Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Kind and Loving Absence of Christ: Ascension Sermon 2018

“And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God. 
- Luke 24:49-53

Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” -Acts 1:8-11

We pull into the church lot. Red mini van.

And we walk across the sidewalk to the entrance of the Church. 

Redeemer Evangelical Free.

A church, a place, that to us was a Godsend. 

I was invited here by a friend a few years before. 

To a youth group called Sonlife. 

Sonlife was special. 

Kids at school were mean, generally speaking. 

And they weren’t here. 

At Sonlife, we fit in. 

Stuff was tough at home. Upsetting. 

And here it wasn’t.

Here we laughed. We prayed. We played games. 

In our teenage search for sanctuary and home—

for a safe place and a place to belong, 

here at Sonlife, at this weekly youth event, 

we found one. 

For three hours every Wednesday night, we were safe and we were at home. 

The youth pastor, Rick Smith, was one of these guys who just, like, embodied joy. 

I remember this one time I was gone for a few weeks. 

When I returned, Rick saw me down the hall. He yelled my name, ran past all these kids, and ran up to me and gave me a big hug. 

Years later he would even visit me here in Chicago on his way through town. 

We went to Jackalope. 

His kindness was always above and beyond. 

And he always wore it in a smile. 

Anyway, as we arrive at the Church door after a GREAT SUMMER, 

I realize pretty quickly that, this time, no one is running and screaming. 

And that the adult leaders are wearing something other than joy on their faces. 

You guy’s doing alright? I say kinda jokingly, kinda concerned. 

They say that we’ve gotta talk. 

And so we go in a little classroom space just down the hall. 

Now let me just say, I had spent years of my life here. At Sonlife. At Redeemer Church. 

I played in the band. 

I brought a van full of kids with me every time I came. 

I talked about Sonlife all the time. 

I even invited Rick to my school to do a Bible study after classes and he did it—which was amazing, and he was amazing for taking the time to do that…

All that simply to say that I love this place, a lot. And the people. And that they are really important in my life. 

So we go into the classroom and we have a conversation: 

You’re not in high school anymore, Tom, they explain.

[I had just graduated].  

And Wednesdays, Sonlife, this youth group, this is a time for High Schoolers to explore and grow and have community. 

And you’re older now. 

And so… 

they say, 

And so this is no longer your community. 
You can’t be here. 

You’re too old. 

I become filled with sadness. And rage. And all sorts of self-righteously angry thoughts and words that I could’ve said to them but I didn’t. 

But I definitely didn’t feel very good. 

How could they do this to us, right? 

How could they do this to me? 

How could they tell us that we 
had to go away from the place where we belonged? 


This coming Thursday is the Day of Ascension. 

Ascension is celebrated [not 40, but] 39 Days after the Resurrection.

Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

And on Ascension Day we remember, 
if only for a few minutes, 

that story from Luke and Acts that we read today,
Jesus’ rising up from the soil, 
and ascending into the heavens above,
disciples, with jaws dropped looking up at the sky. 

The one in whom they had hoped against hope. 
The one in whom they created a new family. 
The one who had taught them of a heavenly parent even as they were estranged from their families. 
The one who fed them and taught them to feed others.
Who led them in paths of righteousness for God’s name’s sake…

The one who created with them a community 
where they were safe,
and where they belonged... 

The one whom they had seen die, 
but nonetheless ate with, laughed with, 
embraced on the other side of tomb… 

Their rabbi and friend was about to leave.  

I know you found life here, Jesus said. 

I am the Resurrection and the Life. 

But now I have to go away. 

I know you found life here.

I am the Resurrection and the Life. 

But now I have to go away. 

I’ve gotta go home. 


There was a really amazing nun who lived in Mexico from 1651-1695.

Look her up if you get a minute. I don’t have time to detail all of the amazing stuff that she did. 

I don’t know all of the amazing stuff that she did. 

But here’s one thing. 

Juana Inés de la Cruz, who was also a writer and a poet and whole bunch of other things (not just a nun), one day got into an argument with a Jesuit from Brazil. 

And by argument, I mean that she decided to write a letter taking a stand against something that this Jesuit said. 

His name was Antonio Vieda. 

Vieda had written an article in which apparently he was concerned with Christ’s gestures. The stuff Christ did that meant something. More specifically, he was to answer the question: 

What is the most gentle, loving gesture that Christ has ever shown? 

