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?

Relational Faith: An Experiment in Co-Preaching

For Theological Education Sunday at Faith Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX—Molly McGinnis and I decided to co-preach. We collaborated on the lectionary texts to develop a common theme, and then I preached a short sermon on the Old Testament text and Molly preached on the New Testament text. Here are our sermons with scripture included.

Exodus 32:7-14

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’

But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.” ’ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Sermon – Layton Williams (Some material taken from a sermon I wrote in Fall of 2011)

“Don’t talk back to me!”

We’ve all heard this phrase before, right? As kids we’re taught that the paragon of morality is silent obedience. To question is to disrespect. To challenge is to incur greater punishment.

I remember watching Disney’s Cinderella as a kid, and in it the stepmother demands unquestioning obedience. Whenever anyone starts to protest one of her commands, she points a long, serious finger at them and says, “silence!” So fully did I buy into this idea as a child that any time I did something that might get me in trouble and an adult opened their mouth to reprimand me, I would point my finger at them and say “silence!” before they could utter a word. Somehow, it was never as effective as I wanted it to be.  But sometimes, it’s just easier to demand silence.

Sometimes it’s also just easier to offer silence. When I found out I would be preaching here at Faith where my friend Molly is doing her internship, I got really excited about this idea of co-preaching. I told her I’d take the Old Testament text and she could take the Gospel and we’d preach on a common theme. And then I read my text, in which God threatens to annihilate the Israelites for their sinfulness and Moses has to talk God down. And I thought—Layton, what have you gotten yourself into? And suddenly, silence seemed like a really good idea.

But is silent, passive, obedience really what God asks from us? I think this passage—difficult though it may be—clearly tells us no. That’s not what God wants from us at all.

When God comes to Moses, the sin of the people that has so upset their God is idolatry. The history of God’s interaction with Israel is one of relationship, an ongoing sacred conversation that began with Abraham generations before. But in their impatience waiting for Moses to come back with words from God, the people have created and begun to worship a golden calf. The people create a static god that offers them only silence, and expects only silence in return. They choose a flat, lifeless image instead of the living God who both offers and demands relationship.

In anguish and anger over their idolatry, God refuses to acknowledge his relationship with Israel at all. “Your people… have acted perversely,” God tells Moses. “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them.”

Perhaps the easiest thing for Moses would have been silent obedience. To “let God alone.” But Moses knows that something important is at stake: this sacred relationship between God and God’s people. And so he does something crazy. Moses talks back to God. He reminds God that the Israelites are God’s people with whom God established a covenant relationship. Moses is willing to challenge God’s anger and doubt, to risk some sort of greater punishment—precisely because he is and has been in relationship with God. Moses knows God and so Moses can look God’s wrath square in the face and say, “I know you, and this isn’t you.” He’s right. And amazingly—God responds. Moses changes God’s mind.

Moses knew that silent obedience was the easier answer. But he also knew it wasn’t the right answer. The living God calls us into conversation and relationship and without these things God becomes for us a lifeless idol. The living God challenges us to talk back. In the uncertainty of our times—plagued with moral ambiguity and conflict and doubt, it can be tempting to look for a static image of God—an easy set of rules that demand only that we shut up and shut down and follow. But sometimes the most faithful thing we can do in such a world is stand up and say, “No!… Why?” God calls us to struggle against injustice, to challenge the status quo, to ask hard questions about faith and morality and God’s will, to talk back. God calls us to relationship because that is how we know and love one another. That is how we know and love God.

Several years ago, Mark Ferrari wrote a novel called The Book of Joby—a modern spin on the book of Job. In the story, God and Lucifer bet on the righteousness of young boy named Joby Peterson. The stakes of the bet are high: if Lucifer wins God must wipe out all of existence. God tells his angels and other agents of Heaven that they must not intervene on God’s behalf to help Joby, lest the wager’s terms be violated and Lucifer win by default.

As Joby’s life progresses, a number of the archangels and other heavenly beings come into contact with him, and one by one they defy God’s command and speak out in an effort to spare the boy from the cruelest effects of the bet. When the day of the wager’s reckoning arrives, those who went against the divine command guiltily await their anticipated damnation, but God surprises them.

