Sermon: Sunday, April 16, 2017: Resurrection of Our Lord, Easter Day

Texts: Acts 10:34-43  +  Psalm 118:1-2,14-24  +  Colossians 3:1-4  +  Matthew 28:1-10

40c56c33a130111cfc865d39931328077e83b6d2I have this really bad habit. The way I wake up each morning is to the sound of the alarm on my cell phone, which means that when the alarm goes off I roll out of bed and grab my phone off the edge of my dresser and drag it back into bed with me so that I can hit snooze every nine minutes until I’m ready to be awake. This can take up to an hour and, as annoying as that may seem, it’s not even the bad habit I had in mind.

Once I reach the point where it would take more effort to fall back asleep than to simply get out of bed, I turn off the alarm and — now that the phone is in my hand — (here’s the bad habit) I begin to read the headlines that have accumulated in my inbox overnight:

“Jesus, have mercy,” I mutter, maybe shouting the news to Kerry in the other room, “Have you heard? About the guy on the plane?”

“Yeah, I need them to stop with that already.”

And then I’m on to, “What do you have going on after work tonight? Do we have plans for dinner?”

That’s how the day begins, with a quick daily dose of trauma, immediately normalized as part of the backdrop to the details of my agenda.

I try to imagine how each of these mornings is filed in my memory. The details each day are different, but my experience of them is the same, so I picture them landing one upon the other the way dirt lands on a coffin at the cemetery, one shovelful at a time. Each morning packing down all the previous mornings so that, over the course of a lifetime, this idea of the world as a place defined by violence and war is compacted, locked into place by the weight of history and expectation.

3652860950_1f5fc7e2bd_bIf you’ve ever been to a graveyard for a burial, then you know how dense the earth can be. Beneath the topsoil, from which the grass grows, there are layers upon layers of soil filled with sand and clay, peat and loam. Looking into an empty grave from above, you can sometimes see the line where clumps of dirt held together by the root system of the lawn are separated from darker, tightly packed clay. Beneath that the Earth’s crust continues another twenty to thirty miles until it comes to the place where the crust of the earth floats on the upper mantle, forming the tectonic plates on which our homes and cities and civilizations rest.

We take it for granted that the ground beneath our feet is solid in much the same way that we take it for granted that reality is fixed and unchanging. Morning after morning, mile after mile of soil and experiences packed too tightly for anything to move too much.

Then, in an instant, the pressure built up beneath the surface breaks through and the pillars of the earth shift. Our homes, our cities and our civilizations are rocked and the facts on the ground are changed forever. Think Haiti, 2010.

This is how Matthew describes the resurrection of Jesus from the dead:

“After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.” (Mt. 28:1-2)

Mary Magdalene is one of the few unshaken constants of all the stories of the resurrection. No matter what else they remember differently, all four gospels place her at the empty tomb. “The other Mary” is named in the previous chapter as “the mother of James and John,” who are also Jesus’ brothers. This means that “the other Mary” is none other than Jesus’ own mother.

I think about these two women — one who had walked with her precious child every step of his life, the other who’d personally experienced his healing and liberating power — and their trip to the graveyard. Matthew makes no mention of spices for embalming the body, it just says that they “went to see the tomb.” It reminds me of the words of another mother shared at the Good Friday walk for peace in Englewood two days ago. She said that after her son was shot and killed on the steps of the church she and her family kept going there, unable to accept his death, expecting to see him again.



Cardinal Cupich leads Walk for Peace through Englewood on Good Friday, 2017.


I imagine it was like that for these women as well. Their child, their teacher, their Lord had been killed, had been humiliated and executed before their eyes. They had watched Joseph of Arimathea petition for the body to be removed from the cross. They’d seen him wrap Jesus in a burial shroud and place him in the tomb. They’d seen the massive stone rolled into place. They knew he was dead and buried in the earth. It was as certain as the power of the Empire. It was as certain as the ground beneath their feet.

