Sunday, March 27, 2016


Luke 24:1-12

Did you know what to expect when you came to church this morning?
Do you know what to say when someone exclaims, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

And how many of you came expecting the lilies, the fanfare, joy and happiness and good news?

Well, I’m sorry, but I have a little bad news for all of you who have found what you expected at church this morning, all of you who know the response to “Christ is risen!”
I’m sorry, but you’ve missed Easter.

Missed it, if you’ve been comfortable and happy this morning,
instead of plagued with confusion, uncertainty, and gut-deep doubt.

Mary and Joanna and Mary and the others had no hope of happiness that long ago dawn in Jerusalem.  They were putting themselves at risk to do their duty by the dead, to anoint the body of their friend, and say goodbye. They came that morning expecting struggle, dimness, and the scents of rock and decay, and are met, instead, by emptiness,
a trickle of fresh air in an open and abandoned grave,
and then,
terrifying, exalted men,
standing beside them where there’d been no one a moment ago,
who say to them,
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Only the “dead” part makes sense to them at first, even when the dazzling men explain, “He is not here; but has risen.” They have to coax the women into coherent memory: Remember in Galilee? Remember how he told you this would happen? That he’d be betrayed, and killed, and rise again? Remember?

And they do remember, finally, that Jesus did say something like that.
And they go away in their disbelief – suspended in the tension between doubt and wonder – to tell their friends, Jesus’ friends, who quite frankly think the women are nuts.
Because it’s one thing to remember what he said, and another thing entirely to understand it, to change everything you know about death and life, to know resurrection.

Reading the Easter story this week, I kept being reminded of a scene from an old movie.
A young man, part of a small and hard-pressed Alliance confronting an oppressive Empire, goes off to a wilderness seeking training to make him a great warrior.  
He finds himself stuck in a mucky swamp, where nothing is as he expected, not the training, not his own heart, and certainly not the Jedi master.

And when the spaceship that brought him here, his only hope for rejoining his friends, suddenly sinks into the swampy waters, he is ready to give up.

“We’ll never get it out now,” says Luke Skywalker
“So certain are you. Always with you it cannot be done.” says Yoda,
“Hear you nothing that I say?”

“Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different….”

“NO! No different. Only different in your mind.
You must unlearn what you have learned.”

Luke – watching the emptiness where his connection to home used to be - is caught in the same helpless dismay that confronts the women at the tomb, the confusion and doubt as they hear that Jesus is risen, see he is not here.

Then Yoda speaks the truth that changes the Easter story, as well as Luke’s:
You must unlearn.

One commentator on the Easter story remarks that when we don’t believe something, can’t believe, it’s generally because we believe something else more strongly. 
We all hold habits of belief, formed from experience, and story, and sometimes what’s easier said than done. We know – not just believe, but know – that the dead stay dead. We know - below the level of conscious belief or thought - when something is too big, beyond our limits or our strength.

But Easter confronts us with our old beliefs and gives us the chance to change.
To change beliefs like: the dead stay dead; this broken relationship can’t be healed; those people are our enemies. The chance to change beliefs in our own limits, our fundamental worthlessness. Beliefs that shape the realities of life.

The disciples hear the women’s tale, and can’t believe it.  They know too well - below the level of conscious faith or thought - that the dead stay dead. But Peter puts his doubt into action, and runs to the tomb - surprised, still, to find the place empty, inhabited only by abandoned linen.
Peter plunges into Easter before he understands, dives into the confrontation between an unexpected new truth and the truth he knows, that he’s always believed.

It doesn’t change him in an instant – he leaves the tomb still suspended in disorientation and wonder – but Easter shows him the old belief in sharp outlines, gives him a lever to make the change.

We need that lever because that kind of change isn’t easy.
In that old movie, young Luke tries and fails to raise his spaceship with the Force, and gives up

He can’t unlearn the habits of his heart so quickly; the belief that an entire spaceship is too big to lift is stronger than the new idea – true as it may be – that he has access to power he has not yet imagined.  As Yoda coaches him to open his heart to that, Luke insists, “You want the impossible,” and sulks away.
It seems – to him – an idle tale.

Like most of the disciples in that Easter story, Luke isn’t ready to see the shape of his old belief, to see enough for it to change.
So Yoda pushes him toward the moment Peter experiences at the tomb.
Yoda closes his eyes, and the spaceship slowly begins to rise, floats out of the water, and touches down gently on solid ground at the feet of the stunned and uncertain Luke.

“I don’t…. I don’t believe it.” he says, finally face to face with his old belief and the new reality – suspended in the tension – finally open to change, but not changed yet.
“I don’t believe it,” he declares.
“That,” says Yoda, “is why you fail.

