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.


Sermon: Sunday, April 20, 2014: The Resurrection of Our Lord

Texts: Acts 10:34-43  +  Colossians 3:1-4  +  Matthew 28:1-10

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.

Here’s why:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!