Thank God it’s Over

Thank God it’s Over April 6, 2015

Editor’s Note: The last essay in our Easter series is by a mainline Protestant pastor who recently and gratefully left the pulpit after too many years of parish ministry. In this reflection on Easters past, I think he sounds frustrated, cynical, a bit obsessive,  and ultimately relieved. What do you think?

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By Former Pastor X

How far in advance do you start planning for your Easter sermon? How did you feel as you’re preparing the sermon and then giving the sermon?

Easter Sunday is an occasion that stirs up a broad range of feelings for preachers. Along with Christmas, it was a time when I usually put an inordinate amount of pressure on myself to come up with a message that would resonate with the C and E (Christmas and Easter) visitors. You would not believe how much time I spent on the internet, trying to come up with a YouTube clip or some kind of gimmick that would entertain people and draw a few laughs or tears.

Clearly, at least 50% of those present on Easter Sunday or Christmas Eve are in church because, somewhere along the line, they either participated in church with their families or it just seems like a good thing to do; sort of like tourists checking out a museum that includes the lighting of candles while everyone sings their favorite great old hymns. Who can argue against lovely Spring flowers, upbeat music and an expensive brunch after church? No one would want to miss it — the brunch, that is.

The reality is that no matter what a preacher says on Easter Sunday, virtually none of the occasional visitors who come with their family or friends will return to church until the following Christmas and after that, perhaps the following Easter.

Because I never thought I could preach a sermon that would be good enough to bring people back the next Sunday – even though I knew they wouldn’t be back no matter how good the sermon was – I would sweat for all of Holy Week, yet not begin writing my Easter sermon until Saturday morning. Often, I would write out an entire fifteen-minute sermon, print it and take it home to practice. Then when Sunday morning rolled around, I would throw it away, scratch out a few notes and preach the Sunday morning version of the sermon without notes or much preparation.

My wife would tell you that I was insufferable during Holy Week and the week before Christmas. Even though I was aware of this, I wasn’t able to fend off the feelings of aggravation, anxiety and even fear that I would blow it on the big occasion.

In retrospect, I could have spared myself a lot of stress and worry if I had allowed myself to rest in the knowledge that what I preached on Easter Sunday had virtually no impact on my relationship with the congregations I served. As long we sang familiar old hymns, the service was well done and I didn’t stumble, all would be well.

Give some examples of how your sermons changed as your beliefs changed?

The more progressive/liberal/anti-supernatural my beliefs became, the more I focused on the idea that the new life of Easter is not about believing the right thing now, in order to escape hell and go to heaven later. I focused more on what Rudolph Bultmann

Rudolf_Bultmann_Portrait

called “realized eschatology” – the idea that eternal life is here and now, and only here and now. This life is not a dress rehearsal; it’s all we get and eternal life means life with God in this existence, period. There is nothing “out there” or “up there” that will be experienced after this life. I didn’t use the term “realized eschatology” or mention Bultmann’s name, of course.

On a number of Easter Sundays, I used a quote by Clarence Jordan, the Baptist pastor and leader of Koinonia Farms in southwest Georgia (http://www.koinoniapartners.org/clarence/) who once said,

“The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.”

Jordan’s words,

“not the empty tomb…not a vacant grave…not a rolled away stone…

a carried away church

gave me room to talk about the importance of living Easter lives characterized by loving God and loving our neighbor; living in a way that we are carried away by the promise of a world that is characterized by unconditional love, welcoming the stranger, etc.

Jordan’s quote also allowed me to say that I did not believe in a literal resurrection without saying it directly. I mean, who can argue with the idea of having a church that is carried away and enthusiastic about a vision that includes all people; a vision of the kingdom of God that is fully here now?

What kinds of responses have you gotten from the congregation about your Easter sermons?

The majority of people who came through the greeting line on either Easter Sunday or Christmas Eve were in a good mood and either said nothing about the sermon or something like, “Thank you, Pastor. I appreciated your message today.” In other words, not much of anything.