We treat so many things as certain. If you’d have told me twenty years ago that I’d be legally married to my husband, I’d have thought you were a dreamer. If you’d told me fifteen years ago that my sister would still be alive and healthy, I’d have thought you were in denial. If you’d told me ten years ago that we’d have moved out of our church building and into a storefront — and that that’s where we’d experience our most exciting growth, I’d have thought you were pulling my leg. But here I am: legally married, still a big brother, and lucky enough to pastor a storefront church that’s outgrown its storefront!

You have your own tightly packed certainties about yourself and the world we live in. Certainties about your families. Certainties about your marriage. Certainties about your place in the world. Certainties about your people. Certainties about other people. Certainties about the government. Certainties that could likely be summed up, “that’s just the way it is.”

But far beneath the surface of each of these stories there are unseen forces building up, gaining steam, pressing against the weight of miles and miles of settled ideas and expectations. There is a power, which we have come to call “God,” that is more certain than your certainties. And this God does not settle. This God unsettles, and nothing — not thirty miles of earth, not thirty years of heartbreak and disappointment, not the empire of the “world as it is” — can keep this God from moving the ground beneath our feet and waking us up to a new reality that is always breaking through our ideas of what is real and what is possible.

The resurrection is the power of God breaking through the sediment of history, our personal stories and our shared story, to insist that we do not know enough to say what is possible and what is impossible. The resurrection is the earthquake that topples the things we imagine are fixed and unchanging and unearths the dreams we had left for dead. The resurrection is the rallying cry of the generations that came before us, that could never have imagined the lives we are leading, calling out to us, “who are you to give up on the future, when you have already seen what God can do? What God has done!”

What is it you imagine is too settled to change? Your heartbreak? Your addictions? Your loneliness? Your despair? To you, as to the women who’d come looking on that first Easter morning, Jesus now appears saying, “Do not be afraid.” God is with you in life and beyond death.

What indisputable truths have you feeling defeated? Is it our corporate Democracy with its complicit courts and prisons and industrial complexes? Hear the voices of our ancestors, crying up from the ground, “You have seen slavery end, women enfranchised, and love ennobled by the law! Who are you to give up on hospitality at the border, humane healthcare, and an end to war?” Jesus sends you on to Galilee, to the place where his ministry began, where it is always beginning — by the sea, where people are working and waiting for God’s future to arrive.

We are God’s future sent to break open the dirt. We are God’s body rising up from the ground. We are God’s seed being scattered all over. We are God’s harvest, bearing fruit in due season. We are God’s meal, feeding and strengthening one another. We are God’s church, built on solid ground. We are God’s resurrection!

Run, don’t walk. Share the story. Worship God and do not be afraid. Anything could happen. It does and it will.



Sermon: Sunday, January 3, 2016: Epiphany of Our Lord (transferred)

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6  +  Psalm 72:1-7  +  Ephesians 3:1-12  +  Matthew 2:1-12

It’s been a fortnight since the winter solstice, the longest night. It’s been two full weeks of lengthening days and diminishing nights. The light that shines in the darkness has once again turned the tide, has not been overcome.

Does-blue-light-really-affect-your-sleepIt’s a sign of the times that when I think about a light in the darkness, the first thing that comes to my mind is the way my bedroom looks in the middle of the night when I press the home button on my phone to get a little light so that I don’t wake Kerry up. I can see the outline of all the objects in the room, but not their color. The pale blue light of the screen renders everything in a barely pastel monochrome, a black-and-white picture with a thin wash of sky, but there is no peripheral vision. Where I point the phone I seen the edges of a dresser or a door, but everything else stays black.

The facts of our bedroom are exactly the same in the dark as in the light. The headboard is against the wall, the dresser is next to the closet, the radiator is in the corner. But in the dark I am still five years old, and sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night my dreaming mind is still driving so I see shadows in the hallway and imagine that someone has broken into our home. I reach out for the phone next to the bed and touch the home button and shine the light around and I can remember what the apartment feels like when there’s food on the table and voices in the living room. A benign reality.