When Lucifer insists that they be damned for disobeying God’s will, God says, “Did they?” and then continues, “It was only my command they violated. Not my will… I will concede that, had they disappointed me by doing otherwise, I doubt you could have lost the wager, Lucifer” (Ferrari 621). When Lucifer protests in fury, God reveals exactly what he was betting on. “I was betting that, at the core, My creation was so soundly imbued with the laws of love and faith, compassion and real justice, that even if I, Myself, should command it to ignore those laws, it would still not do so” (Ferrari 621).

In Ferrari’s book, God’s deepest hope is not that the angels obey his command to be silent, but that they know and love God deeply enough to defy a command which contradicts their experience of who God is. Moses dares to know God well enough to talk back. And God dares us to do the same.

We draw nearer to God through daring to be in relationship – with one another and with God. It is not always easy, but God is not interested in easy—in faith in idols or idle faith. God wants more from us and we’re offered so much more in return. We get to really know God. To know God so well that even if God’s own self forgot who God was, we could say, “We remember. We know who you are. We can show you.”

What a gift and what a calling – this sacred relationship.

We belong to God. We belong to each other. That is the call of our faith.


Luke 15:1-10

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

Sermon – Molly McGinnis

The Lost Sheep. We probably all know what it feels like to be alone, uncertain, stranded—lost. Whether it’s lost from home, in a new place, or at a loss about what to do. This “lostness” or feeling of being lost is something that we have all experienced, but the feeling usually goes away. We figure out where we’re going. We make new friends, and settle into a new place. But there are people who never get away from feeling lost. There are people in our world, our city, and even in our churches, who live in a perpetual state of “lostness.”

They are the hungry people who eat from the food pantry. They are the people experiencing homelessness who use this place as an address. They are the prisoners who wait for execution. They are the people suffering from Diabetes and HIV, who can’t afford their medication. They are the LGBTQ people whose churches have condemned them. They are the teenage parents whose families have abandoned them.

They are us. Because they are God’s and so are we.

In today’s lesson, we see Jesus in a familiar setting—preaching and teaching to the public.  The scribes and Pharisees are at hand, monitoring his every move. It’s hard to tell what they are thinking. Maybe they feel threatened. Their authority is being challenged, and they don’t like that. But the text points us toward something else, too. They are grumbling. What an interesting choice of words. Grumbling. It doesn’t say that they were mad, or upset, or threatened. It says that they were grumbling, a word that is also used to describe the Israelites traveling in the wilderness with Moses. The Israelites were God’s chosen people. They were the people of God. The scribes and Pharisees, leaders of the synagogue and descendants of the Israelites, were also the people of God. Perhaps they, too, were in the wilderness.

Jesus comes in and turns their world upside down, challenging not only their authority but also the way that they viewed themselves in relationship to other people. Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners, welcoming them into his household. Through his actions, he is telling the whole world that they, too, are the people of God. And that they are welcome.  Jesus makes room at the table for the whole community, even the ones who don’t seem like they belong, because everyone fits together in the space that God has created.

When the woman loses the coin, she is utterly distraught. Now, this wasn’t like losing a quarter in the sofa cushion. That coin was probably worth a day’s wages. Obviously she is upset about losing that much money. But there is something else happening in this text. She didn’t just lose a coin; she lost one of 10. There is an emphasis on the incompleteness.

She searches frantically all over the house. When she finally finds the coin, she is so happy that she calls everyone together to celebrate with her. She doesn’t put it in a safe somewhere and lock her front door. She throws a party! She invites the whole community to share in her happiness.

Her house has been turned upside down, a fitting metaphor for what Jesus does in the Gospel and in our lives. He enters into the community, building a house that is big enough for everyone, calling them together in joy and celebration. Jesus doesn’t grumble about eating with sinners and tax collectors. He doesn’t worry about breaking social norms. He doesn’t focus on following the Law to the letter. He teaches us that the life of faith is incomplete even when one is missing. And the whole family of God suffers when anyone experiences “lostness.”

In the parable, all of the sheep are “in the wilderness.” Not just the one who is lost. The shepherd leaves the flock “in the wilderness” while searching for the lost sheep, who is also “in the wilderness.” Without the 99, the 1 is lost. Without the 1, the 99 is incomplete.

I think The Beatles said it best: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”* We belong to God. We belong to each other. That is the call of our faith.

* “I Am the Walrus” by The Beatles, 1967

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