Editor’s Note: Welcome to “Holy Week,” everyone. I certainly never thought I’d be observing it on something called the Rational Doubt Blog. But it warrants attention because it is a significant time in the life of non-believing clergy. This is the first of a series of pastors discussing their experiences preparing and preaching at Easter Time.
By “Stan Bennett”
How far in advance do you start planning for your Easter sermon?
When Lent begins, I start thinking six weeks ahead to Easter, which is not just the sermon. I’ll work with others to prepare for the Good Friday Service as well as Easter Sunday: special music, decorations, the Easter egg hunt for the children, and perhaps we’ll have some baptisms during the Sunday worship hour.
Now that I think about it, it’s the Good Friday service that troubles me more than Easter Sunday. People can be quite vulnerable at this service, and it’s easy to manipulate their emotions. We turn down the lights, play the sad music, and read the awful passages of Jesus’ death. Some preachers elaborate on how painful it feels to be crucified. Perhaps we’ll have sounds of the nails being driven into wood to make the readings more vivid. Or maybe we’ll give each person a nail to hammer into a wooden cross when they come to the front of the sanctuary. Some churches reenact the scene. These days, I try to be gentle with the ones who feel so tender on Good Friday, and I don’t do dramatic things but instead merely read the passages and provide the music.
And then two days later, it’s Easter Sunday. Many ministers use the lectionary, a calendar that designates the scriptures to be read on Sundays throughout the year. I often take the assigned texts and think on them for the next few weeks, and a lot of my sermon will consist of a critical explanation of the scripture, like I would any piece of literature (what it really said, what it meant, what was the intent of the author).
I have a day set aside each week for “prayer and study” but I rarely get it because of funerals, fundraisers, and needy people. I develop my thoughts when I’m driving or taking my walk.
How do you feel as you’re preparing the sermon and then giving the sermon.
I actually like examining the scriptures with a more critical eye, viewing them as an anthology of the Judeo/Christian culture. Now that I don’t feel compelled to believe that the Bible comes directly from God and therefore have no need to reconcile it with the church’s doctrinal positions, I can appreciate the artistry and ideas, and I can see more clearly the authors’ original message.
But while I like to study and think, the Sunday morning presentation fills me with dread because at some point, I’m going to be saying something I don’t believe. My whole life, I have tried to be truthful, and now I am intentionally saying something I don’t believe is true. This is what causes my heart to race, my blood pressure to rise, and bones to ache.
Can you give some examples of how your sermons changed as your beliefs changed?
I used to love the Gospel of John because of its aesthetic language and drama, as if it were a Greek play.
I liked how women instead of men are used as catalysts to launch the big ideas. I loved the dreamy concepts of oneness, eternity, deity, light, and life. In fact, there’s still a lot I love about John, but it makes me sad that the promise of life beyond the physical has not proven to be accessible.
These days, I focus on the earlier Gospel account of Mark, which is often underestimated as a piece of literature. Mark shows a more human Jesus, who got tired, lonely, hungry, and agitated. The author has an abrupt style that leaves stories open-ended in a way that forces the reader to ask questions. In the last chapter, if we remove the endings that were contrived at a later date, we find a story that does not show a resurrection, only an empty tomb and a man who claims Jesus was resurrected. Unlike the other accounts, Mark shows two women leaving the empty tomb, going out in the night confused and afraid. It’s as if the author stops, looks at his audience, and says, “Now you finish the story.”
Which is how I leave it with my congregation: “What do you think happened and what does it mean to you? And then I speak of the renewal that we experience in this life, rather than dwell on the heaven I used to believe in.
I no longer speak of developing a personal relationship with Jesus, but instead speak of being loyal to his cause, which might include social justice issues as well as concepts of love, truth, and generosity.
What kinds of responses have you gotten from the congregation about your Easter sermons, for instance, unusually troubled, positive or thoughtful responses; especially surprising or unexpected responses?
Naah, I never have seen much of that. They don’t want me to rock their boat too much and force them to think because it might ruin their day. They expect me to use the religious language to which they are accustomed. Beyond the ritualism, it’s not real to most of them. Actually, it’s hard to disturb them because they aren’t listening.
On Easter, the people come to church to be with their families and show off the out-of-town relatives.
“Reverend, this is my son the doctor and his wife, and their children. Don’t the little girls look pretty in their Easter outfits?”
And they’ll crowd into one pew, sing the same songs as when they were young, watch the latest crop of children get baptized, smile at each other, and none of them will be able to repeat even a word or two of what I said, except maybe the funny story I told or an old thought that resonated from their Sunday school days.
How do you feel when Easter is over?
Tired. Relieved it’s over. Empty because I didn’t accomplish a damn thing except keep my job a little while longer. And I’m a little sad and lonely because I’m not a part of that community of families that are so glad to be with each other.
What else would you like to say about your experience with Easter sermons?
You know what? I find I still love the story, like I love all good stories. After all the grief I’ve seen and absorbed from others, I love the idea of a person who was so good that he couldn’t stay dead. I love thinking of a gentle hero who was strong enough to plow through the depths of hell to burst through the bars of death, freeing himself and all the tormented spirits of that prison. And I’m wistful as I imagine that people actually get to watch their loved ones come back from the dead so they can hold each other, and speak, laugh and cry with them.
Part of me still wants to believe it is true, but then I think, “No, I really don’t. Delusions make us sick and I’ve had enough of that. But isolation and loneliness make us sick, too, and I’ve definitely had enough of that.”
Bio: “Stan Bennett” is a closet agnostic, still working as a minister for a mainline denomination. He is the same “Stan” who was recently featured in the CNN documentary, Atheists: Inside the World of Non-believers and in a follow-up article on the CNN website. He has been a pastor for over thirty years, but is searching for other employment so he can escape from under the clergy robes. He has a blog called A Preacherman’s Secrets and is publishing a book in April by the same name.
>>>>>> Photo Credits:
“Zampieri St John Evangelist” by Domenichino – National Gallery, London. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –
“Closeted Pastor” by Linda LaScola
“Stan Bennett” bio photo, by Linda LaScola