If people from my book study were there on Easter Sunday, they would come through the greeting line and whisper something like, “I knew exactly what you were saying today. Thank you for having the courage to put some progressive ideas out there.” While I appreciated their encouragement and affirmation, I was absolutely convinced that most of the people who were in attendance slept (literally, in some cases) through the entire service, punched their Easter Sunday card, and went on with their lives; never to be seen again, until, perhaps, next Easter.

How did you feel when Easter was over?

pastor napping

I felt exhausted; intellectually; emotionally; physically and spiritually. When I had the opportunity, I would go home following the three Easter services that our congregation had, have dinner with my family and then take a long nap.

One of the things that I observed over the years was that the more liberal, progressive, unorthodox and anti-supernatural my convictions became, the more exhausted I was at the end of pretty much every Sunday morning that I preached. It wasn’t just Easter and Christmas Eve that left me exhausted, as had been the case earlier in my career. Without psychoanalyzing myself too much, I now believe that the exhaustion was the result of a growing experience of cognitive dissonance. It’s difficult to feel publicly committed to preach a message that passes the orthodoxy test, while moving more and more toward theological convictions that are heterodox. Having said this, no one ever called for my professional head on a platter. Perhaps there are far more church members than we know about who quietly have the same theological convictions that I do.

Editor’s Question: What do you think? Are there a lot of church members who don’t believe in the supernatural either?

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Photo Credits:

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a0/Rudolf_Bultmann_Portrait.jpg

Napping Pastor, by Linda LaScola


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  • Exhausted… yep, that’s where I am today. I’m also in agreement that virtually no one actually heard the things I said from the pulpit. Fortunately, I have today off. I’m restless while I rest, as I wrestle with the cognitive dissonance that this minister spoke of.

  • John Lombard

    Oh, I think that most churchgoers believe in the supernatural…in some sort of vague, “There’s some higher force out there” way. Recent surveys show, for example, that more and more people are rejecting organized religion…but still believe in angels and the afterlife.

    Now, do they believe in the core theology upon which Easter is based? Naw. Not a lot of them. And they go to church cuz it’s what they’re supposed to do, to hear a nice comforting sermon about how they’re all okay, because they follow Jesus. Even if they A) don’t really listen to what Jesus actually taught, and B) wouldn’t make much effort to actually follow his teachings even if they did.

  • ObscurelyAgnostic

    This post really seemed to be speaking a LOT of deep truths I should care about — but then I got lost in its discursively self-absorbed depths? nevertheless I’ll essay an insightfully Socratic query 😉 — why wasn’t your liberal/anthropological/humanist proclamation of the Good News in Jesus not legitimate enough to YOU to continue doing it? Who cares whether anyone was listening or not? … true artists love the praise of obscurity …

  • Linda_LaScola

    how was your Easter, OA?

  • ObscurelyAgnostic

    I’m still a little shell-shocked today, Linda. The roller coaster Pastor X is describing here goes like this for me — 1) elation that the folks in the pew seemed as ‘in the moment’ as I was in the pulpit Easter morning … 2) despair that 30 odd hours later I’m confident no one’s life or even behavior changed as a result … 3) perplexion that I still keep trying to kick the homiletic football every time Lucy tees it up … 4) shame that my vanity must be really why I keep leg-whifffing that ball … 5) stoic resignation over the ambiguous virtue of the necessity of making my living this way — but it IS a pretty easy gig for the money though ;D

  • Pofarmer

    Ya know I went to the Church I grew up in with my middle son to he with my parents. The pastor was 40ish. I was surprised he taught a very literal sermon. No “we are all reborn” etc, etc. He even preached “After the general ressurection, the saints will sit around the table and dine again with Jesus.” Wasn’t expecting to hear this in a little rural Presbyterian church.

  • Linda_LaScola

    Maybe he thought that’s what people wanted to hear. Maybe in his mind, most of what he said was metaphor.

