Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, April 23, 2017: Second Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 2:14a, 22-32  +  Ps. 16  +  1 Pet. 1:3-9  + John 20:19-31

If you’ve been around the church for a while, then you likely know that Thomas gets a bad rap. Peter, despite his frequent bluster and unflattering denials, is nicknamed “the Rock” because Jesus says of him, “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” James and John are called the “sons of thunder,” continuing a trend of apostles who sound like pro-wrestlers. Levi “the tax collector” is remembered for his work. But, Thomas, well … you know what he’s called, right?

Doubting Thomas, remembered forever as such because John’s gospel remembers him for saying, “Unless I see the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 

“The Doubt of St. Thomas” by artist He Qi


It’s only in the gospel of John that we get to know anything about Thomas. In the other three he just shows up in the lists of the disciples who followed Jesus. In John he appears three times. We heard the story in which he makes his first appearance three weeks ago, before Palm Sunday, when we heard the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. You might remember how at the beginning of that story Jesus decides that they must return to Judea to visit Mary, Martha, and Lazarus — who had fallen ill. The disciples are hesitant because the religious authorities in Judea had tried to stone Jesus to death, but Thomas backs Jesus up, saying “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16)

Later, as he prepares them for his imminent death, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” (14:1) Then he goes on to tell the disciples that he is going ahead of them to prepare a place for them, and that they “know the way to the place [he] is going.” But Thomas says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (v. 5) This sets Jesus up to deliver his famous line, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

This is a bold claim, left hanging in the air. If you have seen Jesus, you have seen the one who sent him. You have seen God.

If we were to describe Thomas’ character arc through just these first two appearances then, we would have the picture of a disciple brave enough to follow his teacher into death, but still trying to understand what that death will mean. He can see that Jesus is leading them toward conflict, and it seems inevitable that this conflict will end tragically. Still, Thomas is ready to follow Jesus wherever he would lead them even when the way is dangerous or unknown. For this I would rather call him “Brave Thomas” or “Loyal Thomas.”

But his character arc isn’t done yet. 

In his final appearance, which we’ve heard today, Thomas is absent when Jesus first appeared to the disciples. The way the scene is described, it seems that the followers of Jesus are hiding behind locked doors, afraid that they will be rounded up to face a death like Jesus’s. But not Thomas. He is not hiding with them. His earlier words ring out now, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” The way I imagine it, Thomas is not interested in hiding from the law. He knew what they were headed for, and he was ready to follow Jesus to the end. 

We don’t know where Thomas was as the other disciples were hiding, but I imagine him wandering the streets of Jerusalem, lost, remembering all that Jesus had said to him and trying to make sense of what it had all meant. “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

What could he have meant by that? What Thomas had seen was Jesus dying on a cross, tortured by the state, abandoned by his friends. Jesus, who’d claimed to be the visible face of the invisible God, had been put to death. How could this be true, and what did it mean — not only for those who’d followed him, but for the world that had longed to be set free?

I imagine Thomas was haunted by the cross, remembering the nails that had pierced Jesus’ hands and the spear that had entered his side. Knowing that Jesus was not the only one Rome had crucified, not the first and not the last. Aware that he, too, might one day soon be crucified for his association with a man thought to be a rebel and an insurrectionist. None of this had been a surprise to Thomas, who’d guessed early on that following this Jesus would lead to his death.

So why, then, had he followed him? Why did he stay close to Jesus, when he knew the path they were on was leading to a death? I have to think that it was because in Jesus’ life Thomas saw an alternative to the world around him. In Jesus’ life, Thomas saw the sick healed, the possessed liberated, and the dead brought back to life. In Jesus’ life, Thomas saw a new and larger vision for his own life, a dignity and meaning beyond whatever work he’d left behind to follow Jesus. In Jesus’ life, Thomas had seen what it might mean for him to be truly alive. Having experienced that, the thought of going back to any other way of living was no life at all. Not even the cross was strong enough to scare Thomas away from pursuing that new life he’d known. Which is why he wasn’t hiding in the locked room with the other disciples. He was out in the world, looking for the way, the truth, and the life that he’d known in Jesus.

