, people who’d been beaten to within an inch of their life. People who now live in the relative safety of a new land, making a new start, building a new life.
If you know one of these people I’m talking about — maybe it’s you, or someone in your family, or someone you love — could you please put your hands up in the air, and help me out here. Clap your hands, if you feel like that’s what you want to do.
This room, this neighborhood, this world is full of people who know what it’s like to be left for dead, to be stuck in the grave, only to discover that Jesus had been there first and ripped the roof off that tomb! Which is why, crazy as it may sound, we proclaim,
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!
I’ll tell you something else. When you’ve experienced this resurrection, it’s not something you want to keep to yourself. It’s not something you can keep to yourself. It wells up in you, it bubbles out of you, it has the tendency to erupt in spontaneous acts of testimony and riots of truth-telling.
Peter, one of the twelve who knew Jesus before his hot-air balloon took off for space, distilled the essence of his happiness into this statement: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God” (Acts 10:34). God shows no partiality! That’s incredible! That’s radical. That’s so much more than, “God plays fair” or “God doesn’t play favorites,” which is kind of how it sounds at first. No, for Peter, who delivers this message while standing in the home of Cornelius, a pagan and a high-ranking soldier in the very same army that had occupied Peter’s homeland, “God shows no partiality” is one of those statements that blows the roof off the place. It’s a statement so radical that he gets called before his colleagues back in Jerusalem, who want to know why he’s talking to the enemy. But that’s the point of his message, that’s the essence of his irrepressible joy, that by the power of our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, there is no enemy that can divide us from one another.
If death can’t bring us down, then neither can our wars. If death can’t bring us down, then neither can our nationalities. If death can’t bring us down, then certainly neither can our religious differences. If death can’t bring us down, then neither can our politics, or our immigration status, or our HIV status, or our marital status. If the love of God in Christ Jesus has raised us from the grip of every death that has tried to bring us down, then can’t nothing bring us down, God’s love is too high!
Can I get an amen?
Clap your hands if you know what happiness is to you.
And now we can begin to understand why the women left the tomb that first resurrection morning with both fear and great joy, great happiness, because the tomb was empty, and that meant everything was going to have to change, that everything had already changed. And change is hard, even the change we’ve all been waiting for, the change happening in our own lives.
In his open letter to the church titled “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis echoes the apostle Paul when he writes,
The joy of the gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded. That is what the angel proclaimed to the shepherds in Bethlehem: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.” (Luke 2:10)
He goes on to say,
An evangelizing community is filled with joy; it knows how to rejoice always. It celebrates every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization. Evangelization with joy becomes beauty in the liturgy, as part of our daily concern to spread goodness.
Peter says, “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). And at the tomb, Jesus says to the women, “Do not be afraid; go and tell…” (Matt. 28:10).
That is our happy task this day, and every day for the rest of our lives, to go and preach to the people caught in the grip of powers that are trying to bring this world and everything in it to the grave. We look at the cross, and we look at the tomb, and we look at each other and see the risen Christ rising again and again in each one of us, and we say,
Give me all you got, don’t hold it back.
I should probably warn you, I’ll be just fine.
No offense to you, don’t waste your time.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!