Disbelief is necessary.  It is, in itself, the Easter moment: suspending us between the power of the old belief, and the shocking suspicion of hope and change, not real yet, but deeply true.

Disbelief is necessary to open our eyes and hearts, but to fully experience resurrection we are called to go forward from there, to actually change the beliefs that have held us; beliefs that maintain the limits we put or perceive on ourselves, on one another, even on God.

You and I are called to find new life by entering into the disbelief – into the wonder and doubt that confronts us with our old certainties and gives us a chance to transform them – and to move forward beyond that place.
By taking a chance on love and friendship, in spite of old certainties that insist that that ends in loneliness and pain.
By championing the underdog – in politics, the workplace, social change – even when we know the powerful always win.
By giving up the way we’ve always done it, in spite of the fact that we know it works, and trying something that shouldn’t work, just for the chance to learn from failure – or receive a miracle after all.
That’s how Easter happens.

Easter happens when you are faced with a task you can't do; news you can’t believe; when it’s perfectly true that you CAN’T, but the possibility that in fact you CAN is somehow standing right in front of you, right beside you.

While we celebrate with predictable, secure, exuberant delight today, we tell the story of doubt and dismay at the empty tomb, over and over every year, to nurture us for those times of doubt and dismay in our own lives. To remind us that our beliefs, our limits, are not permanent, and that the chaotic experience of shattering them is the gateway to abundant life, and that joy like this lies beyond.

So it’s okay if you missed the doubt today, and came here knowing how to respond with joy to the shout that “Christ is risen!”
Because Easter will come to you again, someday, suspending you in uncertainty and disbelief, giving you the chance to see old certainties and shatter them, and outlive your limits.
Today is practice for the new and abundant life that will call you forward through the chaos of transformation.

And God will celebrate with you then, as we celebrate with God, today.
For Christ is risen,
Christ is risen indeed!

Friday, March 25, 2016

In the Shadow of the Cross

Good Friday

“In the shadow of the cross may your soul find rest.”
Those words jerked my wandering mind right back into the room.
 I’d been mostly listening, as our Convention speaker talked about the work of healing and transformation at Thistle Farms, a ministry for women coming out of the sex-trafficking industry.
She had been telling us stories of women who had never known what it was to be loved, or to love themselves; women scorned, “despised and rejected” by the world.
My heart hurt, a bit, and I was angry – angry about a world where people can be treated as objects, a world where help is far from people who are dying – spiritually or literally – and so my mind wandered, until these words jerked me back.

“In the shadow of the cross, may your soul find rest.”

I didn't like that a bit, because I don’t find the cross at all restful. Do you?
Here is Jesus, mocked, beaten, tortured, and now hung to die in the most public, shameful, slow and painful way.
Here is a crowd – angry, restless, stirred up by those who play on their fear and uncertainty: demanding the death of this man, and now forced to witness the dangerous, crushing power of the Roman state as their demands are met.
And here are women, standing at the fringes; in danger, themselves, from being here; but still, always, overlooked, pushed aside, ignored as they grieve.

I don’t want that to be restful.
I want us – when we see the cross, when we remember the cross – to be stirred up and restless about that violence and fear and anger, loneliness and grief.
I want us to be restless when we hear that story, and when we see the same things in the news of our own day.

A day where it’s normal to ask presidential candidates if they’ll continue policies of torture – and a “yes” to that question can sometimes draw applause.
A world where more than sixteen thousand women and girls in this metro area are currently victims of sex trafficking: used, despised, rejected, objectified.
News that’s full of bleeding victims, shattered rubble, and the constant stirrings of fear that remind us that hate is easy, and bombs and guns go anywhere.
Life – for so many of us – where death walks with us – in memories of lost loved ones, threats to our own bodies and health, the pain of broken relationships.

“In the shadow of the cross, may your soul find rest.”
It feels wrong to me, and yet that phrase has haunted me since that speaker said it.

She was telling a story of finding just one note in her father’s handwriting, her father who had died when she was a child. Those words fell out of his prayer book: “In the shadow of the cross, may your soul find rest,” and she found comfort.

And then, at last, I saw it, too.
A thin space of shadow, cast by that cross on the top of that hill in Jerusalem, a little slice of shade in the midst of the fierce, bright, hard-edged emotions and realities of violence and death and division.
Space enough for a bird or a heart to touch down for a moment’s rest: out of the glare, cool in the heat, a small but real refuge.

That thin shadow, awkwardly shaped - the shadow of two trees stripped of their comforting branches and bound with the battered body of Love Incarnate - is a promise, then and now, 
that even in the very center of violence, grief, hate, anger, and fear,
in every center of such pain,
God makes a space of rest.

