Faith Works 5-3-14
On acknowledging limits
President Obama said something interesting about foreign policy and domestic achievements on his recent Asia tour, as he was preparing to come home.
He noted: "You hit singles; you hit doubles. Every once in a while, we may be able to hit a home run."
It's a small observation, but it reminded me of a thought I had just a few weeks ago.
I've been a student assistant minister and an associate pastor and a plain old pastor, so I've been around many more Easters than I've necessarily preached for. And there's working on your message for a Maundy Thursday or a Good Friday, or for the Sunday after Easter (often called "Low Sunday" in many churches, as the rubber band of attendance snaps back after Easter's packed aisles), and then there's praying over your text and plan for preaching on Easter morning itself.
So while I may have been in ministry and preaching semi-regularly for thirty-some years, I've only preached the Easter message maybe fifteen times.
And it was this year, finally, when I realized something. It feels right, it seems necessary, that when you step into the pulpit on the morning commemorating the central event in the life and history of your faith tradition, you need to swing for the fences. This one needs to be not just good, but the message this particular morning needs to go yard. Out of the park. Grand slam, baby.
Which is what I've tried to do in years past. In the middle of all the other necessities and distractions of Lent and Holy Week, I focused relentlessly on the text for the day (you've got four different resurrection accounts in the gospels, plus Paul's recaps, so it's not like you just preach on the same passage every year, unlike Christmas and Luke 2 or Pentecost and Acts 2). I'd dig into it, parse a little Greek, open myself up to the Spirit's leading in (probably too little) silent reflection and prayer, and work up an outline and often a manuscript, even though I never take the full outline let alone a manuscript into the pulpit with me on Sunday mornings. I worked it, is what I'm saying. Worked it hard, and aimed high and swung hard.
So it's no wonder that I often left the still lily-scented, now empty sanctuary after many Easter mornings with a certain sense of "meh." I proclaimed the glory of resurrection, the power of God's good news for us reaffirmed by that act, and built on the gospel to open up a path forward for we who believe, but all things considered, the impact of the sermon just felt like it had fallen short.
Which, to be honest, it probably did if the standard is "home run." But did I make contact? Did the message fly and move people across the bases towards home? What if, Jeff, the sermon was a solid double?
There was, decades ago, a legendary manager (I think it was John McGraw) who sent a batter up to the plate with instructions to bunt. The player saw a pitch that felt good to him, and he swung full out, and hit a grand-slam home run, four runs in. He trots across the plate and back to the dugout, expecting congratulations, and faces an angry manager who tells him he's benched for the rest of the game. "Why, Coach?" he asks. "Because I sent you up there to bunt."
Does that seem crazy? Well, yes, a little. But the point is: you can't count on a home run the way you can a bunt. Next time, that's gonna be a strike out.
Likewise, it's not that there's anything wrong with preaching a strong gospel message on Easter morning. Duh. But the need to hit a home run is MY need, not God's. In fact, on Easter morning, God might have a whole bunch of other ways in mind to reach people. My sermon isn't the whole deal.
And in fact, each Easter before the service, I'm in the back with those preparing to be baptized at the start of the service (we baptize adults by full immersion in our church), and I always tell them this. Sometimes, people come up out of the water with an immediate, amazing feeling. If you don't, don't think your baptism "didn't work," or that you did something wrong. Give it time; God is just getting started.
Next week: more about baptism, which is a sermon all itself.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your Easter joys still blooming at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.