David A. Davis
April 17, 2022
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A long time ago I was sitting in a coffee shop in Princeton talking to a visiting scholar who was in town for the year on sabbatical. The professor was joining our congregation for worship each Sunday so I was looking to offer a pastoral welcome of sorts. What I didn’t expect was a conversation that changed how I thought about preaching resurrection hope. Our casual get-acquainted conversation turned challenging and intriguing for me as I listened to the scholar’s stinging critique of the church’s proclamation on Easter and at most funerals. The gist of the argument was that preaching resurrection should not sound like the content of a greeting card. Examples given ranged from preaching that denies the reality of death to sermons full of kitschy illustrations that promote the concept of immortality of the soul. Something along the lines of “he is not dead, he’s just gone to the other side of the lake to fish” is what comes to mind. I think about that conversation while writing most funeral homilies and every time Easter rolls around. Every time that scene in the coffee shop comes back to me in my study, the professor’s concluding remark both inspires and haunts me a bit in my sermon writing: “resurrection hope has to be more than whether you and I get to heaven!”
I know I am not the only pastor preaching an Easter Sunday sermon with a congregation in the room after last Easter preaching to an empty room and the year before that preaching Easter from my living room. Resurrection proclamation via livestream with no worship participants in the sanctuary was certainly not unplugged but it was unadorned. No standing room only. No brass quartets. No choir. There were flowers that only worship leaders could smell but there was no array of Easter hats and children in bright colored new clothes. As difficult as it was for preachers (yes, it was very difficult), the opportunity to preach Easter unadorned resulted in the unexpected opportunity to ponder the promise of resurrection hope and power liberated from the church’s piety. Yes, the conviction that the promise of the resurrection of Christ is far beyond our Easter morning finery is not new. It’s just that the last few years, preachers like me have had the chance to live into it; to lean into it.
The empires of this world must thrive on Easter preaching in the church that serves up greeting card poetry and relies less on content and more on the festival worship of the morning. It is not because the powers and principalities pay much attention to the church at all. Rather, such tepid resurrection proclamation by definition nurtures the unfaithful view that separates the church from the world, faith from politics, and the life of discipleship from daily life at work, in school, at home. When Russia continues to wage war on Ukraine, someone opens fire in a crowded rush hour subway, and an unarmed black man is shot in the head by a police officer in Grand Rapids, MI, and conflict, tension, and violence is again on the rise in Israel and Palestine, when our world, our nation, our communities have been redefined by the magnitude of suffering and death amid the pandemic, when the vitriol, hatred, and bitter division has left a stain from school board meetings to the rhetoric of the public square, when the rise of Christian nationalism wedded to white supremacy in the land has elevated the term “culture war” to a frightening level, when families have been divided and congregations have been torn apart,,,, yes, resurrection preaching in the world, the nation, and the church these days has to be about more than whether we will all get to heaven. It has to be about living resurrection hope now!
It should never be lost on the church, on the followers of Christ, that the first ones to proclaim the resurrection were women. The women who came to the tomb early. Real early. In Luke, when Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them went to tell the others, the apostles didn’t believe them. “It seemed to them an idle tale.” Some translations say that “they thought it was nonsense.” One paraphrase reads “they thought they were making it up”. I bet they did some mansplaining that morning too. The women came to tell them about the resurrection and the apostles treated it like something even less than a greeting card, or a tepid nod to Jesus teaching’ that on the third day he would rise again. They thought any mention of resurrection hope, resurrection hope now, was nonsense.
Marvin McMickle is one of the best preachers, maybe the best I have ever listened to on a regular basis in my life. When I was doing my seminary internship at Central Presbyterian Church up in Montclair, he was the pastor of St. Paul Baptist church in Montclair. Many Sundays after the hour-long worship in the presbyterian church, I would go down to St Paul’s Baptist church. Worship began at the same time in both church’s but in the African American tradition of St. Paul’s, the service wasn’t even half over when I arrived. I would slip in just as the sermon was starting and listen to Dr. McMickle preach for an hour. He just wrote an article this spring on preaching resurrection hope. He begins by telling of the two words spoken by “almost every African American preacher inside almost any African American church”: but early. He describes it as the beginning of a call and response between preacher and congregation that builds in volume and passion concluding with: but early Sunday morning He got up with all power in His hands. I googled the phrase and my computer lit up. Knowing the gospel resurrection accounts all begin “early in the morning”, it wasn’t that I didn’t believe Marvin McMickle. It was that I wanted to see if it was a line from a spiritual or something. If it was from a spiritual I couldn’t find it. And I know it is not a quote from the gospels. But I sat in front of my computer for the next hour listening to preacher after preacher young and old, weeks ago, years ago, proclaiming to the people of God: but early…Sunday morning, He got up with all power in His hands. It was Easter morning right there in my office a few days ago!
The article is profound testimony to the importance and the vitality of resurrection hope in the African American church, African American preaching, African America spirituals, and African American life in every century in this land, including this one. When the preacher shouts “Somebody say early”, McMickle writes, what is coming next is a witness to the promise, power and presence of God that has sustained African Americans through 246 years of the hell and horror of slavery and the subsequent 156 years of segregation, Jim Crow, second class citizenship, and the sin of racism and hatred that never goes away. The preacher is writing about living resurrection now. The writer is preaching about a resurrection hope now that is about so much more than claiming your bus ticket to eternity. To quote Dr. McMickle: “You need to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the God who had the power to raise Jesus from the dead also has the power not to let death have the last word in your life. That is why for most African Americans, the resurrection of Jesus is not something to be analyzed, debated, and disputed. It is the promise, the power, and the presence of God on full display.”
“When the women remembered Jesus words, and returning from the tomb, they told all of this to the eleven and to all the rest.” What they told them, what the apostles thought was an idle tale, just plain nonsense? They told them what the two men said while they were terrified and buried their faces in fear. “He is not here, but has risen.” The two men told them, and the women told the apostles and rest. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! It might be the greatest preaching accomplishment of my ministry. I have been able to get Nassau Presbyterian Church to do “call and response” in a sermon. Not just on Easter, but any ordinary Sunday, whenever the preacher says Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! It may not be “But Early” but it is Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! I told you before about how years ago Noel Werner and Sue Ellen Page and I attended a worship and music conference for pastors and church musicians from all over on the campus of Calvin College. There must have been three or four hundred people in an auditorium for worship one weekday evening in January. The preacher for night said, “Christ is Risen”. Sue Ellen, Noel, and I blurted out “He is Risen Indeed!” And three or four hundred people turned to look right at us rabble-rousers! It is no small thing, seriously! No small thing that generations of worshippers in this space, all generations, from kids to seniors know by heart, know in their bones, know in their lives that you don’t have to wait for Easter morning to proclaim resurrection hope, to live resurrection hope. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! And to know that it is more than waiting for the roll to be called up yonder one day any one of us.
Yes, Easter morning preaching in the world, the nation, and the church today, and tomorrow, and Tuesday, and every day and next year, and every year has to be about more than whether we will all get to heaven. Dr Brian Blount once said it this way in a sermon: “Live resurrection in the present like you are certain resurrection is coming in the future.” To live resurrection now is to work to make the world a better place for all people now, to sow seeds of righteousness now, and to work for justice now. For Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! To live resurrection now is to refuse to cede the promise, power and presence of God’s resurrection hope to those who use the name of Jesus to divide rather than unify, to tear down rather then build up, to condemn rather than forgive, to hate rather love. For Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! To live resurrection now is to never give up on the world you know that God intends for all God’s creation. Indeed, this old worn-out world may be really broken… but early…Sunday morning, He got up with all power in His hands.
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.