Easter: The Su­per Bowl of ser­mons

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan M. Pitts

“Easter de­mands our best wor­ship, and the ser­mon is ab­so­lutely cen­tral to that.”

Three days af­ter Je­sus was killed, Scrip­tures say, his fol­lower Mary Mag­da­lene went to his tomb only to see, to her hor­ror, that his body was gone.

Then she no­ticed some­one stand­ing nearby, a man she didn’t rec­og­nize. She fig­ured he must be the gar­dener.

Only when he spoke did she re­al­ize he was Je­sus come back to life.

“Even to­day, most of us can re­late to the con­fu­sion she must have felt, that sense of ex­pec­ta­tions com­pletely re­versed,” says the Rev. Florence Led­yard, an Epis­co­pal priest who ex­pects to spot­light the mo­ment in her Easter ser­mon in Ten Hills on Sun­day. “I’m think­ing of pos­ing this ques­tion: Why do we, too, have so much trou­ble see­ing Je­sus in our midst?”

This week­end, in Bal­ti­more and around the world, pas­tors face the sin­gu­lar chal­lenge that comes at the end of ev­ery Lent: how to bring their best preach­ing to the pul­pit on the most im­por­tant day of the Chris­tian year.

Some call it the Su­per Bowl of ser­mons. “As big as Christ­mas and the birth of Christ are, none of that would be cel­e­brated if Je­sus didn’t rise from the dead,” says the Rev. Dr. Craig Gar­riott, co-founder and pas­tor emer­i­tus of Faith Chris­tian Fel­low­ship, a Pres­by­te­rian con­gre­ga­tion in Pen Lucy. “Easter de­mands our best wor­ship, and the ser­mon is ab­so­lutely cen­tral to that.”

The tale on which Chris­tian­ity is based, of course, makes an out­landish claim:

Three days af­ter Je­sus, a Jewish car­pen­ter and preacher, was cru­ci­fied, he’s said to have come back to life, only to revisit many of his fol­low­ers and later as­cend to heaven.

Chris­tians say his res­ur­rec­tion changed history, giv­ing be­liev­ers the op­por­tu­nity to con­quer sin, mor­tal­ity and death.

As fan­tas­ti­cal as the story is, pas­tors say it has also be­come so fa­mil­iar that even the faith­ful can grow numb to its mean­ing.

To the Rev. Dr. Robert Hoch, the best preach­ers take the pul­pit on Easter and make the fa­mil­iar feel mirac­u­lous again.

“Ev­ery con­gre­gant comes into the ser­vice with this feel­ing, ‘I’ve heard this story mil­lions of times,’ ” says Hoch, senior pas­tor of First and Franklin Pres­by­te­rian Church in Mount Ver­non and a teacher of the art of preach­ing, or homilet­ics. “Yet the nar­ra­tive is so coun­ter­cul­tural that to say it’s fa­mil­iar is re­ally not to hear it at all.

“Our task is to knock the fa­mil­iar­ity off the story, to find that an­gle that’s a bit head-scratch­ing, to make it strange again.”

In Bal­ti­more, through­out its suburbs and be­yond, pas­tors of ev­ery de­nom­i­na­tion will be try­ing to do just that Sun­day.

The Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hath­away says he thinks of the ora­tion as an in­ten­si­fied ver­sion of the goal he pur­sues ev­ery Sun­day: mar­shal­ing hope in a com­mu­nity that can of­ten feel hope­less.

Hath­away is the long­time senior pas­tor of Union Bap­tist Church, a con­gre­ga­tion in an area of West Bal­ti­more that is so crimerid­den that he asks po­lice to keep a squad car parked at the end of the block.

“I’m do­ing a min­istry right where the vi­o­lence is,” says Hath­away, another lo­cal pas­tor with a cer­tifi­cate in homilet­ics. Hath­away’s is from a joint pro­gram of Ge­orge­town and Ox­ford uni­ver­si­ties.

The 68-year-old Bal­ti­more na­tive gets up at 4:30 ev­ery morn­ing to pray, read the Bi­ble and do the­o­log­i­cal re­search: He’s look­ing for the kinds of ideas that will con­nect the hope in­her­ent in the res­ur­rec­tion to the lives and emo­tions of his flock.

He found such an ap­proach one Easter when it came to to him to retell the res­ur­rec­tion story through the eyes of Ju­das, the apos­tle who gave Je­sus over to the Ro­mans for ex­e­cu­tion.