He scoured the scriptures, and wrote in response this conclusion to his question: 

The most gentle, the most loving gesture Christ had ever shown, he concludes, was washing his disciples’ feet. Maundy Thursday. That had to be it!  

Vieda was a popular author, and his conclusion was widely circulated. 

(Apparently this was important stuff at the time). 

And along the way, De la Cruz read his article. 

And, of course, after reading it, as she was known to do, she disagreed. 

So she got out her pen and she began to write. 

And what she said was incredibly interesting. 

The greatest gift of love was not the washing of the disciples' feet, she said. It was not the last supper. It was not any of the miracles in which people were healed or lifted or fed or exorcised or any of that. 

The greatest act of love that Christ has ever shown, she said.

His greatest act of love for us, his gentlest gesture, was that he left us alone. 

Christ’s greatest act of love was to leave us alone. 


Christ the Rabbi, she expounds, is like a tutor, a teacher, a mentor. 

But If Christ stays our tutor, our rabbi, our mentor, we will never become independent, will never grow up into the disciples that he calls us and teaches us to be. 

In fact we’ll become stunted in our development because we will become dependent on him, a perpetual follower, never learn to walk the path properly on our own—or to help others to walk, who arrive after us.* 

In other words, we’ll become stuck. 

“I have taught you all,” says the Rabbi, 

And now, 


You are on your own. 


These days, when I think back to Sonlife, to that youth group up in Milwaukee, 

when I think back to Rick and to those other leaders,

I’m really glad that I’m thinking back. 

And that I’m not there anymore. 

That I’m not still there
20 years later, playing frisbee, 
and talking about teenage problems 
(as fun as that was).

Thinking back, 

It was very loving of Rick and the others to say that we were graduated and that we had to move on.

In a real way, they kept us from getting stuck. 

They knew it would hurt our feelings, but they new, none the less, that that conversation we had in that little classroom was good and that it was the right thing.  

It had been an AWESOME four years. 

We were fed. We were nourished. We were given a safe place to grow, to pray, and to belong.  And then we were released to become the disciples they had taught us to be. 

Wherever we went. Wherever we ended up. 

We got to leave so we could put some of our learning to work. 

When I look back today, I’m grateful that we had to go. 


In the book of Acts, 

after the ascent of Christ, 
when the angels appeared to the disciples, 

the one angel asked the disciples rhetorically: 

Why do you stand looking up to the clouds? 

He’s gone! the angel said.

He had to go!

But the One in whom you hope shall return.
And he’ll return in the same way that he came.* 

Why do you look up? 

He will come again.
from the earth. 
In the flesh. 
From the Ground….

His body is gone.

But his presence returns every moment in each of you. 


St. Theresa of Avila in the mid-late 1500’s said it like this in a poem (and I'll end with this): 

She said: 

“Christ has no body now but yours. 
No hands, no feet on earth but yours. 
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. 
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. 
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. 
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. 

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

Christ is Risen… ALLELUIA! 

May it be so in us. 


*For insight both about this story of de la Cruz and the "gentlest gesture," as well as the emphasis on the upward direction of Christ's Return from the speech of the angel in Acts, I am grateful to Vítor Westhelle, who included these ideas in his lectures on The Church and the Kingdom in 2015 at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

We Will Never Last Long in Their Tombs: Resurrection Sermon 2018

[image source]
Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” -John 20:17 

Christ is Risen. He is Risen, indeed. Alleluia! 
Christ is Risen. He is Risen, indeed. Alleluia! 

Christ is Risen. He is Risen, indeed. Alleluia! 

The sound is amazing. 

Coming in waves, 
crashing all around us. 

Stage lights, 

Fog machines. 

Central air. Left at, like, exactly 70 degrees. 

The floors don’t squeak. 

There’s neutral colored carpet. 
New enough that it at least appears to be clean 
when the lights are dimmed to the perfect dimness.  

And the lights are. Perfectly dimmed. 

There are no windows. No stained glass. 

No accidental light is allowed to enter the room.

No distractions. At all.

Up front: 
A praise team made of eternally happy smiles.

Praying fervently in the words of scripture and songs: 

“Father God, we just come before today, 
to just lift your name on high, 
to just praise your holy name, 
…to lift holy hands, 
we just come before you to just, to just…” 


We are all dripping with emotion. Or faith. Or the Holy Spirit. Or something. 

It’s amazing. 

