Among the Living (an Easter sermon)

**Originally preached at 4:00 Jazz Worship at Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016**

Luke 24:1-12

I have this box. It hasn’t always been a box. It’s looked different over the years. It started out as a folder—or maybe it was an envelope. Right now, it’s a blue and white striped hat box. Inside of it are momentos of my past.

As I get older, more and more of the items in this box represent people I have loved who have died. There are funeral programs from high school classmates and old Sunday school teachers, a poem I wrote for my grandfather, the last sermon my preaching professor graded for me, a cross that belonged to my grandmother.

I’ve moved about 20 times in the last 10 years, and inevitably, some of even these most precious momentos have gotten lost. I often don’t notice the absence right away. After all, my box mostly just gathers dust on a shelf. But when I do notice something missing, the pang of it is sharp. I know that it’s only  a piece of paper or costume jewelry, but it’s also the last thing I have left of a person I loved—the last little bit of them I can touch and feel—and in its absence the grief and loss well up again anew.

Maybe you know what I’m talking about. Maybe you have a box too. We all have our hearts wrapped like fingers around pieces of those we’ve lost—trying to hold on just a little bit longer.

In our text for today, the women rise early, before the sun. Women who loved Jesus and whom Jesus loved and called by name: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary mother of James, and others who we don’t know but whom Jesus surely did. In the eerie quiet of predawn, they gather the materials they need to visit his tomb. To care for his body in death.

The previous hours and days have been long and surreal—like they come from a life and a world that don’t belong to them. The brutal cut of Jesus’ death has carved out a hollowness in each of them. There is nothing in his place except deep, endless uncertainty. Everything about their future is unknown. But this—these rituals of burial and death—these they know. These they understand. These they can still trust.

On their somber journey to his tomb, they are startled to recognize an out of place feeling. Where there should be only anger and sorrow and numbness, they feel within themselves the tiniest spark of—what is it?—relief? Comfort?

They will see his body. They will touch it and care for him as they always have. He is gone and so much has been lost, but at least they have this familiar part of him. At least they have this.

Except they don’t. When they reach the tomb, the stone is rolled away, and Jesus’ body is gone.

The text tells us that the women were first perplexed, and then overcome with fear. I wonder if the text doesn’t have it a little bit backwards. In my imagining, the fear comes first—fear that grows from a grief that no longer has its limit or its mitigating comfort. Now he is truly lost. They have nothing left to hold on to.

This gut-level grief and despair is what roils and churns inside of them when they are encountered by two strangers in dazzling clothes. And dazzling though they may be, the bedside manner of these two messengers… well, it leaves something to be desired. They are not comforting or understanding, they don’t even offer the standard angel salutation of “Do not be afraid!” Instead, one of them asks the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen.”

See, this is where I think the perplexity comes in. Because this is a confusing thing to hear, through the haze of your grief, so newly reignited. This is a perplexing question to be asked at the burial place of your friend, whose absolutely lifeless body you helped lay here just two days earlier. Where else would you come to be with him? Where else should you look? Where did he go?

The messengers explain it to them, then. Perhaps with an exasperated eyeroll. “Don’t you remember what he told you?” they ask. “He said that he would die and be raised on the third day. He told you this would happen.”

And perhaps, through their grief, the words he’d spoken to them over and over did echo in their memory again. But even then, it couldn’t have felt entirely real. After all, resurrection wasn’t something they witnessed regularly or understood. And even though these strange men were telling them Jesus had risen, they haven’t seen it. They haven’t seen life re-enter his body. All they have is absence. And the command to remember, and trust.

The text smoothes over this part. It tells us that the women remembered Jesus’ words and then skips ahead to the part where they have returned to town to tell the 11 and other disciples. But something hugely significant happens inbetween. Before they reach the disciples, first, they have to leave the tomb. I cannot imagine how difficult that would have been. I’m not actually sure I could have done it.

I mean, sure, the tomb isn’t a good place to be. It’s scary and broken and painful. But it’s also the last familiar thing. See, we like to hold on. Even in pain, we grasp firmly onto the familiar. And these women, seemingly, have to leave what they’ve known and loved for something that will surely be totally new and unknown.

The strangers’ question having been dealt with, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”—leaves another question in its place, “If Jesus is not there, in the tomb, where is he? Where does Jesus go to be among the living—among the resurrected?”

The answer is not immediately apparent to the women or the disciples they run off to tell. Their journey from the tomb is not a momentary leap into the waiting arms of easy understanding and new certainty. They tremble in fear and doubt and they wait. But the answer does come. And just like their discovery at the tomb, it is an unimaginable surprise.

The risen Jesus—gone to be among the living—is not in some far off, unfamiliar place that his followers do not know—the risen Jesus appears in their very midst. In their world. He is in their upper room and on their dusty roads, and at their breakfast fire. The resurrected Jesus is among the living—and, as it turns out, they are the living.

