Radical Aliveness

Sermon for Sunday, April 15, 2018 || Easter 3B || LUKE 24:36b-48

There’s a great scene near the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where a tank drives off a cliff with Indy aboard. Henry Jones, Marcus Brody, and Sallah race to the cliff’s edge and watch in horror as the tank tumbles to a stop below. In the meantime, Indiana Jones is clambering up a vine nearby. He staggers to his feet and comes up behind them. Sean Connery, who plays Indy’s father, does a fantastic double take and then grabs Harrison Ford in a frantic embrace. “I thought I lost you, boy,” he says, and the hug extends past the point you would expect this stern and professorial father to embrace his child.

I imagine a similar scene taking place in the upper room when the Risen Christ appears in the midst of his disciples. They think he’s a ghost, but he assures them he’s real: “Touch me and see!” Certainly, some of them grabbed him in the same frantic embrace that Indy and his father share. “I thought I lost you, Lord.” Others are still skeptical, so Jesus eats a piece of fish in front of them to prove he really does have internal organs, especially an esophagus, stomach, and intestines. Continue reading “Radical Aliveness”

The Living Among the Dead

Sermon for Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016 || Easter C || Luke 24:1-12

thelivingamongthedeadGood morning, and welcome to St. Mark’s Church on this Feast of the Resurrection. You know, every Sunday is a Feast of the Resurrection, but today is special. Do you know why? Because today is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox – and that makes today Easter. So if a late night talk show host ever jumps out of a cab and asks you how to calculate the date of Easter, now you know.

Today is also special because of the week we’ve just had here at St. Mark’s. We’ve walked with Jesus from his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, to the last supper with his friends to his agony in the garden, to his betrayal and arrest and trial, to his crucifixion, to his burial in the tomb. We’ve been through the darkness of Good Friday; we’ve been to the foot of the cross. Now the dawn breaks on Sunday morning, and once again we set off, walking this time with the women and their spiced ointments.

I doubt they slept much the last two nights, Mary Magdalene and the other women who rose early on the first day of the week to minister to their dead Lord. Every time they shut their eyes, I’m sure they saw the silhouette of Jesus’ cross in the distance, his limp body barely recognizable because of his torturous hours hanging there. No, I doubt these women slept much, though if they did finally fall into fitful slumber, it was because they cried themselves to sleep. When all you have left is your tears, you’d want to hoard them; but that’s when they flow all the more freely.

I’m sure the tears began again when they awoke early Sunday morning. New grief is like that. Each morning you wake and remember again that your loved one is gone, and again the pain stabs you anew, just as fresh as the first time. They bear the rawness of their grief by taking on a mission; after all, staying busy is one way to soften the blow. And so the women take up their burden of fragrant spices and trudge out into the darkness in order to arrive at the tomb at first light.

Out of deep troves of love and compassion, these brave women are ready to care for the body of their Lord and to prepare it for proper burial. It turns out Mary and her friends are making the happiest mistake in the history of mistakes. They are ready to wash and anoint a lifeless body, but what they find is no body at all. They find an empty tomb. For a horrible moment, their grief threatens to overwhelm them because the mission they were planning to perform – the one they had been clinging to since his death – is gone now, too. They didn’t think they could be more desolate, but they are wrong. For this horrible moment, the empty tomb magnifies their desolation.

But into this scene of despair and grief comes the sudden presence of two gleaming messengers. They enlighten the woman as to their happy mistake: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has arisen.”

The messengers continue talking, but the women have ears only for that last word: “Arisen!” For the first time since Friday, they remember Jesus’ words, and first one, then another, then another breaks out into a tentative smile. “Could it be true?” they ask each other.

“Yes, yes, yes it could.”

“Jesus never lied to us.”

“How could we forget his words?”

Then one repeats the messengers’ question: “Why are we looking for the living among the dead?”

This question echoes down through the centuries, and we find ourselves asking it when we read the beginning of the final chapter of Luke’s account of the Gospel. Why do you look for the living among the dead? How often in our day-to-day lives could we hear the gleaming messengers ask us this question? How often do we trudge down our own well-worn paths to life-defeating things hoping this time – maybe this time – something life-affirming will happen?