Holy as all get out 

in this curated, 
highly controlled 
and effectively manufactured spiritual environment, 

configured with unmatchable expertise 
for our optimal conversion potentiality. 

There’s another wave of sound. 

Refreshing. Welling up into eternity. 

Our heads are bowed. The pastor speaks: 

“Perhaps today is your day!”

The swells on the outside move to the inside.  

My soul is stirring.

My eyes are crying.  

And I’m deciding—my whole body is deciding—to “come on down here,” like the pastor said, 
to ascend the aisle of this little church,

to walk on down in front of God 
and my neighbors 
and everybody, 

to give my whole life, 
my whole being, 
my whole self...

Christ is Risen. Christ is Risen indeed! Hallelujah! 

Yes. I had given it all to God. 

Yet again. 

For, like, the fourth or fifth or (who knows?) maybe the fifteenth time. 

I had given it all. Again. 

But I was beginning to wonder. 


I was delivering truck parts that year. 

In a big purple van. 

On long drives, my best friend was the radio. 

And even way up there in Wisconsin, (in a whole different state) we got this broadcast out of Chicago, 

from just a few blocks away from here. 

Live from the Pacific Garden Mission: 

It was “Unshackled!” 

A radio show with organ music in the background, 
voice actors, 
sound effects, 
and and lots and lots and lots of stories—

especially and exclusively stories of new beginnings, resurrections, conversions! 

Stories of starting over when it seemed life was at an end. 

For the record, I am still a HUGE sucker for these kind of stories. 

I love them. 

I still kind cry every time almost every time I hear them. 

So please don't hear me poking fun. 


But (If I remember most of them correctly), there was often, in my opinion,  
something missing from these stories. 

See, the stories would go something like this: 

Jimmy meant well as a child. Teresa was a good kid!
But then he got older. She grew up. 
Jimmy made some bad decisions. 
Teresa got in with the wrong crowd. 

Teresa, Jimmy, they ended up on skid row. 

But then.. [Cue organ here]

One day Jimmy met an evangelist. One day Teresa found a bible in a motel drawer. 

Or Jimmy saw a ray of light in the hospital. 
Teresa had a near-death experience and heard the voice of our Lord. 

Or whatever. Right? 

Something happened. A turning point. 

Maybe Jimmy was just in a well controlled room in a Pentecostal church. 


And then something welled up in Jimmy. 

And then Teresa cried. 

And then Jimmy gave himself to God. 

Teresa turned it all over to the Power Of The Most High. 

Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen, indeed! Alleluia! 

And then everything was hunky dory, right?

And Michael’s live, Teresa’s life, all of the lives were
the same

Amen? Amen! 

Christ is Risen. He is Risen, indeed. Alleluia! 

This was the meaning of Resurrection: 
Hollywood endings, riding off into the sunset. 

Life was bad. Something happens. Life becomes good. 

And once it happens to you, things are never the same again. 

Christ is Risen. He Risen, indeed. Alleluia!

The perfect formula. Nothing messy about it. 


This seemed to be the right way to understand Resurrection.

Formatted. Controllable. 


Even manipulate-able. With lights. And fog machines. And smiles. 

New life Eternal and unchanging. Never the same again

But I was beginning to wonder. 

And I was beginning to wonder for a really simple reason. 

I was beginning to wonder, because for me: 

this definitely wasn’t my experience. 

Not any of the times I walked down that aisle. 

No matter how much Unshackled made me cry. 

I mean: 

If this really was Resurrection, why did I feel like I had to keep going up again and again? 

If this was really new life, how come I wasn't changed? Not really? 

How come I kept sinning, like all the time? 

How come I was still mean to my sister?  

Was I defective? 

Did the prayer not really take? 

Was the baptism faulty? 

Did I not really mean it? 

What went wrong?

Why was life not perfect now? 

Wasn't I on the other side of the empty tomb? 

Why did I not seem very “saved?” 


40+ days ago we left the Mountain of Transfiguration and descended into the valley with the disciples, 
as Jesus “set his face" toward the cross and toward Jerusalem. 

Since then, together, we have been on a journey, our songs of praise turned into the silence of introspection. 

We call this journey “Lent.” Amen? Amen. 

Since then we have been winding through stories of healing 
and hope.
Stories from the bible,
as well as stories from our own lives.

We’e been winding through stories
of conflict and power, 
ashes to ashes, 
stories of prophets in the desert, 
of snakes biting the liberated people on their path to the Promised Land.