Their world is the resurrected one—the one that, through Christ’s conquering of death, is being made new and whole even then. It isn’t something unfamiliar—it is the world they know. They just must learn to see it, and themselves, with new eyes. Resurrection eyes.

Years ago, when I was in third grade, my class used to watch a show every Friday called Reading Rainbow. Among other things, each episode always included a narrated reading of a children’s book, complete with illustrations on the screen. There is one particular book from that time in my life that has always stuck with me. It’s called Round Trip and it was written by a woman named Ann Jonas. It recounts a fairly simple story of a trip to the city and back.

What stuck with me, though, about this book wasn’t the name or the storyline. It was the illustrations. See, the illustrations for this book are done entirely in black and white silhouette. As you read, they reveal tall buildings and crashing waves, and long roads with other cars, and the high view from the top of a skyscraper. And then, you reach the last page and the story just seems to stop. It’s a little anti-climactic, a little disappointing.

Until you realize… the story isn’t over. You just have to turn the book upside down. When you do, the story continues. You read the book in reverse as it recounts the journey home. And all of the very same illustrations you saw before are transformed into new pictures from this new perspective.

Hidden in this simple but cleverly illustrated book is an Easter promise.

On that cold, dark morning, the women came to the tomb to hold on to what they could of a story they believed to be over. But it turns out, it isn’t. What the women and the disciples find when they summon the courage to leave the tomb is that Jesus isn’t gone. The story isn’t over. Jesus has turned the book upside down.

This is the powerful promise of that first Easter dawn—and it is our promise to take hold of this Easter day. A living Jesus who bears resurrection to this world and proclaims us the living too. The risen Jesus is in our midst, right now, this very day and moment. Not lost in death or only raised in some new kingdom beyond our knowing—but in our world. This messy, crowded, dusty, broken world. Jesus has risen and turned this world upside down.

The cornerstone promise of our faith is that one day all those who have died will be resurrected to new life and this world, God’s original creation—will be restored to wholeness. And it is true that that project is not yet complete. But it has begun. It began the moment Jesus left that tomb behind, and when we leave the tomb behind we find that that restoration, that resurrection is ongoing—it is happening even now in our midst. Jesus is among the living—and the living is us.

Some days, this is easier to believe than others. Some days, life and this world can feel like a tomb. As friends hurt, and loved ones die, and communities suffer—as violence erupts in our street and across the world—as lines blur between protectors and those we need protection from—between leaders to trust and tyrants to fear. When global violence becomes so common place that our first reaction at the news of a bombing isn’t horror but resignation, even inconvenience. When the future of our world or just our own lives looks like an abyss of uncertainty. Sometimes, it feels like all we can do is hunker down in the dark and wrap our fingers and hearts tightly around whatever pieces of love we have left to hold onto and watch the world around us shatter.

Sometimes, the most familiar and comforting thing we can think to do is to stay in the tomb. But we don’t belong there forever. We, like Jesus, are not meant to be among the dead—we are the living.

Ours is not a world that is slowly, irrevocably breaking all around us—ours is a broken world that is always already, even now, bit by bit, being made new and whole. And we are not a people called to passively wait for some new day in some far away unknown time and place. We are harbingers of the resurrection. We are the ones who rush from the tomb to bring to this hurting world the good news that Jesus is risen and we are being raised too. Resurrection is afoot. New life is beginning in our very midst. Right now. In this world that we know. On our streets and in our houses and at our tables and even behind our locked doors and in our doubting hearts. We need only open our eyes to see it.

When young queer black women witness the evil of countless careless murders of their own race and begin a movement that dares to proclaim that “black lives matter”—that is not a last feeble gasp of hope against an unstoppable tide of brokenness. That is goodness and life that refuse to surrender to evil and death. That is resurrection. When citizens and businesses alike respond to their state’s hateful legislation with the firm declaration of “we are not this” or at least “we don’t want to be”—that isn’t a futile, empty gesture—it is the gospel of persistent redemption. That is resurrection.

When, in the face of some global tragedy or many, we stand together across races, countries, and faiths v to say that we are stronger than what seeks to destroy us—when we recognize that we are bound up together in love—that is resurrection. And when you are too filled with doubt, with agony, with hopelessness to believe in any good at all—and a friend says “for as long as you need, I will carry that hope and faith for you”—that too is resurrection. It’s everywhere. It is alive in this world right now. And, even if it doesn’t always seem like it—it will win in the end.

Theologian N.T. Wright says, “The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that [we are] now invited to belong to it.”

Our call this Easter day—our call every day as God’s people—is to know that Christ is among us. Christ has given us new life—declared us the living and this world—this very world—a world of resurrection. We are called to trust and participate in all of the ways that God’s justice and love are being done and, whenever we can, to join in the work of making this world new.

