Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Time to Bet the House
Three years ago our sons announced that they would never be coming home to celebrate Easter with us in Cleveland. This had nothing to do with family drama or a sudden loss of faith. It happened to be the year lake effect snow started in Cleveland on Maundy Thursday and didn’t end until Easter Monday. Children had to paw their way through snow drifts with mittens on to find their Easter eggs. New pastel Easter outfits were covered up in the gray and brown hues of bulky winter coats and heavy snow boots. Andrew and David decided that Philadelphia offered a more reliable climate for early April. “We’ll come to Cleveland on Memorial Day Weekend, or perhaps the 4th of July, but don’t look for us at Easter again.”
Snow on Easter is nobody’s idea of a good time, particularly if it means shoveling out the driveway before dawn in order to get to a frigid sunrise service! But snow on Easter is a bracing reminder that this festival can’t simply be about seasonal renewal, a celebration of nature’s wondrous capacity to bring forth new life from the decay of the old. No serious Christian is content with colored eggs, no matter how ornate, or with lilies and tulips no matter how fragrant, or with chocolate bunnies and sugary Peeps. Fun? Cute? Tasty? Certainly. But hardly enough. (My sons got a cruel lesson on this when they were young and their father was working in the garden on Holy Saturday. While turning over compost my shovel inadvertently sliced through a rabbit’s nest hidden in the mulch, slaughtering two bunnies and gruesomely wounding a third who had to be dispatched as it tried to crawl away. So much for adorable Easter bunnies as reliable symbols of something more than vulnerable life always under threat!)
Of course Easter is something more, but how are we to imagine it and, if we are preachers, how are we to speak of it? Even the Biblical witness testifies to a varied, almost tentative imagination, suggesting that the apostolic witness itself was not quite sure what to make of it. Matthew ends with the women running to tell the disciples “in fear and great joy.” Mark has them seized by “terror and amazement.” Luke’s disciples range from doubt to cluelessness, then from startled terror to disbelieving. Only in John do we hear clear testimony, first from Mary – “I have seen the Lord” – and then from Thomas – “My Lord and my God.”
It’s no wonder that many a preacher opts to hide behind the flowers and the music, letting the glorious strains of the Easter hymns carry the day, a once removed proclamation that gives the preacher a bit of distance from the seemingly impossible. Or we may choose to nibble around the edges, offering uplifting stories of human triumph in the face of evil, illness, and death that allude to but don’t quite rely on the fact of the Easter event itself. In a secular and suspicious age, when the church’s corporate voice is often less compelling than the individual’s private quest, who can blame the preacher, exposed alone in the pulpit, for hedging his or her bet?
Tom Long, in his book, Preaching from Memory to Hope, recalls a story from Garrett Keizer’s, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees. Keizer, a pastor in Vermont, describes the Easter Vigil service in his small parish. Only two other people are present as Keizer lights the paschal candle and begins the liturgy: “Dear Friends in Christ: On this most holy night, in which our Lord Jesus passed over from death to life, the Church invites her members, dispersed throughout the world, to gather in vigil and prayer.” The candle sputters in the half-darkness,
like a voice too embarrassed or overwhelmed to proclaim the news: “Christ is risen.” But it catches fire, and there we are, three people and a flickering light in an old church on a Saturday evening in the spring, with the noise of the cars and their winter rusted mufflers outside. The moment is filled with the ambiguities of all such quiet observances among few people in a radically secular age. The act is so ambiguous because its terms are so extreme: The Lord is with us, or we are pathetic fools.
Either “in Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior, God has come to us, sharing our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to God’s self,” or not. Either “God was in Christ reconciling the world to God,” or not. Either “I am with you always, to the close of the age,” or not. Either “death is swallowed up in victory,” or not. Either God has the last word in a world dangerously skewed toward violence and injustice, or not. Which will it be? Easter isn’t the only day the preacher must decide, but on Easter, more than any other day, it’s time for the preacher to bet the house.
A snowy Easter peels away the trappings, leaving the terms stark: “The Lord is with us, or we are pathetic fools.” No wonder it’s tempting to play it safe and go with renewal rather than resurrection, rehearsing the annual return of spring to wintry northern climes and drawing the questionable conclusion that this year, like last year or the next, all will be well. But the honest and thoughtful person in the pew knows that sometimes a late frost will freeze the delicate blossoms before their scent can be enjoyed, or that occasionally a cute bunny will have to be whacked by the flat side of a shovel to put it out of its misery. There must be more. Thank God for the courageous preacher willing to risk it all for the sake of those listeners women and men audacious enough to respond to the preacher’s “Christ is risen,” with “He is risen indeed. Alleluia.”
[Note: In case you’re wondering, I’ll be spending Easter in Philadelphia this year.]