John 20:1-18 (RCL); John 20:1-9 (Lectionary for Mass)
You have to preach to those for whom the resurrection narrative is known inside and out, is loved and adored, is the sense-making story of their life in God, their life with others, their life in relation to all the world. What is there to say?
You have to preach to those for whom the resurrection narrative is science fiction or harmful propaganda. They may be in church this day only to please a mother or grandmother. (There are worse things). They may smirk. They may sleep. They may pity your benighted ignorance. What is there to say?
You have to preach to those who are curious but who would never let on that the story of Jesus’ rising from the dead sometimes keeps them up at night. They have a healthy dose of the same skepticism as the group above, but unlike them, they have a hunch that truth can be revealed through means other than the scientific method. What is there to say?
You have to preach to those who long for subtlety and sublimity in an Easter sermon. They may share a good deal with group one but, like group three, they also live with a fair amount of uncertainty about things. They think that poetry and art might be the best media for conveying the story of Easter. What is there to say?
Much is welcome about the Church’s signature Feast: the glorious music, the sparkling Alleluias! after the soberness of Lent, the bursting forth of springtime (at least in the northern hemisphere). Yet how does the preacher communicate Easter’s strange, improbable story to this strange, improbable gathering?
As a life-long hearer of sermons but not a preacher of them, I’ve observed that Easter sermons often reveal the temptation to be original—what Richard Lischer calls “the scavenger hunt for novelty.” This itself is a new thing since for centuries it was common to preach the homilies of others (with attribution!). The pressure to say something new, says Lischer, “reflects the preacher’s need to compete with more effective and entertaining voices in a mass-media culture.”
I’ve also noticed that there’s often a tendency to try and be convincing. To try and win over the listeners to a particular point of view or truth claim—sometimes crudely, sometimes subtly, almost always a little desperately. This makes me think of Frederick Buechner’s insight:
“In the last analysis, you cannot pontificate but only point. A Christian [and a preacher?] is one who points at Christ and says, ‘I can’t prove a thing, but there’s something about his eyes and his voice. There’s something about the way he carries his head, his hands. The way he carries his cross. The way he carries me.’”
This past weekend a friend related that, in a recent speech, the writer Anne Lamott offered this to-the-point, memorable one-liner: “It’s not take and figure it out, it’s take and eat.” Similarly, the Church uses the phrase “Easter Proclamation,” not “Easter Explanation.”
Still, something must be said.
And not simply because people have showed up in their Easter finery or because they pay you to do this. But because, as St. Augustine said, we can’t not speak in the face of such wonder and mystery.
Maybe all you can say—in your own voice, out of your own context, to your own gathered community—is that the stories in the Gospels and the resurrection narratives in particular open a window on a life and on the life of a community—past, present, and future. This community remembers, bears witness to, worships, and breaks bread in the name of this One who greeted the weeping Mary Magdalene in the garden of the tomb. The brokenness that occurred in the first garden was the burden Jesus bore in Gethsemane’s garden. In Easter’s garden, the burden has been rolled away. His broken body, now resurrected, makes of his community—past, present, and future—a body, his body.
“Christ is not alive now because he rose from the dead two thousand years ago,“ writes poet Christian Wiman. “He rose from the dead two thousand years ago because he is alive right now.”
On Easter Sunday morning, some of us will bring our adoration and some of us will bring our suspicion and all of us will bring our longing to see something, to glimpse the truth of our own lives—even if that longing has long been masked or hardened by disappointment or doubt, struggle or fear. We, like Mary Magdalene, yearn to be healed. We long to see Jesus.
Lischer says that “the purpose of the Gospels was never to provide an exhaustive history but to make Polaroids of Jesus the church could hold up in a hospital, prison, ghetto, or cemetery, so that we would know him when we meet him.”
Show us the pictures.