Had Ju­das cho­sen to stay loyal, Hath­away told his flock, or even sought for­give­ness, he’d have stayed with the “tree of life” — Je­sus — but re­ly­ing on his own wits, he ended up hang­ing him­self from a branch. Con­gre­gants, he says, still buzz about that ser­mon with its sim­ple, ar­rest­ing theme.

“Ju­das’ prob­lem was that he got his trees mixed up,” Hath­away re­calls telling them. “Which tree do you choose?”

To Hath­away, the res­ur­rec­tion story is a gem with many facets. The Rev. Dr. C. An­thony Hunt also loves ro­tat­ing that stone.

Hunt is senior pas­tor of Ep­worth Chapel United Methodist Church, a mostly African Amer­i­can con­gre­ga­tion of about 1,200 mem­bers in Wood­lawn.

He says one of his goals is to leave ev­ery­one in the pews with a sense of hope.

Hunt, who teaches the­ol­ogy and preach­ing at St. Mary’s Sem­i­nary and Uni­ver­sity in Bal­ti­more, says he’s “writ­ing all the time,” con­sult­ing the news, check­ing his Bi­ble (and a Bi­ble app), and pray­ing and lis­ten­ing for what in­spi­ra­tion may come.

He aims to frame ev­ery Easter — a hol­i­day that has epit­o­mized hope for African Amer­i­cans since the days of slav­ery — as an oc­ca­sion whose mean­ing still il­lu­mi­nates the present and points to the fu­ture.

As he cast his thoughts to­ward the Easter ser­vice, he says a sin­gle word came to his mind — “lifted.”

“What does it mean to be lifted?” Hunt re­calls think­ing. “God came to lift us be­yond our­selves. He demon­strated that by resurrecti­ng Christ from death.

“But it’s not just about the res­ur­rec­tion. I’ll talk about how God wants to move us out of traps and harm­ful sit­u­a­tions.”

He plans to com­pare air­planes, which must over­come air drag to take flight, to our own hu­man ef­forts to soar.

Preach­ers across Bal­ti­more say they’ll be get­ting in the pul­pit — and in many cases wan­der­ing a stage or ven­tur­ing out among wor­ship­pers — with mes­sages that evoke a truth Chris­tians be­lieve Je­sus made pos­si­ble: that even though the world we live in is im­per­fect, the phe­nom­ena of death and loss are not fi­nal but give rise to re­newed life and pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Fif­teen miles south of Ep­worth, the Rev. Kati Kluck­man-Ault has been work­ing since 2016 to fash­ion one vi­tal church from the rem­nants of three that were at death’s door.

With at­ten­dance de­clin­ing at main­line Protes­tant churches, the lo­cal synod of the Evan­gel­i­cal Lutheran Church in Amer­ica asked her to cre­ate Re­joice Fel­low­ship, a Glen Burnie con­gre­ga­tion, as they shut­tered nearby churches whose mem­ber­ships had shrunk to an av­er­age of fewer than 40.

Her ap­proach to ser­mons — pray through the week, be­gin writ­ing on Satur­day, keep the lan­guage plain and read from the text — seems to be work­ing, as mem­ber­ship is hold­ing steady at about 200, about half of whom at­tend reg­u­larly.

This Easter, Kluck­man-Ault says, she’ll dis­cuss the res­ur­rec­tion as told in the Gospel of Matthew, which in­cludes an earth­quake — a sym­bol of “some­thing new and dif­fer­ent that shakes ev­ery­body up.”

“We’re try­ing to live the res­ur­rec­tion — new life from loss, the giv­ing up of some­thing to give life to some­thing else.”

Led­yard, mean­while, says her 17 years as rec­tor of St. Bartholome­w’s Epis­co­pal Church, a multi-eth­nic con­gre­ga­tion in West Bal­ti­more, sug­gest that Easter will bring more peo­ple to the pews than other Sun­days.

She’s pray­ing her words will res­onate. “Some peo­ple will come in and be over­whelmed by the lilies, the smells, the vi­su­als that make their spirit joy­ous,” Led­yard says. “Oth­ers will come in skep­ti­cal, un­sure.

“The role of the ser­mon is to bring God’s word to ev­ery one of those peo­ple in a way that says, ‘There’s some­thing truly new and trans­form­ing about all of this. Let’s let the word of God speak.’ ”

jon­[email protected]­sun.com twit­ter.com/jon­pitts77

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

The Rev. Florence Led­yard of St. Bartholome­w's Epis­co­pal Church is pre­pared to preach an Easter ser­vice ser­mon.

BAR­BARA HAD­DOCK TAY­LOR/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

The Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hath­away Sr., senior pas­tor of Union Bap­tist Church, reads in his home of­fice in prepa­ra­tion for his Easter ser­mon.

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