A week later, when Jesus once again joins the disciples, Thomas is with them. Now, the risen Jesus addresses Thomas directly, inviting him to touch the wounds that have not disappeared. This is the same Jesus that had hung on the cross. This is the one who had promised to go ahead of Thomas to prepare a place for him. This is the same one who had said, “From now on you do know [God] and have seen [God].” And what Thomas says in response to the risen Christ is, “My Lord and my God!”

The cross which stood in the center of our assembly on Good Friday, looms over this story as well. For Thomas, and for all of us, the resurrection does not erase the horror of the crucifixion. The empire that crucified Jesus on a Friday, crucified someone else on Saturday, and Sunday, and still crucifies us every day. Thomas could not hide from that fact, nor did he want to. He wanted to follow in a way of life that did not lie about death, but also did not bow down to it. He wanted to know that the one who’d called him to follow had not abandoned him. As he touched those wounds in his hands, in his side, he now knew that there was nowhere that he might go that Jesus would not go, had not gone, and that God therefore had also been. 

In Christ Jesus it was God upon the cross, not hiding from the pain and horror of our lives, but touching the pain, holding the pain, believing our pain and fear and facing it with us, and in us, and for us. Transforming our fears and doubts into solace and comfort that we are never alone.

Jesus turns from Thomas to speak to us, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And Peter, who’d denied Jesus at the moment of his death and who must have been in that locked room when Jesus appeared to Thomas, speaks to us as well, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”

As Easter people this is our task: to bear witness to all the ways that God has brought new life to people and places left for dead; to testify to the wounds that God has touched in us, that we have touched in God, and that have been healed; to declare that we who have seen Jesus have seen God and that we will keep following Jesus — not only to death, but beyond it.

Amen.

Standard
Sermons

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.

 

C9aBP3aXkAE32r5

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.

Alleluia!

Standard
Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, March 27, 2016: The Resurrection of Our Lord – Easter Day

Texts: Isaiah 65:17-25  +  Psalm 118:1-2,14-24  +  Acts 10:34-43  +  Luke 24:1-12

According to our watches, the new day begins at midnight. According to the Jewish way of keeping time, the new day begins at sunset. Still, most of us tend to imagine the new day has begun once the sun rises, once we wake up, put two feet on the floor, and get started with our work.

maxresdefault

I heard an explanation of the Jewish way of keeping time, a midrash, somewhere over the years that I like. It says that the day begins at sunset as our bodies are preparing to rest to remind us that God’s work comes before our work. That God is active in the night, in the dark places. That God, who neither sleeps nor slumbers, who keeps watch while we rest, continues to water the ground with dew and rain, calls to the seeds to sprout and the trees to grow. That the work of creation is ongoing, and begins without us. That when we rise from sleep, we are joining God in the work of a day already well under progress.

The women arrived at early dawn on the first day of the week because they cared about Jesus’ body. They were there because he’d been killed on a Friday, and his body had been laid in a tomb late in the day as the Sabbath was about to begin. He had been a good Jewish man and they were observant Jewish women so, despite the fact that his body had been bruised and tortured before being hung on a cross, they left him in the tomb and returned home to prepare spices and ointments that they planned to use to prepare him for burial later. Then the sun set and the sabbath began, and in keeping with tradition and the law, they rested.

They rested because it was the tradition and the law, and because they had to after all they had witnessed the previous day. The women and men who’d followed Jesus rested on the sabbath, because they needed rest. Their hearts were broken, their bodies were spent, their hopes were dashed.

