Resurrection of the Lord—April 21 Easter Sunday

John 20:1–18

For many Christians, Easter is the most important day of the church year. It’s the moment when all the teachings of Jesus, the covenants, the Incarnation, the whole sweep of history and prophecy in the Bible come together in a whirlwind of mystery as Jesus’ life and death are made complete in his resurrection.

It’s a lot to bring together in a sermon of fifteen minutes or so, leaving time for beloved hymns, a couple of soaring choir anthems, and possibly Holy Communion, and a Baptism.

I always found Easter the most difficult day to prepare a sermon for. I haven’t preached the past two Easters for health reasons, and have instead listened with sympathy, appreciation, and prayers of encouragement as others of you preached Easter sermons.

It is an honor to be invited to prepare a reflection for the Presbytery’s website. I imagine the small group of people who will read this will likely be pastors or very active church leaders and volunteers themselves. Perhaps some of you are looking for a fresh angle on this very familiar text. Maybe you are looking for the energy, wisdom, and spiritual focus to get through the marathon of activities of Thursday and Friday, and then on to the very important Sunday. Or maybe you are sounding your personal spiritual waters to find out what is going on down there.

In the years I preached on the Easter texts in different churches, especially this wonderful story from Chapter 20 in the Gospel of John, I tried to be relevant to the moment in the life of the particular congregation, the neighborhood, and the world. I often struggled with how to connect with the two types of people who would be in church on Easter.

One type was the active church members, people who had heard these texts and contemplated the mystery and wonder of the Resurrection dozens or maybe hundreds of times in worship or study. I knew it was important to say something thought-provoking and spiritually challenging for you all, aware that you have likely been and will be busy preparing for this holy day – making the right number of bulletins, recruiting extra ushers, getting the black paraments off and all the Easter lilies in, preparing an extra nice coffee hour, and possibly stuffing bags of plastic eggs with candy for an Easter egg hunt.

The second type of people on my mind was the guests, reluctant church-goers who came along with their spouse, parents, or friend who wanted them to come. This group I was especially concerned about.

What should the “Resurrection for the Reluctant” be?

I felt the weight of responsibility to reach out to these Reluctants we so rarely get to communicate with in church. I wanted to convey that the church is inclusive but not wishy washy; relevant but not trendy; passionate about what we believe but not judgy; committed to Jesus and the Christian tradition but respectful of other religious traditions…

If we could choose the biblical texts for this special day when the pews are full, it would make sense to start out gently with a parable or maybe scripture passages about the beauty of the earth and our call to be its stewards…But Resurrection? It’s a messy, metaphysical tangle, even for those of us who’ve had years to think about it. Definitely a stumbling block for Reluctants…

And then I remembered a third type. And I smiled.

I went to the closet and took out my white stole, the one that has small footprints on the bottom edges where children have stood on it by accident while we told a Bible story together or when I bent down to visit with them after the service. “These footprints won’t wash out. I look like a mess,” I once complained to a colleague. “Don’t worry,” she said, “Those footprints are who you are as a pastor in the best way.”

Since then I have always thought of those footprints that way, as a happy reminder of children in worship and at church.

Even after I became a curmudgeonly old preacher who struggled every year with the Easter sermon for the adults, I still felt energy and joy in telling the Resurrection story with children. I have been teased at times for my Cecil B. De Mill, elaborate style of telling Bible stories with children. But the resurrection scripture enacted together with a few props and a lot of imagining has always told Jesus’ story more perfectly than the adult sermons I prepared.

The Easter story had a lot of running back and forth across the chancel, surprises, and a whole range of feelings – deep grief, surprise, fear, confusion, wonder, joy, hope, and sense of purpose. All the children could imagine their part as the disciples being so sad and afraid after Jesus’ death. And all the feelings of Mary Magdalene as she discovers the stone rolled away from the pulpit/tomb and then runs back across the chancel to tell the other disciples what she has seen. Then more running as Peter and the other disciple sprint back to the tomb where Peter finds the folded burial linen and then race back to tell the other disciples. The moment when Mary arrives back at the pulpit/tomb and two angels dressed in white pop up to speak to her always drew a gasp of surprise and then delight from the children and the congregation. (It’s important to have the angels hide in the pulpit before the service starts so no one knows they are there.) Then Mary’s confusion, wonder, and joy when she suddenly sees Jesus, with maybe a little sadness that she must leave him so soon to fulfill her commission. And finally Mary running back again to tell the others what she has seen and heard, and how the Teacher called her by name.

I get all happy just remembering the children telling the resurrection story. For them, it was full of surprises and twists. It was not complicated with debates – theological or metaphysical – or muddied with metaphors or imperfect analogies. For children, it was a story full of strong feelings and of Jesus who came back to reassure his followers when they were afraid and confused, even calling Mary Magdalene by her name. It was also a time for the children to be liberated from their uncomfortable seats in the pews and become part of the action, engaging the story.

Whenever I meet someone who told that story with me, they remember it. It’s like the story was written in their imaginations, it’s meaning to be explored and deepened as they grew.

I don’t have advice for you, but I’d like to share an invitation. As we tell or hear the resurrection story this week, may we dive in with some of the curiosity and enthusiasm that children inhabit so naturally. May God refresh our spirits and give us the open-heartedness of a child as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

+ Photo by Porapak Apichodilok from Pexels

About Rev. Jennifer Wegter-McNelly

Since her ordination in 1997, Jennifer has served congregations in the San Francisco area, the Boston area, and now the Capital Region. Much of her ministry has been as an interim pastor, especially to churches seeking reconciliation and healing after a conflict, misconduct, or trauma. In addition to serving actively in presbyteries, she also served in congregations connected to the U.C.C., the E.L.C.A., the U.M.C., and the American Baptist Church.

She lives in Niskayuna with her Theologian in Residence (and husband) Kirk, their son Keller, and their Springer Spaniel puppy Gilead.

She left ministry in 2017 for health reasons but enjoys staying connected with colleagues and friends in her former churches and the presbytery.

The purpose of the Albany Presbytery Blog is to share information, tell stories, and promote the mission and ministry of the presbytery, synod and beyond. While the breadth of this medium is intentionally broad, it is not a platform for opinion pieces related to business coming before the presbytery unless designed as part of an initiative to provide a diversity of viewpoints at the direction of the presbytery. Exceptions to this policy may be brought to the presbytery officers who will determine appropriateness of submissions.