It’s a promise that when our lives come to a place of agony and destruction, God makes a slice of shelter, and rest: not by denying or diminishing the pain, but right in the middle of it, making a sliver of peace from the pain itself.

I need that promise tonight, as we stand at the foot of the cross and remember the nails, the mockery, the loneliness, and the fear of that ancient hill outside Jerusalem.

I need that promise, when the cross is planted again and again in the world you and I share today.

And God makes that promise,
two thousand years ago;

A sliver of peace,
love that cannot be conquered by hate.
Look for that in the shadow tonight, in this space; in your life.
In the midst of agony, a benediction:
In the shadow of the cross, may your soul find rest.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Anointed for Transformation

John 12:1-8

Today I need you to help me create this sermon.  Please pass these vials of oil around, and put a little bit on yourself – wrists or hands are probably the best choices.  If you’re particularly scent-sensitive, skip this, and let your neighbors know!

At Diocesan Convention last November, participants were invited to make scented oils in workshops led by women from Thistle Farms.  Many – even most – of the folks at convention didn’t have time to participate, but you could smell it in the air all day long.

Tiny cups of that scented oil were placed on the tables that delegates and clergy sat at to deliberate and vote, and at one point, we were invited to anoint one another, to rub just a bit of that scented oil into someone else’s skin. You could smell it – in the air, on your neighbors – all afternoon, not strongly, but subtly, unexpectedly.

Anointing is slippery stuff.
It doesn’t stay where you put it; it wafts out, touching folks who were never interested. It gets into your nose, your hair, your skin, and it follows you around. 
When I got home from Diocesan Convention that night, I could still smell it. Just hints, tiny whiffs – each an unexpected surprise – but it was there.

Anointing is sticky, insistent, persistent, and doesn’t want to let you go.

We do it at baptism, and for healing, so that the newest Christians, and those of us in need of hope, go home from this place with the scent of our prayers upon them – very subtly – the aroma of blessing and rebirth, of God adopting us and shaping us and saving us.

There’s nothing subtle, though, about the way Mary does it now. She pours a vast amount of scented oil onto Jesus’ feet, excessive and absurdly expensive – worth a year’s salary. And then – right there at the dinner table – starts wiping his feet with her unbound hair. (That’s an action that belongs in the bedroom, or at least behind closed doors, as much or more in Jesus’ time than in ours.)

It’s flagrant. It’s excessive. It stinks up the whole place. You can’t get it out of your nose; you’re going to smell it on your clothes for days. (And Mary’s hair is going to smell like this for weeks.)
It’s wasteful.

But Jesus defends her, saying that she’s doing this for the day of his burial – for the transformation that begins for Jesus now, here, outside the gates of Jerusalem, on the eve of his passion and death, burial and resurrection.

Here and now, Mary anoints the Anointed One – that’s what “messiah” means, after all: “anointed” – pours over his feet the expensive scent of his calling, and she does it in such a way that it gets into everyone around: into our noses, our skin.

When Mary anoints Jesus, it spills over so that the scent of burial and resurrection, of our own rebirth, the scent of God’s mission of reconciliation and healing, clings to us, reminding us that as God anointed Jesus to make us whole and strong and forgiven, we too are anointed to fill the world with the scent of that healing, with the aroma of grace, making it abundant and persistent, like the scent of Mary’s expensive, excessive perfume.

Because perfume, anointing, is not the only thing that clings to our skin, fills our noses -- becomes sticky, hard to lose.
Death is one of those things. 
There was death in Mary’s house not long before, a subtle whiff of grave that clung to her household as her brother Lazarus was anointed and buried by his family, then raised by Jesus.

Abuse, violence, addiction, tragedy are sticky, too. They cling long after the event is gone, triggering memories when we least expect it.

The women at Thistle Farms, the original Magdalene House in Tennessee, like the women who will find a home at Magdalene Chicagohave been followed by the scent of death, by the sticky, clinging, film of abuse and tragedy, addiction and violence.

But now the women at Thistle Farms make healing oils. They make perfume, holy scents, to fill homes and lives with healing. The women of Thistle Farms, like Mary of Bethany, anoint the Body of Christ for transformation.

The leaders of Magdalene House Chicago have been touched by that anointing, gotten it up their noses, under their skin. They’ve been anointed for transformation. And like Mary of Bethany they are inviting us to share in that anointing, to help “pour the foundation” of a home in our neighborhood filled with the aroma of forgiveness, strength, patience, compassion, insight, healing, and grace.

Now I’d like to invite Amity Carrubba, one of the leaders of the Magdalene House Chicago project, to tell you a little more about our hopes for the house and why it matters....