Perhaps you’ve had a string of boyfriends who were real losers. Your friends tell you so at every opportunity, but you’ve got a blind spot for the proverbial bad boy. They treat you with no respect. From time to time they’ve even called you a name that I can’t say during this sermon. And yet you meet another one and all the signs are there, but you dive in headfirst anyway. To you the gleaming messengers say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Perhaps you’ve been sober for three months. Your sponsor hands you your chip and slaps you on the back. You’ve got a couple of other three-month chips in a drawer somewhere, but that’s not on your mind right now. On your way home from the meeting, you run into an old buddy from back in the day. The next morning, you stagger to the drawer and toss the newest chip in. Maybe you’ll get another one in a few months time, but for today your salvation is at the bottom of a bottle. To you, the messengers say, “Why do you look for living among the dead?”

Perhaps you work through your family vacation because you’ve got too many projects on your plate. Or you’ve given into the tiny fearful voice that says you’re too old or too sick or too broken to make a difference in someone else’s life. Or you spend every waking hour mindlessly surfing YouTube and Facebook and Instagram. Or…or…or… Every one of us has a few life-defeating paths that we have no trouble finding. To each of us, the messengers say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”The Resurrection of Jesus Christ spurred this question all those centuries ago. The women made the happy mistake of looking for a dead messiah, when the Risen One was alive again. Our life-defeating paths lead to tombs, as well, but they are not empty, for our dead messiahs are there waiting to suck the life from us. But the tomb of the Risen Lord is empty, and a new, life-affirming path stretches from that tomb and reaches into eternity.

Today, on this first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, on this special Feast of the Resurrection, we see most clearly this new, life-affirming path stretching from our feet off to the sun-drenched horizon. As we walk it together and with our Risen Lord, we will pass by so many people going the opposite way down the life-defeating paths. This may be due to their own choices or because they are caught up in systems that will never produce anything but defeat; systems of poverty, injustice, racism, apathy.

But as we walk this life-affirming path, we have the opportunity to be apostles like those brave women, to show people the power of the Risen Christ in our lives, to hook arms with folks going the other way and help turn them around. We have the opportunity to be the gleaming messengers who ask one simple question. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

And then we have the glorious opportunity to share the heart of the Good News. “He is not here, but has arisen.”

*I preached a version of this sermon at Easter in 2013. The old version had a lot of problems (mostly, it was two or three sermons smushed into one, which is a sign of lazy thinking and writing on my part). I think this rewrite fixes those things. Of course, in a few years time I might think the same thing about this version, too. And so it goes…

Stigmata

Sermon for Sunday, April 19, 2015 || Easter 3B || Luke 24:36b-48

StigmataStigma is not a happy word. If you use it in a sentence, more than likely the word “stigma” will be linked to something that people view as disgraceful or humiliating, whether that view is warranted or not. A couple of us recently read a book called The Rich and the Rest of Us by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, who spoke of the need to lift the stigma associated with the word “poverty” if we are ever going to muster the societal will to lift those on the margins. In years past, society has stigmatized attributes of people who exhibit less capacity than most, using words like “retarded” and “crippled” to describe those with mental and physical challenges. Suffice to say that members of every minority group – no matter the difference used to justify labeling them as “those people” – have been stigmatized in one way or another. Stigmas lead to segregation and prejudicial behavior and animosity. “Stigma” is not a happy word.

And so we need to begin this sermon by acknowledging once again the countercultural irony of the Christian faith. Both last week and this week, our Gospel writers John and Luke have narrated the scene of the Risen Jesus meeting his disciples and their companions for the first time. In both narratives Jesus shows them the wounds he suffered during his crucifixion: the marks of the nails in his hands and his feet, the mark of the spear in his side. And in both narratives, his wounds lead them to recognize him and rejoice (though Luke reminds us that disbelief and wonder temper their joy). Christian tradition has given a name to those wounds: the “Stigmata,” which is just the plural form of the word “stigma.”

Here, stigma is a happy word. Or at least Jesus turns it into one. The act of being crucified was thought of as the most awful and degrading form of humiliation in addition to being a horrible way to die. In his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul quotes a verse of scripture: “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (3:13). Talk about a stigma! And yet by virtue of his resurrection, Jesus turned the cross from an instrument of torture, domination and death into a symbol of redemption, selflessness, and new life. If Jesus hadn’t redefined the cross, I doubt you would wear crosses around your necks or I would have one tattooed on my back.