  • Elizabeth.

    “restless while I rest, as I wrestle….” Sounding like John Donne and the metaphysical poets…. Your book is going to be a great read

  • Thank you. John Donne… yep, my stuff’s confused with his on occasion ;).

  • mason

    Are there a lot of church members who don’t believe in the supernatural either?

    I think most do believe but really haven’t researched or questioned their indoctrination or they wouldn’t believe, because it really doesn’t take much honest inquiry for the hot air balloon to start springing leaks.

    I’ve been inside a theist church twice in the last 44 years, the last time at a friend’s funeral 10 years ago. Both occasions brought to mind this bit of literature. Reading “Thank God It’s Over” also reminded me of the lines.

    “But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
    “Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
    “How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
    “You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
    ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

  • Elizabeth.

    What were your themes, O. A.? Glad the pews were ‘in the moment’!

  • ObscurelyAgnostic

    Hey Mason — well, you know I could almost cut-and-paste my response here, right? 😉 Absolutely YES, there are a LOT of Christians who choose ON PRINCIPLE not to believe in the supernatural — but only if you look for “church members” outside the fundamentalist ghettos? (ps, loving the ‘Alice’ quote!)

  • ObscurelyAgnostic

    Elizabeth, the theme of my Easter sermon was a perennially liberal one, expressed in a line I borrowed from N.T. Wright — “Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world.” In a nutshell, I preached that no matter how we understand the Resurrection as modern people today, it wasn’t meant to punch our ticket to an other-worldly Heaven but to inaugurate our work of new creation in the right-here-and-right-now of THIS world …

  • Linda_LaScola

    And this kind of sermon, in my opinion, is what is slowly, gently nudging people towards a, non-supernatural, humanistic worldview. And it’s not only “non-believing” clergy who are giving sermons like this. Some self-perceived believing clergy do too. It’s all relative.

  • Linda_LaScola

    Are there a lot of church members who don’t believe in the supernatural either?

    I think that would make a great survey question. I’d love to know the answer to that. It would have to be worded very carefully – making sure people know exactly how the term “supernatural” is being used.

  • mason

    Hmmm…a LOT….This Gallup 2011 survey says 91% still believe in God http://www.gallup.com/poll/147887/americans-continue-believe-god.aspx

    But that includes non-church members, so I tend to agree with John Lombard “that most church goers believe in the supernatural…in some sort of vague, “There’s some higher force out there” way.” Based on the Gallup and my own empirical “evidence” I’d say at least 99% of church members; but “vague” is progress away from the ghettos.

    So I don’t know if a LOT is a fair characterization, but then I may need to go borrow Alice’s Looking Glass to be able to spot these apostates in the pews. 🙂

  • Elizabeth.

    Bart Ehrman’s next book is about memory — and the variety of memories of Jesus before anything was written down. His blog right now is pretty fascinating… and popular books like his make their impact too. O.A., you may have beat Lucy to the ball this year… thanks!

  • ObscurelyAgnostic

    If you’re in AA, your ‘higher power’ could be the door knob in your bedroom — or if you’re an agnostic pantheist like me, ‘God’ is the collective wisdom of all sentient beings throughout the cosmos. Of course I was referring to the neurotic violent God of the Bible (and esp the OT) …

  • ObscurelyAgnostic

    😀

  • Kevin R. Cross

    I would bet that a lot of Christmas-and-Easter Christians don’t really believe, but quite possibly haven’t thought about it much. And if religion isn’t an important thing in their lives, I also think that’s a valid position.

  • Elizabeth.

    I can see the exit poll stations set up around the churchyards next Spring. Excuse me, Miss…. Seriously, I suspect lots, maybe most, have mixed feelings…. from searching to irritated at being obliged to deal with an institution they have questions about….

  • Linda_LaScola

    I suspect lots, maybe most, have mixed feelings.

    Me too, so I think it would be best to start with a qualitative study, to understand that better.