Sometime the following night, as they slept for the second time since their Lord had been killed, God began God’s work. Even as God watered the ground with dew and rain, and called out to the seeds to put down roots and the trees to unfurl their leaves, God rolled away the stone that blocked the entrance to the tomb. Things that were living, that had come back to life, were no longer to be found in places reserved for the dead.

tomb-2

Now the women had returned to finish what they’d started, only to discover that God had started something new! They came to anoint a dead body, and were greeted by a vacant tomb and two messengers who gave them an answer buried in a question: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Why indeed? Why do we so often look for signs of life among the ruins of death? The question spirals out in a million directions. Why do we trust our lives to things that take life? Why do we create economies that come to life when we go to war? Why do we confuse incarceration with rehabilitation, restoration and reconciliation? Why do we keep looking to things that kill for signs of life?

These are all implications of the fundamental truth hinted at in the young men’s question. The women are looking for Jesus in a tomb but he is not there, because God raised Jesus from the dead!

Even today, two thousand years later, I can feel some remnant of the original power of saying those words out loud. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to the women — Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women who came to the tomb that first morning — when they returned to the rest of the disciples and delivered the Easter proclamation for the very first time:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!

Except that’s not what the men said when they heard the news. They had not gone to the tomb. They had not seen the stone rolled away. They had not heard the question posed by the two men in the graveyard. They had not been challenged to ask themselves why they were still looking for the Living One among the dead. And so, because they had stayed hidden in the safety of the past they knew, they were not inclined to believe the news of the future they could never have expected. Here we get the first biblical account of the phenomenon we’ve come to know as “mansplaining,” as the men explain away the truth of what these women know, as though this profoundly good news cannot be trusted until it is witnessed by a man, which Peter promptly runs off to do.

Of course I’m making a bit of a joke here, I guess. Though I don’t think it’s irrelevant to the story that the first to share the good news of the resurrection, the first to offer testimony to God’s miracle in Jesus, were those society was least ready to believe. Even in modern times, up until the last century, women were not considered credible witnesses in American courts of law. So, ironically, Luke’s gospel offers a bit of supporting evidence that the one who had risen from the tomb was the same as the one they’d followed in life, because who else but Jesus would select witnesses the world was conditioned to overlook? Who else but Jesus, who’d taught that it is the poor, the hungry, the grieving and the despised who are blessed in the eyes of God? This detail, so in keeping with the life he’d led, suggests to us now that his life is not over, but continues on.

Each of the gospels gives the details of that first Easter morning just a little bit differently. Last night we heard the account from John, with the heart-wrenching reunion between Jesus and Mary in the graveyard, full of passion. But I also appreciate this version from Luke, in which Jesus does not even make an appearance. The only evidence we are offered is an empty tomb and a question — “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” — which leaves us with our own work to do, as we wrestle with that question, and our own choice to make as we decide whether we will have the courage to do as the women did and proclaim Jesus Christ risen from the dead, or instead if we will be like those who discount all this as an “idle tale.”

One last hint as the truth dawns on us. The women would not have been at the tomb to perceive the miracle that had taken place during the night, while their bodies were resting, if they had not come to care for Jesus’ own body. But it was the women who got up early with the sun, to take care of a real body, not a disembodied idea of a person or a life. They were ready to deal with the stench of death, to touch flesh that had become cold and hard, to witness the disfiguration of torture and crucifixion. They were not content to let somebody else attend to these things, but were prepared to anoint the body of the Lord they had loved.

If we are struggling to believe in the truth of the resurrection, perhaps it is because we are not willing to go and sit with those who are dying, those in prison or without a home, those disfigured by torture, those who are still being crucified even today by empires near and far. In my own faltering experience, it has most often been the case that the reality of the resurrection never seems more self-evident than when I am with those whom Jesus put first, when I trade people in the abstract for people in the flesh, the way God made them.

That’s where Jesus lives now, not in our ideas about him and his resurrection, but in our encounters with him as he lives in the bodies God has washed and anointed, the Body of Christ, which is not dead, but is risen, and is still rising today.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!

Amen.

Standard