I’m curious about the darkness in your life, and about the light. It is that time of year when many feel the weight of the long nights in every muscle of their bodies, when sleeping and waking don’t feel all that different. For some, the time just after the holidays is filled with resentment or regret, the things said and left unsaid as the family gathered casting a long shadow over the first days of the new year. We know that the past few months in particular have been filled with grief and loss for so many members of our community, and we also remember that each of us carries griefs and losses that we’ve not yet shared. So I wonder about the darkness in your lives, and about the light.

The reading from Isaiah assigned to the festival of Epiphany — which is actually a fixed date on the calendar (January 6), but we’ve transferred to this morning so that we celebrate it together as we transition from the season of waiting and fulfillment to the season of revelation and wonder — begins, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” (Isa. 60:1) The tiny lights we held in our hands on Christmas Eve have matured into a full blown dawn, foreshadowing the morning light at the tomb on Easter Day. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Ps. 30:5) Reading on we hear the prophet imagine a day when “Nations shall come to your light, and rulers to the brightness of your dawn … They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Isa. 60:3,6)

Because we stop reading there, and pair these verses with the story of the magi coming to witness the birth of Jesus, we reduce the power of the prophet’s voice to mere prediction. If we were to read on, past the end of the assigned verses, we would hear promises of gifts far better than gold and frankincense, the kinds of gifts we have been praying for here in Chicago in the wake of report after report of senseless deaths in our streets:

“The descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet; they shall call you the City of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel … I shall appoint Peace as your overseer and Righteousness as your taskmaster. Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Paradise.” (Isa. 60:14,17b-18)

ct-met-aj-1-foot-patrol-0507-jpg-20130506Can you imagine a city where Peace patrolled at night, and Righteousness governed by day? Can you imagine a Chicago where violence was unheard of, a city not subdivided into North and South and West — but united by a common salvation, whose neighborhoods were a living paradise?

In an opinion piece entitled “Dear White America,” written for the New York Times on Christmas Eve last week, George Yancey (a professor of philosophy at Emory University in Atlanta) wrote about the urgency of love as a response to the rising tide of racism in the United States today. It’s a beautiful and challenging essay that he describes as a gift, though reminding us that “some gifts can be heavy to bear.” This is how his letter to White America ends:

“If you have young children, before you fall off to sleep tonight, I want you to hold your child. Touch your child’s face. Smell your child’s hair. Count the fingers on your child’s hand. See the miracle that is your child. And then, with as much vision as you can muster, I want you to imagine that your child is black.”

The word epiphany is connected to the concept of revelation. Over time we have come to use it to signify an experience of insight, that moment when the lights turn on and things sensed in the dark are finally seen in a new way. Reality has not changed, but our experience of it is entirely new.

That is what is happening in this story from the gospel of Matthew in which the rich and powerful prove their wisdom by bringing all they hold precious and gladly giving it away in the presence of the infant Jesus. Epiphany is God’s love letter to a violent world, a heavy gift to bear, in which God’s declares solidarity with all who are oppressed. On the day of Jesus’ birth God declared, “I want you to imagine that I am small, and poor, and Jewish.” Today we might remember of Jesus, “I want you to imagine that I am Palestinian. I am a refugee.”

But anyone might take this story and make it their own, because as the dawn rises the light also spreads, and the news that was good for some people has in time become good for all people. You may hear in the story of the Epiphany, “Imagine I am a woman. I am a survivor. I am undocumented.” The epiphany is that your story is God’s story too.

When the night terrors become too much to bear, and we reach out to press the home button, we realize that God has come as an infant so that we might finally believe that God has come for us, as small and frail and insignificant as we sometimes, or always, feel.

So we celebrate Epiphany this morning, three days before the actual festival, which is fine by me because I think we could use our revelations sooner rather than later and I long to live in a city of Peace and Righteousness. And you, too, however small the light that burns inside of you: trust that it has been growing, the dawn has come, the days are lengthening, and the future is brighter than our expectations for it.

Arise, shine, for your light has come.