And so we leave here this day, summoning our courage and trust, to go be among the living. We leave with the promise that Jesus has turned the book upside down and the story isn’t over. We go to seek out Christ in this world and to see this world with eyes of resurrection and look for how we might participate in that resurrecting work.

This very day, Jesus Christ is risen and among us, and proclaims that we are the living. The story doesn’t stop here—the story continues.

So you tell me: what happens next?

All The Poems I Wrote in Lent

My Lenten discipline this year was to try to write a poem every day. I wrote 47 of them between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Though I don’t often share my poems with others, this has been a really cool experience of developing attentiveness and integrating writing into my daily life. Hoping to self-publish a book with these and a few other poems in the coming months.

If you’ve been following my project and have a favorite poem, I’d love to hear which one! They’re all linked below.

  1. Ash Wednesday
  2. Sweet Girl
  3. Witness
  4. On Scalia, Death, and Respect
  5. Too Much
  6. My Father’s House
  7. Letting Go
  8. In Protest of Endings
  9. Lukewarm
  10. Confession
  11. 55 and Sunny
  12. Where’s the Fire
  13. Frenzy
  14. The Irony of Womanness
  15. In Brief
  16. Power and Truth
  17. Small Comfort
  18. Questionable Philosophy
  19. Jeremiah
  20. Two Coins
  21. Promise
  22. Fidelity
  23. Robin+Jerry+Mo
  24. Holes
  25. On Edge
  26. Theater of the Absurd
  27. On Repeat
  28. A Love Song for Women
  29. Waterfront
  30. The Short Sell
  31. Improv
  32. Unity
  33. Coach
  34. Company
  35. Miracle
  36. Daily Bread
  37. Retraction
  38. All Mad Here
  39. The Eye and I
  40. Traversing the Tension
  41. Matters
  42. Loud Mouth
  43. Sticks and Stones
  44. Monday Thursday
  45. Home
  46. Over-eager
  47. Rise

Rise (a poem)

**this is the last poem of my Lenten poem-a-day discipline. All 46 of them can be found on this blog.**

Easter dawns dark
but eager with its
ceremony and special
sense of promise.

And so we gather
in the early light
and dare ourselves
to believe, for a moment,
in impossible things:
in endings that
are not endings,
in death that somehow
yields to life,
in the absurd assurance
that even when,
by definition, it’s all over,
it may not, in fact,
quite be over, after all.

The sun watches our
jubilation with a sly smile,
and a gentle eye roll,
and an amused shake
of her head.
Sure, this is good news,
she says, but it’s not like
it’s *new* news.
Don’t I tell you everyday?
Don’t I whisper it
in your ear each dawn
before your eyes’ first flutter?
Don’t I murmur it to you
when I kiss you goodnight
each dusk?
Haven’t I shown you
over and over, every
blessed day of your life?

That all created things,
beautiful and beloved,
at last and always,
rise again.

Over-eager (a poem)

I am terrible at waiting.
I am pretty sure there
isn’t a patient
piece of me.

When I was six years old
I asked for a dachshund
for Christmas and
when the morning came
I woke up hours too
early and made my way
to the top of our
basement staircase—
my brother and I having
slept down there for
whatever reason.

I knew better than
to venture out
to the living room
and tree
but I pressed myself
full body up against the door,
ear pressed to the painted wood,
listening for the slightest
rustle of new life.
And I stayed there,
wriggling, painfully eager,
obnoxiously impatient,
till they finally let us out.

There is no wisdom here.
I am only saying that
I’m no good at Holy Saturday,
and I spend it every year,
like every other waiting
moment of my life,
with my full body
pressed against the door,
listening for the first
sure, certain sign of life.

I think maybe Jesus is
a little impatient too.
I mean his whole life
and ministry were all
a fairly fast-paced rush.
And really, it was 3 days
only barely.

So, I take some comfort
in imagining him
on the other side,
mirroring me,
full-body pressed
against that door
from death to life,
waiting for the first
discernible second
of dawn.

And we are both
whispering over and over,
“I can’t wait.”

Home (a poem)

It is hard being queer
and from the South.
Weeks like this make
me feel like it’s the one
unrequited love
I may never get over.

I do love it,
helplessly, unhealthily,
way down in my bones.
The years and distance
cannot shake that
down-home dust from my feet.

I miss it daily, deeply:
the low-country coast
and blue ridges that turn
to brilliant fire
when autumn comes.
And the slow summers,
and the wide smiles,
and the long stories
I inhaled hungrily
and then learned to
spin myself.

In that full-hearted place,
I learned the beauty of the earth,
and the healing power of a kind
and genuine gesture.
I learned family and neighbor
and God are the things
that get you through.