Jesus’ life and ministry were all about redefining what people thought was acceptable. He took the prejudices fueling certain stigmas head on and gutted them. He touched those society had stigmatized as worthless or unclean: people with leprosy, blindness, and paralysis. He ate with poor people. He befriended tax collectors vilified for being in cahoots with the Romans. He conversed with foreign women. Jesus left every town he visited having laid waste to the stigmas that separated people from one another, having done his best to show people the healing grace that reconciliation brings.

Jesus spent his life demonstrating that the stigmas, which separated people from the larger society, would never separate those same people from him. His own physical Stigmata, made by nails driven through his wrists and ankles, are a further sign that Christ was willing to go to any lengths to suffer with and for those who are humiliated, marginalized, and disgraced. But here we need to make sure we don’t get stuck on Good Friday. If we forget about or try to explain away his resurrection, then the story ends the day the nail holes were made.

That’s why Luke makes a big deal about Jesus eating a piece of broiled fish. He really was there! And the marks of the wounds – the marks of his compassion, his suffering with and for everybody – remain even in his resurrected body. But right here we can sink into a theological morass if we don’t think hard about what the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet really mean. Here’s the problem. If we say that his Stigmata are only the marks of a humiliating death full of suffering and pain, then we are also saying that such humiliation and suffering leave their mark in the new life of the resurrection, that a legacy of disgrace can sully a new life of complete grace. Thankfully, we don’t need to go there because Jesus’ lifetime of reversing stigmas works on his own Stigmata, as well. Indeed, the fact that his resurrected self still bears the marks of his wounds gives us clues as to what our own resurrected life looks like.

On Friday, Jesus’ Stigmata are marks of failure. His blood drips from the nails, which keep his sagging body affixed to the humiliating cross. But on Sunday, those same wounds are marks of triumph. The nails are gone, but the blood remains, the blood of the Lamb that washes us clean. In the life of the Resurrection no failure is great enough on our part to swallow the enormity of the victory Christ invites us to share.

This triumph redefines his wounds so that they are so much more than simply the marks of his suffering. They are also the marks of his obedience and our redemption. And they are the marks by which his friends recognize him. In other words, he calls his friends back into relationship and back into belief by showing them these marks. Thus the life of the resurrection is one in which our relationship with Christ becomes perfect and complete. But we can begin to live this new life now, even though we are incapable of perfection or completion because, as we just said, our failures do not sully the ultimate triumph.

The Risen Christ is alive in us, propelling us toward culmination with God in the life of the resurrection. Therefore, we too are capable of demonstrating Jesus’ Stigmata. I don’t think we will actually bleed from our hands and feet as St. Francis of Assisi did, but the marks don’t need to be visible to be real. By virtue of our baptism, we have been marked as Christ’s own forever. This mark includes the promise to walk Jesus’ path as best we can. Jesus’ life and ministry reversed and gutted so many stigmas, so many flimsy reasons for separation. Jesus’ death and resurrection reversed and gutted the stigma of death with the promise of new life.

As we walk in Christ’s footsteps, hear him calling to you to continue his work. Do all in your power to reverse and gut the stigmas that continue to make people feel less than they are. Take a hard look at yourself and see what prejudices you hold. Ask where they come from. Ask who taught them to you. Ask if they are the kind of prejudices that Jesus would have blown right through. Chances are they will be. Because Jesus’ never met a stigmatized person he didn’t touch or talk to or embrace.

We are Jesus’ hands and feet in this world. I pray that when people look at you and me, they will see the mark of Christ on us.

The dogwood flower (pictured above) has traditionally been used as an image of Christ’s wounds, as the red tips of the petals evoke the Stigmata.

The Living Among the Dead

NOTE: DevotiONEighty is off this week. It will return next Monday, April 8th.