Sermon: Sunday, April 27, 2014: Second Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 2:14a,22-32  +  Psalm 16  +  1 Peter 1:3-9  +  John 20:19-31

“When it was evening on that day…” (John 20:19)

Do you remember that day? That O Happy Day? I remember that day last week.  My heart is still singing and my mind is still reeling from that day. This house was rocking and rolling to the sounds of praise and worship in celebration of the God of life, predictably showing up to do the unpredictable, to raise the dead. For many of us it was the kind of day when we felt like we could see with our own eyes, touch and taste with our own hands and mouth, the goodness of the Lord, present to us in word and water, in bread and wine. It was the day when the alleluias that had been locked up inside us for forty days were finally set free from the tombs of aching hearts and troubled minds, so that as we came to this cavernous sanctuary and found the stone rolled away and Jesus once again loose in the world, we were able to join with Mary Magdalene who left the tomb and returned to the rest of the disciples, saying “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18).

But not all who had known Jesus experienced what Mary and Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved experienced when they came to the grave that Easter morning. Not everyone who loved Jesus had come to see his empty tomb, so when the word first arrived that Mary had seen the Lord, they sounded like empty words. So, I want to ask you all if there’s ever been a time when all the things that we religious people say, when all the things that Christians say, have sounded like empty words. Has there ever been a time in your life when the things that people say, people who genuinely seem to have faith, didn’t generate any faith in you? If so, would you raise your hand?

If you gave me pen and paper, I could fill it in just a few minutes with the things “people of faith” have said to me that didn’t bring me one inch closer to faith myself. “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” “Let go and let God.” “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.” But not just the easy targets, not just the stock phrases that somewhere, way back, come from some real, felt experience of faith; but the personal testimonies as well. In fact, at times in my life when my own faith has been at its weakest, when I have been filled with doubt in the reality and the presence of a loving God, hearing someone else say “I have seen the Lord” in some truly genuine way has been almost painful. “Why,” I might think, “is that person so certain when I am so uncertain?” I won’t ask you to raise your hands, but I will ask you to examine your hearts this morning, and see if you don’t hear a voice like that, your own true voice, asking that kind of question.

So, when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, the day Mary had returned from an empty grave with the news that she had seen the Lord, had seen Jesus — not dead, but alive — that day found the followers of Jesus in the house where they had grown accustomed to meeting. Despite Mary’s testimony, they had not left the building, they were not out looking for their friend, they were not conducting a door-to-door search for the teacher they had loved. They were hiding out of fear of the religious authorities that had engineered Jesus’ death.

What kind of fear is that? What kind of fear would it take to keep you committed to your doubts rather than open to your hopes? Because, surely when Mary came back to the house with her incredible story, some part of each of the disciples had to have said, “she’s lost her mind!” Maybe out of grief, maybe out of shock, but this simply can’t be true. But, some other part of each of the disciples knew that it could be true. That the one who had changed water into wine, who had healed the sick, and restored sight to the blind, and fed the multitudes, and walked on the waves, and brought Lazarus back to life, that if there was anyone who might have emancipated himself from the slavery of the grave, it would be Jesus. But they stayed in the house out of fear, because they saw what people with power had done to the leader they loved.

And I wonder if you have known that kind of fear. The kind of fear that follows the death of parent who showed you how to walk bravely in the world, leaving you to wonder if you could ever be as strong as you were when your mother or your father was still there to call you, to coach you, to cheer you on. Or the kind of fear that follows the firing of a co-worker or a supervisor who spoke out in a workplace dominated by silence, who told the truth about what was happening to customers, to clients, to the neighborhood, to the environment, leaving you to wonder if anyone else would ever find the courage to speak out again. The kind of fear that looks like hopelessness when the truth-tellers in our schools, and churches, and City Halls, and congressional hearings get outmaneuvered over and over again by big money and the anonymous machine of politics and power to the detriment of us all, leaving you to wonder if there’s any point to hope at all. The kind of fear that kept the disciples locked away in the house where they’d always met to tell their stories quietly to one another.

If you have, if you’ve known that kind of fear, the fear of failure, of disappointment, of defeat, then imagine how you might feel if the parent, or the coach, or the teacher, or the leader that you loved and admired came and found you, locked away, hiding the gifts they’d nurtured in you, squashing the hopes they’d invested in you, giving up.

