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, April 5, 2015: The Resurrection of Our Lord — Easter Day

Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9  +  Psalm 118:1-2,14-24  +  Acts 10:34-43  +  Mark 16:1-8

“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

6a00d8341bffb053ef0120a6e0b890970b-500wiThat was the question preoccupying the women as they came to the place where Jesus had been lain that first Easter morning. I guess I’d never given it much thought before, how striking it is that scripture makes a point of telling us that after “the sabbath was over Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome the follower of Jesus” came to the tomb prepared to do the heart-breaking work of anointing Jesus’s body for death even though they had no idea how they would get to it because there was a massive stone blocking their entry.

Who does that? Who sets out to do a difficult, a heart-breaking task without a plan for how to even get through the door? Not the men, apparently. It was the women. It was the women who had stayed with Jesus even at the hour of his death. It was Mary Magdalene, from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons, a sign that she’d suffered from a complex, life-threatening condition. It was Mary the mother of James, one of the young men who’d followed Jesus throughout his ministry. It was Salome (not to be confused with dancing Salome, the daughter of Herodias, who’d asked for the baptist’s head), remembered by early tradition as the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who I imagine came so that her sister would be spared the sight and smell of her own son’s dead body. These were the women who came to the tomb without any idea how they would get in, just knowing that their love for the Lord would not allow them to stay away.

A woman grateful to have been given her life back. A den mother to the pack of young people chasing after Jesus. A sister who did what needed to be done. Don’t these women sound familiar to you? Don’t you think they exist in some incarnation in every community? I feel like I’ve met them over and over again in every church I’ve ever belonged to. I know they are members of this church. I suspect if you stick around long enough you may become one of these women.

Before, I’d always heard that line about them not knowing who would roll the stone away as a clue in the text about the size of the stone, the impassability of the barrier, a set up to the miracle of its movement signifying that nothing could contain the risen Christ. But if it’s that, then it is also something else, it’s a clue about the depth of their devotion to the Lord they had known, their unyielding love, a signifier that nothing would keep them from the new life they’d just begun to taste as they followed Jesus. Even if they did not know how they would ever move forward, they knew there was no going back.

“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

They came with their spices, prepared for the worst, ready to find someone to help, a gardener perhaps, or some day laborers who would roll the stone away so that they could do their duty in that place, that blessed cavern where they thought they’d find their Lord. Instead, when they arrived that Easter morning they found the stone already moved and inside the tomb a young man, dressed in white, sitting on the right side.  Our minds immediately make the leap from “young man” to “angel” because of the texts in later gospels. Matthew’s gospel calls the greeter at the tomb a “messenger” (the word we often translate as “angel”) and Luke’s gospel describes two men in dazzling white garments, but Mark’s gospel simply says a “young man, dressed in a white robe.” I immediately think about our brother Ryan Coffee who was baptized last night at the Easter Vigil. When he asked me what to do to prepare for his baptism, I told him he might consider wearing something white as a gesture to the ancient tradition of draping those who emerged from baptismal waters in a white robe. So he showed up last night in a crisp white shirt and a blue tie and told me he felt like a waiter. From where I’m standing right now looking out into this vast, cavernous sanctuary he was seated with his family and with Rachel over there, on the right.

I kind of adore this little detail in Mark, “As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side.” When the faithful women arrived at the tomb that first Easter morning expecting to find no one, no help, instead they find a young person, and he’s sitting on the right side. I wonder whose seat that was he’d taken. It was such an aggravation that when the gospel writer sat down to turn the oral tradition into a written text it couldn’t be forgotten that the young man was sitting on the right side!

And what a counterpoint this young adult is to the mood of the three women who came when the sabbath was over, ready to perform the appointed rituals. There he sits, as if waiting for them to arrive, as if knowing that they would come because wherever the Lord was, these women would be there too. But also, wherever the Teacher was, this young person would be as well. We don’t know what drew him to the cave that morning, or who sent him there, but he was also there that Easter morning and with a message for the women: “He has been raised. He is not here.”

“He has been raised. He is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” (Mark 16:6-7)


Galilee by the sea, as it might have appeared during the life of Jesus.