But what do I do with the rest?
Because I also learned there
to fear what looks different,
and to fear myself.
In the South I first saw
what hate looks like
in the guise of godliness.
I learned to run from
hate like that, and the
powers that make it law,
and what all of that broken
can do to a person like me–
is doing and
worse even to others.

Even now I just want the
world to see all the magic
there is in that place,
And even now I am still
terrified of that hate.
It is so much to carry
and it keeps my heart
always a little broken.

But today, I am thankful
for the ones who stay,
who stand up and fight
for the best in that place.
I am grateful for the
voices that maintain the hope
of a South that might
one day again
be my home.

Monday Thursday (a poem)

When I was a kid
this was my favorite
service of the year.
The strange irony
was how it brought
my faith to life.

Though I never understood
why we called it “mon-dee”
like that rough day of
week’s opening with
an extra southern twang,
I figured it just meant
that something new
was about to begin,
in God’s time rather than ours.

I loved the drama of it,
the low light and
the muted stained glass.
The twelve candles guttering
and gusting out with
each new story told.
The sweet familiar taste
of bread and juice
made sweeter in their
proper day and time.

I felt closer to Jesus
then than ever.
I could see myself
sitting at his table,
his hands cupping my feet,
bearing bread to my mouth
with my name on his lips.

When the final moment came:
the deafening beat of drum
and the louder silence after
that carried his death,
I admit I still felt giddy,
just to know so well
that I belonged.

All these years later,
both grown and pastor,
I could laugh at
just how wrong I was,
how much I missed the point.

Except that,
all these years later,
I’m not entirely convinced
I did.

Sticks and Stones (a poem)

Sometimes it feels like
the world is flooding.
Like God is breaking
her promise,
or more like we’re
breaking it for her.
Some days, all the
bad in this world roars
like one awful giant
made of broken.

Some weeks I wonder
what chance we all stand
against the rising tide
or the thundering colossus.
But every time I’ve almost
resigned myself to us all
being swept away or devoured,
I am startled by the sudden
appearance of good.

Usually it’s just a little thing
a pebble of promise or
tiny twig of goodwill:
a prayer answered,
a positive shift in health,
the rise of an earnest voice,
a stranger’s compassion,
the company of faithful friends,
or a sign of hard won progress,
however slight.
Against giant and flood,
what can a few sticks and stones
like these do?

Except enough sticks
make for a sturdy ark
and a few well aimed rocks
can lay a fearsome giant low.

And every evil ever known
has been undone and overcome
by a little wood and
a rolled away stone.

Loud Mouth (a poem)

I have never been able
to keep my mouth shut.
Not since the day
I was born.
I have holes
in the pocket where
my secrets are kept.
And I slept through
the class where
they taught us
how to hold our tongues.

And so I am always
saying the wrong thing,
the overly honest
and earnest thing,
the words that don’t belong
in polite company.

It’s not that it doesn’t
terrify me, sometimes,
to tell the truth,
it’s just that other things
terrify me more.

See, I have never been able
to keep my mouth shut
but I’ve had it shut for me.

And nothing scares me
more than the dark
of the boxes
where secrets get locked
like bodies in coffins
buried alive.

Enough layers of dirt
can muffle any sound
but silence
doesn’t mean
there’s nothing
desperate to be heard.

Why do we speak the hard truths?

To shout down the silence
and build, with our voices,
a world where the hard truths
no longer exist.

Matters (a poem)

I used to believe
that becoming a pastor
would make me
a better Christian.
But it’s the Monday
of Holy Week,
and I’ve spent my
whole day
dealing with the drama
of a shattered screen.

It’s amazing
how quickly
Worship becomes work,
and a holy Monday
fills with the mundane.
But then Christ
knew ordinary too,
and isn’t that kind of
the point?

After all,
on his Holy Week
Monday, he, too,
was consumed
with the immediate.
He, too,
was dealing with
the drama
of cracked glass,
and how we reach
one another,
and where to spend
the coins we have.

Maybe sometimes
what matters
isn’t escaping from
all the ordinary
that is, but simply
letting Jesus
sit beside you
in life’s beautiful,
messy mundanity.

Traversing the Tension (a poem)

It is strange
being a pastor
during Holy Week.
Even as you’re urging
your people
to wait, to stay
in the hard days,
in the quiet pain of it,

it’s your job to look ahead,
dream ahead,
write ahead:
To Easter
and its far off sun,
crafting words that
will banish
the shadows.

But Holy Week
with its somber,
slow unraveling,
keeps its hooks in us too.

The path we travel
in these weighty days
(perhaps even always)
calls us to keep our
spirits split
and our feet
in two different
called Hope
and called Grief.
Somehow both
citizen and stranger
to each.