Easter Sunday is thirteen days away, no small thing for those of us in the profession of ministry. It’s time to start thinking about the Easter sermon, and it helps that one of my colleagues is preaching this week for Palm Sunday – my brain has a little more space to jump ahead to resurrection, skipping the wine and the bread and the cross bit.
Oh, Easter; Christmas too, but we’ll just face Easter for now. It’s hard to describe the odd weight of both expectation and indifference about the Easter Sunday service, at least from this pastor’s perspective. I am always greeted first with a sense of inadequacy – how can I possibly convey anything close to the awe, wonder, amazement, fear, joy, miraculousness of that event?
After inadequacy greets me, I meet doubt; not doubt about the story, which I choose to believe as true (maybe not factual, but true.) It’s trying to figure out the counter-arguments those in the congregation will be forming in their minds as they hear the gospel story and the sermon that follows. Can I anticipate their questions and address them in the sermon?
After inadequacy and doubt, indifference saunters in. I really don’t think that many people come to Easter services for the sermon. I just don’t. They come because it’s Easter and their mom is making them go to church. They come because the music really is spectacular. They come for lilies, although all of our indoor lilies are fake because of allergies – they will have to make do with azaleas. They come to sing the Hallelujah Chorus at the end of the service. But I’m pretty sure that less than 1% come for the sermon, and I’m okay with that. Sort of.
Sort of, because in one way it takes the pressure off. If very few really care what I talk about for ten to fifteen minutes, perhaps I don’t have to write The Best Easter Sermon Ever of All Time this year. But sort of because then I get challenged. Then I start thinking, but if I only write The Perfect Easter Sermon That Captures the Hearts and Minds of Believers and Doubter Alike, then maybe they will realize that the sermon is one of the many reasons to come to worship.
I do take comfort in the details of the Easter story itself. In Luke’s version, the women went to the tomb, saw two angelic figures but no Jesus, then ran to tell those male disciples that indeed he had risen. The disciples dismissed their story as nothing more than an idle tale. Good heavens, if the most incredible news for the followers of Jesus was heard as an idle tale, then why on earth should I worry about my Easter sermon?
Here’s the thing: a lot of us pastor types really do take worship seriously. We love planning worship, we love leading worship. We love the poetry of worship, and the prose, and music, and the silence, and the sacraments, and the kids dropping their hymnals and the old people with their walkers and buzzing hearing aids. We love to be translators between for the human and the holy. We love to look out at the congregation and see the beloved community gathered, and realize on any given Sunday that there are people we’ve never seen before who have come to be a part of the beloved community, at least for an hour that particular Sunday. We love God, and we want to share the love.
And for us pastors who love worship, Easter is weird and joyous at the same time. It is our most high, holy day. It commemorates the event that makes Christianity Christianity. It also commemorates the event that people most question, or get turned off by, or laugh at. And the service(s) is full, which is a nerve-wracking joy, but it ups the ante. Why are these people I’ve never seen before here? What are their expectations? And should I even worry about meeting their expectations?
Here’s my goal for the next thirteen days: to let go of the expectations. To picture the beloved community that will gather on March 31, to see familiar, dear faces and faces I’ve never seen before and may never see again. To wrestle in my mind and heart about this idle tale upon which a religion has been constructed, this idle tale that sprinkles dollops of hope upon some in the world still. To write well, clearly, leaning more toward the poetry than prose. To not feel responsible for anyone’s faith but my own. To allow joy and mystery, and to make room for doubters and believers. And to have fun with it.
That’s my goal for the next thirteen days; that, and maybe a dollop or two of inspiration.