Where was Jesus to be found? Ahead of us, in Galilee, where it all began. In Galilee where Jesus appeared after John the Baptist was arrested, proclaiming the good news of God’s immanent reign. In Galilee, where Jesus had called the disciples away from their nets. In Galilee, where Jesus had preached and healed and drawn a crowd. In Galilee where he’d told them he would be after he was raised up, though they’d not understood what he was saying (14:28). In Galilee, where Rome still ruled but people were rising up. In Galilee, where life was happening, in all it’s painful, messy, uncertain ways. In Galilee, the crossroads of the world, where I’m imagining the risen Lord met this young adult and asked a favor. “Could you go to Jerusalem, where I’ve recently been hanging out, and look for these three women. You’ll find them in a garden, at a tomb. They will come, I know they will. They keep coming, even when everyone else abandoned me, they keep coming because they love me and I love them. They will come with oil to anoint my body, but they’ve forgotten that I was already anointed for death at Simon’s house in Bethany and I have no need of that particular gift any more because I am not dead, but alive. Will you tell them I’ve left this place, but that I wait for them in the future, and will you ask them to share this message with the others, Peter and the rest of the brokenhearted?”

They met at the tomb, the faithful women and the unknown young person. They were there, together, but Jesus was not there with them. Jesus was already back out in the world scattering seeds that would break open settled earth bearing new life.

“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

It was God who rolled away the stone. To Mark it doesn’t seem to matter how that happened. Matthew’s gospel says there was an angel and an earthquake, but to Mark and Luke and John it could just as easily have been the grounds crew in the garden. What matters is the barrier is gone, the stone is rolled away, a certain death has given way to a risky, new, uncertain life.

So the faithful women flee, terrified of the future but still amazed at everything God had done in that place, because they were afraid; and we can understand their reaction because who hasn’t felt such fear when they suddenly realize that the rest of their life, no matter how short or how long that span of time may be, will look nothing at all as we’d imagined?

And that’s how Mark’s gospel ends, at least originally. No great commission to go and make disciples, no meet up on the road to Emmaus, no seaside breakfast with the disciples after a hard night of fishing. Just this meeting between the faithful women and the unfamiliar young man, a message delivered, an assurance made, and a fleeing in terror as if to leave the question with us, who hear the story today, to decide what will happen next.

What will happen next?


Sermon: Saturday, April 4, 2015: The Resurrection of Our Lord — The Vigil of Easter

Texts: Genesis 1:1–2:4a  +  Exodus 14:10-31;15:20-21  +  Isaiah 55:1-11  +  Daniel 3:1-29  +  Romans 6:3-11  +  John 20:1-18

JFK_Assassination2It was a Friday in November, 1963 when the nation found out that their president, John F. Kennedy had been killed. News of his assassination spread quickly as televisions in lunchrooms and living rooms flickered on to share minute by minute coverage of the events taking place in Dallas. All across the country people dropped whatever they were doing and waited for any bit of news that might make sense of this shocking tragedy.

Leonard Bernstein, the famous Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, was in meetings that afternoon when the news came to him that Kennedy was dead. The two men were friends, and Bernstein was a frequent guest at the White House. So it was perhaps not unexpected that Bernstein was approached the following day, Saturday, by CBS to create a memorial program that would air the following day, a Sunday. Bernstein accepted and worked quickly to select the music.

The obvious choice would have been a requiem, and many orchestras across the country did just that. Bernstein, however, went a different route. On Sunday, November 24, just days after the president’s assassination, Leonard Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic and the Schola Cantorum of New York in a nationally televised memorial featuring Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. Speaking the following evening at a fundraiser for the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York, Bernstein explained his decision.

“There were those who asked: Why the Resurrection Symphony, with its visionary concept of hope and triumph over worldly pain, instead of a Requiem, or the customary Funeral March […]? Why indeed? We played the Mahler symphony not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him. In spite of our shock, our shame, and our despair at the diminution of [humanity] that follows from this death, we must somehow gather strength for the increase of [humanity], strength to go on striving for those goals he cherished.”