We’ve been puzzling over stories 
of emancipation turned into destruction and new oppressions, 
stories of violent disputes and horrific genocide,  
stories of blood shed over the possession of land the drawing of borders and ethnic lines.

We have been hearing 
stories in the news about such violent conflicts 
as they continue to this moment, here and far away, 
far too often in the name of God.

Amen? Amen. 
We’ve been winding through 
stories that lead us through the gates of the temple
where creatures are set free 
as tables are over-turned;

and stories of palms waved as the streets are filled to the brim with blessings,
“Hosannas” sung through the hopes in the hearts of the people:   
that the dawn of the New Age and the New City had finally come!

We have been on a journey.
Through stories. And song. 

And we call this journey “Lent.”

Amen? Amen. 

Finally, Thursday we reached the base of another mountain.
We shared a meal with our friends.
And we prepared our feet for another ascent. 

Because Friday, we would walk with Jesus up a more difficult trail.  

There, at the cross, it seemed our journey had come to an end. 

“Into your hands I commend my Spirit.”

“Father forgive them.” 

“It is finished.” 

Together we sang in the dark into the Silence of God. 
“Were you there when they Crucified my Lord?”




Christ is Risen! He is Risen in, indeed! Alleluia! 

I wonder if these images, these stories of Lent, 
(though certainly more complicated) 
might not be a more accurate
depiction of faith’s journey for those of us fortunate enough to live long enough to have a long journey.

They're not a perfect formula. 

The stories are messy. Sometimes even contradictory. 

But faith’s journey messy and sometimes contradictory. 

Lucky for us (and perhaps this is also something that Lent reveals), faith's journey happens, ore often than not, in community. Together. 

The Israelites wonder the desert. 

The women arrive at the tomb un-alone.

Perhaps these stories are a more accurate account of what it means to walk in faith together for the long-haul. 

Amen? Amen.  

At times in our lives, Transfiguration moments happen. 

At times we set up camp on sparkling mountaintops where we are transformed to the bone. 

And it feels really good. 

At times we hurt. There is pain. 

Stepping out in faith, 
we cross deserts and borders.
We seek out new institutions and new constitutions. 
Through the wilderness we travel,
in hope of finding something better and greener 
and more palatable on the other side; 

At times we enter broken temples. 

We love bloodied messiahs.

At times we cry in the garden no matter what anyone does or says to make our sadness go away. 

And at times, 
we even happen 
upon an empty tomb. 

Sometimes. We see Jesus, the Gardener. 
And even in our dry bones, he waters and digs and plants Resurrection.
Even in us, Jesus calls forth from the chaos something new.  

Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen, indeed. Alleluia!


But through every high place, 
on the other side of every miracle, 
our eyes may tell us, if the scales have truly been removed, 
there remain crosses
there remain places of the Skull.  

There remain relationships broken that could stand to be mended, 
there remains oppression, 
sour wine. 

Easter has begun. But it is not yet complete.
Resurrection has taken. But it is not yet finished. 

Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

Still today Pilate washes his hands over the death of an innocent. 
But Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

Still today Judas’ kiss will affectionately betray. 
But Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

Still today Mary weeps for the loss of Love and hope. 
But Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

Still today a Mother mourns the death of another Son. 
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

Still today the guard follows orders: "Just doing my job!" 
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

Still today the criminalized, hanging, shout out to Christ to come down. 
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

Still today the hope of Paradise animates dying bodies with living dreams.  
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

Still today we bow to emperors who feed us to lions and are entertained.
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

Still today they commission crosses built with the labor of those who die young.
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

Still today the Centurion opens his heart:
Saying, “Truly, truly this is the Son of God!” 
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! 
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

Still today we suffer pain. And so still today we shout to be free:
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

When crosses are built, 
we’ve gotta build community. 

When there are shouts of “Crucify!," Resurrection has gotta be our song.  
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

When in Rome (or Chicago or wherever), there will always be slaughter, 
but with the Love of the Risen One welling up in us

we will never last long in their tombs. 

Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!

Not 4, not 5, not 15 times. 

May we ascend the aisle every moment, every breath. 

May God make us ever and eternally new. 
Again. And again. And again. 

For the journey is 
messy. And winding. And long. 

We see the crosses all around. 

But with Christ in our midst and the Love of the Risen One rising up in us, 
we will never last long in their tombs. 

Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!