(Sermon for Saturday, March 30, 2013 || The Easter Vigil || Year B || Luke 24:1-12)

I doubt they slept much the last two nights, the women who rose early on the first day of the week to minister to their dead Lord. Every time they shut their eyes, I’m sure they saw the silhouette of Jesus’ cross in the distance, his limp body all but unrecognizable because of his torturous hours hanging there. And because dead bodies never, ever look like the lives ones they were a moment before; especially Jesus’ body, he who was so full of abundant life that he was just giving of his abundance to anyone who asked. No, I doubt these women slept much, though if they did finally fall into fitful slumber, it was because they cried themselves to sleep. When all you have left is your tears, you’d want to hoard them; but that’s when they flow all the more freely.

"Women at the Tomb" (Jesus Mafa - click for more info)
“Women at the Tomb” (Jesus Mafa – click for more info)

I’m sure the tears began again when they awoke early on the first day of the week. New grief is like that. Each morning you wake and remember again that your loved one is gone, and again the pain stabs you anew, just as fresh as the first time. But even in the midst of their grief, these women took up their burdens of fragrant spices and trudged out into the darkness, so they could arrive at the tomb at first light.

But these brave women, who are ready to care for the body of their Lord, to do their duty out of love and compassion, are making the happiest mistake in the history of mistakes. They are prepared to wash and anoint a lifeless body, but what they find is no body at all. They find an empty tomb, save for a discarded burial shroud. Their grief threatens to overwhelm them because the duty they were planning to perform – the one they had been clinging to since his death – is gone now, too. They didn’t think they could be more desolate, but they were wrong. The empty tomb magnifies their desolation.

But into this scene of despair and grief comes the sudden presence of two gleaming messengers. They enlighten the woman as to their mistake: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has arisen.” Then they remind the women what Jesus had said about himself while they were all still in Galilee.

The women remember Jesus’ words, and first one, then another, then another breaks out into a tentative smile. “Could it be true?” they ask each other.

“Yes, yes, yes it could.”

“Jesus never lied to us.”

“How could we forget his words?”

Then one repeats the messengers’ question: “Why are we looking for the living among the dead?”

This question echoes down through the centuries, and we find ourselves asking it when we read the beginning of the final chapter of Luke’s account of the Gospel. Why do you look for the living among the dead? How often in our day-to-day lives could we hear the gleaming messengers asking us this question? How often do we trudge down the well-worn path to life-defeating things hoping this time – maybe this time – something life-affirming will happen?

Perhaps you’ve had a string of boyfriends who were real losers. Your friends tell you so at every opportunity, but you’ve got a blind spot for bad boys. They treat you with no respect. From time to time they’ve even called you a name that I can’t say during this sermon. And yet you meet another one and all the signs are there, but you dive in headfirst anyway. To you the gleaming messengers say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Perhaps you’ve been sober for three months. Your sponsor hands you your chip and slaps you on the back. You’ve got a couple of other three-month chips in a drawer somewhere, but that’s not on your mind right now. On your way home from the meeting, you run into an old buddy from back in the day. The next morning, you stagger to the drawer and toss the newest chip in. Maybe you’ll get another one in a few months time. To you, the messengers say, “Why do you look for living among the dead?”

Perhaps you work through your family vacation because you’ve got too many projects on your plate. Or you spend every waking hour mindlessly surfing YouTube and Facebook. Or you derive your self-worth only by what others say of about you. To you – to all of us – the messengers say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ spurred this question all those centuries ago. The women made the happy mistake of looking for a dead Christ, when the Risen One was alive again. They brought to the tomb their grief, their tears, and their emptiness. And they left them there because the power of the Risen Christ outshone any desolation left in them.

When we look for life-affirming answers in the midst of life-defeating things, we replicate the women’s happy mistake, but with none of their good intentions. When we look for the living among the dead, we are trudging the well-worn path to the newly hewn grave where a dead messiah awaits. That way is full of tears and lifelessness.

But the good news of the Resurrection is this: when we arrive at the tomb, at rock bottom, at the ends of our ropes, we will find the Living Christ shining radiantly in the midst of our dead messiahs. We will find his empty tomb, which is ready to receive all of our muck, all of our bad choices, all of our life-defeating tendencies. When we deposit all of our dead ends there, we can leave the tomb unencumbered, and chase off after the Risen Christ, fresh, free, and born anew.

So why do you look for the living among the dead?

He is not here, but has arisen.