Near the end of his remarks he said this,

“We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

brooks-circular-thumbLarge-v3This story came back to me after my dad shared David Brooks’s column from yesterday’s edition of the New York Times (04/03/2015) titled, On Conquering Fear.” In it Brooks reflects on the power of art to rouse us from the apathy and skepticism that are the byproducts of living in a constant state of terror and learned helplessness. He begins by offering a commentary on the story of the Exodus read in Jewish homes on Passover, the ending of which we’ve already heard tonight (Ex. 14:10-31;15:20-21). He writes,

Storytelling becomes central to conquering fear. It’s a way of naming and making sense of fear and imagining different routes out. Storytellers expand the consciousness, waken the sleeping self and give their hearers the words and motifs to use for themselves. Jews tell the story of the Exodus each generation to understand the fears they feel at that moment. Stories create new ways of seeing, which lead to new ways of feeling and thinking.

That is what we’ve been doing here tonight. Telling the old stories of salvation inherited from our Jewish sisters and brothers, stories of God’s hand in history creating us in love, liberating us from oppression, providing abundantly despite our fear of scarcity, accompanying us through the times of trial.

These are the stories the followers of Jesus knew by heart, the stories they’d heard passed down from generation to generation in oral traditions and songs and plays and dances and dramas. These stories were in their blood.

These were the stories that Jesus himself drew on as he gathered women and men around him to dream of a world made new, a world in which the hard lines between empire and colony, master and slave, man and woman, Greek and Jew were softened, blurred, obliterated. Stories that reminded us that in the beginning we were all made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26).

These were the stories the disciples would have heard echoing in the miracle of loaves and fishes multiplied until all were fed. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isa. 55:1)

These were the stories the followers of Jesus might have remembered as he was led away by the Roman guard to be tried by Pontus Pilate. “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him.” (Dan. 3:28)

jesus-crucifixion-1127718-galleryThen the news came on a Friday that the man they’d loved, and trusted, and followed, was dead.  He wasn’t just dead, he’d been killed, and not quietly, not out of sight, but on a cross on a hill, in plain view for everyone to see.  The message was clear: be afraid. Do not be fooled by this dreamer. The world as it is is the world as it ought to be. The empire rules and you are its subjects. Obey and live. Rise up and die.

Rome thought that would be the end of it. That the people would mourn, perhaps even riot, but they knew how to deal with that. That’s what crosses were for. What they were not expecting was Gustav Mahler’s second symphony, the Resurrection symphony.  They were not expecting the insurrection only artists can lead, the kind that begins with a story and ends with a new creation.  Somehow, somewhere, on that Saturday between the cross and the triumph of the empty tomb God, the artist who spoke creation into being with a word, whose image and likeness is imprinted on every soul, moved once again over the waters. The story spread quickly. The cross on which the teacher hung was as empty as the grave in which they laid him. The empire is unmasked! Death, where is your power now?

These are the storied waters by which we baptize, and tonight we celebrate with our brother Ryan who has responded to the call of the Holy Spirit to come and die. To come and die to the numbing death of conformity to a culture of violence. To come and die to the wasting death of complicity with a culture of scarcity. To come and die to the corrupting death of privilege in a culture of supremacy. To come and die to the tragic death of waste in a culture of consumption and degradation. Ryan has heard the call to die to all that is killing us, and to rise with Christ, the firstborn of a new creation. So we celebrate with him, and his family, and his beloved, Rachel, and with the whole church, the rebirth of a new disciple, a new storyteller, a new artist in the commonwealth of God, the anti-empire, the reign that has no end.

Sisters and brothers, there are so many reasons to weep. From the senseless massacre of human lives in Garissa, Kenya to the racialized violence that plagues our streets and swells our prisons. The sources of our grief are always before us, terrorizing us, numbing us into submission to a nightmare passing as reality. What we need is a story, a song, a symphony to rouse us to life. Jesus said to the weeping woman, to Mary whom he loved, “do not hold on to me … but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’  Mary went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’” (John 20:17)  So I say to you: do not hold on to this story, this life-giving work of art, but go and tell anyone who will listen that you have seen the Lord, who is not dead, as they claim, but alive and being born again and again in you and me, in these waters and all who emerge from them.

This will be our reply to the cross: to proclaim the gospel more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.


Credit where it’s due goes to the Leonard Bernstein Office’s website for details shared in this sermon.