Easter is Coming

Early in my ministry I heard Bill Laws, an experienced pastor, denominational leader and trusted mentor to many of us, say that it takes a full five years to learn enough about a congregation to be an effective pastor. After five years, Bill said, your ministry begins and you will be trusted enough to do meaningful work. It was my first pastors retreat and along with a group of young colleagues, all of us in our first full time positions, I was eager to get on, move up, find something more expansive and promising. We argued with Bill. Our small congregations weren’t going anywhere. We were all eager to move. Five years seemed like an eternity and surely wrong.

It took years for me to learn that Bill Laws was right. I retired from a 26 year ministry with one congregation a year ago, and I’m still pondering it and feeling deep gratitude for it. And I’m experiencing both nostalgia and relief that I don’t have to prepare another Easter sermon. Copenhaver observes the challenge in preaching 16 Christmas Eve sermons. I recall thinking about preaching my 26th and final Easter sermon. The task seemed newly daunting, almost overwhelming. How to preach a text everybody has heard many times, a story many know by heart, hold in their hearts literally as well as their minds. Over the years I used to be both comforted and amused by Reinhold Niebuhr’s confession that on Easter and Christmas he chose to attend a “High” church where there would be great music but little, if any, preaching. No preacher, Niebuhr used to say, is up to the task on Easter and Christmas. Everyone of us knows what that means.

Looking back over the years I conclude that after a long pastorate, during which the preacher has done some serious personal aging, Easter and Christmas sermon preparation, particularly Easter, drives the preacher deeper into the gospel and broader into all the ways resurrection has been treated theologically, both historically and currently. The preacher is not the first one to struggle with it and try to find words to express it. The books and chapters and pages mount up over time. And, at the same time, the preacher has been driven more deeply and broadly into life… Losses accumulate over the years, older relatives, parents, older friends, the contemporaries. Age brings a daily reminder of mortality. Death looms.

This year a brother-in-law, my wife’s older brother, the family patriarch he liked to call himself, a father, husband, grandfather, great grandfather, educator, great athlete, died on the first Sunday of Lent. His dying reminded me again of the Celebration of Resurrection toward which we are moving in the dreary days of February and March, the radical conviction upon which our faith rests, that death had been overcome, that there is a power loose in the universe that overcomes all, even death. Her father died several years ago at the same time, during Lent. She sat by his bedside that last night, holding his hand. “What did you do all night long?” I asked. “What did you say?” “I ran out of things to say” she explained, so I sang, quietly, all the Easter hymns I could remember,”Jesus Christ is Risen Today” and I said “Easter’s coming, Daddy, Easter’s coming.” I treasure that picture, that profound affirmation of Easter’s great unexplainable announcement.

Every year, in the midst of Easter sermon preparation, I made a point of reading John Updike’s poem, Seven Stanzas at Easter.

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body…

It was not as flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles:
it was as His flesh: ours….

Let us not mock God with metaphor.
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence…
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not paper mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day….

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

It occured to me that the preacher could do worse on Easter than read all seven stanza’s of Updike’s poem. Tempting as it is to try, it is a waste of time to attempt to explain it. People understand that there are somethings that will not reduce to explanation and are greatly diminished in the process of trying. The task, then, is proclamation, not explanation, something like Updike’s poem and his invitation to “walk through the door”.

The Easter word is that death is not what it seemed to be, that death is no longer in charge. Because of Easter we can walk through the door into a new world where the ultimate reality is not the death of all things, the ultimate reality is God and love everlasting.

To allow that word space in your thinking and being, and to walk through that door, means freedom from fear, freedom to love without reservation, freedom to love your dear ones and friends, neighbors and strangers, freedom to give your life away in love.

Easter is coming, Daddy, Easter is coming.

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