By: The Rev. Anna Tew
“I was thinking, over-thinking
‘Cause there’s just too many scenarios
To analyze, look in my eyes
‘Cause you’re my dream please come true.”
Like many folks my age who grew up in evangelical culture, I came of age listening to songs by a Christian band called Relient K. This song was on an album appropriately titled Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right, but Three Do.
I was thinking — over-thinking.
It’s a problem every Easter for preachers everywhere: we sit down to write our Easter sermons and sit there staring at the blinking cursor on the blank document, flipping back and forth between social media sites and our text messages and preaching commentary and, for some reason, a live feed of a baby panda. It seems to get worse, not better, every year, as we try to preach something better than our Easter sermon from last year, or at least try very hard not to preach basically the same one.
The advice that has carried me forward for Easter after Easter has been Dr. Gail R. O’Day’s advice in her lectionary preaching class at the Candler School of Theology to “just tell the story they came to hear.” But even then, I find it a bit hard to just tell the same story, as good as it is, from year to year. Jesus died. The women came to the tomb. The tomb was empty. And there was much rejoicing.
Every now and then, however, the world gives you a gift in preaching that at first looks like a horrid curse. You know, the kind where you can tell the story and then just gesture to the world.
Listen, Preacher. Don’t overthink this one.
The story today is about new life, and new hope, when we thought all was lost. We, and our people, have stood at too many graves this year, have seen too much death, have experienced too much loneliness as our very homes have become like tombs in quarantine. Then three vaccines were developed in record time and things are finally beginning to look up. No, things haven’t been perfect. Not by a long shot. But resurrection is rarely simple, is it?
It has taken me ten Easters of preaching to realize that what Dr. O’Day meant by “just tell the story they came to hear” includes but also reaches beyond telling the story told in the biblical text. It is also about telling the stories of resurrection that you find all around you: from creation coming back to life in springtime, to the United States finally crawling out of the pandemic, to the signs of new life that you see in your own community. Given the year that we have all had, people need these reminders.
Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “People have an idea that the preacher is an actor on a stage and they are the critics.… What they don’t know is that they are the actors on the stage; the preacher is merely the prompter standing in the wings, reminding them of their lost lines.”
In this moment, preacher, do not attempt to be the actor, the performer who puts on a good show. Instead, be the prompter standing in the wings. Remind your people of what in your community, in your church, in your world is coming back to life when you thought that all was lost. Acknowledge the death and the pain and point them towards the new life already at work around them.
They will forget your hot take on the resurrection by next week. They’ll forget your hilarious illustration in a month. They will forget your biblical analysis by the time they have lunch. What they will remember is how you helped them see their lives, and their stories, through the story of Jesus, and how that gave them hope in hard times.
Don’t overthink this one.
Take them to the empty tombs found all around your town. Take them to the empty tombs in their lives. Hell, take them to the more than half a million tombs that are still full from covid-19 and declare beyond any reason other than Jesus that there is still hope for tomorrow, that in Christ even this shall someday be made right.
Whether you gather in person or online, the story of the empty tomb in Palestine is the one they will come to hear. The story of the new life springing up all around them is the one they need to hear, and I’m betting that it’s the one that you need to hear, too. If hope and resurrection and new life are indeed a reality in our lives today when we thought the world was ending a year ago — don’t overthink this one.
Go get ‘em, preacher.