I suspect we’ve all done it at one time or another, given up, in ways both big and small. We start early and keep practicing as we get older. We give up on the instrument or the sport we loved as children, giving up on playfulness altogether as we get older. We give up on our friendships with the odd child in school, giving up on all sorts of outsiders as we enter adulthood. We give up on math, or science, or writing, or whatever subject most challenged us as children, only to find ourselves giving up on all sorts of dreams for our careers later in life. We give up on love, on our first love, on the idea of love, and we spend our lives wondering if we will ever find love, ever keep love, ever trust love. We know what it’s like to give up, to hide from the lives we once dreamed of having.

And when someone finally comes and finds us hiding from ourselves, what do we expect will happen? I expect to be scolded or shamed or blamed. I expect to feel embarrassed, even humiliated. I expect to be fired, or dumped, or abandoned. And the fear of each of these outcomes pushes me further and further into that locked room, until I’m somewhere in the back, under the desk, under the covers, hiding, hoping that no one will see what a disappointment I’ve turned into.

You don’t have to raise your hand. We’ve all been there.

The doors were locked that day, but Jesus had told them “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10:9). The one who couldn’t be kept in a grave, certainly couldn’t be kept out of the homes and the hearts of those God loved. So, disregarding every stone blocking the tomb, every lock blocking the home, Jesus came back — not to blame them, or shame them, or fire them, but to free them.

shalom-linda-woods“Shalom,” he says. “Peace be with you.” It means “peace” and “be well” and “greetings” all at the same time. It means, we have come into one another’s presence and my desire for you is that you be whole, and well, and that there be peace between us. It is the reign of God come near. With that word they are set free and they see that the Lord is still with them. So, a second time Jesus says, “Shalom. As [God] has sent me, so I send you.” Because, in addition to meaning “hello,” shalom also means goodbye. It is a word that both receives and sends the one being addressed. The act of being set free is one and the same with the act of being sent out to free and liberate those still trapped behind locked doors. For this reason, Jesus says to them “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Far from endowing the disciples with special powers, what Jesus is doing here is describing a basic spiritual principle; the very one, in fact, that they have just experienced. By announcing peace to people trapped by their own fears, Jesus has set them free.  Now Jesus tells them that they have been called and commissioned to do the same, to announce peace to all who still live lives of desperation turned inward as self-loathing, turned outward as violence in thoughts, words and deeds.

Remember that in the gospel of John, “sin” isn’t so much a moral transgression, its a lack of relationship. All throughout John’s gospel, Jesus has been bringing people to belief: the woman at the well, the man born blind, the sisters at the grave. Even after his own death and resurrection, Jesus is still working to bring people to belief — belief that there is no power that can bind the power of God welling up on God’s own people, no power that can keep locked the doors of our hearts, or our minds, or our futures which are all secured in God. So, when Jesus sent the disciples out with the power to forgive or to retain, he is pointing to the reality he has just demonstrated for them. If they will forgive people’s fear-driven behavior, if they will announce shalom, peace, well-being, as they greet and send one another, then sin will be cease to hold any power in the world. But if they refuse to announce shalom, peace, well-being; if they come with blame and shame and dismissal, then the world will continue to cower behind locked doors and fear one another.

We are still learning this lesson. We are still coming out from under the desk, under the covers. We are still waiting for Jesus to open the door. It happened for Mary early that day, it happened for the disciples later that day, it happened for Thomas a week later, in that same place where they were accustomed to gathering.  So maybe it happened for you last week, early in the morning, when you heard Peggy singing “O happy day, when Jesus comes” and Kerry singing, “clap your hands if you know that happiness is the truth.” But maybe it came for you later that day, as you looked back and realized that something had broken loose in you, a joy, a hope that you thought was dead, but you sensed coming back to life. Or maybe it took an extra week, and you had to come back to the scene of the miracle to see if it would happen again for you.

The point of the story isn’t about how quickly you experience God’s appearance in your life. The point is how consistently God will keep showing up, week after week, person after person, announcing peace to people trained for war, announcing well-being to people committed to misery, so that we may come to trust God, and in that trust find new life beyond every door.